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Wild and Woolly

One Texas artist starts a cozy revolution, inspiring knitters worldwide to take to the streets.

Author Sloane Crosley Illustration Kate Jenkins

Image – Dan Fergus

You couldn’t ask for better symbolism. In 2005, Magda Sayeg was sitting in her Houston clothing boutique when the then-31-year-old found herself overcome with an unfamiliar sensation: boredom • “I was just staring at the doorknob and I thought,
I think I’m going to knit that today
. That doorknob changed the course of my life.”

To meet Sayeg is to have great difficulty picturing her bored anytime, ever. The stylish mother of three had already founded Brasil restaurant in 1991 and a clothing shop called Raye in 2004—both back in her native Houston—when the doorknob beckoned. After she finished knitting it a tiny sweater, she walked through that door to found Knitta Please, a collective of crafters frustrated with all their unfinished projects and looking to make unexpected corners of their city a little warmer. Growing from Sayeg’s imagination into a small army of volunteers and impassioned local knitters, the group’s mission was to “take yarn out of the home and onto the streets,” knitting colorful sleeves for lampposts, stop signs, benches, fire hydrants, parking meters, bicycles and buses—oh my. “I wanted to make these things more beautiful. But I didn’t have a spray can. I had yarn.” Think of it as graffiti with a heart of spool.

And so, armed with her yarn, Sayeg (then known only by her nom de needle, PolyCotN) would sneak around in the night, leading teams wielding knitting needles and knapsacks of colorful yarn. Gradually, Knitta’s work evolved from madcap parking meter decor to an organized effort to beautify the city. She knit the tree trunks on Houston’s Allen Parkway in time for the city’s annual Art Car Parade. That turned out to be a turning point for the collective. After the parade, Knitta Please was commissioned to do public projects in Seattle and Los Angeles. Around that time Sayeg outed herself as the leader of the group (which has since dwindled just to her) and joined the ranks of renowned street artists. What she does might technically stretch the letter of the law, but who needs to arrest someone who knits a cozy for a city bus?

Self-described “guerrilla knitters” or “yarn bombers” around the country have taken on this peculiar mission of beautification. Pockets thrive throughout the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Australia. According to Vancouver-based Mandy Moore and Leanne Prain, who coauthored Yarn Bombing: The Art of Crochet and Knit Graffiti, the handmade movement began to grow as the economy slowed. “Some people are doing this just because they think it’s delightful, to add cheer to their landscape,” Moore says. “But there’s definitely a message about counterconsumption in it.”

The finished product has to be functional, Sayeg says. “That’s the point, to build on what’s already there. Like when I did a whole bus in Mexico City, I refused to do the tires. I get frustrated if I see a bicycle so knitted over that it couldn’t possibly be ridden.” She owns an old Vespa on which she can often be seen riding around Austin. Every inch is covered in a blue, green, white, purple, black and red chevron pattern—except, of course, for the tires.

WHEN WE MEET AT GUERO’S TACO Bar, a local favorite with a legitimately faded Anthropologie look, Sayeg is dressed like a haute hippie mother: crinkled loose white dress, brown suede shoes, aviator glasses and a long, bright scarf sleeping around her neck.

“I got this in Bali,” she says, touching the scarf. “I think I’m still dressing like I’m there. Bali was mind-blowingly awesome. I have to say travel has been the biggest perk of Knitta. I’ve seen the whole wide world.”

Indeed, Sayeg has done public knitting installations across the United States and in such far-flung locales as Australia, Italy, Indonesia, Mexico and China, where she created a kind of loose-knit cable muff for a randomly chosen rock on the Great Wall of China. Lucky rock.

That’s not to say that Austin, Sayeg’s home since early 2009, is hurting for knit pieces. Her work is on view throughout the city—if you know where to look. There’s the lightpost just outside of the art bookstore she co-owns, Domy. Or the five-foot-tall letters at Jo’s Café next to the chic San Jose hotel, a gift for the café’s owner, Liz Lambert. The loveliness of Sayeg’s work is undeniable, but the lasting impact is how simultaneously distinctive and natural it seems. When you stroll past a telephone pole adorned in cream-colored yarn, there’s a double-take and an unavoidable smile—because there is a delightfully anthropomorphic effect when it comes to yarn graffiti. This otherwise unremarkable pole seems to be saying: Yeah, I’m wearing a doily. What of it?

I take in the authentically rundown decor as Sayeg and I munch on chips and guacamole. Knit graffiti doesn’t have the permanence of sculpture or even regular graffiti. It’s not weatherproof and isn’t immune to unraveling or even the occasional vandal. Sayeg doesn’t mind. “I’m not so concerned about the everlasting quality of my work,” she says. “It’s more about myself and the people who see what I’ve done having an interaction with an inanimate piece of steel.”

She’s careful not to describe her work as folk art, though. “I think folk art is making things pretty without a required explanation,” Sayeg says. “What I do is something different. Which isn’t to say I wasn’t influenced by folk art. Especially growing up in Houston, being exposed at a young age to houses made of beer cans. I was truly charmed by it. How can you not be?”

But Sayeg thinks of her art as something evolving in step with the larger scene. Last year, she collaborated with local artist and architect Carl Trominski. His Moments, a series of plain blue reflector signs installed under the Lamar overpass, were not so popular among Austin residents. So Sayeg called the artist directly and suggested she might be able to help.

“I got his blessing to knit his work. I wouldn’t have done anything without his permission,” she says. “A lamppost is one thing, but this was someone else’s art. He was great, and the city shut down the road for us. I put a ladder in the back of a truck to reach. I had help but as it got later it kind of diminished to one person—me, just knitting throughout the night. And it worked. This cold streetscape became softer and warmer.”

This quasi-collaboration was part of the reason Knitta was selected as the Austin Chronicle’s 2010 “Reader’s Choice for Best Public Art.” Now Sayeg’s work has become so popular, she has spent the last year knitting five or six massive commissioned pieces and corporate installations. Crafts site Etsy. com recently hired her to come to their offices and complete what Sayeg refers to as “an air duct cozy extravaganza,” where she covered the exposed ducts with granny squares. She designed a line of iPhone cases and covered hotel lobbies, and anyone who attended the Austin City Limits festival saw the rainbow-colored poles of light and free- standing letters spelling “ART” in the middle of Zilker Park. As if there was any doubt.

AFTER LUNCH, SAYEG TAKES me on a driving tour of her work. There’s the striped drainpipe at the Alamo Drafthouse cinema in an unassuming shopping center; the multicolor striped light post outside Domy, across the street from a dark mural of a cityscape; and the cheerfully striped Jo’s Café sign on trendy South Congress, with each letter done in two different colors.

We pull into the driveway of Sayeg’s modern ranch-style home, and I accidentally open the car door into a wall of cacti, breaking some of the branches. Sayeg doesn’t mind. In fact, she says, the house suffers from a form-over-function design. “The builders put the driveway so that you have to pull into this exact spot but then they put a wall of plants along the entire right side. It looks cool but it makes no sense.”

Inside we are greeted by an English bulldog named Stella and piles upon piles of yarn, some vintage and some new. Her kitchen and garage are a combination of Santa’s workshop and Rainbow Brite’s closet. She talks about where she wants to go next with Knitta Please.

“I want to make the actual yarn,” she says, and pulls out a ’60s-style swatch of canary yellow and light brown. “There are beautiful afghans in these old colors you can’t find anymore. Where are they in the aisles of craft stores? There are amazing patterns, a lot that can be done, and knitting is no longer just a cute crafts thing.”

Some of those guerrilla knitters who do still think of their art as “a cute crafts thing” are flocking to stores to buy Prain and Moore’s book, looking for inspiration from people with tags such as Captain Plaknit and Lady Loop, trying to fill some need to “do happy things that don’t cost money,” as Prain puts it. This cheery army of friendly graffiti artists is slowly besweatering the world’s most unassuming streetscapes.

Meanwhile, Sayeg is in talks with the Standard Hotel, a company she’s worked with several times before, about doing a stairwell in their New York location. On my way out, she shows me a sketch of the plans. It looks a bit like a Cray-Pas Rothko on a white piece of paper—blocks of orange and red stacked unevenly atop one another. If I had seen the drawing before meeting Sayeg, I wouldn’t have known I was looking at the blueprint for something massive and striking. It’s doubtful my brain would have even registered “staircase.”

Examining the blueprint, I think of that bare doorknob in Houston years ago and what a sketch for its life-altering sweater might have looked like. Probably like a big blob of primary colors. So in Magda Sayeg’s hands, there’s no telling where those carefully sketched stairs will lead.

New York–based writer SLOANE CROSLEY is the author of essay collections I Was Told There’d Be Cake and How Did You Get This Number.

2 Responses to “Wild and Woolly”

  1. Dee Dee Says:
    January 9th, 2011 at 7:01 pm

    I loved reading this story. It was intriguing, artsy, informative and inspirational. Bravo Soane Crosley. You captured the excitement and energy of the artist with your words and imagery and made me want to purchase knitting needles and start decorating my neighborhood.

  2. Lynnell Says:
    January 26th, 2011 at 11:54 am

    I loved the article, I feel as though we’re kindred spirits, so something I would do.
    Thanks for sharing! Lynnell

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