Photos by Cameron Flaisch
If you’ve found one of the Rome Knitterati’s yarn bombs downtown you’re probably wondering where it came from. You may also be wondering what exactly this mysterious organization is, leaving their fuzzy messages all over town. Their work can be seen in the form of the beautiful holiday adornments to the Broad St. Bicycles, or found in one of their yarn bombs clinging to a bench or tree.
The Rome Knitterati’s own Melissa Rutledge, a founding member of the underground art group, decided it was time to let Romans know just what they were all about. Their self-stated mission is to raise awareness of the yarn arts, and add beauty to public places and objects that would normally go unnoticed by most. They are a self-funded, grassroots community of knitters and crochetier alike. The Rome Knitterati currently consist of nine active members, and have engaged in several different installations since their inception; you may even have found one of their handmade can Koozies at Rome Beer Fest.
Most recently they placed handmade scarves, gloves and hats in places frequented by Rome’s homeless; a heartwarming, and hopefully hand warming, initiative undertaken out of pocket by their members.
But where did these mysterious yarn magicians come from, you may ask?
The organization came to life in 2015 after Rutledge completed a mural in conjunction with the Rome Makervillage. After discussing more possible ways to beautify downtown, with Tricia Steel of Makervillage, “yarnbombing” was settled upon and the Rome Knitterati was born.
Taking inspiration from another group’s work Rutledge had observed while living in Atlanta, they executed their first yarnbombing in July 2015. Why settle on yarn arts though? It’s not a very obvious choice for community beautification projects.
Rutledge says, “Back in the early 2000s, there was a craft renaissance. There were all these crafters, makers, festivals, and websites that got huge during that period, like Etsy, Crafts-ter, CRAFT Magazine,Indie Craft Experience in Atlanta, and the Renegade Craft Fairs across the country. We saw the resurgence of Martha Stewart with the younger generation of DIYers.” This popularity explosion among the craft world is bringing handmade objects back to the spot-light. TV shows like “Knitty Gritty” and “Stitch ‘n Bitch” are turning the yarn arts from something grandmas would do in their spare time to an edgy and fun way to create useful art.
Since first coming together Rome Knitterati has left the Broad St. Bicycles covered in their handiwork. They’ve also been seen at the Chiaha Harvest Fair plying their trade, and left Christmas ornaments downtown around Black Friday to help encourage Romans to look local for their Christmas shopping.
They have also engaged in charity projects, like knitting lap blankets for chemotherapy patients, through the Caner Navigators organization. “We had the idea of charitable projects on our list, and one of our members, Shanon Wade, brought it up at a meeting last summer. Most of our members know someone who has been touched by cancer and I’m a recent uterine cancer survivor myself, so Cancer Navigators immediately came to mind. We contacted their organization and discovered they needed lap-sized blankets to keep patients warm during chemo treatments. Over the course of about two months, we knit and crocheted seven blankets. Blankets of any size are time-consuming projects, so we were very happy to get this many made in the timeframe. We are currently working on a similar project for dialysis patients at Harbin Clinic and plan to have ongoing charity projects throughout the year,” says Rutledge.
So, what kind of people make up the group of magnanimous yarn masters?
“Rome Knitterati is comprised of a small group of talented women in a wide range of ages and professions. We have members who work in the medical field, at a local college, and with assisted living programs, as well as a farmer, a teacher, stay-at-home moms, and a graphic designer,” she says.
She provides some insight as to how much time these projects require, stating a bicycle wheel can take anywhere from two hours up to five depending on the intricacy, and the Cancer Navigator blankets can take even longer. The answer to how they find time is more of a why than a how.
She includes this explanation for the motives behind all the hard work, “All our time spent is worth it when we can provide comfort to a chemo patient, when someone stops to take a photo of our installation, or when someone is excited to find one of our scavenger hunt items. We love what we do and we are happy to help our community.”
Even as the group’s origins are being discussed the Rome Knitterati have another installation in the works, their largest to date even. They think that the usually bleak and depressing winter months could use a little injection of warm and fuzzy feelings. “We felt the timeframe of February and March would be a great time for them. It will help brighten up downtown during the dark winter months, celebrate Arbor Day, and provide a colorful background for local events like the Ginger Pride Parade,” Rutledge explains. When the installation comes down it’s slated to be donated to charity, as the tree wraps are roughly the size of a lap blanket.
Rome Knitterati members Shannon Wade, Peggy Casillas and husband Tom are out early braving the cold of a January morning hard at work, attaching the first of many new pieces to adorn Broad Street, a bike wheel at the inter-section of Broad Street and 2nd Avenue, and Rutledge arrived shortly thereafter.
Trying to avoid the downtown traffic and frigid winds as they work their way up the 200 block of Broad Street, it became a family affair as more joined the party. Everybody pitches in as the party rolls up the street from tree to tree, leaving their beautiful bombs behind. One is left curious where they find the patterns and inspiration for all the tree wraps, 19 in total being installed.
Peggy Casillas claims credit for the tree wraps, having been inspired by an installation she had seen in Iowa City. As for the patterns themselves, they draw from the internet and day to day travels to create the beautiful designs, and then bring them to life in true, living and vibrant color.
The wraps range from 13 inches around, all the way up to a jaw-dropping 79 inches. When asked how long it takes to knit a 79 inch tree wrap Rutledge states it had taken two days of feverish work in her down time to get it pulled together; the smaller wraps could be done is a little as five hours. She also says it was tough to size the wraps because of all the stretch in the yarn, but each and every one seemed to hug its tree as if it had grown there. The wraps are flying up as they move along. With everyone weaving and poking their way up the seams, it all ties together. The wrap count reaches four trees by 10:30 a.m. Asking Tom if he is a volunteer or if he was coerced at needle-point, he says he is happy to offer his services; even if he is putting some of the wraps on sideways as Peggy quickly points out.
This latest effort is, in part, an attempt to garner new interest and expose the people of Rome to the yarn arts. They hope to see more community involvement both in the group and in the efforts to beautify Downtown Rome. By 11 a.m. the whole of the 200 block is wrapped up, literally, and the group is trucking on towards a warm meal at the end of their yarn bombing. People are beginning to slow down as they pass by and take in what’s happening. One driver even stops to pay a compliment to the art and the artists making it happen.
The hardworking group attack the trees for a while simply because it was just too much fun to leave. They bandy jokes about almost as fast as they wield the knitting needles they held. It is easy to see that these folks truly enjoy what they are doing, and probably even more so sharing that joy with the whole of the community.
Finally, taking their leave, the jovial troupe of guerilla artists, stomachs growling and fin-gers frozen, make their way back up the street to find some lunch and bring frigid digits back to life. Despite the cold wind and all the work being done, everyone has a smile plastered on their face in admiration of the new downtown decorations all along the way.
If you’d like to learn more about the Rome Knitterati, make a donation, or keep up with what they’re doing around town, they have a dedicated Facebook Community page by the same name. Otherwise keep your eyes peeled for a yarn bomb at a location near you.