Knit and Tell

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It’s winter in the desert. Here, as well as all across the country, there’s no better time to cluster in comfy knitting circles that are more than crafting.

They’re also networks to share tradition and pride in handiwork, according to Barbara Eiswerth, the founder and director of Iskashitaa, the grass roots organization that helps rebuild refugee lives through partnerships with volunteers and local groups. “Bhutanese, Somalis, Burundians, Congolese, Iraqis all have knitting traditions,” she says, adding that refugees also crochet, embroider, tat and weave, finger weave, basket weave in crafting circles.

Iskashitaa knitters
Iskashitaa provides supplies and encourages sewing circles that bring
people from many cultures together to build community and crafting enterprise

Through craft, refugees can recall teachings of their unique cultures, and spend time with other women (note: although Iskashitaa’s knitting group is all women, many of its other folk arts groups include male refugees). “Some knit dollies, scarves, afghans and hats. There are some super unique styles that come from our Bhutanese, in particular. I would say every Bhutnaese family has at least one knitter,” she says.

Using skills learned from their elders, knitting conversations are as much about life in new surroundings as about the different techniques and yarns. When life gets tough, Barbara adds, Faeza, a retired Iraqi dentist and avid cook, can calm herself down with knitting and crocheting. As Barbara explains, for Faeza, the rhythm of knitting can help melt the trauma and dull the pain of the horrific world news coming out of Iraq. Like all Iskashitaa programs, the sewing brings people from many cultures together, and builds community on common ground while connecting people to community resources.

Facilitating the Maker
Everyone is a maker in some capacity, and libraries taking their mission into extended dimensions by hosting knitting and other crafting groups that gather for conversation and shared projects. Urban Yarns, at the Joel D. Valdez Main Library, started several years ago. Although facilitators and participants come and go, Library staffers Lola Pyle-Vinzant and Kelly Wilson (current and former facilitators of the Library’s Urban Yarns) find that there often is a philanthropic aspect to the goals that are set, such as donating gift baskets to different fund raising events or providing warm hats and scarves to Project Mittens. The philanthropic aspect is not mandatory and anyone who wants to bring their hooks, needles, and lunch can join the group for a day or every week, says Lola, who also notes that some members have been attending over seven years, while others stop in during winter visits to Tucson. There also are non-English speaking members who come and share in the crafts while improving their English in a non-threatening environment.

Libraries don’t teach people how to knit or crochet, says Lola, but books are provided from the library’s collection, and the members inspire and assist each other with their various projects.

Libraries also have helped take crafting to the streets, with pop culture installations that are part of the D.I.Y. movement that seeks to soften a city’s built environment. As Lola explains, Tucson knitters have participated in “yarn-bombing,” a genre of guerilla public art has inspired its own cross-culture conversations while covering street poles, trees or anything outside needing creative, comforting wrapping. “We did conduct some art installations in regards to International Yarn Bombing day for a couple of years which might fall under a Revolutionary knitting circle,” Lola comments, “except there wasn’t a cohesive message or agenda behind our installations, other than beautifying our space.” Some Library yarn bombings were collaborations, including working with the Seed Library.

Library "yarn bomb"
A Library “yarn bomb” public art installation

The creative outcome of craft certainly inspires conversations. And it clearly connects people in our communities through a shared passion of working threads in their hands.


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