Take a right at the end of Main Street in Lyons where the road forks to the mountains and you’ll see it: a catalpa tree in bloom.
But this tree isn’t covered in white, frilly flowers. This catalpa blooms with rainbow stripes and crayon blocks of color, a Dr. Seuss tree besweatered in bumpy, shaggy, wavy, nubby yarns knit around its trunk and limbs. If you look quickly enough as you round the corner, you may even spot a small bear flying a kite from her variegated perch.
What you’re seeing is a “yarnbombing,” a community’s collaborative endeavor to bring knit art to an unadorned corner of their world. Our sweater tree was the inspiration of Sandra DeVries, a Dutch artist now living in British Columbia. Following projects she’s designed in BC, our tree is her first international yarnbombing effort.
A grant from the Lyons Arts and Humanities Council provided yarn and a stipend for Sandra’s creative management and overall design. Sandra knit the blanket-sized piece for the trunk and other interstitial pieces, while Sandra’s friend, the Dutch artist Jakob Leeuwenburgh, a Lyons resident and Stonebridge member, organized knitters here to create individual pieces in specific sizes matched to a limb or branch of the tree. Each knitter had full artistic license over her swatch, using yarn (or, in one case, recycled sweaters) of her choice.
My piece was 28 x 70 and wrapped the crux of the tree where two large limbs emerge from the trunk. 28 x 70 centimeters, that is, something I figured out after I’d knit 28 inches and wondered whether I was making an afghan. Then I remembered that Sandra and Jakob are Dutch and checked with a friend about the measurements. Centimeters went much more quickly.
I chose green eyelash and pom pom yarns from the grant yarns and added my own purple from leftover skeins. To make the yarn go further and the knitting go faster, Jen taught me the drop stitch (wrapping the yarn twice around the needle before making a knit stitch but only picking up one loop of it in the next row, “dropping” it from the needle in a larger, more open weave), perfect on size 13 needles for eyelash yarn that benefits from a looser stitch. In green, that portion of my swatch looks like grass growing in the trunk of the tree.
Last Friday, all the knitters met to assemble the tree’s sweater. Following Sandra’s diagram, we stitched our swatches in place around the tree and then attached them to each other to create a finished, seemingly seamless piece that looks like a many-fingered glove. Because the trees are slow to leaf out this cool spring, we had an easy time crawling up in the tree to fit the upper branches.
In my knitting, I always think of myself as a color person, but, in fact, I love the textures of yarn just as much. As I started whip-stitching my swatch to the tree, I noticed how the dual texture of tree bark and yarn wool beneath my fingers was doubly stimulating and pleasurable to the touch. Yarnbombing a tree, I decided, would be perfect for children, introducing them to a craft and a natural object, synergizing the values of making something by hand and tending the environment in a way that highlights its beauty and function.
As a community endeavor, yarnbombing combines individual artistic vision and skill with collaborative design and implementation. It unites a group of people with a common goal while allowing for personal expression. Sandra DeVries’ artistry helped us see the tree in a new way, but we each contributed our own ideas to the larger creation.
Undoubtedly, as with any public art, not everyone will enjoy or approve of yarnbombing a tree, so another aspect of this project’s beauty is its organic nature. Soon a bright green canopy of leaves will integrate the colorful trunk and limbs. As the tree grows and meets the elements, the yarn will fade and fray. Perhaps birds will make their homes in the tree’s branches, unraveling a thread or two for their nests. Eventually, the pieces will blow away or be removed when it gets too bedraggled for public viewing. We’ll see. For now, the tree will get more attention than it ever has before and after its sweater is gone, we’ll remember our tree as the synthesis of art and nature.