A mission with yarn ActNow: CheyOnna Sewell creates an activist community through knitting
"Knitting is a way to finish something. It can help you persist in that fight for broader struggles" - CheyOnna Sewell
by Kathy Magnuson
"Knitting is a way for people to come together and share stories, but it goes further than that," says CheyOnna Sewell, founder of The Yarn Mission. "Knitting is a productive, creative activity. It lets people own something and create something. That can be motivating and fulfilling. Knitting is a way to finish something. It can help you persist in that fight for broader struggles."
Sewell began The Yarn Mission in St. Louis, in the aftermath of racial conflict in Ferguson, to contribute to change through knitting by "going into the community with that extra space to be together."
After Sewell moved to Minneapolis in 2015, she continued this creative activism in the Twin Cities. Her website says the group uses yarn to "promote action and change to eradicate racism, sexism, and other systems of oppression."
On a recent Sunday about 10 women gathered to teach knitting, learn knitting, make and renew connections, and share ideas and information. Conversation included discussion of knitting techniques, along with cultural issues they'd like to see changed and upcoming actions or demonstrations. These three-hour knitting meet-ups - open to all - happen every other Sunday at Café Southside, a Black-owned business that supports their mission. "It's pretty organic," Sewell says. People come and go as they need to, and don't all come each time.
"There are a lot of people who are not comfortable just showing up at a protest by themselves," Sewell explains, "but they might show up at a knitting circle. Then maybe they become more comfortable talking about issues or going out to a demonstration." As an example, some of the Yarn Project women participated at the 4th precinct protests in north Minneapolis.
There are no rules about the knitting circle, but there are not many men who come. "We are still working within the [societal] framing that believes that knitting is a woman's activity," Sewell says. "One of the things that helps men value what women do is for them to do it, too. Men should be involved in that discussion."
She points out that much of popular knitting culture sees it as an activity for white, middle-class, older women, while in fact knitting historically has been part of many cultures. She believes popular culture should start to reflect that.
That said, "There is something important about women coming together. There is something meaningful about women supporting women in their creative abilities," she says.
Sewell is not interested in a lot of structure. "No single thing will get us where we want to be. There are tons of things going on that are working toward equity."
Sewell is both gentle and fierce - a combination that comes out when she says, "I'm recognizing that knitting appears to be safe and peaceful and comfortable. Hopefully it is safe, but that is not necessarily so. Sometimes it is not comfortable. Knitting goes along with other forms [of activism]. It is possible to knit while you are marching or knit while you are impeding traffic."