Being stuck indoors can make us feel like activism is somewhat on pause. Global problems are still ongoing, but a lot of organising (with some very notable exceptions) is currently taking place online.
For some of us, this is a good moment to reflect, to think about the role of activism and finding our place within it. Whether the landscape of activism will inherently shift in a post-covid world is impossible to say, but lockdown doesn’t mean we need to wait around to go back to the methods of protest we’re already used to. So today, in an effort to think about the other forms our activism can take, I wanted to highlight craftivism.
What is craftivism?
Craftivism is a method of activism that uses forms of craft, such as sewing or knitting, to create movements for social justice. The term was officially coined in 2003 by knitter and writer Betsy Greer, in order to join the worlds of craft and activism, but the practice pre-dates the invention of this term (for example: in the UK the artist’s suffrage league produced embroidered banners, posters and postcards).
Practitioners of craftivism are known as craftivists; their methods are viewed as a gentle, compassionate, respectful, slow and quiet, while still having an impact. The process of making encourages people to engage thoughtfully with issues, provoking reflection and conversation. Simultaneously, craft is seen as a tool of individual empowerment through personalised activism. It can help people see the importance of their actions and understand their power as part of a larger collective, while also utilising a different approach to get those in power to listen.
Craftivism is a way of looking at life where voicing opinions through creativity makes your voice stronger, your compassion deeper & your quest for justice more infinite
Craft has historically been overlooked and undervalued. This is mainly due to the form of the work itself: traditional forms of craft have generally been seen as ‘women’s work‘, aka unpaid labour that takes place in the home. The domestic work that was traditionally done by women – such as making and mending clothes, knitting blankets and weaving – wasn’t respected in the same way as traditional, male-dominated workplaces. Simultaneously, these crafts have also been excluded from what most people deem respectable high or fine art practices. Instead, they were seen simply as part of women’s subservience in a household.
Once the industrial revolution began, it brought mass production with it. Craft skills, previously vital for the home, were suddenly outsourced and irrelevant. Since the rise of mass production, craftivism has fought to reclaim these traditions. While some may see craft as reinforcing domesticity of the past, the movement has embraced these ‘domestic arts’; reclaiming traditionally feminised activities as methods for empowerment and change, and making craft another avenue for feminism. Craft is seen as something valuable. A way for people to use their creativity, as well as their voice, as a tool for advocacy.
Craftivism, capitalism & the environment
Because craftivism is tied to feminism, it is also tied to anti-capitalist, anti-sweatshop and DIY movements.
Historically, craft was a pre-capitalist form of production, where each item was valued based on how useful it was. In our present world of mass production, there’s less emphasis on the time and skill used to create something. Instead, craft has become commodified. As more emphasis is placed on making something widely available for consumption as cheaply as possible, it becomes another tool to make money and acts as another mode of exploitation.
Movements such as DIY sprung up to resist this. Made popular through 1990s zine culture, DIY encouraged people to be self-sufficient, relying less on the market for things that could easily be created at home. It’s a resistance to the rampant capitalism of the fashion industry (among others), rejecting pressure to conform or buy into trends. One example of this is how many craftivists share open-sourced patterns and information on the internet. Instead of aggressive copyrighting and exclusivity to protect profits, anyone is welcome to make anything.
When it comes to capitalism and sustainability, craftivism also focuses on international supply chains, namely sweatshops. Some craftivists push back on unfair labour by only making their own clothes or buying from small handmade operations. We’re so used to judging an item on price alone when it appears conveniently in shops, not thinking about the time and work that went into its creation. Craftivists believe that the more people become aware of how items are actually created, the more they will choose to source ethically. Additionally, when buying new materials, craftivists often choose organic fabrics and fairtrade products like home-spun yarns. Even more prefer vintage, thrifted and repurposed goods in order to reduce waste and reuse resources.
Craftivism & protest
Others use craftivism as a means of protest. While we may be used to the banners crafted for marches, craftivists have also found many other ways to use their creativity to grab public attention and start conversations.
For example, artist Cat Mazza created a campaign against Nike’s labour practices by creating a giant blanket depicting their swoosh logo. From 2003 – 2008, crafters around the world were encouraged to mail in 4×4 inch stitched squares to border the blanket and to sign a petition against Nike. Danish artist Marianne Jørgensen’s tank blanket is a similar project. Enraged at her country’s involvement in the war in Iraq, Jørgensen began creating a blanket with pink yarn. Soon local and international volunteers began sending her pink squares to add to the blanket; when it was finished it was wrapped around an old WWII tank to symbolise the pointlessness of war.
More recently, in 2018 artist and activist Salma Zulfiqar ran a project with female refugees from around the world. Over ten weeks the group stitched a quilt together, known as the Migration Blanket. Panels focused on the women’s dreams and provided a way to communicate both the struggles they’d experienced and their hopes for the future. The blanket was exhibited in Birmingham, Manchester, and the Venice Biennale.
But these aren’t the only example of direct action through craft. In fact, craftivists utilise various protest models. Some of the most popular include:
- A knit-in: where craftivists infiltrate a public space and knit. They could occupy a building, sit in a park, or take over public transport, drawing attention to their issue of concern by both transforming spaces and inviting conversation. For example, the Revolutionary Knitting Circle of Calgary staged a knit-in during a G8 summit in 2002, protesting injustice while also facilitating running discussions between stationary knitters. (See also: Australia’s Knitting Nanas).
- Yarn bombing: craftivists create bright ‘yarn installations’, covering trees, statues, lampposts and other things in public areas with yarn. This can both draw attention to issues being discussed, while also reclaiming and reframing ideas around public spaces.
- Guerilla art: similar to yarn bombing, but items may appear all across a city/country rather than occupy one space. For example, trees, car antennas and lampposts may be wrapped in yarn, or textile art containing messages may appear across various public spaces.
- Messaging campaigns: Postcards To Voters is a famous example in this area, when craftivists sent their own hand-decorated postcards to potential voters ahead of elections. For the 2020 election cycle, postcarders collectively sent over 6.7 million postcards. This contributed to flipping Senate seats in Arizona, Colorado and Georgia, and work has already begun on doing the same in the 2022 elections.
One of the most well known UK craftivist movements is The Craftivist Collective. Founded by Sarah Corbett, it’s an inclusive group of people committed to using thoughtful craft to be the positive change they wish to see in the world. They focus on global poverty and human rights injustices, aim to be positive, creative and welcoming to all identities, and have thousands of members.
One of the Craftivist Collective’s key achievements was to convince the board of Marks & Spencer to pay their 50,000 employees the living wage in 2015. Similar to other Living Wage campaigns, the Collective researched individual board members in order to send them personalised, hand-embroidered handkerchiefs. They sewed hopeful messages into each one, encouraging the company to pay staff fairly, and within 10 months M&S committed to paying the living wage. The chair of the board took Corbett aside to tell her it was “the most powerful campaign they’d witnessed”.
As well as usually running their own events, the collective has tools and projects available, which can be undertaken as individuals or by organising group stitch ins (which could still take place over Zoom).
Additionally in the US, The Yarn Mission is a Black-led, collective that knits for Black Liberation and to liberate all marginalised groups and folks at the intersections. Learn more about their work here.
If you’re missing protests, or feel like you want to be doing more activism during this time, getting involved in craftivism can help you develop skills, find new ways to communicate and advocate for change, and also find ways to help your mental health too. The process of crafting is an inherently slow and mindful practice, one that invites us all to take some time to feel empowered, keep contributing to larger movements for change, and remember that our personal creativity can be powerful.