Fiber artist Lindsay Obermeyer has a new best friend: a discarded laundry bag from Beijing. She totes the bag and the yarn inside it everywhere -- to her French class, to the bus stop, to the porch of her home in northwest Chicago where she enjoys the late afternoon sun, as long as she keeps knitting.
At first, her task seems simple enough. Knit 820 feet of red cord about an inch thick for an art performance in Memphis that will connect 500 people wearing knitted hats of all shapes, textures, and sizes. But do the math, and your fingers start aching.
"I can knit one skein of yarn in about three-and-a-half hours, and I need 50 skeins," Obermeyer says. So let's see: If she knits eight hours a day, Monday through Friday, then knitting enough cord for the performance will take an entire month.
"This is power knitting beyond extreme," Obermeyer admits, laughing a little at her ambitious goal. "I have three different pillows for my lap so I can adjust my hands, but they still hurt."
Fortunately for Obermeyer, knitters in Memphis are helping with the hats, cranking out designs by the bag full for "The Red Thread Project" to be held on October 8th at the University of Memphis. At St. Jude's Ronald McDonald House, parents are knitting hats to help pass the time. Storeowners at local yarn shops are participating too, donating materials and teaching quick and easy hat patterns to beginners.
"Most knitters just knit. They don't think of knitting as an art form," says Brigitte Lang of Rainbow Yarns in Germantown, who, along with her customers, has knitted almost 50 hats. "So for them, participating in an art project is fun and it appeals to their creativity."
Dozens of local students are knitting for the project, as well, including the sixth-grade boys in Darla Linerode-Henson's art class. "They really got into it," says Linerode-Henson, who teaches at Presbyterian Day School in East Memphis. "I've even had boys be late for football practice because they wanted to come by and knit."
The hats are ready now. How will the performance take shape?
Obermeyer, who is driving to Memphis with her bundles of knitted cord and her 17-year-old daughter, Emily, will attach the hats together and direct their installation on the plaza in front of McWherter Library. On Saturday, participants will find a hat, put it on, and learn a simple choreographed procession.
"The entire performance should only take about an hour," says Lisa Abitz, the museum's assistant director. "My only fear is: What are we going to do if it rains?"
Weather aside, a videotape of the performance and the collection of hats will be included in a month-long exhibit of Obermeyer's sweater art. When the exhibit closes in November, the hats will be disconnected again and donated to MIFA in time for Thanksgiving.
"You don't have to knit a hat to participate in the performance, and you don't have to participate in the performance to help disconnect or distribute the hats," Abitz explains. "One of the great things about this project is how it attaches people throughout the community in so many different ways."
Attachment is an important theme to Obermeyer who has developed both an academic and an artistic interest in the connections between textile practices and relationships, particularly the relationships attached to motherhood. Her own adopted daughter lost two mothers by the time she was 7 years old. When she came to live with Obermeyer, she was afraid to be alone.
"I needed to extend my arms, so I knitted a sweater with 15-foot sleeves and tied one to her," Obermeyer says. "That way I could be in another room, but Emily could still feel me."
Since then, Obermeyer has continued to make provocative knitted garments with names such as Joined Together and Long Distance Hug. She uses luminous shades of mohair, a yarn that is both warm and itchy, much like the parent and child bond.
"If you drop a stitch, your knitting falls apart," Obermeyer says. "This is a perfect metaphor for our society: If we shun or ignore the people around us, then our families and our communities start to fall apart too."