Mapping Climate Change: The Knitting Map and The Tempestry Project unites, for the first time, two innovative textile art projects that give visual and tangible presence to our warming world at a crucial moment of environmental precariousness. By translating temperature, precipitation, humidity, or windspeed data into stitch and color, these vibrant works potently and poignantly reveal the centrality of weather to notions of identity and experiences of place, and thus “map” a range of encounters from environmental to phenomenological.
Drawing maps—cartography—is an ancient impulse. A practice of knowledge acquisition, documentation, or orientation, mapping marks or claims space; it is a human gesture. For the artist cartographers of The Knitting Map (2005) and The Tempestry Project (2017 - present), textile becomes the medium through which data is translated, but also inevitably interpreted through the personal calligraphy of makers’ stitches—some taut, others loose. The process of handknitting and the resultant textiles thus map the motions of makers’ hands, as much as they transmit data relating to climate and locale.
Like the natural world and our place in it, textile can be both vulnerable and resilient. Produced more than a decade apart, The Knitting Map and The Tempestry Project recount evolving stories of climate awareness. In conversation, The Knitting Map and The Tempestry Project integrate science and art, technology and handwork, and authorship and collaboration to visualize a developing public consciousness of environmental justice issues.
Jools Gilson and Richard Povall, The Knitting Map (2005)
When multimedia artist Jools Gilson conceived The Knitting Map, public conversations about climate change were in a nascent stage. The vast, durational textile installation, a conceptual portrait of Cork City, Ireland, relayed through visual manifestations of urban activity and weather, was realized and completed through communal labor of over 2,500 volunteer hand knitters over 365 days, immediately preceding the release of Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006), a touchstone for political consciousness of climate crisis. Commissioned as a flagship project for Cork City’s year as the European Capital of Culture (2005), The Knitting Map unites traditional handwork, digital technology, and performance.
Using a weather station and feed from four city-center closed-circuit cameras, Richard Povall compiled data that would drive the project and translated levels of urban activity into one of 25 knitting stitches of equivalent complexity—a basic garter stitch might represent the pre-dawn hours, while a honeycomb cable stitch might signify the evening rush hour—and temperature, precipitation and wind speed into a rich palette of color. This “legend” was uploaded to digital screens as a knitting pattern—knit this stitch in this color—and volunteer knitters, predominantly working-class women over 50, sat at twenty digital “knitting stations” in a specially designed wooden amphitheater in the crypt of St. Luke’s Church and knitted according to this cartography of Cork.
The Knitting Map understands weather as defining and integral to identity and lived experience. Its palette—lush greens and deep blues for periods of rainfall and creams and khakis for more arid stretches—visually chronicles a calendar year of Cork’s fluctuations in temperature, wind speed, and precipitation, and thus serves as a conceptual and artistic progenitor, of sorts, for The Tempestry Project.
To inspire and introduce Cork residents to the unconventional undertaking of handknitting a conceptual map of the city, based on weather and urban activity, Gilson engaged in a series of monthly public performances in unexpected locales that integrated knitting-themed improvisational dance, elaborate hand-knitted costumes, and storytelling. She perched on the back of a motorcycle as it toured the streets of Cork while knitting the very biker garment she was wearing. Unannounced, she alighted on display cases in the city’s central market, dancing, knitting, and reciting tales and myths of women and textile. Performances, such as these, continued on buses, in civic buildings, in art galleries, and other public spaces, simultaneously demystified The Knitting Map as a work of contemporary art while imbuing the ordinary act of knitting with mystique and delight.
The Tempestry Project (2017 – present)
Justin Connelly, Marissa Connelly, and Emily McNeil launched The Tempestry Project in 2017, spurred by growing concerns about the potential loss of climate data from the public sphere. They sought to build on a long-standing tradition of knitted or crocheted temperature blankets—which document temperature data for a period and locale of personal significance—by standardizing color, data source, and stitch such that the results could comparably show the effects of climate change from place-to-place and time-to-time. Their shared vision resulted in the concept of the “Tempestry”— a portmanteau of “temperature” and “tapestry”— hand-knit or crocheted textiles that meaningfully and visibly represent temperature data generated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) in 32 colors, representing temperatures ranging from less than -31°F to greater than 121°F in 5°F increments.
The trio shared their methodology through social media: each Tempestry maker knits one row each day for one year in colors signifying the daily temperature in the represented location. Whether intentioned as art, activism, or data analysis, each resultant Tempestry visually and materially compiles one year’s worth of comparable data.
As an extension of The Tempestry Project, Justin Connelly converted temperature data into musical tones to create an audio Tempestry. For the sound piece that corresponds to the adjacent Global New Normal graph, each note is equivalent to the temperature deviation above or below the global average temperature for a single year. Connelly set the average to Middle C on C major, and then assigned notes to temperature ranges like the standardized colors in a textile Tempestry. The full range of deviations (from -0.48°C to 0.99°C = total range of 1.47°C) is divided by the 16 colors in the Global New Normal spectrum to produce a tonal range in which each color represents a range of about 0.09°C; each range is assigned a tone. Scan the QR code to play the piece and follow along with the graph.
Listen to the Global New Normal 1880-2018
The Philadelphia Tempestry Collection is generously lent by the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education.
This exhibition is generously supported by The Coby Foundation and Culture Ireland.