The tragic event in Ferguson, Missouri, last year was pivotal for many. It was when the fatal shooting of Black teen Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson ignited civil unrest. And for CheyOnna Sewell, a PhD student in criminology, it was a time to take action. She took action by founding The Yarn Mission in Ferguson, a collective she organized in October 2014 in response to the violence and police brutality in nearby Ferguson. The aim of the Yarn Mission is to “use yarn to promote action and change to eradicate racism, sexism, and other systems of oppression.”
“I have been knitting for over a decade now. It helps me ground myself and to feel productive. I knit in most spaces. As I became involved in the activism in St. Louis, I knitted. Through conversations with others expressing interest in learning how to knit and knitted items, I decided that knitting could be a way that I contribute to the sustainability of movement for Black Liberation. I started The Yarn Mission by teaching some of the people I had met in the streets and at meetings how to knit,” explains Sewell. “I wanted to be able to teach knitting to whoever was interested and I knew I would need help. I wanted for us to be able to sell our knitted items to help sustain the group and provide monetary support to other efforts. I wanted knitting to be a way for people to advance themselves economically as well.”
Initially, Sewell dug into her own pockets to fund her idea. “In the beginning, I funded our efforts. Now, we are able to fund our efforts with proceeds from sales and donations. The St. Louis chapter gives 20 percent back to the group,” she says. “In Minneapolis, we have been contributing all of the money back to the group. It is related to what people can afford and to the fact that people deserve to be paid for their abilities, efforts, and resources. This will change as we become more secure. We have already received donations. A few in the form of money, but most in yarn, needles, books, and other notions. These donations have been very useful for teaching and production. We work really hard at being economical so that the group can exist as long as there is a need and desire for it.”
The Yarn Mission tries to meet the needs of the community by being flexible and fluid. “What we do shifts organically overtime. I encourage people to go through our website and Facebook page to see our mission and activities. In brief, we work towards engagement and helping people find themselves closer to the activism surrounding them,” says Sewell. “This means associating ourselves with anti-racism and Black Liberation when people speak to us about our knitting. We also teach knitting in community settings and schools. By infusing anti-oppression into our lives and work, we believe we can have truly positive interactions with others and in particular with Black children who face discrimination at such young ages. In addition, we spread information and support other efforts.”
So why did Sewell feel The Yarn Mission would help combat violence and police brutality? “I believe that there are many ways to participate in this movement for Black Liberation which involves combating state violence. Moreover, I believe that all of these ways are useful and necessary. Knitting itself can help people persist and unite. For example, much of what we do in life, generally, and in the movement, specifically, is ongoing often without end in sight. Knitting is a way to finish something,” says Sewell. “However through knitting we also learn that sometimes we put a lot of time and effort into something and have to go back or start over. Therefore, knitting can help us keep going with the hard work that we do. For some, knitting can become a form of self-care. Knitting in groups allows for a communal (and for us, non-oppressive) space to connect with others. We can plan, organize, share ideas, and just share space that isn’t in the streets facing off with the police. Beyond all of that, knitting is a very tangible form of empowerment. It allows for us to create and through that we learn to appreciate our abilities to create. Very concretely, through our meetups and sales we are able to organize other ways to combat state violence and monetarily support other efforts. Knitting is just part of this larger struggle but for many it can become a very sustaining and fulfilling part.”
According to Sewell, The Yarn Mission can make an important difference. “For me, the importance is connected to its potential impact, which is encompassed in the previous question. Nonetheless, I can see how useful knitting can become to people I have taught. I can see how central it becomes to their lives and how beneficial it can be to mental and physical health (which are often linked). Our group also helps to combat erasure in popular U.S. knitting culture which is often overwhelmingly white,” she points out.