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Spinning yarn that's cosy on the eyes and good for the art

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Yarn bombing has more than street cred, it's reviving a folk art.

A yarn bombing on a pipe from artist Poppy Tonka.

A yarn bombing on a pipe from artist Poppy Tonka.

WERE aliens to visit Melbourne this week, they could be forgiven for thinking it had been such a cold winter the trees had taken to wearing jumpers, and the bike racks and light poles had donned muffs and arm-warmers.

Nor has there been a plague of psychedelics-addicted silkworms, it's yarn bombing: the colourful and cuddly street art purveyed by keen knitters and crocheters worldwide.

Though knitted cosies for bike racks had popped up here and there for the past three or so years, yarn bombing has really taken hold now, moving beyond its initial shaky status as ''knit graffiti'' to something that councils actively encourage (provided nobody trips over a skein of Cleckheaton and sues them) as another facet of Melbourne's world-renowned street art community.

A documentary about Melbourne yarn bombing is in the works, and yarn bombing collectives have sprung up across the city (and beyond it). One such group, Yarn Corner, will stage a large-scale bombing of City Square in the new year, and have yarn-bombing displays and workshops planned for the upcoming Royal Melbourne Show. Does yarn bombing's nuzzling up to the sponge cakes and tea-cosies in the Art, Craft & Cookery Pavilion at the Showgrounds mean it has finally gone mainstream?

You could argue that a movement with its roots in the simple act of brightening people's days was mainstream from the get-go; as one yarn artist told Britain's The Telegraph, ''It certainly put[s] smiles on people's faces. It is about the community taking pride in their surroundings and making it look nice and colourful.''

But just as one street artist might paint a piece decrying police brutality while another just likes painting flowers, yarn bombing's ''point'' depends on who wields the knitting needles or crochet hooks.

Many are dedicated to the simple act of beautifying otherwise barren urban spaces, while others bomb to raise awareness: a group of knitters from Independent Schools Victoria recently created a bench cover in West Melbourne to publicise Mission Australia's winter appeal.

It's enough to make you feel positively warm and fuzzy, though one could argue there is an irony (albeit a colourful one) in knitting 20-metres' worth of bench-covering woolies to publicise an appeal for homeless people's winter plight.

Still, a piece of street art's theoretical wearability shouldn't be a cause for meanness in the viewer. After all, where does such ''more socially conscious than thou'' point-scoring end?

Surely art for art's sake is important enough, particularly in a free, public context.

What constitutes yarn bombing can vary wildly in quality, like any street art, and that's where things get tricky.

For every beautifully crocheted tree cosy, a few scarves are tacked to a fence in a desultory fashion; there's a phone pole in Sassafras that someone has knotted half a dozen perfectly wearable scarves around.

The ''Why don't you knit a jumper for the homeless?'' argument may be redundant in the face of witty knitted folk art, but it's harder to bite one's tongue in these instances of half-hearted ''winter clothes bombing''.

If there is a broader value to yarn bombing, however, it could be argued it lies in the preservation of crafts and folk arts for future generations.

Enticing a new generation to take up crafts is of vital importance to the future of folk art.

Knitting and crocheting have always enjoyed reasonably healthy rates of participation, but there are other crafts and decorative arts that require newcomers to inherit generational knowledge and ensure sustainability and conservation; certain forms of lace-making and tatting, for example, are in danger of becoming extinct.

Perhaps in this way, yarn-bombing's omnipresence will encourage people to pick up a needle or investigate a loom. Someone who attends the Royal Show to see the yarn-bombing workshop may in turn wander over and chat to the Lace Guild.

And then, who knows? Maybe any aliens who visit Melbourne in the next decade will be treated to trees full of cro-tatting or filigree eggshell work.

Clem Bastow is a freelance writer and yearly entrant in the Royal Show Art, Craft & Cookery competition.

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