By Victoria Ritter
Knitters and crocheters across North America are uniting to provide warmth to young people in need, dedicating their time, talent and yarn to Knit the Rainbow. The nonprofit organization, based in New York City, seeks to provide handmade clothing to homeless LGBTQ+ youth in New York and Chicago.
Knit the Rainbow Founder and President Austin Rivers established the organization in April 2020, just as the country was in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a member of the LGBTQ+ and Black communities, Rivers wanted to lend his support to those in need. He conducted some research and discovered “striking” statistics. “I found that in New York City, there were upwards of 8,000 houseless LGBTQ+ youth between the ages of 12 and 24. When I looked at the rest of the U.S., there were more than 550,000 houseless LGBTQ+ youth,” Rivers stated. “Being a Black guy, I knew that there was a housing disparity that is specifically affecting people of color in the LGBTQ+ community more so than it affects our White peers.”
Rivers didn’t possess the resources to start a shelter. Instead, he decided to use what he did have to help: his talents and passion as a five-year knitter. He operated out of his apartment, formed a board of directors who were passionate about the cause, collected handmade crocheted and knitted items and distributed them to shelters and organizations across the city. “It has that extra component of providing the recipient with love because you are making something that is just for them,” he said.
A call to all knitters
Rivers sees Knit the Rainbow as an outlet for crafters to give back through what he calls “craftivism.” From September 2022 to March 2023, the organization has received more than 560 individual shipments. Volunteers are spread across no less than 35 states as well as Canada and Mexico. “Our goal is to hopefully get volunteers sending us garments from every state,” Rivers stated.
The most common donations are beanies, scarves and shawls. Knit the Rainbow also accepts cowls, sweaters, mittens, gloves and socks. All garments must be brand-new and handmade. Rivers understands that certain items such as mittens, socks and sweaters are the most time-consuming to make, so he is always excited to receive them as donations.
“There was one time when a person sent in six sweaters at once,” he recalled. “My jaw hit the ground because I couldn’t fathom how someone could take the time to make six adult-size sweaters. We have received some really beautiful sweaters. As a knitter, I know how much time and love and dedication is put into that garment.”
The organization accepts any type of yarn, but the warmest material to use is wool. Rivers recommends that knitters and crocheters use superwash wool, which is easier to wash. Sizing can range from small teenagers to full-size adults. “We ask people to send us stuff in various sizes so we can find a good home for any item that we have,” Rivers said.
Crafters also have the option to drop off their creations at Knit the Rainbow’s Local Yarn Shops. There are currently 31 registered Local Yarn Shops across the U.S. These stores will collect the donated items and ship them to New York City. In return, Knit the Rainbow will reimburse them for the shipping costs.
Any yarn shop can join in the collection. If they choose, Knit the Rainbow can list their location and contact information on its website for crafters to better find them.
“If there are any other yarn shops that are interested in participating, it’s super easy. You basically set up a box, tell your customers about Knit the Rainbow, collect and send the donations to us,” Rivers said while expressing his gratitude for their help. “Our volunteers and partners have really helped this organization grow. We would not be where we are today without them.”
Crocheting a community
Garment collection is just one of Knit the Rainbow’s five programs. Educating the Masses is a social media campaign geared to educate people around the world about the LGBTQ+ youth housing crisis. Knit the Future features regular panel discussions with diverse crafters who talk about their experiences in the creative space. Through Pattern Design, designers offer free, new, fashionable patterns for volunteer knitters and crocheters.
The newest objective, started this summer, is Community Outreach. This program offers knitting and crocheting classes to LGBTQ+ youth. Partnering companies Joann Fabric and Crafts and Lion Brand Yarn provide measuring tape, needles, patterns and yarn, respectively. Knit the Rainbow finalized its first group of knitting teachers in the last few weeks.
Community events include a monthly Volunteer Day of Action, held during the collection season, September through March. Volunteers gather at Rivers’ apartment to help unbox, sort, inventory and tag items which are then re-boxed for distribution. Every couple months or so, Knit the Rainbow hosts a Stitch and Sip event at a local watering hole where crafters can work on their latest project, enjoy appetizers and drinks, and socialize. To help encourage donations, a sock and mitten drive is held once a year.
Last November, Knit the Rainbow held its first Annual Purl Awards as “a way to fundraise and thank people for the work that they’re doing for the LGBTQ+ community,” Rivers said. The event featured live entertainment, a silent auction, raffle and fundraiser. Two crafters and two activists were honored for their support of the LGBTQ+ community.
Knit the Rainbow attends Pride events around New York City as well as national arts and craft shows. In the past, it has exhibited at Creativation by NAMTA, h+h americas, Interweave’s Yarn Fest and Vogue Knitting Live.
Changing the world one row at a time
Knit the Rainbow’s efforts have snowballed. In three years, it has distributed 16,500 garments, more than half of which were donated in the last winter season. “We’re growing very quickly,” Rivers observed. “We’re always thinking of ways to increase our capacity and find more organizations to serve so we can get these garments out to the community.”
With thousands of garments donated, Rivers is looking to expand to other cities. The organization began distributing garments in Chicago after h+h Americas offered booth space at its 2022 show. As it happened, there were four Local Yarn Shops already in the Chicago area. “It was the perfect way for us to come to Chicago, meet the community and local nonprofits and start building a foundation so we could serve the city,” Rivers stated.
The work is far from over for Rivers. His short-term goals are to obtain an office that would act as an event and storage space. The increased capacity would hopefully allow the organization to expand its collection to sewn and woven garments.
A long-term goal is to expand services to more cities on the East Coast before moving further west. Rivers hopes Knit the Rainbow will start its own shelter outfitted with a resource center and a place to provide mental health resources. “I have a big vision that maybe one day Knit the Rainbow is a full-service resource center, shelter and crafting organization that specifically serves LGBTQ+ youth.”
To learn more about Knit the Rainbow and to find a Local Yarn Shop closest to you, visit knittherainbow.org or follow them on Instagram and Facebook.