Fiber Artists Thread the Needle to Visualize Climate Change

Knitted by Emily McNiel, the “Paleo New Normal” depicts global temperature data over the last 2000 years. Photo credited to the Tempestry Project.

By Gabriel Rivera

The Adirondack Watershed Institute, a program at Paul Smith’s College dedicated to promoting clean water, was searching for grants to fund their education and outreach programs in the surrounding community two summers ago. 

Naturally, they turned to yarn.

Michale Glennon, an AWI senior research scientist and lifelong knitter, incorporated a fiber arts community program in the institute’s grant application to the Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership, an organization that preserves the natural and cultural history of the region surrounding Lake Champlain. 

Once their submission was approved, the subsequent grant manifested into “Wool and Water,” a collaborative project that uses fiber arts such as knitting and crocheting to visualize scientific data. It focused on environmental issues that endanger water quality in the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain Basin.

That summer, Glennon, poised as the program’s director, crafted scarfs, shawls and other fiber art pieces to create an exhibit promoting “Wool and Water.” The exhibit garnered such a positive response that AWI received a larger grant to expand its exposure throughout the Lake Champlain Basin. 

“I struggle with it a little bit, because the response is really positive and it’s more enthusiastic than like any of the kajillion lectures I’ve given about ecology over my career,” she said.

At first glance, “Wool and Water”’s success seems like a simple outgrowth of a renewed interest in fiber arts inspired by COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, in which people of all ages stuck at home and desperate to disconnect from their screens turned to knitting for stress relief. With “Wool and Water,” however, Glennon and the AWI tapped into a sometimes tangled, but common thread between climate activism and tight-knit fiber arts communities on online platforms like Facebook, Reddit and Ravelry, a website where fiber artists and hobbyists share their crafts.  

Now, Glennon fields queries from fiber art hobbyists as far as Southern California. They created a movement that keeps growing. 

“In the knitting, fiber art communities, they all know each other,” Glennon said. “They all share it with someone else they think might like it.”

Glennon is a terrestrial wildlife ecologist who grew up in the Adirondacks. She has worked in the region since 1998 and traced “Wool and Water”’s motivation back to the second half of 2019. This was when famed climate activist Greta Thunberg sailed on a zero-emission racing yacht to New York for a climate summit and bushfires scorched parts of Southeast Australia comparable to the size of Syria.

“I was so overwhelmed by my thoughts about climate change at that time,” Glennon said. “I was like: ‘I need to channel this into something.’” 

Glennon crocheted a dress visualizing NASA data on global temperature deviations since 1880, in which each row represented a year and each color gradient signified a temperature range spanning from cold to hot. 

The Tempestry Project

Both her dress and Wool and Water were inspired by the Tempestry Project, another collaborative data visualization initiative that unites climate activism and fiber artists nationwide to advocate for increased environmental awareness.

The project’s co-founders, Emily McNeil and Asy Connelly, started crafting “tempestries,” a portmanteau of “temperature” and “tapestry,” in 2017, galvanized by local environmental issues in their small hometown of Anacortes, Washington.

Emily McNeil, co-founder of the Tempestry Project, sits kneels in the snow with one of her recent pieces.
Photo credited to the Tempestry Project.

Now based in New York, the project sells “tempestry” kits, comprised of yarn and crafting tools such as knitting needles or crochet hooks. They also provide datasets to customers who then create “tempestries” that represent temperature data for a particular time range and location. 

McNeil and Connelly also advise contributors, many of whom they have never met in-person,  working on larger, collaborative “tempestries” within their respective local communities, customizing the data and yarn they ship to them.

The pair frequent climate protests and organize educational outreach workshops, hauling their “tempestries” in tow. Among the regular pieces to appear are “original tempestries,” representing daily high temperatures for a specific year and location, and “new normal tempestries,” which, like Glennon’s dress, visualize annual global temperature anomalies from the late 19th century to the present.

A new addition to their demonstration is what they call the “Paleo new normal” “tempestry.” Knitted by McNeil, the piece totals 20 feet long and consists of over 2,000 rows representing global temperature data from 1 C.E. to the present. A cool blue cascades over much of the piece before receding at the far end into a deep, Dantean red, representing a spike in global warming in the last century.

“Their jaws just drop,” Connelly said, referring to visitors’ reactions when they see the Paleo piece. “It’s a lot more impactful for people who might not pay that much attention in their daily lives to climate change.”

McNeil and Connelly attribute the project’s sustained success to its active communities of contributors on Facebook and Ravelry. 

“Tempestries,” McNeil said, built off the legacy of temperature blankets, which are also crafted using temperature data and have been a staple creation on these forums for close to a decade. 

This greater trend of using fiber art to visualize climate data can be read as a widespread response to an overexposure to numbers, according to Madison Snell, an information designer who wrote her master’s thesis on interdisciplinary design strategy on data physicalization through textile and fiber arts.

Snell, a fiber arts hobbyist since her youth, embarked on her thesis topic in 2019 after seeing more and more crafters post their own personal temperature blankets in Reddit and Facebook groups. Then, she interviewed crafters, including the Tempestry Project, who created fiber artwork inspired by data ranging from temperature records to nightly hours of sleep. 

Applying her thesis research, Snell suggested the enduring confluence of environmental activism and fiber arts may be the newest way people are revitalizing conversations surrounding climate change.

The range of temperature fluctuations depicted within the Tempestry Project. Photo courtesy of the Tempestry Project.

“When you hit all of those reds and the reds keep getting darker, it’s just that stark, constant reminder that our world is changing,” Snell said regarding “tempestries.” “That’s 10, 20 minutes a day that you’re sitting with those thoughts, rather than looking at a chart on the computer.”

For Glennon, the humanizing effects fiber crafts have are exactly why she hopes to expand the educational component of the “Wool and Water” project. Much of Glennon’s current outreach consists of organizing workshops at local events and promoting a few pieces at a local farmers market, but she intends to bring “Wool and Water” to classrooms and keep the project for as long as she can.

“It’s really tactile, it’s really colorful, and I think that people participating in it gives them a feeling that they’re sort of like somehow contributing to this broader conversation,” Glennon said. “And maybe it’s a form of activism that feels less daunting than calling your legislator or marching.”