In Collingswood, knitting a sense of community spirit

This creation on a tree on Haddon Avenue, with its baby birds, brings to mind cheerful thoughts of spring.
This creation on a tree on Haddon Avenue, with its baby birds, brings to mind cheerful thoughts of spring.
Posted: February 10, 2014

It was that kind of week.

Dreary. Cold. Freezing snow, icy rain, downed power lines, and, thanks to Punxsutawney Phil, a forecast of six weeks more of the same.

But Friday morning, as the good people of Collingswood made their way downtown, it was almost as if someone had sprinkled Haddon Avenue with fairy dust:

Overnight, trees appeared to have sprouted sweater-wraps of pink, purple, and pewter. Horse-head hitching posts sported little knit caps and scarfs. Former parking meters were gussied up in pole cozies.

Nichole Eisinger, 29, and a coworker from Haddon Hair Designs enthusiastically snapped photos with their phones.

"It's awesome!" Eisinger said. "I saw it driving in. I think this so cool!"

A burst of doldrums-be-damned whimsy, the "this" is yarn bombing, a.k.a. yarn tagging, yarn storming, guerrilla knitting, graffiti knitting.

A street art at least over the last decade, it has cropped up in major cities like New York and Philadelphia and spread around the world. The Wall Street bull and the Rocky statue outside the Art Museum have been yarn-bombed. So has a chunk of China's Great Wall.

Last year, a community effort that pulled in nearly 2,000 participants called Knit the Bridge yarn-bombed Pittsburgh's Andy Warhol Bridge. Commercial riggers had to be hired.

In the case of Collingswood, a Camden County borough that has come to be known for its artsy edge and reborn main drag, the fanciful display was an officially sanctioned - and secretly put together - art installation intended to buoy seasonally sagging spirits and spark interest in local shops and restaurants.

"February is a time that can be gloomy," Mayor Jim Maley said. "This is something creative, different, and beautiful for our business district, residents, and visitors."

For months, local knitters, organized by Collingswood community development director Cass Duffey, clandestinely crafted their creations, adhering to some specifications but largely given a free hand to pursue their own patterns, textures, and motifs.

Then on Thursday night about 6 p.m., a posse of knitters and Duffey fanned out along part of Haddon Avenue to put up more than two dozen of the fiber artworks.

Duffey had heard about yarn bombing elsewhere, but she started seeing isolated pieces cropping up around town and approached Maley about an official event. He gave the go-ahead, and local artists proved game.

"That's one of the best things about Collingswood," Duffey said. "They'll try different things. They may look at you like you're a little crazy."

But crazy can work. In the last year, the little borough has pulled off its own versions of big-city antics to rave reviews.

Last June, residents and businesses celebrated the arrival of Collingswood's first parklet. In July, the borough held PrancerDance, inspired by a wacky workout craze. People actually pranced down Haddon Avenue. Donations went to a local charity. Then in September, Collingswood held its first Pop Up Gala. Everyone wore white, champagne flowed, and oh, how they danced.

Yarn bombing, by comparison, has its own vibe.

"It's very interesting to put something so human and handmade and put it on something not human and not handmade. It engages people," said Magda Sayeg, 40, a Texas-based fiber artist and one of the best-known yarn bombers.

About 10 years ago, she knitted a cover for a door handle in her struggling clothes shop. People liked it. She moved on to even more public surfaces. Since then, her work has landed her big commissions and taken her around the world.

In the days leading up to the Collingswood yarn bombing, the local knitters were happy enough to be displayed on Haddon Avenue.

"It'll perk up the town in the middle of winter," said Shannon McGill, 36, a clinical research assistant and singer who does a yarn tag each year to celebrate the birthday of her niece June Turner, age 2.

"The first time I did it, it was kind of scary. My heart was pumping," said McGill, whose contributions include horse-head hats and scarves. "Technically it's a crime."

That can be part of the charm, although in this case, borough officials are in on the caper.

Bernadette Rossi, 63, a knitter since 12 - check out her hearts-and-flowers wrap outside That's Amore restaurant - and active in the Collingswood Fiber Arts Guild, liked feeling a part of the community, both the community of knitters and the larger community.

"You can lose track of your own community," Rossi said. "These types of things pull you in."

The plan is to keep the pieces up through February. Then they'll be donated to the Almost Home Animal Shelter in Pennsauken.

But on Friday morning, the creative crowd at Grooveground cafe on Haddon Avenue was appreciating the new additions - and the spirit behind them.

"You're kind of breaking a rule, but not really. It's adventurous," said musician Giovanni Caffarella, 33. "You wouldn't see it in any other town around here."

Pianist Edie Govsky, 60, agreed: "It's a small town with big ideas."

And now sweaters on the trees.

856-779-3893 @ritagiordano

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