A honeycomb with crocheted bees. Rainbow stripes with yarn tassels. An angel with sheer polyester for its dress. These are some of the 43 sweater designs decorating trees around town as part of Middle Way House’s Wrapped in Love project.
“Wrapped in Love is a metaphor for what Middle Way House does for survivors,” said Katherine Devich, the project’s volunteer chair.
Middle Way House offers a 24/7 crisis line, emergency shelter, transitional housing, legal advocacy and prevention education. For about the past eight years, the project has sought to spread messages of support for domestic violence survivors, Devich said. Businesses or individuals can sponsor a tree sweater beginning at $200, and volunteer artists will knit or crochet one. When installed, all tree sweaters have Middle Way’s crisis line phone number on them.
Christopher De Young, a Middle Way House board member, said each tree sweater is distinct.
“Each of these sweaters really has its own story, and the artists put time and work into telling that story,” he said. “At a casual glance, you might not realize how much it means to someone.”
Tree sweaters began going up mid-September, the beginning of most trees’ dormant seasons, and they'll be taken down mid-March. Devich will inspect, clean and, if possible, store them to reuse next season.
Devich, 60, is a Bloomington native, self-identified feminist and lover of fiber art. Devich said she started getting involved with Middle Way House about 20 years ago when she would donate used cell phones for domestic violence survivors to call 911 without needing a phone plan. Devich said she got involved with the Wrapped in Love project about four years ago because she wanted to crochet.
Devich remembers the first tree sweater she made, sponsored by Nick’s English Hut. Upon request, she crocheted the phrase “Peace, love and strombolis” into the sweater.
“It was really fun, obviously, because I stayed with it,” she said.
Devich said one of her favorite tree sweaters this year is in memory of Braylon Mosher, a two-month-old victim of domestic violence. The tree is located at Sixth Street and College Avenue. The sweater has pastel blue, yellow, pink and green stripes with the boy’s name and the months he was alive, May 2019 to July 2019. Above the sweater is a row of blue and yellow crocheted stars, which Devich said are like the stars in the sky.
Devich said Braylon’s grandparents, who helped with the design, have something to remember their grandson by.
“They’re really touched that sweater is hanging there where they can see a reminder of baby Braylon,” she said.
Joanna Butler, 56, and Lesley Levin, 72, are part of Congregation Beth Shalom’s knitting group called Knit Witz. The group of about 20 meets weekly to knit or crochet together. Members worked all summer on their tree sweater for Wrapped in Love. Their tree is located in front of the Starbucks on Indiana Avenue.
The Knit Witz group knitted hats, scarves and socks and attached them to their tree sweater. People can take the knitted items from the tree as needed.
“It’s a giving sort of tree,” Butler said.
Levin said the tree sweaters make an important statement in the community.
“It’s calling attention to something that people don’t want to talk about, and that’s domestic violence, taking away the stigma around it so that women and men who are experiencing domestic violence will feel comfortable coming for help,” she said.
Butler said helping create the tree sweater was a way to give back to Middle Way and raise awareness about domestic violence.
“It’s opening a door to a conversation,” she said.
Levin used to work as a social worker in a hospital, and she said she remembers how difficult it was for people to admit they were victims of domestic violence.
“They would come back time and time again before they would finally have the courage to leave,” she said.
Erin Hollinden, events coordinator at Middle Way House, said she’s noticed “unwelcome additions” attached to some tree sweaters, such as cheerful, inspirational sayings on paper inside plastic sleeves stapled on top of some of the tree sweaters on Kirkwood Avenue.
She said she personally removed many pink breast cancer awareness ribbons Zeta Tau Alpha sorority members have been passing out from trees.
“One tree was just totally, entirely covered with them, like hundreds of them,” Hollinden said.
She said this obscures the artwork, and it violates Middle Way’s agreement with the city not to puncture any of the trees. Hollinden said she doesn’t think anyone had bad intentions, but she wants people to know there are rules. She said she’s filed a police report for vandalism on the issue.
“It’s not a free-for-all, and we need to be respectful, not only of the trees, but also the artwork,” she said.
Devich said it’s a months-long process of cooperating with the city and deciding which trees Middle Way can install tree sweaters on.
Hollinden said the Wrapped in Love project has raised $20,000 from sponsorships. This money will support the organization’s operations. Hollinden said after she left the kick-off ceremony Friday, she came back to the shelter family room and shared knitting supplies with two mothers and a young girl.
“It was really nice they got to have the treat of getting all this new yarn for themselves and their own projects and feeling part of Wrapped in Love themselves,” she said.