Like many Americans—scratch that, like many Earthlings—Justin Connelly, Marissa Connelly, and Emily McNeil were more than a little apprehensive about the inauguration of President Donald Trump. In particular, these Seattle-area friends worried about how the United States’ leadership on climate change would fare. (Their fears were well founded. Very well founded.)
Back in January 2017, as they read about hackathons to protect climate data from a new administration that seemed bent on suppressing it, the trio joked that in lieu of electronic records, Americans should bring back a technology that could really stand the test of time—like good, old-fashioned cuneiform tablets, perhaps, or tapestries.
By April 2017 the three had gone from kidding about creating tangible climate records to actually doing it. Inspired by the success of the Pussyhat Project, Emily, who manages a yarn shop, finished the first “Tempestry,” a colorful wall hanging that doubles as an accurate visualization of climate data. The Tempestry Project was born.
Fast-forward two years, and such data tables are hanging all over the world. Justin, Marissa, and Emily have sold hundreds of kits in nearly every U.S. state and in 20 other countries, equipping knitters with supplies to make their own woolen temperature charts. Justin recently quit his job to run the project full time.
Temperature blankets are not a new concept. The basic idea is for the knitter to assign yarn colors to the thermometer and knit a row each day in the color that corresponds to the temperature. But Tempestries (a portmanteau of temperatures and tapestries) are different. Their purpose is to create a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. The yarn colors are standardized, and all of the temperatures come from publicly available National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data. Using the project’s free guides, knitters stitch up a snapshot in time, from any place, in any year since recordkeeping began.
“Individually, Tempestries are a beautiful commemoration of an important year—a birth year, a wedding, a graduation, etc.,” the project’s website explains. “Collectively, they begin to tell a tale of global climate over time in a tactile, beautiful, and immediately recognizable way.”
The project is less about preserving data, as the team originally joked, than about creating striking visuals that communicate changes at an intimate, local scale.
It has proved to be an effective approach. At a local Earth Day display in Anacortes, Washington, one woman found a Tempestry of a year from her childhood when she remembers ice-skating on a nearby pond. But in the Tempestries that followed, that chill-blue yarn color representing those freezing conditions did not appear again.
“The science articles talk about what’s happening at the poles. For many people, that’s not their experience and so they don’t relate to it in a powerful way,” Justin says. “But even here [outside Seattle], in a temperate place, you can see stark change over the last 40 years or so. It puts it in their backyard.”
Those backyards are ever expanding. Last fall, the Creative Climate Awards in New York City featured a trio of Tempestries from Utqiagvik, Alaska, also known as the “ground zero” of climate change. Groups as far flung as Friday Harbor, Washington, and Alexandria, Virginia, are currently working on regional Tempestry collections spanning 50 to 100 years of data. As the project gains momentum, Justin, Marissa, and Emily hope to help cities around the world create collections for display in schools, libraries, and museums.
It’s dyed-in-the-wool craftivism.
The Tempestry Project is on display at the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner, Washington, through January 5, 2019.
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