Life Embedded Into Yarn with Naima Dobbs

Naima Dobbs weaves portals from her textiles, an artistic practice of patience that holds meaning far beyond each strand. Her hats are beautiful, with irresistible patterns as distinctive as they are stylish. But the pieces are also infused – in between the stitches, perhaps – with Naima’s interpretations of history, ancestry, storytelling and other Black cultural practices, and, of course, aesthetics; a collage of influences as layered as the yarn she threads together.

Within her work, Naima channels her artistic curiosity and creative skills into a number of different styles, designs, and colors. She makes bucket hats, berets, beanies, tams, tapestries, and more, all of which include an expansive range of colors that add to each hat’s uniqueness.

In June 2020, Naima started “Nailoh,” a platform where she posts and sells her handmade “wearable textile art” – primarily, her array of crocheted headwear. She sells her own original work and also fulfills commissioned requests, allowing customers to choose their own style and colors, like the black and red hat she unknowingly designed for Lil Yachty (we gonna circle back to that later). Naima’s Instagram feed also includes pictures of older Black artists wearing crochet pieces: we see Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and others, each donning textile that still glows despite the years past. These throwback posts sit alongside pictures of Naima’s current work, a pairing of past and present that hints at the artform’s continuity through time.

The lineage of textile art was one of the many themes Naima mentioned when I spoke with her in November. We talked, too, about her lifelong relationship to art, the ideas and concepts that influence her artmaking, the role textile art plays in Black life and cultural practice, her creative and educational goals for the future, and more. Still, our conversation remained grounded in the aesthetics of her art – combinations of colored yarn and intricate shapes that, upon closer look, can contain and magnify stories and lives.

Naima’s roots span North America. Her mother is from Ontario, her father is from Pittsburgh, and the two met in the early-’90s in Atlanta, where Naima was born and raised. “The Freaknik era,” she laughs, “when Atlanta was poppin.”

Naima says she’s gravitated towards fabrics for as long as she remembers, as her mother — a wardrobe stylist — kept their house filled with clothes. “Being surrounded by her work really inspired me,” Naima said of her mom’s career. “I think I was kinda born interested in textile art, but it kinda took a lot of different forms over the course of my life so far.”

She notes a time during her childhood where she wanted to be a fashion designer, following her mother and foreshadowing the headwear she crafts now. Her interest in fashion slowed with age, though. “As I got older and more vexed about careers and making money and capitalism and all that, I kinda suppressed that dream to be a fashion designer,” Naima said. “I also learned more about the fashion industry and wasn’t too interested in the cut-throatedness of it and how intense it can be.”

The realization stifled her artmaking impulse until the start of high-school, when Naima continued her fabric journey by picking up embroidery. “It was an outlet for me,” she said. “I think as I suppressed my creativity, it kinda started to build up in me, and I would be struck with these intense phases where I would create a lot. And, one of those phases was embroidery.” Equipped also with a knowledge of sewing, Naima started putting her embroidered pieces on clothing. “I don’t know, it didn’t lead directly into crochet and knitting,” Naima said of her embroidery experience, “but that was a seed that was planted for me by my own needs for a creative outlet.”

In 2017, Naima moved to New York City and began college at NYU, where she currently studies Africana Studies and is pursuing her interest in art and museum education. Naima notes that her academic experiences greatly inform her artmaking, though it wasn’t until her sophomore year that Naima started learning to crochet and knit, ushered by her roommate’s knitting. “I was watching her do it once, and I was like, Wow, that looks so fun,” Naima said.

Rhythmic processes, knitting and crocheting involve repeated patterns and methodical, careful motions; an almost hypnotic act that grows with each stitch. Or, as Naima explains: while watching her roommate, “something about it just looked so peaceful for me. But then, the fact that she was creating this piece of textile – of fabric – from that was really interesting.” Naima soon began her own creations: she was first shown the basics by her roommate, “and then everything else I learned from YouTube.”

Naima reflected on the timeliness of her introduction to the artform. “I was dealing with a lot of anxiety at the time, and knitting was just a time for me to sit down, to relax, and do something mindlessly, but that still was really satisfying and gratifying,” she said. “So, I like to think of it as an outlet for my own mental hygiene that eventually grew into something that I really became passionate about.”

“I guess,” Naima continued, “it started as a peace practice for me. That’s what I like to call it.”

I like how you juxtapose the intensity of different artforms — particularly the fashion industry — with the practice of patience that is knitting and crocheting. I’m curious, then, how has that practice transitioned into Nailoh?

Well, actually, one pivotal thing I forgot to mention just now is that my sophomore year, I took this class that really reoriented my understanding of textile art. The class was actually called “Women’s (Text)iles,” but the word “text” was in parenthesis. It focused on the connection between Black women’s literature and poetry, the practice of quilt-making, the tradition of documentation. Basically it hinged on the idea of using all these pieces of clothing and of discarded fabrics to create something new, something that has history in it, that carries memories in it as a form of creative self documentation. Kind of like writing with fabrics and fibers.

That class really impacted me on so many levels. We read a lot of canonical texts by Black women: Toni Morrison and Ntozake Shange and Alice Walker, bell hooks, and a lot of other Black women writers. Then there was also, of course, this focus on textile making, and how that connected to the stories Black women were sharing. And that really made me realize there was something a lot more powerful in fiber art than I think I was giving credit to previously, and it really made me realize, like, Wow, this is something that can be and is very much rooted in your own history, and how you practice it can connect back to your family history and your own experiences in life. I’m honestly still processing everything I discovered in that course. I didn’t necessarily connect with the textile dimension of artmaking as much until that class, when I realized that it had so much weight to it.

And, I hope to make some quilts actually, that is something I really want to do at some point. I think that quilt-making is like making a mosaic of the past, in a way, in the form of fabric collage. It’s really cool.

Yes, nah that’s so dope. I’m glad you hit one piece, the family component, because I wanted to ask you about… You’ve posted a couple pictures on Instagram of you giving your creations to family members. Can you describe what role your practice has played for you connecting with your elders?

That’s honestly one of the most fulfilling parts of my practice. Making things for my family and seeing them wear it and enjoy it and be warmed by it. It’s so special. But yea, I think connecting it to the ideas I was getting from my class, I really do think that fibers and different textile materials hold memory and hold history, so it’s really powerful for me to create new memories and new histories to be passed down through these pieces.

I’ve made a few things for both of my grandmas, so I guess in this way it’s getting passed up. And, also, I didn’t mention this, but both of my grandmas were big sewers, so they’d make me dresses and things like that for church, and they’d repair my pants. So it’s really nice to give back to them in this way, through my art.

For sure. I’m curious about the cultural impact of knitting, thinking about family but also how you’ve posted pictures of artists wearing fiber art: Lauryn Hill, Bobby Hutcherson, Miles Davis, Lonnie Liston. And, we were talking about Rastas and Rasta musicians who would wear things. Why is that important to you?

For one, I just love jazz a lot and I knew I wanted to incorporate it into my work somehow. My dad actually named me after a song by John Coltrane, but it took me a minute for me to live up to that namesake, in a way. I didn’t like jazz as a kid, and then I think it was in high school when I really started diving into it. Lonnie Liston Smith was one of my favorites as a teenager. And at that time, before I was making knit and crochet pieces, I would notice his hats and I always thought they were really cute and fun, but it really took on new meaning when I began making them.

And, older black artists wearing crochet, I think, is part of the stylistic era at the time. But at the same time, I do think they’re almost promoting an anti-establishment message in wearing those pieces, even if unintentionally, because they weren’t made by a machine. That is one thing about crochet that is really important to me: there’s actually no such thing as a crochet machine. Even if you buy crochet from, I don’t know, Fashion Nova, someone sat there and made that with their hands, and was probably paid a fraction of what their labor was worth. And, it’s actually a problem. 

So I think that there is this element of self-determination and sovereignty that comes with wearing knit pieces that were made by someone especially for you. There’s something that is very powerful about hand-made pieces, because I think especially in this era of hyperproduction and fast fashion, to patronize someone that is taking the slow route, making slow fashion, literally with their hands – there’s something very anti-capitalist in that act, in itself. And I’m still sort of uncovering these truths as I go along.


As Naima suggests, there’s always been a relationship between Black music and crochet and knit pieces. Look through enough photos of Black artists, performances, and album covers over the decades, and you’ll stumble into a number of musicians sporting some textile – a legacy Naima draws attention to by posting Black artists on her Instagram. As noted, crochet is all over jazz, but Naima and I also talked about Jamaica and all of the crochet wear displayed in Reggae album covers, from everyday tams and rastacaps to scarves awash in red, gold, and green.

There is, certainly, much to be said about the intergenerational commonness of textile art within our families and communities, crafted and passed down. There is also something especially enchanting about seeing images of Black artists displaying the handmade clothing while they’re performing or posing in their album covers. Displayed informally, crochet and knit pieces are routinely visible within these Black musical practices, signifying the continuity of Black textile traditions across the diaspora and throughout generations.


Speaking about music, you have a photo of Lil Yachty wearing one of your hats. How did that come about?

Yoo, that was actually crazy, ’cuz I didn’t know! When I was making that hat, I thought it was for a friend of a friend that reached out to me. I was like, Yeah girl, I gotchu. So, I sent her the hat, and she sends me back a picture saying, “He loves it by the way, thanks.” And, the picture was Lil fucking Yachty. [laughs] I was like, Wait, what? It was such a pleasant surprise and it really inspired me to keep pushing.

I wanted to ask you, quickly moving away from the crocheting, I notice that you also create tapestries, and you mentioned quilting as something you want to get into. Can you talk about your textile interests outside of just clothing, per se?

Yeah, I actually eventually want to steer towards making more tapestries and wall pieces, because I think I have so many ideas in my head, but I get so caught up with selling pieces and making things for my family that I kinda put my bigger ideas on the back-burner. But this quarantine actually was when I made my first tapestry, it was the first time I really had enough free time to sit down and really let my ideas flow, and plan out something and make it real. So, that was exciting. And, so far I’ve made 3 and a half – half because I’m working on one right now. I’m really inspired by Faith Ringgold’s work in my pieces, but at the same time, also drawing on visuals and ideas that I get from music, too. Especially jazz. 

And, I’m still trying to find the words on how to even describe the ideas that come out in my tapestry making practice, because I think a lot of them are just imageries that I’ve had in my head for a minute, and I can’t even place them anymore. Just like, No, this needs to get out, I need to make this. And, I can go off of that.

I really want to devote more time to creating larger pieces. But, of course, monetizing your hobbies can become, like… I don’t know, it can be very consuming to make stuff for money. And, I’m not trying to dismiss my hats as being just for money – I love them and I find a lot of joy and peace in sharing them with others. But, there are so many other things I want to make that I know I’ll have the time to make, but it can be a little hectic sometimes just trying to manage the time, and that with school.

Definitely. And I’m glad that you spoke about the inspiration of how you come up with your tapestry pieces, because I was going to ask – moreso thinking about the hats, but I guess in general – how do you come up with your designs? I love a lot of the patterns; is there a process? Or is it just natural?

Ah, thank you so much! I guess it is kinda natural, in a way. Actually, one thing that helps me a lot is just staring at my yarn collection. I am not the one to just tuck away all my yarn and keep it out of sight; I have to keep it displayed in my room so I can look at it and create new color combinations. I also am inspired by other fiber artists as well, and earth tones, and vintage stuff. I go on Pinterest a lot. [laughs] The process isn’t super mystical. 


Of Naima’s many designs, one that stands out is the starshine hat: five panels arranged like a cube, a star etched into each of the side pieces. She’s posted several iterations of the style, some simply featuring two or three colors while others are done intricately, like the recent commission [below] Naima completed that is accented with alternating colors and intricate bordering circles.

“I would say [it’s] one of my most favorite designs I’ve made so far,” Naima said of the hat, referencing her Instagram for a few seconds after I asked if she had a personal favorite. “The man who ordered them just asked for Rastafarian colors, and gave me that inspiration to go with. But, I kinda was just inspired to use the colors in my hat in a way that I haven’t before, and I actually discovered that I kinda like this design more than the ones I’ve been doing in the past. So, that was fun.” 

Another recurring piece is Naima’s crochet bucket hats – each one a new experiment. Some of the hats feature swirling beams of color, some contain tight checkered patterns, others are splashed with tight, thin stripes. This versatility is present throughout all of Naima’s pieces and tapestries, a result, she suggests, of the creative freedom cultivated alongside the consumer elements of her practice.

“I think that is one of my favorite parts about making hats for people is that it inspires me to keep trying different colors, and keep trying different designs,” Naima said. “I think I just want to let my customers help inform my art practice, too, and help inspire it and keep it moving.” 


Okay, so last couple questions. You have in your bio “string theorist,” which is really interesting to me. Can you describe what that phrase means to you, especially being a student now?

It kinda came to me, randomly. I always get into these crazy YouTube holes watching videos about space and like top ten craziest planets. [laughs] And, I think I started watching a video about string theory, and this idea of different dimensions, and how time and space work, and things like that. Sorry, I can’t even really give you a real glimpse into what string theory is [laughs], but I started thinking about it in terms of physical strings and fibers and yarn. And I was like, Hold up, I feel myself to be a string theorist in some way. Because, there is this intellectual process behind making crochet. I mean, it’s a lot of math, actually, and making sure you get the right number of stitches… There’s a lot of planning and design work that goes into it.

But, at the same time there’s this freedom that you can get from it as well. Of course, you can choose to follow patterns or not. But, I do think there’s something that’s almost scientific in it, where you’re combining all these different designs and stitch numbers and things like that. So, I guess I was tapping into that. But, yea. [laughs]

Yes, even just me trying to make a simple hat, you miss one stitch and the whole thing is lopsided. It is complicated!

It is, and I was really intimidated by that at first. But it just took more practice, and then I was like, You know what, this feels good.

Right. So, I wanted to double-back on one of the first things you had said, which is your interest in art education. And, I guess on a more futuristic note, what are some of the things you’re looking forward to? And, what do you hope your art does? Not that it has to do anything it hasn’t already done.

Right now, I’m interested in art education, and particularly museum education. Figuring out how to make museums more accessible and more welcoming to Black people and Black kids especially. Me growing up, I always felt a little excluded from museum spaces, but at the same time, I was super into the artwork and intrigued by all the different pieces I encountered in museums, ever since I was little. But, it was hard for me to reconcile this strong curiosity with also this feeling of, you know, unbelongingness – if that’s even a word. Or just feeling like that wasn’t my space to claim. So I hope in my future career I can, kind of, open up that space a lot more for kids to feel welcomed and to make museums more inclusive. Especially through education and public programming. I know from experience that that can mean a lot in a kids life, to have this space to encounter art and to encounter history and the past through art, which ultimately teaches you a lot about yourself.

Yea, I think I’ve come to realize that art is a way of contending with history, or it can be a way of connecting with subjugated knowledge that was erased from mainstream and was kinda redacted from certain narratives of history, and that’s especially true for Black history, and the Black experience in this country. I think it’s so… Ugh, there’s so many words I could say right now. But, I think that, in a lot of ways, our history can be explored through art-making and through that practice. And, us having to reconcile with these gaps in the archive, I think art can be an outlet for that. An outlet for the spaces we’re trying to fill, in terms of our own history.

And, I really just want kids to be able to connect with their own art, in that way, too. And not in a, I’m going to try to push this agenda of historical knowledge at all times, because I think that there’s so much fun and healing that comes from art too, that I don’t want to over-intellectualize it or take the fun out of it. But, I think one of my main goals is for people to connect with Black history through textile art and other art-making practices. And for that to be a portal for kids and teens, and really anybody, to gain a deeper understanding of themselves.