On this cold and sunny day we sit at a café terrace. Winter is slowly creeping in on little cat feet. She is there, working on her woolen pullover sweater. From a plastic bag she pulls out a skein of yarn and two long knitting needles. Within seconds our conversation takes on the rhythm of her stitching.
By Delphine Caubet | File Graffiti
This innocent looking woman is in fact an activist who wishes to remain anonymous. Her alias: Tricot pour la paix (Knitting for Peace). Her art form: yarn bombing. She is turning an ancient craft into a cry for social justice.
She hasn’t always been an activist/knitter. She stumbled on this passion in 2011. That’s when this young woman found herself at a turning point in her life. She wanted to get involved in her community and her world. She wanted to make a difference.
Up until then, knitting was simply a hobby she’d been practicing for about a year, for fun, to get rid of work-related stress.
At the end of 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement came to Montreal. Occupons Montréal lay siege to the financial district to protest the excesses of capitalism. “I was fascinated by the movement,” she recalls. “I circulated their information and material.” That’s when she came upon the idea of knitting for the protestors. “The Occupons people loved the idea! They were stressed. Winter was coming. Knitting became, for them, a real way to relieve the pressure.”
Yarn for a Cause
She organized everything. She had the material, the opportunity, and the will. She never gave the knitting workshops she intended because the sit-in ended. But it was too late to stop Tricot pour la paix. She joined the Villes-Laines – 5 ladies impassioned by yarn who participate in a wide array of events, taking their socially provocative knitting graffiti to the streets.
“Knitting links people together,” she observes. “It softens activism.” She and her fellow socially aware stitchers loop and purl to bring color and warmth to the city’s coldest, grimmest corners. Behind it all, her mission: “To change the paradigm, and turn a world full of fear into a world full of love.”
As we sit down together, the media is rife with reports of women being assaulted in Montreal taxicabs. “I want to encourage women to take ownership of the streets,” she tells me. “Street art is very male. Knitting adds a feminine touch to the streets. I want to reassure women that they can take control of their urban environment.”
Pandora, another graffiti knitter, also burns to bring warmth and femininity to the urban neighborhood. “The city, it’s garbage for the eyes” says this young mother. Graffiti knitwear doesn’t mar or damage the environment in which it’s found. It degrades naturally over time. “Everything about it is bio.”
Unlike traditional spray-painted graffiti, knitwear is ephemeral. It is there, then it is gone. “I love that about it,” exclaims Tricot pour la paix. “I give everything I make to the community. After that, it no longer belongs to me.” Pandora nods in agreement.
Steal this Sweater
Sometimes, these ladies see their works go missing. This sort of theft makes these stitchers… deliriously happy! Someone has stolen their work. Who, and for what purpose? A message is passed on; a useful piece of knitwear is in the hands of someone who needs it.
Quebec City harbors the activist knitting group Colifichet: 4 ladies who do not consider themselves graffiti knitters. They’ve been around since before the Occupy movement. In April of 2011 they were invited to take temporary possession of a tree. They chose to knit a telephone, which remained in place on the tree for 10 days. Then, one night, it disappeared … “I loved that!” exclaims Colifichet member Dominique. “If someone took it it’s because they appreciated it. I’d love to know who it was…”
Graffiti knitting often involves adorning public monuments with vibrant fabrics. Associated mostly with women, usually linked to feminist causes, this craze hit its apogee in 2012-13. Bringing domesticity to the streets to make a point is a very feminine way to protest. That was the motive when the feminist magazine Yiara decided to dress up the statue of legendary weightlifter Louis Cyr, which stands in the traditionally working class Saint-Henri district, in colorful knitwear.
All 4 of Montreal’s universities participated in clothing the macho monument. Yiara editor Stéphanie Hornstien explains the idea behind the project: “It represents a very powerful masculine symbol. There’s a certain pleasure in dressing up the world’s strongest man in soft, colorful woolens. It’s not meant to be a criticism of Louis Cyr the person, but of general stereotypes.”
Tricot pour la paix invites me to join her as she hangs one of her works on a telephone pole. The street she chooses is, fittingly, lined with graffiti-covered walls.
I ask her: “Do you think it’ll stay in place?”
“I doubt it!” She laughs. “I’m not sure they’ll appreciate me imposing this in the middle of their neighborhood.”
The contrast is stunning. In the midst of this gray and somber urban graffiti-littered landscape, engulfed by chill winds, she wraps a telephone pole with a soft, light piece of knitwear.
The weather itself softens as the afternoon wears on. She brings me to her previous field of battle. Underneath the old, weathered logo of a textile company, her own touch: new knitwear.
When working alone Tricot pour la paix follows her own instincts, rarely making any advance plans or preparations for her next strike. And though members of the Villes Laines are often remunerated for their work, Tricot pour la paix works solely on a volunteer basis. For which she is always warmly received.
She is always surprised by the wide variety of people who practice the art of knitting: “At festivals, bikers come up to congratulate us and tell us that they knit, too.” Knitting is a wonderful tool to combat anxiety. “It’s extremely relaxing. It also forces you to accept your mistakes.” She gives courses in knitting as a form of therapy.
Indeed, Tricot pour la paix loves to teach newcomers how to handle knitting needles. She’s taught oldsters and youngsters alike at workshops and special events as well as on her own. Since 2012, she has taught single mothers; helped set up “knit-a-thons” for the homeless in partnership with the humanitarian organization Médecins aux pieds nus (Barefoot Doctors); and organized monthly knitting meetings for knitters to sew together bonds and discus neighborhood issues.
All the knitting activists we spoke to say they’ve felt accepted both by the public at large as well as by law enforcement. Perhaps that’s because their statements do not alter the landscape in any lasting way. One snip, and these works vanish.
Too bad, then, that this form of expression is virtually unknown to the traditional spray-can graffiti culture. Café Graffiti’s artistic director Raymond Viger attests that in 25 years in the milieu, he had up until recently only heard of this technique once.
To find out more, log onto tricotpourlapaix.com.
The psychological benefits of knitting are not unknown to the medical community. The Canadian Mental Health Association has devoted a journal article to the subject. The hobby requires that you concentrate on repetitive, precise movements, which can be very relaxing.
The Montreal Canadiens’ legendary goaltender Jacques Plante would knit before every game.
In 2014, the Canadian Alzheimer Society used graffiti knitting in their fundraising/awareness campaign. People were urged to knit forget-me-not flowers, sold to benefit the Society. Thread is a symbol of the diagnosis that keeps one attached to life.