The signs of autumn have arrived in downtown Santa Rosa. Brisk mornings. Breezes rattling through the browning leaves. And the light posts have donned their woolen sweaters.
Up and down Fourth Street in Railroad Square, casual strollers are doing double takes at the latest trend in out-of-context urban art.
"What is that?" a startled Ellen Broader asked her friend Sheri Allen, as their eyes first fixed on a pole knit up like a member of the Italian Olympic ski team in red, white and green. The Santa Rosa pharmacy technician didn't know what to make of this piece of municipal infrastructure dressed in a homey, grandma-style knitwear.
"It's a cozy little thing," Allen giggled.
This is just the reaction Justine Malone, owner of the Cast Away yarn shop on Fourth Street, was hoping for when she began enlisting fellow knitters to donate their stitches and dress up the avenue.
"I love seeing them up. It's so colorful and makes people stop and talk," said Malone, who listens to the comments from passers-by that filter through her shop door.
The Street Pole Sweater Project had an unlikely beginning in the heat of June with a Knit in Public Day at Depot Park at the foot of Railroad Square. What began with 20 knitters quickly spun into 100. By August's end, volunteers had knit up 14,000 yards of yarn — about 100 balls in all.
It was a little short of Malone's grand goal of wrapping up the lights in both Old Courthouse and Railroad squares. But there's always next season. Meanwhile, 11 light poles on the west side of Highway 101 have taken on a new style.
"We whip-stitched them on," said Paige Mitchell. A knitting enthusiast and special education assistant from Santa Rosa, she helped Malone sew the 18-inch-long pieces onto the posts last week, in time for the final First Fridays Summer Night in Railroad Square.
Mitchell's offering, which adorns a pole near Chevy's restaurant, has a little doll hand waving through the wool. It was declared "most creative" in a contest waged by Malone.
The project is in the spirit of "Yarn Bombing," or "Guerrilla Knitting," where stitchers whimsically apply their craft to unexpected urban spaces. It's billed as "the world's most inoffensive graffiti."
Benign or not, Malone, who is active in the Railroad Square Association, decided to seek the city's blessing before going ahead.
Tara Matheny-Schuster, the city of Santa Rosa's public art coordinator, said it's the kind of project the city would like to encourage in its downtown arts district.
"It's a nice example of what we can do — creating art in surprising places and just having art be more infiltrated in our daily lives," she said.
Several businesses sponsored their own sweaters, including Flying Goat Coffee, which sports a sweatered pole all in green — the colors of its logo.
Although some skeptics complain that the yarn might be put to better use for the needy, Malone sees the work not as clothing but legitimate public art that will lift people's spirits with its humor. She already has her eye on the bronze Charlie Brown statue in Depot Park, who looks like he could use some colorful knitwear.
The sweaters, made mostly of wool fibers or wool and acrylic, aren't expected to last through the rainy season. Once they start sagging, they'll come down, Malone said.