The City of Briswool Project‘s improbable aim is to produce a giant model of the city of Bristol – in yarn. As a concept, it’s about as mad as a bag of chickens. Which is why I had to get involved.
For me, the lunacy-infused ingenuity of this project typifies Bristol at its very best. I have to declare an interest here as Bristol is my home city: I lived there from the late ’60s to the late ’80s. The place has a distinctive non-conformist confidence which I still find refreshing when I go back home for a visit. Somehow this attitude crystallises around an unconventional approach to materials. Back in the era of wooden sailing ships, Brunel launched the SS Great Britain, his crazy iron steam ship, from Bristol. Aardman founded its animated plastic empire there in the 1970s. And Banksy used the very fabric of the city’s buildings as his canvas in the ’90s and noughties. Given such a heritage, maybe it was inevitable that Bristol would eventually be recreated from leftover balls of yarn.
Over the last few months Bristol’s landmarks, large and small, have been materialising in knitted, crocheted and needle-felted forms, created by an army of volunteers. The vast majority of materials have been donated: all has been done on an absolute shoe-string budget, fuelled largely (as so many of the very best things are) by the unquenchable enthusiasm of its originator.
That originator is Vicky Harrison, of Paper Village Arts in Bedminster on the south side of the city. True to her positioning of Paper Village as a creative community hub, she wanted Briswool to be a genuine grass-roots project, with people offering to recreate landmarks that have held some personal resonance for them. And Bristolians have been coming forward in droves to do just that. Someone’s made a model of the Matthew, the ’90s replica of the craft in which John Cabot sailed from Bristol to ‘discover’ Newfoundland in the fifteenth century. There’s a Concorde, the supersonic plane which was famously developed in Bristol. And, of course, there’s an SS Great Britain. There are harbour boats, and bikes, and zoo animals. Remarkably, there have been little or no duplicates. The scale is a little elastic, but that gives the project even more charm.
I joined Vicky in late January at the M-Shed with a group of volunteers intent on knitting a landmark section of the city called Totterdown where rows of brightly painted terraces line a ridge on the city’s skyline. I didn’t have a direct connection to those houses, but everyone from Bristol knows them by sight. Brilliantly, one of the people attending had lived in one. We were given a knitting pattern, some yarn, and quickly set about casting on, fuelled by chocolate fingers. I’m not a natural knitter, but soon got to grips with the simple pattern devised by Paper Village’s knitting tutor, Elise Fraser.
I love creating in a group environment, whether I’m the teacher or a teach-ee. In fact, I think it’s one of life’s profound pleasures. I’m sure we have always gathered to share the process of making (or mending), from our very earliest social days when we huddled around the cave fire joining pelts with gut-threaded thorn needles. The conversations (which are approached obliquely because you’re doing something else, after all) are often surprising frank and illuminating. And, whatever your level of skill, you always learn something new technically, if not from the teacher then from someone else in the group – for me this was was casting on in cable, which the knitter across from me demonstrated (though too late for my first house as I’d already cast on in my old way). I also got to grips with mattress stitch, at long last. I’d like to thank Vicky, Elise and my fellow house-knitters for all their helpfulness, generosity and sociability, and for creating a really enjoyable afternoon.
Alas, the two hours of the workshop weren’t long enough for me to finish my house so I had to complete it at home. Here it is. Now I just have to mail it back to Vicky, along with a pink house I’ve made since, plus a little greenery.
The pattern ended at the basic house structure, so it was up to us to complete the smaller features of the house as we saw fit. As a nod to my enthusiasm for mending, I worked mine in darning wool in Swiss darning (replica stitch). The thin black yarn didn’t cover the DK stitches fully on the windows, but I think that gives the impression of them glinting in the daylight. Maybe.
If you’d like to contribute your own little woolly piece of Bristol to Briswool, there’s still time to get involved. But hurry! Everything has to be complete and ready to assemble by the end of month. I gather that 6 cm green squares will come in handy at this point. There are making events through the rest of March. Or you can contact Vicky at Paper Village Arts (the number’s below) who’ll be very happy to hear from you. I wonder if anyone’s made a little version of Bristol’s Olympic champion Jen Jones yet, complete with snowboard and bronze medal…?
Briswool will be on display at Paper Village Arts from April, and then at the M-Shed later in the year.
Paper Village Arts is at 200 North Street, Bedminster, BS3 1JF, telephone 0117 963 9452. They hold a drop-in knitting session every Wednesday afternoon, 2-5pm. You can keep track of workshops, classes and community activities via Paper Village’s Facebook page.