When Wheaton Arts Parade was founded five summers ago, organizers had several goals in mind — to showcase local artists, to bring the community together through art and to help the neighborhood realize its potential as one of Montgomery County’s three arts and entertainment districts. After two years, however, a problem had come to light. Though nearly half of Wheaton residents identify as Hispanic or Latino, their involvement in the nonprofit organization was minimal.
So, WAP hosted an open house, with food provided by Los Chorros on Blueridge Avenue, to brainstorm ways to involve the Latinx community. Edith Salazar and Felisa Federman, who were previously unknown to one another, arrived at the same conclusion. Wheaton’s Spanish-speaking women, they said, could bond through yarn bombing.
Also known as guerilla knitting or yarn storming, yarn bombing is a form of graffiti that employs crochet or knit elements to beautify public infrastructure, such as fencing, telephone poles and city buses. Some fiber artists also incorporate macramé, needlepoint or small wire sculptures into their designs.
While yarn bombing itself is a recent phenomenon, beginning in the early 2000s with a group of Texas knitters, the textile arts have deep roots in Latin American culture. The oldest known textiles in the Americas were discovered in a Peruvian cave and date back to 10,100 BCE. Both Federman, who is Argentinian, and Salazar, who is Bolivian, were taught to crochet as children, a skill passed down through generations of women in their respective families.
In 2019, the two women began hosting free Yarn Bomb workshops at the Wheaton Arts Parade gallery and Art Factory in the Westfield Wheaton mall. The group’s first yarn bombing was relatively modest, consisting of four fiber-wrapped lampposts and several crocheted trees along the 2019 Wheaton Arts Parade and Festival route. Originally, the installment was supposed to remain on display for three weeks. Community members loved it so much, however, that it was kept up for two months.
When the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a statewide stay-at-home order in March 2020, the yarn bombers moved their workshops online. To the surprise of WAP Gallery manager Paige Friedeman, interest in the group actually increased.
“I think it’s because [crochet] is one of those things people could do to stay occupied during the pandemic,” says Friedeman.
Co-lead artist Salazar added that, for the group’s Latina members in particular, the hobby doubled as a much-needed escape from daily life during a particularly dark period. Indeed, even as overall county coronavirus metrics ticked downward last summer, Spanish-speaking communities suffered disproportionately. According to the Montgomery County COVID-19 dashboard, Hispanics made up 40% of all deaths in July 2020 — double their share of the population.
“For me it was like a healing process,” Salazar says, “because I lost my job at the beginning, many friends and relatives were dying, and it really hurt me a lot.”
Yarn Bomb’s members received acrylic yarn and needles to work independently at home. By summer’s end, they had produced enough colorful decorations to mark off the 2020 Path of Pyramids at Brookside Gardens, another WAP installation. The leftover textiles were displayed outside each restaurant that participated in Wheaton Park District’s virtual Taste of Wheaton event.
In preparation for the 2021 Wheaton Arts Parade and Festival on Sept. 19, the group — now fully vaccinated and eager to get back out into the community — has already coordinated several events. This spring, members taught basic crochet stitches from socially distanced picnic tables at the Sandy Spring Museum and partnered with Impact Silver Spring to put on a “Feria de las Madres,” or Mother’s Day workshop. They’ve also been making the effort to meet busy mothers where they are, often at public schools or youth soccer practices.
Salazar and Federman will host another free crochet workshop Aug. 21 in Brookside Gardens to make more decorations for the Path of Pyramids. They also have their sights set on the Wheaton Metro Station, where they will attempt to wrap several poles and handrails in a patchwork of colorful yarn.
Salazar says the project continues to receive tremendous support from the community, remarking on the fact that there have been zero incidents of yarn cutting or other vandalism thus far. Individuals and local fabric stores have also reached out to donate supplies.
And although Yarn Bomb was originally conceived as a creative gathering for Hispanic and Latina women, the group has piqued the interest of large swaths of Wheaton’s immigrant population. Friedeman recalls an impromptu micro-workshop led by a few highly skilled Chinese-speaking participants, with Federman and Salazar instructing the Spanish- and English-speaking attendees.
Yarn Bomb workshops are also well attended across age bands; Friedeman says the youngest participants are 5-year-olds, and the oldest are centenarians. Moreover, it is not uncommon that father-son pairs also take part in the fun.
Salazar says she enjoys teaching these workshops because they provide her an opportunity to share her crochet expertise.
“It was my concern to leave this legacy that women can do art with our hands, and Wheaton Arts Parade has given us that opportunity.”
This story first appeared in our August/September 2021 issue.