Your Village: What happened to Iowa City’s tree sweaters?

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Iowa City tree sweater, March 10, 2015. — photo by Alan Light via Flickr

Why no tree sweaters this year? —- Carly, Iowa City, via Facebook

“We haven’t done it for three years now,” Betsy Potter, director of operations for the Iowa City Downtown District (ICDD), told Little Village. “It was a public art installation, essentially, and it had a three year lifespan with us.”

The Tree Huggers Project, which adorned downtown trees with hand-knitted “sweaters,” was a joint project of the ICDD and Home Ec Workshop, “Iowa City’s natural fiber fabric, yarn and craft supply shop.”

The ICDD handled the necessary details involved in getting permission in sweatering trees on public property and making it an orderly process, while Home Ec took the lead in the knitting.

“It was a lot of work done by a lot of people,” Potter recalled. “Home Ec did a huge amount of work. Among other things, they had to measure the dimensions of each tree every year, because trees grow over the course of a year.”

The project was launched in 2012. Each year, volunteers knitted sweaters for more than 100 downtown trees, and then dressed the trees for the winter. The sweaters went up in November and remained in place until March. The last sweaters came down in March 2015.

The Iowa City tree sweaters were an example of “yarn bombing.” No one is entirely sure when or where yarn bombing — putting knitted covers over public objects — started, but it seems the practice first got wide public notice in Texas in 2005.

Tree sweaters are an internationally popular form of yarn bombing, and were embraced as a natural fit for Iowa City. Raygun even had a t-shirt that referenced it: “Downtown Iowa City: From tree sweaters to unsupervised pianos, anything goes.”

However, because Iowa City is Iowa City, there were also people who criticized the Tree Huggers Project as socially irresponsible, arguing that its volunteers should have been knitting sweaters for homeless people, not trees. Some tree sweaters did have a philanthropic second life, however: starting in 2013, sweaters removed from trees intact were cleaned, sewn into blankets and shawls and donated to Iowa City Hospice.

Asked if ICDD had any plans to bring back the tree sweaters, Potter said no.

“We’ve moved on to other public art projects,” she said.

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ICDD is currently accepting applications for its newest public art project, in which artists will create murals on the walls of downtown alleys.

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