Knit Toxteth: a labour of love

yarn-bomb

verb

To cover (an object or structure in a public place) with decorative knitted or crocheted material, as a form of street art.

“knitters have yarn-bombed Toxteth”

 

The idea

“I want to yarn-bomb Upper Parliament Street with hearts.”

This was Chantelle’s idea. We had met just before Christmas through a mutual friend, and a bit through serendipity too, while I was working at Red Brick Vintage in Cains Brewery in Toxteth.

Chantelle and I bonded over the vintage loveliness of Red Brick and red wine. It’s always a relief to meet someone who gets you on a level that other people just don’t. And so we became friends.

Before moving to Liverpool, Chantelle and her family lived in Vancouver where yarn-bombing was a popular occurrence. Trees across the city were often found with bright yarn wound around their trunks. Practically anything screwed into the ground was fair game: bus stops, bike rails, parking metres, benches. Further afield such things have been yarn-bombed as a tank in Copenhagen, a bus in Mexico City and statues in Bali.

Yarn bombing is seen by many as a subversive act. It reclaims public spaces, drawing our attention to those things that usually go unnoticed. Yarn bombing can also be a way of delivering a peaceful protest with more and more people realising they can challenge the status quo and create positive change.

In 2014, Chantelle and her family moved into the vicarage at St Margaret’s church, set within the Granby Triangle in Toxteth, and while clearing out the cellar one day she found an old map of the parish: a bold line cut across the faded paper, running down Upper Parliament Street, along Windsor Street and onwards zigzagging through Toxteth. To Chantelle, the border symbolised a community where people live and work, and public spaces where acts of community take place. It was this map that inspired her.

The first plan was to somehow knit around the whole border but the distance proved unrealistic.

“I thought knitting little hearts would be a good idea. That way, lots of people could join efforts and knit together.”

Chantelle decided that a section of Upper Parliament Street would be enough to represent the original vision. This was the beginning of Knit Toxteth.

The parish

The public perception of Toxteth is not usually a positive one. The area received worldwide attention in 1981 for what was termed the ‘Toxteth Riots’ outside but is more commonly described as ‘the Uprising’ within – a time that was for many a response to years of institutionalised racism, being ignored and isolated politically, within a context of decades of police brutality. A yarn-bomb of hearts certainly wouldn’t change national perceptions of Toxteth, but quite simply our message would be love, love for the community, love for Toxteth. Our hope was that this love would be shared.

St Margaret’s parish has a population of just over 3000, within a small geographic area of Toxteth that mostly covers the Granby Triangle, the most ethnically diverse area in Liverpool and home to some inspirational community initiatives.

The Turner Prize-winning Granby4Streets Community Land Trust (CLT) has become world-renowned: four streets of beautiful Victorian terrace houses, previously marked for demolition under the Housing Market Renewal Initiative, are now being renovated due to the unwavering determination of the community and those involved with the CLT, bringing about ‘a thriving, vibrant mixed community, building on the existing creativity, energy, and commitment within the community, where people from all walks of life can live, work and play.’

Granby market, originally set up by the community, brings life and energy to the streets once a month with wonderful smells, music and dancing, local buyers and sellers. The vision for the market is that it will sow the seeds for the re-establishment of shops and businesses on Granby Street, which once thrived generations ago.

Beyond the Granby Triangle is Windsor Street, with its expanding community food production project known as the 100-year food street plan. Take a stroll down Windsor Street and you’ll see chalkboard signs promoting community food gardens such as the Grapes Garden, the base for Food For Real Film Festival which seeks to ‘explore the environmental, political, health and cultural impacts of the food we grow, eat, waste, and share.’ Further on, the soon-to-be-opened Toxteth Food Central is home to Squash Nutrition, a social enterprise and community-food organisation who ‘work with food as an ingredient to stimulate a more socially active, engaged, fair, and inclusive community’ and will house a local affordable fresh food shop, training space, and food garden.

At the end of Windsor Street is Toxteth Library, with a well-stocked children’s library and the base for literary organisation Writing on the Wall. WoW’s incredible team coordinate projects and events with all of Liverpool’s communities to celebrate writing in all its forms, supporting marginalised writers and giving them a voice, loud and proud. They have just finished their annual month-long literary festival, WoWFest 2017, with the timely theme of Revolution. The festival brought writers, activists, poets, journalists, commentators, spoken word artists, and audiences together. Akala, Gary Younge, Raoul Martinez, Margaret Aspinall, Chris Riddell, Natalie Bennett, Howard Gayle, Vicky Pryce, Phil Scraton, and many more explored their take on the palpable change that is in the air.

As well as these there are dozens of other great projects, charities, social enterprises, community-run businesses, seen and unseen, to explore in this small parish and throughout the rest of Toxteth.

Toxteth is rebuilding itself after years of deprivation. To this day St Margaret’s parish ranks as 23 out of 12,599, where 1 is the most deprived. Within the parish child poverty is at 50%, working age poverty is estimated at 30%, and pensioner poverty is 70% (ranked 2/12,599). There is still work to be done, of course, but help is coming from within the community. If you are wondering how you can help solve these and similar issues in your own community, do some research and find projects already doing something and connect with them. I know Squash Nutrition are very passionate about ending child poverty, so if that is something you want to help end, get in touch with them.

The call out

We did the call out in January for knitters and crocheters via Open Culture, Art in Liverpool, and Knit Toxteth’s Facebook and Instagram. There was no deadline.  We hadn’t decided when we would do the yarn-bomb. We intentionally didn’t push so we went with the flow to see if anyone was interested. Looking back should we have had a bit of a strategy worked out?

Chantelle doesn’t think so: “Having a strategy would have defeated the purpose of it. I just wanted people who were interested in coming along. I didn’t want to make people do it or convince them. I just wanted them to do it out of their own goodwill.”

In the lead-up to the yarn-bombing we received some media exposure through BBC Merseyside who approached us because they wanted to help. Chantelle and I were interviewed live on air on separate occasions, and we were able to hold a heart knitting session through BBC Merseyside’s Up For Arts project. That day around 20-25 people turned up to knit, crochet, and sew hearts, many of whom continued to support the project. Chantelle decided to launch the yarn-bomb on May 6th. This coincided with Voluntary Arts Festival – Up For Arts’ partner – which promotes community participation in the arts.

In the following four months we were inundated weekly with stunning hearts: some big, some small, some brightly coloured, others embellished with tinsel, buttons, tiny dolls, the Jamaican flag, some stuffed, some made from fabric and sewn together and attached to string. Altogether, over 1100 hearts were donated. We still aren’t sure how many people were involved. We’ve estimated about 50-60 but there could have been more. Families, individuals, knitting groups, social groups, and work teams all contributed.

Photo courtesy of @skatiecreates

And thank you, thank you so much if you are reading this and you are one of those who took the time, energy, and resources to be a part of Knit Toxteth. You have all been so wonderfully generous. We are also so grateful for the support and encouragement received from all of the organisations and the people behind them, who helped spread the Knit Toxteth message.

There is something so powerful in the word-of-mouth passing-on of an idea or message through trusted sources such as friends, family members and colleagues. A good idea in the right hands and at the right time can grow naturally and that is an important lesson this project has taught me.

The yarn-bomb

I woke up on the morning of May 6th so excited and a bit terrified. Doing anything public is scary but if I’d learned anything in putting myself out there, it was that there will always be a tiny minority who don’t like what you have to say or do. And if you allow them, they will make you angry with their opinions. But generally, in my experience, there is always a majority of people who will love and support a positive idea.

About 15 people met at the vicarage to help us hang the hearts – friends, family, contributors and those who just came along to get involved. After a quick cuppa we stepped out onto Princes Road with our bags and boxes of hearts. One of our volunteers immediately got cracking on the fences of the Greek Orthodox Church while the rest of us carried on to Upper Parliament Street. Hearts were hung on railings as we made our way to an overgrown grassy thoroughfare in-between two Georgian houses. We covered the iron bars there in hearts while Chantelle got to work hanging her Knit Toxteth sign. Half of the group broke off and carried on down Upper Parliament towards Toxteth Library then onto St James’ Church.

It was absolutely thrilling working with such a mix of people, some of whom I knew fairly well, some absolute strangers and those I’d met maybe once or twice, people similar to me and people who live very different lives.

“I felt there was a really good turnout of people who came to help,” Chantelle agreed. “It was really great to see people stopping and taking pictures and looking out their windows wondering what we were doing. I think the actual putting them out was quite fun and just seeing how it changed the whole street. And then seeing the online presence too was cool.”

Yeah, it wasn’t long before people started to notice.

Next

We are still thinking about what happens next. There is scope for us to set up a regular group at the vicarage so we might do just that. We will definitely launch another project but we aren’t going to force it. I guess when it feels right, when things align, then that will be the time.

Knit Toxteth was our way of celebrating and honouring the wonderful community and beautiful things that are happening in Toxteth, and we were able to bring people together into the process at every step of the way. There is exciting and fulfilling work to be done in every community. What great things are already happening in your community? Connect with them. What issues are not being tackled? See what you can do about them with the resources you have. Get together with friends and talk about these issues and pool your resources. We need to be engaging with our own communities again, at neighbourhood level, even street level.

The most important thing about this project was the connections that were made: the families, friends, and groups that got together to create hearts, new friendships formed, and the connections the hearts made with people as they walked past. More than ever, we absolutely need each other. We need to be able to have open, honest, and real relationships and we need to build our communities on these relationships.

We hope that what we have done together will inspire others to do something similar. Ideas like Knit Toxteth aren’t owned. We have merely given it a go.  It worked.  Hopefully it will work for others too.

“Just like each of those small hearts,” says Chantelle, “if we do our own little bit in our communities, we can build and create something extraordinary.”