One Nation, Knit Together
One Nation, Knit Together
As Cindy Weil jogged near the Golden Gate Bridge last summer, her eye was drawn to Angel Island, a processing center for immigrants in the first half of the 20th century.
The hot topic of immigration had been on her mind, and it felt personal. Like most Americans, she comes from immigrant stock: Her mother was from Ireland, her father’s family from Germany. Amid all the current division and rancor, she wondered: Wouldn’t it be nice if we could unite in celebration of our shared immigrant history? She envisioned a public art experience for that very purpose, on that very spot: a big, beautiful, by-the-people statement, expressed through knitting, one of her favorite pastimes.
Set to open at Fort Point in May (and tour later), Weil’s dream – the Immigrant Yarn Project – will become reality in the form of a grand, colorful installation of 100 columns from 4 to 6 feet tall, all covered in panels knitted and crocheted by immigrants and their descendants. It’s the debut initiative of Enactivist, a nonprofit Weil founded following the 2016 election with a focus on “creative activism.”
Through events and exhibitions, the group aspires to “foster positive discourse around difficult topics.” Though its subject may be politically fraught, the yarn project aims to be inclusive, welcoming all to help create a patchwork that reflects the diverse fabric of the US.
“I come from a red state,” says the blue-leaning Weil, a Nebraskan who lived in New York City before moving to San Francisco with her husband and two sons. “Many friends and family members didn’t vote like I did. But I love them, and I respect their points of view. I felt it was time for us all to step back and talk about what we have in common.” That sort of can’t-we-all-get-along optimism may sound “very Pollyanna,” she admits, “but I’ve gotten enormous response to this project. People are knitting and crocheting and sending stuff in. I’m overwhelmed.”
Contributions range from simple squares knit by beginners to intricate creations, such as an abstracted Statue of Liberty; Weil is delighted by them all. SF Men Knit, a group of Bay Area crafters (“So next-level, just insane knitters,” she gushes) is covering its own column. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and award-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri are making pieces. The project has also brought in knitters from what Weil calls “invisible populations” – the elderly, Japanese Americans held in internment camps during World War II, immigrants living outside the mainstream. One woman sent fragments that her late mother, a war bride from England, knitted while suffering from Alzheimer’s.
Weil works with volunteers to arrange and sew the pieces over the columns. To encourage beginners to participate, the project’s website includes video instructions for making pompoms. “I love the hands-on maker aspect of the project,” Weil says. “But it also calls on my organizational, business, and communication skills.” She began her career in the 1990s as a director at Ameritrade, later becoming an executive producer for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia; in the 2000s, she had her own artisanal wallpaper company. By 2017, she was ready for a new challenge; wanting to make a difference, she turned to social activism. She had worked on the Hillary Clinton campaign and seen the far-reaching impact of a pink knitted hat at the Women’s March in Washington, DC. The controversial travel ban and DACA pointed her toward supporting immigrants.
“There are many ways to have your voice heard. Not everybody can march and shout, or wants to,” Weil observes, adding that there is also strength in knitting a statement and sending it out in the world. “To gather those bits and pieces from the quiet activists and craftivists around the country and put them together in this gigantic, bold, magnificent project is a powerful thing.”
The Immigrant Yarn Project is accepting submissions through the life cycle of the project.