The group's name is the Swatch Team, but you can call them the magnanimous bag ladies.
Every Thursday night during Walker Art Center's Open Field community gathering, a dozen or so of them sit in the downstairs lounge, knitting and crocheting up a kaleidoscopic storm of colorful bags.
Made from yarn, felt and more inventive materials like recycled plastic filament and old T-shirts, the one-of-a-kind creations often draw the eyes of people who want to buy them. But they aren't for sale.
The bags are being stockpiled for a big giveaway called "Abundant Harvest." At 1 p.m. on Sept. 1, group founder Christina Suter Elas and her crafty cohorts will line the Walker hill with hundreds of them, filled with food. Some of it will be nonperishables, but they also plan to include fresh, locally grown produce. While Elas hopes that people in need will stop by to grab one, "anyone can take a bag that day," she said. "We just ask that you leave something behind in its place, like a note or a poem. We want it to feel interactive, to remove the feeling that it's charity."
"This is like a great equalizer," said crocheter Megan Burton, who heard about the group from a co-worker.
Ranging in age from 20s to 80s, the core of about 10 Swatch Team members have gained a unique reputation over the past few years for their take on yarn bombs, "a softer, gentler form of graffiti," Elas said. Unlike most yarn bombers who knit temporary covers or decorations for everything from bicycles to trees, statues and boulders, the Swatchers make usable items to give away, for the fun of it.
It started with pillows. Three summers ago, Elas and her friend Paulina Jacobson left some decorated pillows on park benches, and they were much appreciated by homeless people who spent time there. Last year, the two knit several hats and placed them on a hat rack on a downtown Minneapolis sidewalk. On the rack hung an eye-level mirror labeled with the question "Could you be outsourced?"
Observing from across the street, the friends watched as most people walked by, too busy to notice, she said. Now and then someone did take a hat, with a guilty look, and the guerrilla knitters couldn't have been happier.
The team has grown by word of mouth, and last fall, also as part of the Walker's Open Field community events, they created "We Are All Connected," stringing a clothesline adorned with more than 1,000 knitted scarves, mittens and other items from the pedestrian bridge between the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and Loring Park. Since then, the group has attracted fans and occasional participants, as well as people who stop by for spontaneous, joyfully delivered knitting lessons.
A former teacher, Elas has more recently been known as the starter and keeper of the Good Juju Garden, once a troubled empty lot in south Minneapolis that she transformed into a community garden in 2010.
Eloise Suter, her mother and a prolific member of the team, recalled teaching her daughter to knit when she was 7 years old, under a tree outside their Burnsville home.
"I put a big rhubarb leaf on her head to shade her; she just kept knitting away," Suter said.
At a nearby table, three young women were busy with their crochet hooks. That's the key difference between knitting and crocheting -- needles vs. hooks. Some knitting purists look down on crocheters as possessing inferior talents, but that attitude will not be brooked here.
"Lies! Lies!" said Rhiannon Rudisill, glancing up from her work in mock indignation. "We all bring different talents, and we're all collaborating for a common goal."
Elas and crew hope to collect nonperishable food items a few weeks before the event, and fresh produce a day or two beforehand, if they can get enough donations. Each bag will be labeled with a positive message, typed on an old sky-blue Smith Corona typewriter sitting nearby. The group is also asking for contributions from other knitters (or crocheters, or anyone who works in fiber arts) who would like to donate bags they have made.
Bags may be sent to: C. Elas, P.O. Box 582353, Minneapolis, MN 55458.
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046