Heads up for the First International Yarn Bombing Day. Scheduled for Saturday, it promises to liberate the Mad Hatter spirit of doorknobs, benches, bike racks, flowerpots, cars and maybe even a water tower or two. Expect to find such things suddenly covered in colorful knit outfits, otherwise known as yarn bombs.

These random outbursts of creativity could pop up anywhere, but in the Twin Cities they will most likely materialize near the University of Minnesota campus and the Radisson University Hotel, which is host this weekend to "Confluence," an international conference of textile artists and designers.

Not that the official conference-goers are likely to spend much time swaddling trash bins in angora or tying pompoms onto lampposts. They'll be learning about such arcane topics as digital jacquard design, felt-making and braiding with wire. Or checking out some of the 33 exhibitions of woven, embroidered, stained, painted and sculpted textiles on view all month at local galleries and colleges.

With its antic spirit and guerrilla-theater attitudes, yarn bombing appeals to a younger, more DIY crowd. Sometimes dubbed yarn graffiti, yarn bombing may be -- technically speaking -- illegal. But unlike its spray-can cousin, it's easily removable and nontoxic.

"We're trying to get more youth interested, and the more established fiber-user engaged with the younger generation -- to bridge that gap," said Steven Berg, the conference's yarn-bomb impresario. A former design director at St. Croix Knits and Munsingwear, Berg founded the Yarn Garage knit shops in Rosemount and south Minneapolis and has been known to knit with everything from cassette tapes to bungee cords and chain link fencing.

"I have great skills and could knit you a Norwegian sweater in the dark, but that's not where the inspiration is," Berg said. "We're trying to take the grannies out of it. Though we love the grannies. But we want them in hot pink."

Textile evolution

Textile art has come a long way in recent decades, evolving from a utilitarian craft into independent college programs and professional associations. Even the nomenclature has changed, said Margaret Miller, the conference's chief organizer and founding director of the Textile Center, a national fiber-art organization based in Minneapolis.

When Miller was studying at the University of Minnesota in the 1970s, textile classes -- particularly weaving -- were in home economics or occupational therapy departments. Then "home ec" abandoned its hausfrau ties and became "human ecology" before graduating to a much larger universe. Now, textile arts, apparel design, graphic design and merchandising are part of the university's College of Design.

"Now all the doors are open and it's all multimedia -- not just dyeing, or weaving or knitting," said Miller.

Exhibitions illustrate the range of materials and techniques now under the "textile art" umbrella. Minnesota artist Vernal Bogren Swift used batik to create nine large panels inspired by the movement of tectonic plates for her "In the Garden of Earthquakes" show at Landmark Center. At the Textile Center, Clare Verstegen of Arizona screen-printed felt to interpret climate patterns. Thirteen artists employ textiles as an expression of spiritual belief and artistic identity at the Sabes Jewish Community Center. Sculptor Erica Spitzer Rasmussen of the Twin Cities makes clothing-inspired sculpture out of everything from watermelon seeds and matches to gold leaf, spot bandages, dried apricots and Orange Pekoe tea, on view at Concordia University in St. Paul.

Grand ambitions

The size of projects has exploded, too. Mary Edna Fraser of Charleston, S.C., produces batik panels that drape atriums in office buildings and museums. Her most recent composition is a triptych inspired by the famous "great wave" image of the Japanese artist Hokusai.

"I'm an environmental activist and feel that by showing the land meeting water, and my aerial viewpoint, I can bring a lot of things to people's attention," said Fraser, whose work is in a water-themed show at the U of M's Katherine E. Nash Gallery.

Since he graduated from Hamline University in 1973, Stillwater artist Tim Harding has helped redefine textiles as creative art. His elegant silk kimono-style jackets are top sellers at Grand Hand Gallery in St. Paul and the craft shows he still attends occasionally. But increasingly he's focused on commissions for public spaces, especially health-care facilities including Hazelden treatment centers and the Mayo Clinic.

His most recent work includes imagery derived from portraits and CAT scans, and shroud-like hangings with silhouettes of falling people inspired by the 9/11 tragedy. His pieces have been shown at expos in Poland and Austria, at the American Craft Museum in New York and galleries throughout the United States. A mini-retrospective of his work will be at the Nash Gallery through June 30.

In Harding's view, textile art is still, unfairly, at the bottom of a cultural hierarchy that values painting and other "fine" art over traditional craft media such as glass, ceramics and wood.

"I always aspired to be in the fine arts," he said, "and I try to blur the boundaries and lines, to break down the hierarchy."