Weather Wisdom: Some Thoughts on the Tempestry Project and Kit Craftivism

Let’s begin by looking at our cellphones.

(It’s okay, I’ll wait.)

Who has the weather noted on your cellphone’s home screen?

Who looked out the window when they arose from sleep this morning after looking at the weather on your cellphone?

Every day, humans heed weather — or rather, the weather, giving atmospheric conditions importance enough to prepare the day’s clothing and activities. We turn on the radio or television, ask Alexa, glance at the newspaper in print or on a screen, check weather.com, check the cellphone, or ask another person, who likely turns on the radio or television, asks Alexa, tell us what the newspaper said, etc., etc. Somehow, however, we still manage to look out a window before starting out the door. Sometimes we turn around and grab something else to wear. And sometimes we are our own meteorologists, reciting to ourselves “red sky at night/sailor’s delight/red sky in morning/sailor take warning” as we plan our day.

We’ve not even begun our workday but we’ve already consulted scientists, our own observations, and folklore to make our decision about what to wear and carry as we go about our day. We consult scientifically derived and rational numbers, systematized icons and colors symbolizing temperature and precipitation. Unlike previous generations, though, we do not record these phenomena for ourselves in daily journals or on paper calendars.[1]

The Founders of the Tempestry Project standing in front of knitted Tempestries. Photograph, Justin Connelly / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0).

This quotidian notice, if not notation, of the weather and the concern for Earth’s future as the planet heats up due to human activity is part of the Tempestry Project. The Tempestry Project, a collaborative “climate art” project formed in early 2017 by three friends in Anacortes, Washington, now functions in nearly every state of the United States of America and in over 20 nations. Emily McNeil, Justin Connelly, and Marissa Connelly created the project in response to President Donald J. Trump’s threat to exempt the United States from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change and amid hackathons to protect climate data at the time of Trump’s inauguration. “We were just sort of joking one night about how we should return to more concrete forms of data storage, like tapestries, because you can’t just get rid of them on the internet,” McNeil recalled to the Philadelphia Inquirer in May 2019. As worries of the erasure of scientific data in government digital archives increased, the trio sought a means by which climate data could be captured, presented, and preserved. Under the Trump administration, the keeping of environmental records seems a political act.

Tempestries for Utqiagvik, AK, showing 1925 (left), 2010 (center), and 2016 (right). Photograph, Justin Connelly / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Inspired by the Pussyhat Project, Emily McNeil, store manager of Fidalgo Artisan Yarn Company, completed the first Tempestry in April 2017. By Fall 2018, the Creative Climate Awards in New York City exhibited three Tempestries Marissa Connelly created for the daily weather in 1925, 2010, and 2016 in Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow), Alaska. As the nation’s northernmost city, Utqiakvik is “Ground Zero” for climate change. In 1925, the coldest day’s temperature was -46 degrees F.; in 2010, -30 degrees F.; and in 2016, -14 degrees F.

As McNeil, Connelly, and Connelly explain, a Tempestry (a portmanteau of temperature and tapestry) combines modern scientific record-keeping and various cultures’ historic storytelling through needlework textiles. A Tempestry records and displays a year’s temperature range in one location through 365 knitted, crocheted, or woven rows of yarn, each color-coded to a standard spectrum of 32 yarn colors, each color representing a 5-degree temperature range, from a cold black to a hot red. The Tempestry represents the highest temperature of every day in a given year at a specific location, from January 1 as the bottommost row and December 31 as the topmost. Beads of three different hues may be added to represent precipitation amounts on a given day. The temperature data is derived from the records of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Other beads may be used to mark a special day, personalizing the textile.

The standardization of yarn color, temperature ranges, and format, on the one hand, and the maker’s personal knitting gauge, place, and purpose (decoration, commemoration, or public exhibition) bridges visually, according to the Project’s founders, “global climate and our own personal experiences” — “visualizing climate data in a way that is accurate, personal, tangible, and beautiful.” The piece’s linen stitch, suggested by its creators to ensure a flat, sturdy, and durable work, in its imitation of woven fabric echoes Justin Connelly’s observation “that ancient tapestries are valued for their recording of ancient stories and history.”

I’m at the beginning of this research (and knitting two Tempestries for the National Park Service Tempestry Project), but one pattern I see in this project is the rapid shift from a conceptual kit, a freely shared “pattern recipe” via websites and blogs, to a commercial kit of materials and tools available on the same online venues. The Project tapped into several other trends among crafters (but not necessarily craftivists).

Even before 2017 women interested in or practicing the fiber arts had been chronicling daily the weather. In 2016, for example, Vienna, West Virginia, resident Mary Catherine Augstkalns, decided she would crochet a “weather blanket.” She taught herself to crochet via YouTube tutorials. Over the span of the leap year of 366 days created a 60” x 100” blanket, using nine colors and $250.80 of yarn. Though she did not crochet every day, Augstkalns recorded daily the noon temperature from two sources to ensure standardization. Such record-keeping was important to Tracy Kennedy, of Brisbane, Australia, who, like Augstkalns, created a color chart corresponding to temperature ranges and kept a book of temperatures and colors used “to ensure the blanket’s accuracy.”[2]

These “temperature blankets” were preceded by scarves. Kristin Cooper, of British Columbia, Canada, posted in January 2013 on the fiber arts website Ravelry.com a “conceptual knitting pattern” she called “My Year in Temperatures Scarf.” The project proved quickly popular, resulting in a “knit along” on Ravelry and Flickr.com. Commenters aplenty at Cooper’s personal blog and on Ravelry remarked that the pattern would allow them to use their stashes — accumulated unused yarn — in a creative and personal way. Indeed, the project’s personalization and individualization, linking lived experience to place and time period, seems to have been the primary reason for the project’s popularity. Further, as commenters noted, previous years’ daily temperature data could be easily found, leading to scarves commemorating and representing birth years.

Yet another fiber arts trend, “sky scarves,” predated “temperature scarves.” In 2011, Lea Redmond, of Oakland, California, introduced this form of “conceptual knitting” which, she wrote, would “turn something as simple as a scarf into an unexpectedly storied object.” The concept — the “pattern recipe” — was simple: look at the sky every day and chronicle its color it as a row in a scarf. The colors and stitch selection were the knitters’ to choose. Commenters were quick to note that this knitting project constituted a form of personal “knitted journaling.” Redmond wrote:

When you wear your Sky Scarf around town, someone is bound to ask you about it. And when they do, you’ll tell them it’s the story of your year, from inky black thunderstorms to clear sapphire skies. You’ll show them when summer finally began or a long white winter closed in for good. And you’ll remember how calm it made you feel to look up and appreciate the sky every day for a full year.

Many “Knit the Sky” participants noted that they appreciated taking the time to look outside, take a walk, note the sky, and perhaps then take the time to knit a row on their scarves. Still others wished to have a key of colors or even a kit. By at least September 2019 and likely earlier, Redmond’s business, Leafcutter Designs, was selling Sky Scarf kits and was featured in Knitting Magazine. As you may see, the color selection within the kits do not carry the many gradations of sky hues some knitters have matched to what they see. Given so many variables in atmospheric hues, such standardization seems to belie the knitter’s personal observations.

A Tempestry Kit for Atwood, KS 1929 — this kit included precipitation data and beads, commemorative beads, as well as knitting needles, tapestry needles, and a Needle Wrangler®. Photograph, Justin Connelly / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0).

At first, the Tempestry Project craftivists shared photos and advice in person and on Facebook. Once interest bloomed, they launched a website and Etsy store, selling custom climate-data Tempestry kits. The consumer provides the year and location, and the Tempestry team undertakes the research to produce the pattern. Color cards, printed pattern, and yarn comprise a basic kit. KnitPicks, a company founded in 2002 by husband and wife team Kelley and Bob Putkun, provides the yarns — specifically, the colors found in the company’s economical worsted-weight “Wool of the Andes” line.

In September 2019, KnitPicks surprisingly announced that the company would stop manufacturing several colors — specifically Semolina, Orange, and Victorian — included in the Tempestry Project color key. Now, there’s another research paper in the names of these colorways, but for our purposes it’s interesting to note that KnitPicks, which prides itself on its environmentalism and benefits from the Tempestry Project’s use of its wool, did not change its policy when contacted by many of the Project’s participants and supporters. As a result, the Tempestry Project team purchased as much stock in these colorways as they could and await what KnitPicks will produce.[3]

If we consider a kit as a “set of articles or equipment needed for a specific purpose,” then room for substitution exists if the specific purpose allows. Yet a sort of efficiency borne of standardization seems historically to be implicit in the word kit. The first American example of kit I have found to date to fit the definition I just quoted was in an 1861 newspaper article, mentioning Union soldiers needing sewing kits. A Google NGram search reveals that the use of kit spikes during wartime and after World War II. Standardization of materials and labor created industrial products reproducing those traits; efficiency of production means the consumer-maker is more quickly satisfied, not only with their purchase but also with their (co) produced object. One thinks of Dan Robbins and his paint-by-number kits. “Is paint-by-numbers art?” a reporter asked Robbins. “‘No, it’s only the experience of picking up a brush, etc., of what a real artist goes through.’” It’s only the work, not the originary thought or the training, not the understanding of color theory and canon or the properties of paints and pastels and pencils. Robbins and others who created these popular kits in the late 1940s and the 1950s had worked in the assembly-line world of General Motors in Detroit. For example, artist Adam Grant, a Holocaust survivor who worked on the assembly line at Ford’s River Rouge plant, was Kraft Master’s most prolific renderer, known also for re-creating the company’s best-selling kit, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper.[4]

Really, Really Tentative Conclusions

Tempestries incidentally teach knitting and crocheting; the basic stitches are beginner stitches of knit and purl, and the Project’s purpose goes beyond teaching a needle skill. (I should quick add that this is true of the temperature blankets and sky scarves.) Rather, the Project wishes to elevate through craftivism, community action, and exhibition, a form of comparative data visualization to spread awareness of climate change. The Project team offers both the “pattern-recipe” and a kit, appealing to different participants’ interests and talents. Local project teams, especially in schools and on college campuses, research meteorological data, while other makers purchase kits to commemorate births, weddings, and the like.

If I am correct in linking the Tempestry Project to other environment-observing needle crafts such as the temperature blanket and sky scarf, what is possibly lost is altering a “pattern-recipe” and making something expressing one’s sensibility rather than a set of correlating numbers and colors. The Tempestry Project reminded this native northeast Ohioan of the works of two other native northeastern Ohioans: Charles E. Burchfield and Frank N. Wilcox, both students of the Cleveland Institute of Art’s great teacher and color theorist Henry G. Keller.

Burchfield depicted what he called “all-day sketches,” charting the changing weather over the course of several hours. His watercolors capture this sensibility; as Burchfield noted in 1943, “all weather is beautiful, and full of powerful motion.” The 2011 exhibition, Charles E. Burchfield: Weather Event, was created by a curator and a meteorologist and included weather maps and reports keyed to the artist’s individual works. Wilcox, an artist and a historian, produced in 1949 a volume entitled Weather Wisdom, containing twenty-four serigraphs noting, nostalgically, the rural life of his youth and outside of grey industrial Cleveland. Wilcox commented on each serigraph, the commentary “based upon familiar weather observations commonly made by people living in the country.” Both artists spent much of their careers exploring the weather through color.[5]

But maybe I’m way off base here. If a Tempestry is a form of artistic expression, it’s more a part of contemporary data visualization or information visualization, more design or information art or data art. A kit seems more appropriate as an expression of such information art, making use of technology and the physical sciences for the purposes of social commentary, to explore through data global connections and activities and changes we individually struggle to see.

Ed Hawkins, “Warming Stripes,” 2018

To that end, the Tempestry Project has added another kit to its climate change arsenal: The New Normal Tempestry. This Tempestry is based on British climatologist Ed Hawkins’ “Warming Stripes” data visualization. It represents “global annual temperature deviation-from-average (using a baseline calculated from 1950 to 1980).” Beginning with 1880 at the bottom through 2018 at the top, with each row a year, the “rapid acceleration of climate change” is made frighteningly clear.

Data visualization is still lived experience, a new expression leading, hopefully, to a much-need cautionary “weather wisdom.” One newspaper report of the Earth Day 2018 exhibition in Anacortes, Washington, revealed that a visitor had found a Tempestry from a year in her childhood. She recalled ice-skating on a nearby pond in that year. “But in the Tempestries that followed,” the reporter noted, “that chill-blue yarn color representing those freezing conditions did not appear again.”

Those who watch weather, those who watch and worry about climate, and those who want to know more and want others to know more about climate change, knit and exhibit from a kit.

NOTES
[1] Research has been undertaken to measure and assess personal experience with climate change. See, for example, Karen Akerlof, Edward W. Maibach, Dennis Fitzgerald, Andrew Y. Cedeno, and Amanda Neuman, “Do people ‘personally experience’ global warming, and if so how, and does it matter?Global Environmental Change 23:1 (February 2013): 81–91; Ben Newell, “Climate change, personal experience and the vagaries of memory,” The Conversation, July 26, 2011.

[2] For more on temperature blankets, see Liza Eckert, “What Is a Temperature Blanket?” Lion Brand Notebook, August 9, 2016.

[3] KnitPicks stated in September 2019 that Semolina and Orange would be produced under new names and Victorian will not be produced.

[4] See also William L. Bird, Jr., Paint By Number: The How-To Craze That Swept The Nation (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2001) and Dan Robbins, Whatever Happened to Paint-By-Numbers? (Delavan, WI: Possum Hill Press, 1997).

[5] On the Cleveland School see William Robinson with David Steinberg, Transformations in Cleveland Art: 1796–1996 (Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1996); James Shelley, “Art,” Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. I’m still working through Henry G. Keller and J. J. R. MacLeod, “The Application of the Physiology of Color Vision in Modern Art,” Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC, 1914), 723–740.

2 comments

  1. Hey! This was a really cool article! I’m amazed to see that since I crocheted my first temperature blanket in 2016, the movement has evolved somewhat. Amazed, but not surprised, perhaps, since the universe, like the weather, is in constant motion. I also did one, c2c, in 2017. I chose that pattern for size reduction. I am still part of a group on Facebook, Temperature Blanket Yarn-Along, but I no longer post. Twice was enough for me (for now) and I currently pursue other artistic endeavors instead.

    One thing of note – the article you cited for my blanket spelled my name wrong, so you did here as well – it’s Catherine with a “C.” Mary Catherine Augstkalns. I found this article by Googling myself, though. 🙂 I was testing to see if my LinkedIn profile was working!

    Best wishes,
    MC Augstkalns

    Like

    • Thanks for reading! I appreciate the update on your post-temperature-blanket work–something I would never attempt. I’m still slowly working on my Tempestry Project. (And no worries–I’ve corrected your name’s spelling.) Cheers!

      Like

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