Weaving Climate Data

Tempestries on display at the Putnam History Museum

Tempestries on display at the Putnam History Museum (Photos provided)

Tapestry project chronicles temperature change 

What would pop into your head if “fabric art” came up during a dinner conversation? Odds are it wouldn’t be “climate change.”

Yet a Cold Spring business owner managed to weave those disparate subjects together for a common purpose. The results will be on display in an exhibit that opens Friday (May 19) at the Putnam History Museum.

The Tempestry Project, organized locally by Sue Costigan, owner of The Endless Skein on Main Street, combines fabric art skills with historical weather data to produce multicolored tapestries, or “tempestries,” that illustrate global warming. The project was launched in Washington state in January 2017 by three friends, two of whom now live in Poughkeepsie, in response to then-President Donald Trump’s plan to remove the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

In Philipstown, Costigan and 32 other women created 33 tempestries that were displayed in Main Street shop windows on April 22 as part of Earth Day and Cold Spring in Bloom. 

Detail from a tempestry shows a heat wave.

Detail from a tempestry shows a heat wave.

Each tempestry contains 365 knitted, crocheted or woven rows of yarn, representing the days of a year. Using one of 32 colors, each row is coded to a spectrum that represents a temperature within a 5-degree range. Black depicts the coldest temperature while red is the hottest.

The Endless Skein’s tempestries illustrate the daily temperatures in Cold Spring during 33 years between 1900 and 2021. 

The coldest low temperature recorded was minus 4 degrees on Feb. 12, 1914. The temperature reached 93 degrees on Sept. 22. In 2021, the mercury hit 98 degrees on June 30 and fell to 20 degrees on Feb. 13. 

A sampling of 33 years is not enough to represent statistically valid results, but the data from the more than 44,000 days displayed on the tempestries hint at a change in the village climate.

The difference in the average temperatures during the first 23 years highlighted on the tempestries versus the average for the most recent 23 years may be the most illustrative. Between 1900 and 1923, the average low winter temperature was 11 degrees. From 1998 to 2021 the average low winter temperature was 13 degrees. 

The average high summer temperature from 1900 to 1923 was 91 degrees. The average high was 4 degrees higher between 1998 and 2021.

In addition, each tempestry has a card that lists the high and low temperature recorded during the year it represents, with a “fun fact” about an event from the time.

Sue Costigan with her husband, Tom(File photo by Amy Kubik)

Sue Costigan with her husband, Tom (File photo by Amy Kubik)

The historical facts, compiled with help from the Putnam History Museum, highlight local milestones, such as the installation of streetlights in 1900 and the closing of the West Point Foundry in 1911 to the opening of Breakneck tunnel in 1932 and Barbara Impellittiere of Cold Spring becoming the first female mayor in Putnam County in 1973. 

Emily McNeil of Poughkeepsie, one of three co-founders of The Tempestry Project, is a self-described “knitter and number-cruncher.” She recalls the idea emerging from a barroom conversation about how scientists and hackers were joining forces to preserve environmental and climate-research data before Trump’s 2017 inauguration. 

“We were joking about how we need to record that data in more durable forms, like ancient cuneiform tablets or 1,000-year-old tapestries,” she recalled.

Today, there are Tempestry Projects in nearly every state and more than 20 countries. The Putney School in Vermont is creating an 87-piece collection that represents each year since the school’s founding. Collections are also underway in partnership with the Design Museum of Chicago and the National Park Service.

For Costigan, the project goes beyond climate change. “I’d like to see all countries get on board about how we treat our environment, the welfare of our planet,” she said. “We can’t change the past, but we need to figure out a way to move forward.”

The Tempestry Project will open at the Putnam History Museum, 63 Chestnut St., on May 19 with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. and continue through mid-July. A second exhibit, Indigenous Peoples in Putnam County, also opens that day. 

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