A Conversation with The Tempestry Project Delves Into the Importance of Knitting Tangible Records of Climate Data
June 23, 2022
Last week, unprecedented flooding closed Yellowstone National Park for the first time in decades. A combination of heavy rains and temperatures high enough to melt snow spurred a 14.5-foot rise in the Yellowstone River, and numerous bridges and roads were entirely washed out in the area, stranding residents with little access to drinking water as the high tides damaged infrastructure.
Unfortunately, what should be an extraordinary incident is becoming all the more common as global temperatures rise and we feel the continual effects of the climate crisis. It can be difficult, though, to grasp the magnitude of the problems we’re facing when considering a single, isolated weather event, which is why Asy Connelly and Emily McNeil began The Tempestry Project. At the intersection of craft and activism, the initiative’s name is a portmanteau of tapestry and temperature and its goal is to make such large-scale shifts more accessible and relatable through tangible, data-rich works.
Colossal managing editor Grace Ebert spoke with Connelly and McNeil in April 2022 via Zoom. They discuss the slow, insightful process of crafting a Tempestry, why it’s important to standardize yarn colors, and the power a single knit has to change someone’s mind.
Grace: I’d like to start back at the beginning. The Tempestry Project began after Trump’s election when he was threatening to disband the EPA and pull the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement. What was the intention for the project then, and how has it evolved since?
Asy: We had been very environmentally conscious, at least concerned about climate change, for decades and following it closely, along with news about the incoming administration, the hostility toward science, the hostility towards the progressive motion of society, the impetus to step backward, the attacks on the EPA, and the attacks on, name a progressive institution. We were reading articles about hackers and scientists teaming up to download data from the EPA and various other websites and databases, and we were joking about it one night like, we should be recording all of this really important information in cuneiform tablets, tapestries, and things that last for hundreds or thousands of years in some cases so that it can’t just be destroyed at the push of a button. (Emily) also had a creative knitting exhibit that she was invited to at a local fiber arts museum.
Emily: I ran the local yarn shop in our town out in Washington state. There’s a huge fiber, quilting, and textile community out there. I’d been invited to participate for the third year in a row in this creative knitting exhibit, and I was looking for something else to do that year. I had done a couple of shawls before, and I wanted to do something a little more productive and a little more engaging. It was interesting because our town is largely a retirement community of older knitters and so we were looking for a way to talk about politics without necessarily talking about politics, to engage them in environmental and climate discussions.
Asy: In a town like Anacortes, the one thing it has is oil refineries. That’s one of the biggest employers in our town.
Emily: There’s a lot of economic dependency on the oil industry in general.
Asy: It’s a delicate place to start talking about climate.
Emily: This seemed like a safe way of engaging with people about conversations that needed to happen. Fiber in general is very non-threatening. How can you help a bunch of women become activists without necessarily being out there shouting in the streets or painting signs or something like that?
Asy: Although there was a fair bit of that.
Grace: Did you do Tempestries for that initial project?
Emily: We did, yeah. Our original Tempestries, each piece was one year, and each row was the daily high temperature. It would go from January at the bottom to December at the top, which of course is just weather, just daily temperatures. But the way we framed it was that one piece is weather but that a collection of them for one place over time is climate.
When you start getting dozens of volunteers knitting different years for the same location and then exhibiting them all together, that starts to show shifting trends in climate. A lot of people would make just one for their own personal use, to celebrate an anniversary or birthday or something like that, but then sometimes people really wanted to get involved in developing a collection with us.
Asy: A few people would do a family tree, and then they’d end up with a climate display at the end. They have ten pieces, and they’re like, “Oh! My kids’ years are a lot warmer than my parents’ years.”
Emily: An accidental learning of climate change.
A lot of the IPCC reports focus on what’s going to happen in the future, and people tune that out. I wish they wouldn’t, but it’s what happens. If you connect it to their lived experience in their homes, it’s a lot more impactful for people.—Asy Connelly
Asy: Which I think is some of why this works so well as a communications tool. People don’t have to come at it specifically as “this is activism,” but people can come at it tangentially. Once they see the climate history that’s happening right in their backyards, it dawns on them that this is happening even here. It helps to visualize the frog in a pot analogy that we’re probably all so familiar with. It has been happening over our lifetimes. A lot of the IPCC reports focus on what’s going to happen in the future, and people tune that out. I wish they wouldn’t, but it’s what happens. If you connect it to their lived experience in their homes, it’s a lot more impactful for people.
Emily: It personalizes things a bit.
Grace: Absolutely. There has to be something to it being tactile for one but also so warm and cozy? I know that they’re tapestries, but they evoke a blanket or scarf.
Emily: Oh we wear them sometimes! We have actually had participants make blankets out of them, either by making their own collection and piecing them together or just making a blanket-sized one-off, one year that was important to them. One of my favorites was this woman who made a blanket out of the year her family immigrated to the United States by way of JFK International Airport. That was a really neat personal way of interacting with the project.
Grace: I would like to touch a little bit more on the activism points because craft tends to have a lot of activism. I’m thinking of feminist cross stitch…
Emily: The Tiny Pricks Project!
Grace: Yes! All of those kinds of things that are very explicit. I’m wondering how you think about your work in that tradition and whether there’s anything you want to add in addition to it being softer, more inviting.
Emily: Before the pandemic, we were taking some of our pieces to protests, and it was more active and engaging for us personally. Other people were doing that, as well—one of the funny things about the project is that we don’t really know what other people are doing with the idea, and sometimes we find out retroactively—but we had started taking some of our pieces to protests, mounted on big poles like war banners. It was the most amazing way to get people to come up and talk to us about it. You have these visual, bright, beautiful, colorful things, and people want to come up and look at it and figure out what it means, pet it, and touch it.
Asy: And find specific dates. It was really fun watching people connect with them. You see someone 30 feet away, and you’re holding this banner that’s six feet above the heads of the crowd. You can watch them scan it with their eyes, and they go back and forth a couple of times. Then there’s this moment of recognition. I hang them with the dates. If we hang the original Tempestries, it would have 1950 and 2015. Those were the two years on one single banner, and they’d take a minute to take it in and then realize, oh this is data that I’m seeing. This is temperature. These colors mean something. Then they’d make a beeline and come talk to you. It was just really fun watching that moment happen.
At our first exhibit, there was a local woman who I think Emily knew a little bit from the yarn shop, and she was more conservative-leaning.
Emily: She came to see my work and not the environmental aspect of it. She wanted to see what I had been working on for the last couple of months and just to show her support for that. This particular collection was for our town, our area in Washington, starting with a couple of pieces going back to the 1940s when she was a little girl. We watched her walk up and down the row—I think we had 25 pieces going from the 1940s up to 2016—and she kept going back and forth and looking at the dates and looking at the colors.
You could tell she was looking at the winter months, and finally, she explained that she had forgotten that she used to go ice skating when she was a little girl. The lakes in our area hadn’t frozen over in years. She remembered this one particular winter that we had happened to knit as part of our collection, and there were these darker blue colors in that January. It brought back this memory of ice skating that she had forgotten over the decades.
Asy: Then she had the realization that you’d be insane to have your kids ice skate on the local lakes now.
Emily: Right. Even if they ice over, you don’t skate on them. It was like this lightbulb went on over her head of her grandkids not getting to ice skate like she had ice skated as a kid. I think that’s our favorite story. I don’t know how she votes or anything like that, but I think this was the moment where she realized that global warming is actually a thing and that it’s affected her trajectory.
Asy: Even in temperate areas. These pieces take 20 to 30 hours to knit, depending on the skill and the speed of the knitter. Emily is a bit of a monster.
Emily: I have done tons of these.
Asy: There’s probably no one as fast as her. But that’s 20-30 hours of somebody thinking about the climate and the weather and how it connects to their personal experience. If people are knitting these out at their knitting groups or on a park bench or wherever, it generates conversation. We’ve had lots of feedback from people just out in the world making their pieces, and it starts conversations. People are interested.
Grace: You mentioned that you didn’t quite know how many people are involved in the project at this point, and I’d like to know more about your community.
Emily: When we first started, it was very much the knitters that I knew in our town who wanted to participate. We even had a monthly knitting group for probably six or seven months, people made their Tempestry, and they were done. That worked through its course. But there have been so many different communities that we’ve gotten to interact with from afar. I don’t know if you’ve gotten to see the National Parks Collection at all?
Grace: Yes, but can you explain it for our readers?
Emily: The National Parks Tempestry Collection was started a couple of years ago. It’s basically dozens of volunteer knitters who chose their favorite national park, whichever was important to them or they had a history with. We ended up processing data for them, and what they did was that they each had two different years, a more recent year and an older year. We settled on 2016 for the more recent year because that was the centennial anniversary of the national park system in the United States. Then we did either 1966 or 1916 depending on how far back we could get data. Some places go back over one hundred years. Some are a little more recent.
Every park that was chosen now has a pair of Tempestries to show these two different years and compare how temperatures have changed over the last half-century or century. It’s been an amazing experience to hear from people why they chose their parks, what they love about them, and how the parks have changed in the last 50 years.
Erika Zambello, the volunteer coordinator for this collection, is a photographer and has worked within the national park system for a long time. She was able to get these beautiful photos of the finished Tempestries in their parks and has been working on a book that’s coming out this summer. That’s been a really wonderful community to get to work with. It’s people all over the country who’ve never met.
Then there are lots of smaller groups that have done their own collections. A couple of different church groups have knitting groups that we’ve gotten to work with.
Asy: One in Atlanta, one in Newton, Kansas, and there’s a collection being created right now at a Shaker museum in New Hampshire.
Emily: They’re actually getting ready for a whole exhibit on climate and weather and the history of their town. This Tempestry collection will be a part of that, which will be amazing.
Grace: Can you walk us through how you gather the data?
Asy: That is all available through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). When we first came up with the concept for this, we did not plan on having a business. People have been knitting temperature scarves and blankets and things forever, but they’re all disjointed. People will come up with their own color systems, with whatever yarn they’ve got in their stash. They’re all really interesting pieces, but they only tell an individual story. You can’t compare any of them to anybody else’s. We really wanted to create a framework that people could use if they’re going to be doing a temperature knit anyway to have it fit into this larger mosaic of temperature knits around the world.
We didn’t want there to be a barrier to entry. We had chosen very inexpensive yarn, and we put up the guide on how to knit it, the color choices, and everything for free online. I wrote a guide on how to gather the data from NOAA and download it yourself. I created a spreadsheet that you could paste the data into, and it would populate with all the yarn colors for the year. We put all of that online, and then the local knitters were like, we don’t want to do spreadsheets.
Emily: Can you just make us a kit and we’ll buy it?
Asy: That’s how the business side got started but all of that information is still available. We just want people to be thinking about the climate and making these. If they buy kits, that’s fantastic obviously.
It’s really just a matter of going into the NOAA search tools. They made some changes at the beginning of last year that messed with my whole process, so it’s a little more complicated than it was originally. If somebody requests a kit for some very remote location up in the mountains in Idaho or something like that, it can be a little bit challenging to find data. We usually try to get within a 20- to 30-mile radius, and I try to match elevations as closely as possible. It’s really difficult to get anywhere in the Rockies area, Colorado, Idaho, because two towns that are 10 miles apart can be a mile apart in elevation, which is totally different weather. I have to be careful when I’m gathering data for locations like that.
Emily: And we do try to get all of our data from NOAA for consistency’s sake. If you’re comparing these pieces, it helps to have a common data source, which was difficult when the government shut down a couple of winters ago. All of NOAA’s databases went offline.
Asy: Yeah, all of the databases just went dark, and we were like, yeah, this is why we’re doing this.
Emily: It was a month and a half that their databases were offline in that government shutdown. So we were shut down and had to keep explaining to people waiting for kits, we’re sorry we can’t get your data yet.
Asy: We tried other sources. I was trying to put together data pulling in from wunderground.com and timeanddate.com. They have some data, but they’re very inconsistent. They don’t have a historic record going back very far. Those are more of the immediate, the last couple of years. We were looking at farmer’s almanacs and newspaper weather reports and trying to pull them together. We could look at three or four different sources for the same day and same location, and they’d all have different temperatures. After a couple of weeks of trying to put something together, we were just like no. We just have to wait to standardize it.
Emily: We were just going to wait for the government to get it together.
Asy: So we use NOAA because it’s not consistent any other way.
Grace: The irony! How long does it take you to put together a kit? Someone sends in a request, you pull the data, and gather the yarn?
Emily: It varies wildly.
Asy: It depends on if it’s for someplace really remote or if it’s for like Chicago. If it’s a major city and I can just use the data from the airport—it typically goes back to the ‘50s or ‘40s for most airports—then it’s pretty quick for my part. I’ve spent days on international orders sometimes. We had one participant who wanted to knit a kit for their adopted child from Ethiopia. That took a long time. I ended up combining data from about 10 years.
Emily: It was piecing it together.
Asy: Of course, I ran that all by the customer before doing it that way, but it was like, I want to get you something for this. This is the best we can do with what’s available.
Grace: The New Normal kits are a more recent addition, right? Can you talk about those a little bit?
Emily: Yeah. Professor Ed Hawkins, who’s a climate scientist at the University of Reading in the U.K., came up with this brilliant, basic data visualization called warming stripes. I’m sure you’ve seen it. It’s on buildings, it’s on clothes, it’s on cars, it’s on everything, and it’s just so brilliant. Every stripe is one year and the color shows the deviation-from-average temperature for that year. The darker the blue, the colder than average the year was, and the darker the red, the hotter than average the year was. It’s a very intuitive color-based representation of changing temperature. Our New Normal Tempestries are based on his work, and it’s been helpful talking with him about how to process the data. $5 from every New Normal Kit sale goes to a nonprofit, and he’s helped us choose some of those.
I think the New Normals have been really popular. They’re such a clear way of looking at the bigger picture of climate change versus our originals, which are just one year per piece.
Asy: It’s a lot less work to get a full macro view. You don’t have to make 20 of the original single-year pieces. You just make one piece and that’s that.
Emily: We always include historical markers that are geared toward the audience for a particular exhibit. This is one of the first global ones that we knit. These were the years that my relatives were born going back to my grandparents. This was actually supposed to be a Christmas gift for my brother and his wife and their two children, so I included the year my brother and his wife were born and the years that my nephews were born. My nephews were in the bright red at the top. It was just too depressing to give them. We use it in our exhibits instead, and I made them something else for Christmas.
Grace: I would draw hope from people being engaged in the project, people wanting to participate, and people being really enlightened by what they’re seeing, considering this is such a depressing topic. Is that true for you?
Emily: Yes, although sometimes it’s harder to find that hope than other times. Of course, with COVID and everything else, it just seems like there are layers of anxiety around everything that we’re all doing these days. If you can find some hope in knitting with friends with or without masks on, yes let’s do that. If it’s over Zoom, let’s do that.
Asy: It definitely has helped me feel like we’re doing something about it even in a small way. I think shortly after the election, I wrote to a climate journalist that I had been following for a long time. It was just kind of like, okay, we’re people who care about this subject, and we know that this administration is going to make things worse. How do you cope with it? It was exactly that question.
That discussion with him partly is what got me excited about The Tempestry Project. This came after that discussion. Not out of it, but certainly, it was on my mind. How do we get people, everyday people, people who aren’t super paying attention to climate all the time and aren’t obsessing about it like I do, how do we get people to understand what’s at stake? To connect with the issues? I think this does a good job of helping people connect. It uses historic data, so we’re not talking about projections or what might happen. We’re just showing people here’s what’s happened in your backyard.
A lot of people who are making Tempestries are deeply connected to the issue of climate change already, and so it’s not just that it draws people in who otherwise might not engage with it. Making these can be cathartic for people who don’t know what to do with our emotions about the climate.—Emily McNeil
Emily: I think Asy touched on something else, too, though. A lot of people who are making Tempestries are deeply connected to the issue of climate change already, and so it’s not just that it draws people in who otherwise might not engage with it. Making these can be cathartic for people who don’t know what to do with our emotions about the climate.
Knitting itself can be so meditative and a way of practicing mindfulness, engaging with a tactile process, and creating something. Tempestries, in particular, can be a way of channeling anxiety about climate change. It’s played that role for myself and for a lot of other participants, as well.
Asy: I know you’ve had a lot of emotions as you worked through some of these pieces like the one for your nephews and then the Paleo piece.
Emily: We should talk about the Paleo piece.
Grace: Tell me about that!
Emily: The Paleo is a New Normal Tempestry that goes back to the year 1 CE. It’s 20 feet long. Talk about being a weirdly cathartic piece. It took me eight months to make. It’s very large.
Grace: And it has so much blue.
Emily: So much blue. You don’t really realize how much the climate has already changed. There have been warmer periods and colder periods, but you don’t really realize all of it.
Asy: You’ll see that there’s a bead on it every 50 years.
Emily: This is so we can go back and put historical markers on it. For this, each row is one year. There are 2021 rows. I started it last summer on the summer solstice, which is also Warming Stripes Day—Ed Hawkins started this annual tradition of talking about warming stripes, and everyone wears these colors.
Asy: In the last 50 years of the Paleo…
Emily: You finally get to red. I got up to the 1950s, and I just put it down and had to walk away from it for a while. I finally finished it while I had COVID in January. It was a catharsis of these two huge global international issues.
We’re actually looking for places to exhibit it now. We’re talking to some people at the Columbia Climate School. We envision it becoming a traveling exhibit that can be shown in public libraries, schools, community centers, or even government buildings. We’ll tailor some of the historical markers on it to wherever it’s being exhibited to show local history. We’re trying to pick events that are more positive and not…
Emily: And not necessarily assassinations, environmental disasters, and those sort of things. We want it to be a little bit more positive, so we’ll see how that goes. We’d love to have a suggestion box with it so that people can put in their ideas of what dates to include going forward and sort of make it a community-generated project.
Grace: That’s very powerful.
Asy: Thank you.
Emily: It was an interesting one to make for sure. Never will I make one again.
Grace: What’s next for the project?
Emily: We’re not really sure. One of our triptychs will be in an exhibit at the Illinois State Museum later this year and then the Shaker Museum up in New Hampshire. We put together the yarn, and their local knitting group is actually knitting all the pieces for that collection, which is very cool.
One thing we did over the last year and a half is we developed our own line of yarn. We were using yarn that was imported from Peru through Knit Picks, which is a big online yarn company. We now use U.S. wool and U.S. dyers all based in Pennsylvania. We’re getting to the point where we need to commit to buying more, but we’re not quite sure how to do that yet. That’s the next big thing, figuring out how to make that happen. It takes about six months for the yarn to get milled and then dyed. It’s a long process, and COVID slowed everything down the first time, so we don’t know quite how to gauge how long this will all take.
We are hoping to get our yarn out into the world. A local yarn shop is going to start carrying it in the next few months, and we’re looking forward to doing more of that.
We want to start work on a Hudson Valley collection now that we’re in New York. The Mohonk Nature Preserve not too far from us has temperature data going back to the 1890s, just daily temperatures, and notes on flora and fauna changing over the seasons and over the decades. We want to reach out to them and start a collection.
Asy: Do we want to talk about the emotion kits or the minis?
Emily: Oh yeah. One of the things that came out of our time at the Berman Museum was we did a couple of workshops where people make their own mini Tempestries that don’t involve knitting. It’s just velcro and bits of yarn. We have ideas of going out and doing that with various groups.
And then we have Emotion Tempestries, which are day-to-day projects. We’ve assigned different colors to different feelings for people to knit and record their emotional history as they go through the days and maybe years. Our ten-year-old and I did this for a while before we moved out here last year and it was a really wonderful way to talk about feelings.
Asy: It was really good as a mindfulness activity. We started getting more into the data side of it and adding beads if there was a temper tantrum or if a friend came over there was a happy bead.
Emily: We’ve been talking to a woman who works with a mental health nonprofit for kids and teenagers, and she’s interested in bringing this into their work and using it as a jumping-off point for conversation for kids just learning how to acknowledge feelings, learning language around them, and how to process them, discuss them, and experience them. That’s definitely on our radar.
Asy: So much of the last several years of doing The Tempestry Project, it’s felt like it’s leading us places. We let it go and see what happens. You talked about the community. We have our Facebook group, and we have our community we talk to in our newsletter and things, but a lot of it is also little pockets of community that form around making connections. A sorority house made New Normals for the different states they were born in. A group of volunteers in Shoreline, WA had a Tempestry Collection in their town hall this spring.
Making a Tempestry imbues it with an importance to the viewer, for the people coming to the exhibits or the people seeing people knit out in public. If it matters enough for someone to spend 20 to 30 hours making it, then it must mean something. I think that’s part of why Tempestry banners work so well at events. People are prone to give it a moment’s thought. It’s not something that you just scroll past.