Knitting for the Streets


By Zach Schepis

Photo courtesy of Storebukkebruse.

A cold wind blows through the Windy City–though it’s supposed to be springtime. In place of budding flowers, crime continues to blossom throughout Chicago’s West End.

North Lawndale is one of the city’s neighborhoods riddled with troubling statistics. These past few weeks there have been almost 50 reports of violent crimes, over 100 documented property crimes, and more than 200 reported quality of life crimes.

Despite all of the problems, Mary Visconti continues to nestle her way through these barbs on into the heart of the community. She’s the current CEO of the Better Boys Foundation (BBF), an organization that has been supporting youth in the neighborhood with early childhood programs since its foundation in 1961.

Nearly four years ago Visconti devised a new method to help keep her students out of potential trouble. Armed with needle and thread, the CEO created KnitLAB–a fiber arts workshop aimed towards supplying creative opportunities to underprivileged children in the impoverished surrounding neighborhoods.

Knitting? Really? An incredulous skeptic might ask. However Visconti assures that her kids take quite a liking to an activity once stereotypically reserved for older women.

“I’ve started to notice in the city of Chicago, along with some cities along the East Coast, that knitting has experienced a kind of resurgence,” she tells BTR.

“There’s a kind of hipster quality to it now. I thought why should that be a thing reserved for affluent white people downtown? My kids should be getting into it too.”

Visconti admits with a laugh that part of her incentive originally stemmed from a personal desire to learn the craft; she takes pride in living out her desires through the kids at BBF. She started with cheap plastic needles but soon ran out as demand intensified.

For a while pencils were her only feasible replacement.

Photo courtesy of KnitLAB.

Limitations proved cumbersome but far from daunting. Visconti quickly discovered that the children found knitting to be calming. In the midst of chaos both at home and on the streets, unpredictability circles their lives like a storm; the hobby provides a necessary stillness. She explains that knitting naturally quiets people down and rewards a newfound sense of focus.

After realizing KnitLAB’s potential, Visconti sent out a torrent of emails requesting donations and posted job calls on non-profit sites. Thanks to local knitting stores like Loopy Yarns (located in the city’s South Loop) and generous contributions from past knitters, the workshop soon gathered enough resources to expand their class sizes.

“I’ve found that everyone who has been into knitting at some point seems to have a huge stash of yarn somewhere that they’re more than happy to donate,” says Visconti.

In the beginning it was just herself and one volunteer. But with the spirited help of mentor Ana Spencer, Visconti soon found the perfect knitting instructor for her newly-formed community. Visconti admits that many of the young students become easily discouraged when their hands fumble and fail to work the intricate stitching.

Spencer, however, has boundless patience for learners of all types. She’s devised an easier precursor called “finger-knitting”–which is a far more forgiving approach for less-coordinated learners to amass sizable garlands of yarn.

Once students have accomplished the “finger-knitting” strategy, they can embrace feelings of confidence, Visconti assures, along with happiness that they mastered a skill.

Visconti can’t stress enough how grateful she is to have the funding available to compensate Spencer as an instructor. She describes her number-one mentor as a talented, artistic, great teacher. Perhaps most importantly, though, Spencer is undaunted by the neighborhood in which they work. According to a 2013 US Census report, over 40 percent of North Lawndale residents live under the poverty line. In terms of education, approximately 27 percent of adults over 25 hold “less than a high school diploma or equivalent.”

“Some of my teenagers have to go through two sets of metal detectors just to get into school,” says Visconti.

“That doesn’t lend itself to feeling a part of something. We’ve cultivated a place with these labs where kids can build their own communities, explore their own interests, and find their talents.”

The labs host an average of 15 students (mostly girls, but a handful of boys too) per session. Upon conclusion, they can decide whether or not they’d like to re-enroll. Students are paid stipends, $325 per 10 week sessions, to create a diverse array of products.

Photo courtesy of KnitLAB.

In the beginning everyone starts off with basics, which in the knitting world translates to scarves. According to Visconti and Spencer, they’re easiest because knitters can jump in and simply keep moving in one continuous direction.

Next students move onto hats–which are more difficult because unwieldy circular needles are essential to create them. As time progresses, knitters have the option of producing more creative items: cell phone covers, baby booties, ponchos, market bags, or cross-body bags.

A couple of months ago KnitLAB students stitched together dozens of colorful hats for young adults undergoing chemotherapy at a nearby cancer ward.

“You name it, they’ve knitted it,” beams Visconti.

Here’s an eccentric one: KnitLAB students enjoy activities dubbed as “knit-tagging” or “knit-bombing.” It’s a graffiti-like form that doesn’t lead to any permanent urban decay traditionally associated with the practice. Instead, students travel around the BFF grounds and through surrounding neighborhoods and adorn fences and statues with their knitted crafts.

The lab isn’t quite operating as a full-on business yet. For the time being, KnitLAB-hosted bazaars allow locals to check out and purchase what the students are creating. There’s also a level of increasing community support, including considerable sourcing from the Chicago-based group After School Matters. A recent article published in The Chicago Tribune also inspired hundreds of locals to donate money and boxes of supplies to the center.

Visconti isn’t in any rush, however. Just like the craft, patience and focus are the threads holding it all together.

“I think one of the most important lessons we try and instill is empathy,” she says. “No matter how tough your life has been–and I have some kids who have lived some very hard circumstances–you still can give of yourself to others something of value.”

To hear the rest of our interview with Mary Visconti, tune into this week’s episode of Third Eye Weekly.