Bright orange yarn glides through his nimble fingers decorated with chunky silver rings. Under and over, the thin, silver crochet hook guides the yarn to its place. The mindless movement is marked by the tick tack of his acrylic nails against the needle.
Rodrigo Soto- Lobos is a fiber artist. He calls the small animal-like creatures he fashions “appreciation dolls,” but he also makes other things. He used the bright orange yarn to make a coaster for his coffee table. Soto-Lobos is part of a group of New York City fiber artists who meet up at least once a week to crochet over coffee and conversation.
But the group also yarn-bombs.
“I’ve been yarn bombing all over the city for years now,” said Carmen Paulino who started the fiber artist group.
Paulino creates yarn bombs to bring joy and color to her 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 met fiber art for the first time. Yarn bombers usually cover, wrap or decorate fences, trees and poles in pieces of knit or crochet.
Paulino works with people in her community to create the yarn bombs. First, Paulino sketches out her vision for the final project. Her sketches include what colors of yarn will be used to make sure the final creation is diverse as far as ethnicities, beliefs and culture and to make sure it touches everybody’s heart, she said.
“My focus is on unity, bringing community together with art and making it meaningful,” Paulino said.
Each fiber artist crochets or knits a piece of the larger project. The individual pieces are sewn together before the final piece is hung. Paulino collaborates with Uptown Grand Central, Why Not Art, Open Streets and small businesses to make the yarn bombs come to life.
But Paulino became a yarn bomber by accident.
Becoming a yarn-bomber
A group of 12 senior citizens sat at two circular tables under fluorescent lights. The art-filled walls offset the cold, dull tile floor. Their worn hands worked hard to crochet 4×4 fabric squares. The project helped pass time and fit the senior center’s tight budget.
One of the senior citizens constructed other shapes out of the individual squares, using two to form a heart. Paulino spotted the heart, standing out in the sea of squares.
“What if we sew all of the squares together to make one big heart,” Paulino thought.
Paulino hung the four foot by three foot heart and a sign reading, “by the senior centers” on a gate in Spanish Harlem. The first yarn bomb was complete.
That was in 2014.
After creating and hanging the first heart, the group made five more. The hearts started appearing on gates all over East Harlem -106th and 3rd Ave., 105th and Lexington Ave., 111th and 110th and Jefferson Park- all the streets popped with new color.
People started to notice.
“It was like a domino effect happened,” Paulino said. “It happened so organically, like planting a seed and letting it grow.” The projects started to consume her house and her work. A year later, she was working on fiber art and yarn bombs full-time.
Paulino was overwhelmed with “thank yous” and Instagram notifications as people tagged the art in their photos.
“People started coming and saying, ‘I want to be a part of this,’” Paulino said.
Weekly meet-ups bring fiber artists together, help people heal
The weekly yarn meet-ups commenced. At the coffee shop meet-ups, the fiber artists work on personal projects and on their part of the yarn bombs.
“Every time we see each other it’s like a family reunion, like the show ‘Friends,’” Paulino said. “People are looking for that connection, yarn- it’s a magnet.”
Soto- Lobos is a regular at the meet-ups. He met Paulino in the yarn-bombing act. She was hanging a crocheted rainbow on a fence in East Harlem, on 101 Street and Lexington Ave, as Soto- Lobos was taking a walk in the neighborhood. He asked what she was doing, and he was immediately hooked, he said.
“It’s a healing process, it’s a safe space where we share projects, difficulties in pattern and even social life,” Soto-Lobos said. “It’s such a valuable thing because I don’t have it anywhere else.”
Soto- Lobos has only lived in the city for three years. During the pandemic, he was living in the middle of the city in Chelsea on 6th avenue. The neighborhood was a “ghost town” he said.
“My only exit was the crochet,” Soto-Lobos said. “It was a life changer for me.”
Now, Soto-Lobos crochets everywhere- on the subway and at lunch. He said people often approach him and share family stories about how their grandma or mom used to crochet.
Paulino makes sure everyone feels welcome to participate in the group even if they don’t know how to crochet, knit or sew.
“No matter what skills you have, I teach for free because I learned from my grandma for free,” Paulino said. “If it teaches somebody, that person will teach somebody else.” Adding, “You don’t need any type of artistry background. You just do what you do and share it with the world.”
When Joanna Jean-Deletoille first started crocheting with the group, her family thought it was strange because they thought it was normally something older people do.
“I love this aspect of doing something together. It’s a community, it’s not like the crochet stereotype, like the old and boring stuff. My family was confused when I started crocheting, and then I showed them the community and that this is a new type of crochet. It’s artistic and inspiring.”
Paulino said she hopes to show that knitting and crocheting really is for everyone.
‘Yarn art is magic’
Since Paulino learned to crochet from her mother and grandmother, she not only wants to teach others, but also bring a new identity and purpose to the craft.
Every yarn bomb Paulino comes up with has a meaning behind it. She’s especially passionate about including Hispanic culture in her art since she didn’t see enough of her own culture being represented in fiber art.
Paulino spent two weeks creating all 20 hispanic flags around the world to honor all hispanic cultures for hispanic heritage month.
View this post on Instagram
“The projects that I make, people can touch and feel them. Yarn brings that magical feeling that unites people with a memory that they have of a family member creating something out of love,” Paulino said.
She’s worked on other projects to encourage people to vote and to celebrate pride month. On October 9, Paulino’s newest yarn bomb, created to raise awareness about climate change, will be part of The Kings County Fiber Festival at Old Stone House in Brooklyn.
“I reflect on the community and what it needs,” Paulino said. “And it always needs love, so I try to do something multi-colored, something that has people in it, something that has a quote.”
Paulino partnered with Deafblind International to create a crochet sign reading, “community.” At the top of each letter, a crochet hand shows the letter’s American sign-language sign. The project helped raise awareness for the deaf and blind community. When the group was hanging up the yarn-bomb a deaf couple stopped and started signing the word “community.”
“Yarn art is magic,” Paulino said. “It’s a universal language.”
More than a ball of yarn
A ball of yarn the size of a penny is etched in blue-black ink below his left thumb. A crochet hook pierces through the center. Soto- Lobos’ tattoo is not only a reminder of how important crochet is to him, but also a way to celebrate his roots.
“People don’t know what yarn can do for a community,” Paulino said.
Before Soto-Lobos met Paulino and started to crochet, he didn’t know many people in the city and was struggling with depression and anxiety. During the lockdown, he was looking for a purpose and crochet gave that to him.
“Crochet helped me feel more relaxed,” Rodrigo said. Adding, “Crocheting helps me disconnect from my cell phone, and connect with myself. It’s a mindfulness exercise.”
Rodrigo is from South America where people are crafters, he said. They work with materials like wool. People are kneaders, crocheters, hunters, crafters. His tattoo celebrates where he is from.
“My grandma once said to me years ago that nobody is really ever going to pay attention to this type of art, nobody really cares about this type of art, and I just said no that’s not true, and it was my wish to her that I hope one day I’m able to express this art in a big way,” Paulino said. “I am so humbled by the reaction of people. It’s almost unbelievable, but people are so respectful and wonderful and want to be a part of it. I’m so honored by that.”