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Knitters unite to raise awareness of climate change in Cleveland

Torrey McMillan lays out colorful tapestries on a table
Carrie Wise
Ideastream Public Media
Torrey McMillan organized volunteers to knit or crochet daily temperature data to display collectively as an illustration of climate change in Cleveland.

Fiber artists around Northeast Ohio have been stitching together what climate change looks like in Cleveland. The result is a series of tapestries, called tempestries, as they illustrate daily temperatures over time.

Lisa Watts holds up a long knitted, scarf-like tapestry with horizontal lines in blue, green, yellow, orange and red.
Carrie Wise
Ideastream Public Media
Lisa Watts shows off her tempestry during a meeting of a longtime knitting group at the Warrensville Heights Branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library.

Cold days show up as various shades of blue yarn on the tempestries, which look like extra-long, colorful scarves. The warmest days are shades of red.

“Basically, you're looking at a temperature graph, if you will, that is just stacked one color on top of another to show each of those days’ temperature highs,” said Torrey McMillan, an environmental science teacher and leader of the local chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

“Data is inherently a little bit abstract for most people. And so, I think it makes it a little bit more tangible, and it makes it more interesting to look at,” she said.

McMillan enlisted volunteers to knit or crochet the temperature data, starting with members of an active knitting group that meets on Monday evenings at the Warrensville Heights Branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library.

One of those knitters, Kathleen Griffin of Cleveland, said she tries to minimize her impact on the environment in her daily life.

“I think you have an awful lot of people who don't really understand that the climate is changing, and they want to say, 'Well, that's not happening,'” Griffin said. “It always helps visually to see the changes, and this is right out there.”

Six long scarf-like tapestries knitted in horizontal lines of blue, green, yellow, orange and red hang from the ceiling.
Carrie Wise
Ideastream Public Media
The Cleveland tempestries are on view at the public library in Warrensville Heights.

Griffin knit two of the tempestries for the project, now on display at the Warrensville Heights library. Thirteen tempestries are lined up chronologically, one for each decade between 1901 and 2021, to provide a look at how temperature data has changed in Cleveland over the years.

“It's not immediately obvious that the things are getting warmer,” McMillan said, adding that a closer look shows spring and fall are becoming “warmer and warmer as you look across them.”

In addition to the longtime knitters, two high school students got involved, including Hathaway Brown sophomore Jinan Berard. She had just learned to knit when she found out about the project.

“It was a great way to integrate sustainability and art,” Berard said. “And I had fun doing it.”

Knitters Kathleen Griffin and Alice Walsh sit beside each other knitting at a table.
Carrie Wise
Ideastream Public Media
Knitters Kathleen Griffin and Alice Walsh both participated in the project on view at the Warrensville Heights branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library.

The Northeast Ohio knitters are not alone. Knitters are stitching temperature data around the world with the help of the Tempestry Project, a grassroots effort that started in 2017. Since then, the Tempesty Project has assisted knitters in every state and more than 30 countries, said co-founder Emily McNeil.

“What I hear from people is that so often the climate crisis seems very far away for a lot of people,” said McNeil, who has a day job as a librarian at Vassar College in New York. “What the Tempestry Project did is sort of relocate this into our own spaces, you know, our backyards, our towns, our personal histories.”

Combining environmental science with art attracted Alice Walsh, a knitter from Bay Village, to create a tempestry.

“Having a project where you're able to actually see the data in front of you in an artistic manner can reach people that maybe the regular data wouldn't reach,” Walsh said.

The local knitters may continue mapping temperature data for subsequent years to continue the conversation in the future, McMillan said.

Carrie Wise is the deputy editor of arts and culture at Ideastream Public Media.