Have you noticed a statue in your city covered in knitting? Or perhaps some trees, or a stop sign? This is known as yarn bombing and Magda Sayeg, a globally recognized textile artist, is known as the mother of yarn bombing. This Texas-born gal has an important message for many women that goes well beyond the joy and wonder that her art installations provoke. “Not everyone gets to have the conventional life … You can come from dark places and you can come out shining.” Get to know Magda better today. We promise you’ll laugh, feel inspired and be grateful for her poignant advice!
When did you start knitting?
Oh, maybe 15 or 16 to make a scarf for a then-boyfriend. We broke up before it was finished! Later, there was this renaissance in the whole DIY and knitting movement. I would have wine on Tuesday nights with women. I knew how to knit, but the process took a long time. That first door knob? That took about three minutes. It was fast and quickly satisfying and I started doing more. A handful of friends did it with me. We were a crew … those humble beginnings. We would say that we were a knitting circle that wasn’t knitting baby blankets.
What happened to that crew?
Different people had their own ideas and vision. I decided that I wanted this to be a solo pursuit and build out my own vision. Yes, I had people helping me out as friends. I believed in this and I saw the magic. I wanted to take it seriously. I got a business manager because it’s responsible to know that you can’t handle all of this. Do what you do best.
Tell me about how you started the concept of yarn bombing … and am I using the right term?
When I woke up and decided to put knitting on the door handle of my boutique, there was no name. I never came up with any of the names used to describe this. It was others who coined me the mother of yarn bombing. The name … it implies that it’s unsanctioned — which is how we started. It is renegade. It empowers the individual. Technically that is different than an art installation, which is what I’m now commissioned to do. But, I get why people still say “yarn bombing” instead of “art installation.” It had an edgy tone to it, but it’s really not accurate.
I recently saw an entire city block that was “yarn bombed” in Columbia, South Carolina. How would I know if this was yarn bombing or a sanctioned art installation?
Most likely it was sanctioned. When something is done at that level, where you can tell it took coordination on many levels … usually somebody approved something.
What was the reaction to your first yarn bomb and when was it?
That was the door handle on my boutique, in 2004, and it was surprisingly positive. People were cute and inquisitive. It was mainly a women’s boutique but that little handle got the attention of men and women. Then, I did a stop sign pole down the street. Then, several stop sign poles. Houston’s urban environment was my playground.
Houston was a great city for this. It’s overdeveloped and there was not a lot of civic pride, at the time at least. As a citizen, you felt powerless. Old homes were being torn down for condos … If I had lived in Austin then, I’m not sure if this would have happened. Austin is all about hills, water, being young and vibrant. I yearned for something colorful and creative and would color my world and personalize my landscape. Not sure I would want to do that if I had been looking at hills. Beautiful art comes from dark places. If you’re happy, are you motivated? When you are frustrated, you act accordingly. I was frustrated.
Does anyone get upset about it?
I’ve done this for so long. Sure, there has been some backlash. Some people would say that it gets ugly and dirty. Some say it’s littering. Rarely did anyone ever say, “Don’t do that.” It’s silly for anyone to get mad about this. We are bombarded by advertising that says “lose weight now” and auto insurance or other things. This has no financial profit. It’s sweet. It should not be vilified in any way.
I understand you just moved to New York. How do you like it?
Oh, just giddy. I love it. I’ve only been here for a few months, since summer. I’ve got all my children, ages 23, 20 and my 15-year-old. I live in Bushwick … Williamsburg. That’s in Brooklyn. Moving from Houston to Austin before is nothing compared to moving from the south to the north. But, my brother lives up here. My family lives up here. My daughter’s high school is literally two minutes away, walking. She gets to come home for a hot lunch each day. Before, garbage day was always a drag … we lived on top of this tall hill in Austin. Now, I just bring it to the trash shoot! My dog comes with me to the gym in my apartment building. This works for us. As you get older, family becomes more and more important. You start to embrace the little things.
Where are you? [Laughing] It’s so loud!
Dover Street Market! I’m in a department store. I believe so strongly in this piece. I have so much gratitude and love for this store. I have a permanent installation here and over time, it just needs a little bit of love. We need to defuzz it and that’s what we’re doing here today.
Do you miss anything about the South?
I think we have a southern hospitality that is hard to explain unless you are southern. Walking down the street and you say hi to someone and they say hi back — that happens in the South. New Yorkers are friendly and amazing, but I say hi all the time and then I’m apologizing for my half-southern, half-Arabic background. I miss the accents. Texmex is something I totally miss and I will never get the same here. I miss nature … but I’m going to experience four seasons now and that’s pretty fabulous.
And, the word y’all. Y’all means “all,” and I’ve always defended that. “You guys,” which I guess is the alternative, is not applicable. I’m not a guy. Y’all is inadvertently the most progressive and non-gender specific word to come out of, of all places, the South.
Any advice or quotes?
There are too many … Think fast, talk slow. I love that one … I could go on and on.
Actually, here’s the thing. I decided a long time ago I would not have filtered interviews. For advice for women … I’m not sure how deep you want me to go … Not everyone gets to have the conventional life with supportive parents. Most of the time it’s really hard to grow into an adult. Then, you finally feel empowered and stop taking this shit anymore. I’m going to tell the truth even if that makes people feel uncomfortable. Life can be so oppressive that people don’t come back. But, that doesn’t have to happen. You can come from dark places and you can come out shining. I could live the rest of my life complaining. Now, I’m a globally recognized artist. My mother still comes from the belief that women are here for men. She doesn’t care that my TED Talk has had over a million views … she cares that I’m not married. My want is to let women know that nothing is insurmountable. You can get to the other side alive and well and be proud of yourself.
Name three things you can’t live without (excluding friends, faith, family):
I’m nothing without my three children and my bulldog, Lucy. Oh, God … let me see … Toasted Ezekiel bread, with coconut butter and cottage cheese. I eat it every morning and I basically just made myself undateable by saying that. Apple TV. Hot tea. Oh, my bathtub. I love my Calgon moments.
Thank you, Magda, for joining us today as a StyleBlueprint FACE of the South!
Photography: Ben Sayeg
Prop Styling: CJ Dockery
Follow Magda Sayeg on Instagram: @magdasayeg
See Magda’s TED Talk below: