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Tree Sweater Mystery Solved!

Laurie Russell knits "sweaters" for a trio of trees on 16th Street.

Anyone who has walked down 16th Street in the past month or so has likely noticed something odd: a trio of trees, each decked out in what appears to be a warm, cozy sweater.

Meet Laurie Russell, 57, the woman behind these mysterious tree fashions.

Russell, a decade long resident of the block of 16th between Sixth and Seventh avenues, knit her first “tree sweater” three years ago.

“I knit as a hobby, and I was tired of making scarves,” said Russell. “I had knit one or two sweaters, but I’m not a very advanced knitter. I was looking at dogs, sausage dogs, and think about what a fun sweater shape that would be. But I don’t have a dog. So I started looking at trees as a simple ‘sweater.’”

Though groups like “knitting grafitti artists” Knitta Please have popularized the idea of covering everything from trees to parking meters in needlework, Russell said she was wholly unaware of the trend until she had already knit her first tree fashions.

“I thought, is it even possible that this exists somewhere else?” she said.

Over a few months, she knit her first tree sweater, a saffron-colored number that she hung on a skinny tree in the middle of the block. The color was an ode to Christo and Jeanne-Claude's The Gates, a 2005 art installation in Central Park of saffron colored “gates.”

“I loved the way they transformed the winter park and added a sense of color,” said Russell.

Each year since, Russell has knitted a new tree sweater: first, a fat bright red cable-knit number for a thick tree trunk to the east of her first endeavor, and this year, a tall and skinny turquoise one with pretty silver buttons to the west. The yarn on all three is made from all-natural fibers.

Since her first sweater, each year Russell has “dressed” the trees in mid-December. She removes the sweaters as spring approaches and the trees begin to show their first signs of new life.

“In the winter the leaves are gone, which is sort of like a tree’s dressing,” said Russell. “So I thought if I put clothing on them, they won’t be barren any more.”

When not knitting, Russell is a painter. Her current series of paintings is inspired by fiber arts as well – Molas, the traditional needlework of the indigenous Kuna people of Panama and Columbia.

“I’ve just been amazed at the response to these,” she said. “It seems that everybody who walks by is smiling and taking pictures.”

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