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Humanity’s relationship with textiles dates back thousands of years; the cultural production of fibers forms a literal thread by which the movement and settlement of people can be traced. Founded in 2017 by artist and activist Cindy Weil, the Immigrant Yarn Project (IYP) is a fiber arts collective that creates large-scale public totems from yarn-based squares, pompoms, and blankets collected from hundreds of immigrant makers who have come to the United States from around the world. Weil, a child of immigrants, initiated the project to highlight the beauty of difference and the contributions that immigrants have made to the nation — but also with an eye to ways in which artists use fiber to communicate heritage.
“A relative might pass down the knowledge of fiber techniques learned in their country of origin, bringing that knowledge with them to the U.S. when they immigrated and passing it down like a family recipe,” said Weil, in an early-October press release announcing the next evolution of the IYP. “This made woven fiber a meaningful medium for IYP.”
The announcement included news that, following the successful debut of the project at San Francisco’s Fort Point National Historic Site in March of this year, Weil has decided to use the totems as a way to give tangible help the needs of the people that the project represents, rather than tour the exhibition. Now 25 of the Golden Gate Park totems are available for sale through the Immigrant Yarn Project website, to help raise funds for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC).
The totems vary in palette, technique, and content, but all of them formulate yarn-based work into roughly columnar form, collectively creating a bright forest bristling with the industrious handiwork of hundreds of contributors.
“I’d like to acknowledge the Algonquin origin of the word ‘totem,’ which I borrowed to describe the work in this project,” said Weil, in an email interview with Hyperallergic. “Totems traditionally tell family or clan stories. They are a sculptural form imparting a familial narrative, and in that way seemed to me the perfect delivery mechanism for our message.” A single IYP totem might include the works of dozens of people in shapes of various sizes. The Fort Point exhibition also included a name table listing all of the nearly 700 contributors and the countries they represented.
Whereas the original aim of the project was to create a beautiful and tangible representation of generational immigrant relationships, rendered in yarn, IYP is currently concerned with translating the totems into a resource that can offer material aid to assist immigrants in crisis. Following the 2019 Migrant Protection Protocol order, a growing population of immigrants remains trapped in detention centers or forced to wait in Mexico for immigration hearings, creating shortfalls of basic necessities and legal representation. Funds raised by the sale of IYP totems will benefit RAICES and IRC, organizations that provide invaluable legal aid and free resources.