Knitting for nature

Linda Bryant finds out how plans for a new nature reserve in Walthamstow are inspiring wild works of art

Knitting swifts at The Mill

Knitting swifts at The Mill in Walthamstow (credit Teresa Elwes)

Swifts are medium-sized aerial birds, superb fliers that even sleep ‘on the wing’ – in flight.

They are an iconic species, visible across the skies of Waltham Forest as they visit in summer to breed. Unfortunately, urban swifts are in trouble because of the loss of nesting sites as the buildings they use are sealed up during renovation or reconstruction. Swifts may return to a nest site to find it gone.

Walthamstow Wetlands is a new nature reserve opening later this year in the Lea Valley, and artist Deirdre Nelson has been in residence in Walthamstow as a flock of urban swifts are knitted by people in the community. More than one hundred of these will then be installed at Walthamstow Wetlands to celebrate its opening.

Deirdre is a textile artist who works with a variety of community groups on engagement projects dealing with environmental and social issues. The knitters have been working together at The Mill community centre, sampling and testing the swift knitting pattern Deirdre has created.

These talented knitters have created birds from natural wool sourced from small suppliers throughout the UK. This not only supports small producers but promotes natural wool and allows the knitters to experiment with new materials.

Walthamstow Wetlands

The Walthamstow Wetlands plan for a restored engine house also includes a ‘swift tower’ to help birds nest

Participants have enthusiastically taken the challenge on board. Not only do the knitters get the opportunity to create something new but they learn about the birds and the development of the wetlands as well.

Practical steps are also being taken to help swifts breed in Walthamstow. Adjacent to the reservoirs where the new nature reserve is being created, construction work has started on a swift nesting tower made using special bricks designed especially for these birds to breed.

The knitting groups have also met Steve Avery, a volunteer known as ‘Wetlands Steve’, and Laurence Bodini, a birder familiar with the wetlands, to ensure the accuracy of the swift knitting pattern.

Reflecting on her time in Walthamstow, Deidre said: “Spending time on the wetlands and with local knitters has been a fantastic experience.

“Walthamstow is a vibrant, inspiring place and I look forward to returning later in the year to see further developments of both the wetlands and our flock of knitted swifts.”

Walthamstow Wetlands is a joint project between Waltham Forest Council, London Wildlife Trust, Thames Water, and Heritage Lottery Fund.

You can join in and follow progress of the Urban Swifts project on Facebook and Instagram or visit The Mill on Wednesdays 6-8pm and Fridays 10am-12pm.

For more information about Walthamstow Wetlands: