Bright orange thread slides through his nimble fingers, which are decorated with chunky silver rings. Below and above the thin, silver crochet hook guides the yarn into place. The thoughtless movement is marked by the tick of his acrylic nails on the needle.
Rodrigo Soto-Lobos is a fiber artist. He names the small animal-like creatures he shapes “Appreciation dolls”, but he also does other things. He made a coaster for his coffee table out of the bright orange thread. Soto-Lobos is part of a group of New York fiber artists who meet at least once a week to crochet over coffee and chat.
But the group also made yarn bombs.
“I’ve been operating yarn bombs all over the city for years,” says Carmen Paulino, who founded the group of fiber artists.
Paulino creates yarn bombs to bring joy and color to their East Harlem community.
Yarn bombing is a type of street art that uses knitted or crocheted yarn to create mural-like displays. The street art movement was born in the early / mid 2000s when street art first met fiber art. Yarn bombers usually cover, wrap, or decorate fences, trees, and poles in pieces of knitting or crochet.
Paulino works with people in their community to build the yarn bombs. First, Paulino outlines her vision for the final project. Her sketches include what colors of thread will be used to make sure the final creation is different in terms of ethnicity, beliefs and culture and to make sure it touches everyone’s heart, she said.
“My focus is on unity, bringing community together with art and making it meaningful,” said Paulino.
Each fiber artist crochets or knits a piece of the larger project. The individual pieces are sewn together before the last piece is hung. Paulino works with Uptown Grand Central, Why Not Art, Open Streets and small shops to bring the yarn bombs to life.
But Paulino became a yarn bomber by chance.
Become a yarn bomber
A group of 12 seniors sat at two round tables under neon lights. The ornate walls compensate for the cold, dull tiled floor. Her worn hands worked hard crocheting 4 × 4 squares of fabric. The project helped pass the time and meet the senior center’s tight budget.
One of the senior citizens built other shapes out of the individual squares, and a heart out of two of them. Paulino discovered the heart protruding from the sea of squares.
“What if we sewed all the squares together to make one big heart,” thought Paulino.
Paulino hung the four-foot by three-foot heart and a sign that read “At the senior centers” on a gate in Spanish Harlem. The first yarn bomb was ready.
That was in 2014.
After creating and hanging the first heart, the group made five more. Hearts began to appear on the gates across East Harlem – 106th and 3rd Ave., 105th and Lexington Ave., 111th and 110th and Jefferson Park – all the streets shone in new colors.
People started to notice.
“It was like a domino effect had happened,” said Paulino. “It was as organic as planting a seed and letting it grow.” The projects began to consume her house and her work. A year later she worked full-time on fiber art and yarn bombs.
Paulino was blown away with “thank you” and Instagram notifications as people tagged the art on their photos.
“People came and said, ‘I want to be part of it,’” Paulino said.
Weekly meetings bring fiber artists together and help people heal
The weekly yarn meetings began. At the coffee shop meetings, the fiber artists work on personal projects and, in turn, on the yarn bombs.
“Every time we see each other, it’s like a family reunion, like on the ‘Friends’ show,” said Paulino. “People are looking for that connection, yarn – it’s a magnet.”
Soto-Lobos is a regular at the meetings. He got to know Paulino in the yarn bomb campaign. She was hanging a crocheted rainbow on a fence at East Harlem, 101 Street and Lexington Ave when Soto-Lobos was walking the neighborhood. He asked what she was doing and he was instantly hooked, he said.
“It’s a healing process, it’s a safe space where we share projects, pattern difficulties, and even social life,” said Soto-Lobos. “It’s so valuable because I don’t have it anywhere else.”
Soto-Lobos has only lived in the city for three years. During the pandemic, he lived in downtown Chelsea on 6th Avenue. The neighborhood is a “ghost town,” he said.
“My only exit was crocheting,” said Soto-Lobos. “For me it was a life changer.”
Now Soto-Lobos crochets everywhere – on the subway and at lunch. He said that people often approach him and tell family stories about how their grandma or mother used to crochet.
Paulino makes sure that everyone feels welcome to take part in the group, even if they cannot crochet, knit or sew.
“Whatever your skills, I teach for free because I learned from my grandma for free,” said Paulino. “If it teaches someone, that person will teach someone else.” Add: “You don’t need an artistic background. You just do what you do and share it with the world. ”
When Joanna Jean-Deletoille started crocheting with the group, her family found it strange because they thought it was usually something older people do.
“I love that aspect of doing something together. It’s a community, it’s not like the crochet stereotype like the old and boring stuff. My family got confused when I started crocheting and then I showed them the community and that this is a new way of crocheting. It’s artistic and inspiring. ”
Paulino said she hopes to show that knitting and crocheting really is for everyone.
“Yarn art is magical”
Since Paulino learned to crochet from her mother and grandmother, she not only wants to teach others something, but also to give the craft a new identity and a new meaning.
Every yarn bomb invented by Paulino has a meaning. She is particularly passionate about incorporating Hispanic culture into her art as she has not seen enough of her own culture in fiber art.
Paulino spent two weeks creating all 20 Hispanic flags around the world to honor all Hispanic cultures for Hispanic Heritage Month.
“The projects I do can be touched and felt by people. Yarn conveys that magical feeling that unites people with the memory of a family member who created something out of love, ”said Paulino.
She has worked on other projects to encourage people to vote and to celebrate Pride Month. On October 9th, Paulino’s newest yarn bomb, created to raise awareness about climate change, will be part of. being The Kings County Fiber Festival at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn.
“I reflect on the community and what it needs” said Paulino. “And it always takes love, so I try to do something colorful, something with people, something with a quote.”
Paulino teamed up with Deafblind International to create a crochet sign that says “Community”. At the top of each letter, a crochet hand shows the letter’s American sign language character. The project helped raise awareness of the deaf and blind community. As the group hung up the yarn bomb, a deaf couple stopped and began to sign the word “Fellowship”.
“Yarn art is magical,” said Paulino. “It is a universal language.”
More than a ball of wool
A ball the size of a penny is engraved in blue-black ink under his left thumb. A crochet hook sticks through the middle. Not only is Soto-Lobos’ tattoo a reminder of the importance of crocheting to him, it also celebrates his roots.
“People don’t know what yarn can do for a community,” said Paulino.
Before Soto-Lobos met Paulino and started crocheting, he didn’t know many people in town and was struggling with depression and anxiety. During the lockdown, he looked for a purpose and crochet gave him that.
“Crocheting helped me feel more relaxed,” said Rodrigo. Add, “Crocheting helps me disconnect from my phone and reconnect with myself. It’s a mindfulness exercise. “
Rodrigo is from South America, where the people are artisans, he said. You work with materials like wool. The people are kneaders, crocheters, hunters, craftsmen. His tattoo celebrates where he’s from.
“Years ago, my grandma once said to me that nobody would really be interested in this type of art, nobody would really be interested in this type of art, and I just said no, that’s not true, and that was what I wanted her to do I hope that one day I will be able to express this art in a big way, ”said Paulino. “I am so humble about the reaction from people. It’s almost unbelievable, but the people are so respectful and wonderful and want to be a part of it. I am very honored. ”