Loop it Up Savannah began not so much by looking for inspiration from the perfect skeins of yarn on a shop shelf, but more like the good intentions found in the basket of a person able to envision making something beautiful from all the bits left behind.
In the spring of 2008, the Craft Yarn Council of America launched a program to support local causes called Warm Up America. The idea was that knitting and crochet programs be initiated in cities and towns in order to support existing local causes. The companies could provide support, including—not surprisingly—supplies.
Howard Morrison, a community leader in Savannah, Georgia wanted to seize this opportunity. People in Savannah consider Morrison a knitter, for the ways he joins together strands—people and organizations—from the community create stronger fibers for all.
Morrison approached West Broad Street YMCA Director Peter Doliber about starting a knitting and crochet class there. The next question: how to begin? Morrison went to Cayewah Easley, head of the Fiber Department at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). Easley rounded up student volunteers and Morrison recruited volunteers from the Savannah Arts Academy and Senior Citizens, INC.
The Red Heart Yarn Company and the Craft Yarn Council of America sent yarn, needles, crochet hooks and fabric. The class was launched with ten elementary school-aged kids in a little room tucked away at the Broad Street Y. Molly Lieberman—SCAD student and now one of the program’s leading forces—describes the room as “half-storage, half-office.”
Like the tangle that is real life this endeavor wasn’t quite as simple as casting on and making perfect stitches first try. Lieberman says of those early classes that while some kids were natural knitters, others faced hurdles. Lieberman explains, “Some of these kids had so little exposure to materials of any sort. They’d never held yarn and didn’t really know how to use scissors. Mostly, their art instruction was limited to drawing. They needed a chance to explore as many different kinds of materials as we could provide.” She continues, “Some kids were struggling with the fine motor acuity required to knit. Knitting’s a complicated thing to learn for someone without pretty strong fine motor skills.”
So teachers like Lieberman set out to create projects that could act as introductions to new media—beyond the pencil. For example, says Lieberman, “We had kids do a pencil drawing, a self-portrait, and then put glue where they’d drawn and set yarn on the glue.” She explains, “We wanted to use the familiar, drawing, to pull kids toward becoming more comfortable with something unfamiliar.”
When the group began meeting, the Broad Street YMCA was, according to Lieberman, often “fairly deserted.” Over the past couple of years, the YMCA experienced a great revitalization. Lieberman lists some improvements: “There’s a new roof. There’s air conditioning. The gym’s been renovated. The outdoor pool, which was closed for about ten years, reopened. Home Depot has a special project called KaBOOM Design a Playground that allowed the kids’ ideas to be incorporated in the design of a playground. So, now there’s an amazing playground. The public library put a branch into the building. A group of people started a community garden.” She remarks, “It’s really incredible how much is happening there.”
Broad Street is one of seven “Heritage YMCA’s” still going in the country. These particular YMCA’s were intentionally established in the middle of public housing divisions.
This uptick in activity at the Y has only helped Loop it Up expand its reach. The program serves 80-100 kids—elementary through middle school—each week during the school year. Groups are comprised through the Y, the local Girls’ and Boys’ Club, and the library. There’s a neighborhood group, called the “Art Club,” that allows families to drop by and make art with kids as young as three. The art room, says Lieberman, is “always in use.”
The Y’s summer camp serves about 200 kids. “We had a new group in the art room,” says Lieberman, “every hour on the hour, divided by age and gender.”
“Kids can be so easily threatened by the idea of a project and an outcome, concerned with how it’s supposed to look,” Lieberman, herself a SCAD fiber student, says. “There are so many basic skills to learn: how to make knots, how to cut with scissors, how to hold a paintbrush, which is very different than how to hold a pencil.” She explains, “We want to encourage openness and a willingness to explore. It works better to say ‘build’ or ‘play’ than ‘create.’ Words like ‘playing’ and ‘building’ are not so intimidating. They are about having fun.”
In the program, kids learn how to care for materials. “The kids need to learn how to hold materials, how to be gentle with them, how to take more care,” says Lieberman. “This is a whole other education, about how to build a community where people are friendly and respectful, of the things they share and of each other.”
Lieberman continues, “These kids have to adhere to so many do’s and don’ts. Here, in our art room, we try to uphold basic boundaries and respect what is safe and unsafe. We try to keep the rules to a minimum. We say we have two rules: ‘Make things. Be nice.’ When you’re involved in making things, being friendly and respectful of people and things happens pretty naturally. We learn a lot through experience, and experience makes us all more thoughtful. It’s a direct consequence of the process of this learning and focus and we hope—we trust, really—it extends beyond the art room.”
That the resources—at Broad Street Y, at the neighborhood schools, in the neighborhood most directly served by Loop it Up—are slim is no surprise. What’s inspiring are the myriad ways Loop it Up brings in support and resources.
One way that Loop it Up strengthens its programs—and its ties to the local community—is by what Lieberman deems “redistribution.” She says, “There’s an enormous wealth of resources at SCAD; for example, materials left over from students’ projects. So, we invite the SCAD community to donate excess materials to us. We have an enormous need. We’ve gathered so much we’re contemplating how to share with other local organizations. No place—the library or schools or Boys and Girls’ Club—have budgets to buy much.”
SCAD students come into the Loop it Up process through an English as a Second Language class on American society, too. For the class, each student must spend ten hours volunteering in the English speaking Savannah community. About 20 volunteers have volunteered at Loop it Up so far. Besides the obvious benefits—skilled artists helping school kids and ESL students picking up language and culture—there’s one more unexpected perk: the SCAD students end up bringing their own cultures into the class, too, expanding the kids’ horizons.
Lieberman is making a book chronicling Loop it Up’s story called The Loop It Up Savannah Project: Things to make, do and think about, which she plans to self-publish at first in order to spread the story. “This story should be shared,” Lieberman believes. During the American Craft Council’s Craft Week (October 1-10), a show of the kids’ work will take place (date TBA) at the Broad Street YMCA called “People Who Make Things.”
Lieberman, herself an artist and fibers major at SCAD, finds that although all her teaching sometimes slows her art-making down, she is so inspired by the kids’ evolutions—from being afraid to make things to loving the process of creating art—that she cannot imagine a life without teaching. She says, “It’s such a joyful responsibility to pass back the love of making things, I can’t imagine being an artist any other way.”