Entangled in Yarn(bombs)

I stumbled into art by being a bit bored. I suspect that’s how all good ideas emerge: there is space in your mind to fill and while you’re not paying attention your imagination runs away. During my training as an Occupational Therapist, I did placements in St. John and Fredericton, New Brunswick, and because I didn’t know anyone in those cities, I filled my spare time with crafts. I even convinced myself that watching TV was productive—as long as I was making something as I watched. I now have a beautiful hooked rug to show how much reality TV I consumed during the summer of 2008.

I moved to rural Newfoundland in 2012 to work at the local hospital. My husband and I had been living in England while he completed law school and he had secured an articling position in his home town of Gander upon graduation. Twillingate, a town of 2500 people, an hour’s drive from Gander and five hours from the provincial capital St. John’s, had a newly opened rehabilitation unit with a position for a lead Occupational Therapist. The post also included housing so we made Twillingate our home base. It didn’t take long for me to turn to craft for comfort and entertainment. I soon discovered, however, that there are only so many hats a girl, her friends, and her family need. Briefly, I tried my hand at selling my hats but wasn’t satisfied with the effort and subsequent return.

Then, while scrolling the internet, I discovered yarn bombing. It was a relatively new art on the block and struck me as accessible, harmless, and a little bit mischievous—a very enticing blend.

“Yarn bombing” is attributed to American textile artist Magda Sayeg. In 2005, she knit a door-handle cozy for her yarn shop, and knitters and crocheters worldwide went wild. They began covering statues, park benches, and trees with yarn. Canadians were right in there, too. Mandy Moore and Leanne Prain wrote Yarn Bombing: The Art of Crochet and Knit Graffiti (Arsenal Pulp, 2009); Jessica Vellenga and her team, Yarn Bomb Yukon Collective, knit over a plane and a statue of a woolly mammoth; and Joann Matvichuk invented International Yarn Bomb Day, first observed in 2011. Over the years, the practice has evolved and dedicated artists have emerged, knitting and crocheting over buses, billboards, and even a house!

photo of knitted daffodils against an outdoor wooden structure

Daffodils by Nina Elliott

Yarn bombing now references any fiber used as street art as opposed to just knit- and crochet-wrapped pieces. It can include doily-wrapped trees, crocheted images affixed to fences, and yarn tied to spell words or create an optical illusion. Like other forms of street art, it’s difficult to know the artist’s intention but it’s safe to assume there is an element of fun. Despite the expanded practice and broader definition, it’s still rare to spot one in real life.

Except, thanks to me, in the small town of Twillingate, Newfoundland.

Just about every month now, and much more frequently in the summer, I install a yarn bomb. When I look back at my “portfolio,” it tells a story about my life and thoughts. In 2015, before leaving on a thirteen-month backpacking trip through Southeast Asia with my husband, I knit a mouse holding a sign saying “End the Rat Race” and left it in the Gander airport. When I returned to Twillingate in 2017, I installed Home is Where the Art Is. I embroidered this message onto a doily and affixed it to a nearby abandoned house to represent my feeling of being home. When I became pregnant with my son, I installed Always Choose Love. This piece included a big heart that spelled out “love” and was accompanied by an embroidered doily. It was my mental and emotional preparation for motherhood.

When the pandemic hit, I was working at the hospital and pregnant with my daughter. I was feeling overwhelmed so I launched my first solo “show” on the streets of Twillingate. I called it Newfoundland’s First Outdoor Art Gallery and installed nine pieces along a two-kilometer strip of Main Street. The theme was Uplifting, because we all needed some uplifting at that time. This past summer, I launched another yarn bomb gallery, playing with the theme A Time in Twillingate by making yarn bombs with local historical references.

In reflection, I can see that my art serves as a journal of my values, opinions, and mental state. Yarn bombing is how I manage stress and express myself. In the moment, it feels simply like creative energy that needs an outlet; it’s only with a bit of space that I can see the connection to my life. And now that so much has shifted online, art and creative connections are easier than ever. I can befriend yarn bombers in Germany, see London Kaye’s yarn bombs in Los Angeles, and partake in the yarn bombing festival in Milan—all from the comfort of my couch. At the same time, more people are taking an interest in my art and I’m getting invited to yarn bomb businesses in Twillingate and further afield.

Still, my practice is entirely tied-up with living in rural Newfoundland. The clapboard buildings are my canvases and the winter storms serve as creative retreats. The pace of life in the outports allows space for dreaming and time to dedicate to my art practice. I feel fortunate that Twillingate has accepted and even encouraged this passion. When I first began, I worked anonymously and was constantly expecting someone to tell me to stop. But now, I’m all in and I see it as an essential element to my contentment. As my practice has evolved, Twillingate has been right there with me, blossoming and growing in its own way. Now that it’s a tourist destination, buildings have been repaired and turned into businesses and I’m invited to install art on the storefronts. It’s a dream come true: the opportunity to cover my town in art.

About Nina Elliott

Nina Elliott is the Rock Vandal. She has been making street art from Twillingate, Newfoundland, since 2015 and has installed art worldwide, in nine countries to date. She regularly experiments with different mediums, even casting her own pregnant body in packing tape, however she always returns to yarn. Nina interviews street artists and blogs on rockvandal.com and shares her work on Instagram as @rock_vandal.

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