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Adding color back into life: Alum yarn bombs public spaces in South Loop of Chicago

Woman knitting onto structure

Sherman yarn bombing a bike rack in the Chicagoland area

Valerie Sherman ’04 is using her lifetime hobbies of knitting and crocheting to display her artwork on public spaces in the South Loop of Chicago. And Chicagoans are loving it.

Woman holding sign

Sherman at a fundraising event for Saint Mary’s College

During working hours, the Illinois State history grad is remotely working in fundraising for Saint Mary’s College, a liberal arts school in Indiana.

When she’s not working, Sherman is brainstorming ways to brighten people’s days with her knitting and crocheting. She turned to her artistic side to help see her through the beginning of the pandemic in late spring.

“Knowing how to crochet and knit has been a gift during this pandemic time,” Sherman said. “At first, it was just a way of keeping myself busy and use up some yarn.”

What started out as keeping Sherman busy turned into something much bigger than she ever anticipated.

She had heard of people installing knit and crochet pieces onto public structures. After moving to the South Loop area of Chicago, she thought she would give it a go.

“The first time I installed a piece, it was still dark,” she said, explaining that she was unsure if this was allowed or if people would be upset by it. “I soon realized that public spaces were for everyone, so I started doing it during the day.”

She was pleasantly surprised by the reactions and feedback she was receiving from neighborhood strangers and friends.

“I didn’t think people would notice it, but then they would see me doing it and tell me they love my work,” Sherman said.

Before the pandemic, she was installing her work once a month. When people were forced to stay home, she started doing it about once a week. She wanted to provide pops of color and life to people during a time when things may seem dull.

“In May, these were just little points of joy, but still today, there are parents that tell me their children like my yarn.”

“It’s especially been hard for kids so it’s been nice that children can enjoy my art when their lives have been restricted in so many ways,” Sherman added.

Man and woman smiling

Sherman and her husband, Dave

As a child, Sherman’s mother taught her to crochet. She would watch her Saturday morning cartoons while she crocheted, and claims she made some ugly blankets while learning and perfecting the craft at a young age. After marrying her husband, his aunt taught her how to knit. That was 15 years ago.

After crocheting for 30 years and knitting for 15, Sherman is thrilled to be able to share her passion with everyone else.

“It’s been great to tap into that when we’re not interacting with each other the same way that we used to,” she said.

Having over 40 installations in her neighborhood alone has inspired local groups and businesses to reach out to Sherman for more yarn work in the area.

Cactus yarn on structure

Sherman’s yarn bomb of a cactus near W. 9th Street in the South Loop

Sherman was the first “unmasked” when she yarn bombed a very public space outside a Chicago public library; she installed rainbow sleeves on a set of bike racks outside the building. The library posted a photo of the yard bomb on social media asking for the name of the person responsible. The power of social media led them to Sherman.

People also want to join in the fun and yarn bomb with Sherman. A small local crochet group of blind women reached out to Sherman to help install something they have been working on.

Yarn on a tree

Sherman’s yarn work on a tree near W. Roosevelt Road in the South Loop

“They asked if I’d be able to install their work somewhere so I told them to crochet a scarf and I would,” Sherman said. “There’s this whole community of people that I didn’t even know about, so it’s great to be able to work with them.”

Local businesses have also asked Sherman to create yarn bombs around important social issues. For example, she yarn bombed the fence of The Roosevelt Collection, a destination at the heart of the South Loop neighborhood, with a rainbow flag during Pride month.

“A lot of businesses boarded themselves up this year,” Sherman explained. “It was a sad time in the neighborhood because of that, plus the pandemic. People started painting the boards, but I was asked to knit the flag.”

Sherman was happy to do so, and since then, she has continued to use her yarn bombing as a form of activism, installing a Black Lives Matters bike rack sleeve on Wabash Avenue and a “vote” message on Michigan Avenue.

Along with using her yarn bombs to promote and encourage collective action, she is also raising money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in Chicago.

Dad and daughter in front of car

Childhood photo of Sherman and her dad

Sherman’s dad was diagnosed with leukemia in 2004 and passed away in 2012, and she’s been walking for Light the Night since 2006. Her dad taught her that to create things and share your individual person with the world in whatever way you can is one of the best gifts you can give.

She’s doing this by yarn bombing her neighborhood. When people ask Sherman to create something for them, she asks that they donate to the walk. It’s her way of giving back to an organization that is a big part of her life.

“We got eight years with my dad when we shouldn’t have gotten more than five,” she said. She attributes this to the research that is funded by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. People are aware of what the organization means to her and have been donating, even anonymously, without asking her to yarn bomb anything.

“It’s self-expression for me, and my dad would have wanted me to do this,” Sherman said. What started out as a mindless hobby has turned out to be something beneficial for the whole community.

“Especially in the early days of the pandemic, Chicago felt like an abandoned city and it was a bummer,” she added. “Adding these little things reminded people of life.”

As the days grow colder and the sun sets earlier, Sherman is trying to remember how to be a light and source of positivity for those around her and says this:

“Don’t be afraid to be weird. Weird is good. Do what you love and what you know. Don’t be afraid to make someone smile.”