Knitting for a cause: Tempestry Project fuses art and science to illustrate climate change

By Jake Holland
Medill Reports

Dappled light streams through the wide windows of the Noyes Cultural Arts Center in Evanston. Streaks of sunshine stretch along light wood-paneled floors speckled with paint.

Four women sit around a low plastic picnic table, chatting about their families and the recent stretch of nice weather. They’re bent over needles and wool yarn, each creating a prismatic stretch of cloth. They chat without slowing their pace, fingers moving as if second nature.

Three are knitting — and one is crocheting — banners for the Tempestry project and exhibit, which aims to visualize climate change. At the nexus of art and science, each Tempestry blends fiber art with climate data to create a yearly snapshot of temperature in a given location. (The project’s name is a portmanteau: “temperature” plus “tapestry” equals “Tempestry”.)

Here’s how it works. Each knitter (or crocheter) picks a year, and a location and creates a row of yarn in a color corresponding with the daily high of that day. Once all 365 rows (366 in a leap year) have been made, the artist is able to see the temperature rise and fall for that year in the changing colors of yarn.

Streaks of dark reds and oranges indicate sweltering days, while light blues and sea foam greens reflect more frigid times. When a group of Tempestries are hung side by side in chronological order, the viewer can see the effects of global climate change.

Each color represents a different temperature, and a key is provided by the national Tempestry Project. The range of 81 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit, for example, is represented by the yarn color “papaya.” (Jake Holland/MEDILL)

Gretchen Livingston is one of the needle workers making a Tempestry. The Evanston resident said the city has a large knitting community and she heard of the project through that. She’s knitted sweaters, baby socks, afghans and even a koozie for the family’s Chemex coffeemaker.

For the Tempestry project, she’s working on 2014, which may seem isolated from the Chicago area’s climate history. But when put together — with, say, 1949, 1967, 2005 — one can see climate change writ large.

“As more and more people create Tempestries, both individually and in geographic collections, a mosaic of our climate history is beginning to emerge,” the project’s website states. “The more people get involved — through knitting, crocheting, discussing, sharing — the richer, the more beautiful, and the more undeniable this mosaic becomes.”

Grace Baik, the project leader and a work-study student for Evanston, knits her second Tempestry. Baik, who first learned to knit when she was in middle school, retaught herself specifically for this project. (Jake Holland/MEDILL)

How the project came to be

Angela Allyn, a community arts program coordinator for the City of Evanston, stumbled upon an article from The New York Times last spring about the national Tempestry movement and thought it would be a good project for the Evanston community to take on. She said the project will contextualize the global issue of climate change and make it relevant to Evanston residents.

“You have to make an issue personal; otherwise, people glaze over it,” Allyn said. “It’s much more resonant if it’s there, if it’s local.”

Allyn, after first reading above Tempestry, reached out to Grace Baik, her work-study student, to spearhead the project. Baik, a junior studying poetry at Northwestern University, made posters to hang around on-campus buildings and local coffee shops to spread the word about the project.

She said about 20 people have signed up so far to create a Tempestry, with some members creating multiple works, to bring the total pledged Tempestries up to 25. Baik herself is on her second Tempestry. The time span of all the pieces runs from 1949 to 2019, but the size of each varies on the knitting pattern and size of needle used.

Since the task of creating a Tempestry takes weeks or months depending on the pace of the needleworker, each participant was encouraged to pick a year that’s special to them, like the year they were born or got married, Baik said.

“We’ll have some gaps in the climate data,” Baik said. “But we’re aiming to have at least one [Tempestry] every five years.”

How the project makes a difference

Emma Estberg, an Evanston native, is knitting a Tempestry for the year 1949 — the first in the Evanston project’s timeline. Estberg, who first learned to knit at 13, said the craft is a good way to relieve stress and anxiety.

She bought a $30 kit from downtown Evanston’s CloseKnit, 1630 Orrington Ave. Workers there assembled and cut the yarn to length based on the specific color needs of her year.

(The national Tempestry group also sells supply kits for its “New Normal” project, and has so far raised over $1,000 for environmental groups such as the Audubon Society, Clean Air Task Force and Coalition for Rainforest Nations, according to its website.)

Estberg, a graphic designer and Northwestern engineering freshman, said visual communication like the Tempestry scarves help contextualize the issue for viewers.

Like Estberg, theatre major Pallas Guttierez, a sophomore at NU, said a color-coded representation is helpful, especially since climate data can feel remote. They said it can be difficult to talk about climate change because weather is so fleeting and the long-term climate so abstract. But seeing the colorful banners makes it all real.

Pallas Guttierez, a sophomore in communication at Northwestern University, holds up their Tempestry for the year 2005. Guttieriez said the project helps Evanstonians contextualize the issue of climate change. (Jake Holland/MEDILL)

Guttierez, who’s knitting the year 2005, said the project has inspired them to use art as a vehicle for social change, illustrating the climate crisis and contextualizing changes in Earth’s temperatures over time. The large-scale exhibition of the Tempestry display — on display at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center this upcoming Earth Day — will show changes over patterns and not just day-to-day variations, putting things into perspective, they said.

They said many people have the mindset that climate change isn’t going to happen where they live. But since each Tempestry is done with regional data, compiling data from over the years and then visualizing it will let people know that though while Chicago is still, on the whole, cold, it’s getting warmer over the decades.

“This is something that is already affecting the Chicago area, maybe not in the catastrophic ways that it’s affecting other parts of the world, but things are already changing,” Guttieriez said.

How the project taps into community

Baik and Livingston continue to knit and chat without slowing their pace, as do fellow Evanston residents Mary Moring and Jane Grover.

Moring is crocheting 1967, the year she got married, for her Tempestry. While most of the Evanston participants are knitting their scarves, Moring is crocheting, creating the same multicolored Tempestry but with a different tool — the crochet hook — and yarn pattern.

She said she still remembers her first winter here in ’67 — including the blizzard of Jan. 26 and 27 that buried the city under a record 23 inches of snow. To represent the extreme snow, Moring is attaching clear beads to the lines of those days.

Grover, for her part, is on her second Tempestry — 2018 — after having completed one for 1981. An outreach principal for the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, Grover if she had to guess, her first Tempestry took her between 20 and 30 hours. Still, the former Evanston alderwoman notes she is a fast knitter and that time commitments vary based on how often you pick up the project.

Both Grover and Livingston have contributed money to sponsor CloseKnit Tempestry kits, a move that increases accessibility and allows knitters to participate without a financial burden. Those kits retail for $30, which can be a barrier for students and residents.

Each of the 25-odd Tempestries will be displayed on April 22, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Baik said. Each Tempestry will be hung in chronological order across a gallery wall in the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, allowing viewers to compare and contrast the weather over the last 50-odd years.

“Everyone in Evanston pretty much knows about climate change, but they don’t really see the extent of it,” said Estberg, the engineering freshman. “Having [a selection of] the 70 years in front of them will really help them imagine how the weather’s changing.”

Photo at top: From left, counterclockwise: Jane Grover, Mary Moring, Grace Baik and Gretchen Livingston in the Noyes Cultural Arts Center. The four volunteers are either knitting or crocheting a Tempestry for the 50th anniversary Earth Day display. (Jake Holland/MEDILL)