Abrick through a window, a torrent of emails or a message handstitched on a handkerchief and delivered with a smile to the local MP. Which method of plea or protest is likely to have the greatest impact, or feel most humane and personal?
A growing group of individuals calling themselves ‘craftivists’ believe there is power in taking the time and trouble to present a message carefully, quietly, slowly and creatively.
‘I always thought that activism had to be loud and in-your-face,’ says Betsy Greer, an American journalist who coined the term ‘craftivism’ back in 2003. She remembers how she had been attending a town parade and the jollity was interrupted as two puppets of the presidential candidates passed by. She was stunned by how the crowd was subdued and thoughtful when they viewed these creations. ‘It made me think about “quiet” activism and wonder how craft could be a part of it.’
People have been expressing their disquiet through art for generations, of course. The Aids Memorial Quilt created 25 years ago and now known as an American treasure gained global media coverage, and in 2006 the Danish artist Marianne Jørgensen made a stunning symbol of protest against Denmark’s involvement in Iraq by organising the creation of a pink knitted cover for a tank.
In early 2015 the V&A museum in London held its first exhibition exploring objects of art and design from around the world that have been created by grass roots social movements as tools of social change. Called Disobedient Objects, it featured Chilean folk art textiles that documented political violence, defaced currency and giant inflatable cobblestones thrown at demonstrations in Barcelona. The objects on display were mostly produced by nonprofessional makers as responses to complex situations, often collectively and with limited resources.
RESPONSIBILITY AND POWER
‘The creation of things by hand leads to a better understanding of democracy, because it reminds us that we have power,’ says Greer of the potential significance of craft.
‘In learning how to make things, we begin to understand that the £10 shirt we see in a store took hours and hours to make, and therefore £10 is not an adequate price, given the work put into it,’ she says.
Creating a website and writing extensively about craftivism, as well as continuing to work on projects herself, Greer now collates examples of initiatives around the world – projects that raise awareness, build communities, tell stories, make political statements, or encourage change. They include community quilts, graffiti cross-stitch, yarnbombing, upcycling clothing, guerilla gifts, even a knitted protest mouse.
Fluffy, twee or kitsch may be criticisms levelled at the approach, but its protagonists claim that this is part of its power.
‘It’s hard to feel threatened by a place that’s covered in pom-poms,’ the ‘Knitting Guerrillas’ told The Guardian as they explained why they had decorated trees in a Leicestershire park. They hoped it would help reduce the fear of crime in the area.
‘It means people are more intrigued and spend more time looking at [something which is cute or beautiful] and speaking to the person who made it,’ says Sarah Corbett, who founded the Craftivist Collective in the UK seven years ago. ‘If it’s something really pretty and handmade and a bit imperfect, a bit wobbly, it shows someone has taken a lot of effort in making it, not just quickly pinged an email.’
CATALYST FOR CHANGE
There are many and varied approaches to craftivism – decoration and donation are two elements. But Corbett believes it should be about much more.
‘We are not about fundraising, donating or simply awareness-raising. Here at the Craftivist Collective we focus on campaigning and activism where we question and challenge the root causes of poverty and suffering and look for long-term solutions to those problems. We use craft (mostly hand-embroidery) as a powerful tool to create slow, quiet, thoughtful and compassionate activism as a catalyst for long-term positive change in our world and in ourselves.’
We question and challenge the root causes of poverty and suffering
Sarah’s projects have included Climate Rush handstitched petition train bunting, Don’t Blow It hankies, Climate Coalition Heart on Your Sleeve brooches and embroidered jigsaw pieces featuring messages in support of Save the Children’s Race Against Hunger.
She sells kits through her website (Craftivist-collective.com) where people can sew messages or Bible verses on a footprint, create a cross-stitch mini banner or sew a dot-to-dot changemaker such as Malala, Desmond Tutu, or JK Rowling. Each kit comes with a ‘Crafter Thought’ about how to consider the associated issue and how to deliver the completed item.
‘It is a thinking exercise rather than a craft exercise,’ she says. ‘Craft connects your hands, your heart and your head and when you connect that to justice issues, I think it can be world-changing.’
A NEW WAY TO CAMPAIGN
Brought up in West Everton, Liverpool in the 80s, Corbett was a tireless and passionate campaigner throughout school, university and in her early work for international charities. Her mother is a local councillor and her father a vicar, and they had encouraged her from the age of three to engage in social justice issues. ‘All we ever do around the kitchen table is talk about religion and politics,’ Corbett says.
But while having a burning heart for justice, Corbett found that the ways in which she was expected to express her opposition as an activist made her uncomfortable. An introvert by nature, she found large groups and confrontation difficult and, as a Christian, she wasn’t happy with the techniques she was expected to employ.
‘Activism was often about demonising people, saying that they are evil. As a Christian that goes completely against my faith. Jesus had quiet conversations with people. He did ask difficult questions of his friends, but he didn’t scream at them with placards.’
Feeling she was burnt out as an activist, Corbett took time out to relax with a cross-stitch kit and realised that her love of craft was something she could channel for good. ‘Being a loving, critical friend is more effective than being aggressive enemies when we want to change the world,’ she says.
MEDITATING AS SHE MAKES
Corbett started to turn letters to MPs into stitched handkerchiefs, and graffiti slogans became fabric collages pinned to garage doors. A recent project has involved making tiny scrolls with handwritten messages about the fashion industry, which are slipped into the pockets of clothes on the shop floor.
It is the individuality of the projects that lends them their weight, Corbett says. ‘If I made hankies every week, it would dilute the whole act and look like I was doing it because I loved making hankies rather than because I cared about building a relationship,’ she says. ‘It is about provoking people and intriguing them, so often the craft is not at the top of the list – it’s the wording, the colours you use, the fonts.’
And as it affects the recipient, so craftivism has a positive influence on the maker too.
‘Craft is slow and quiet and repetitive with your hands, it’s naturally very meditative,’ she says. ‘It gave me time to think about a lot of injustices that I was very angry about; it made me put myself in the shoes of the victims and the perpetrators. It made me think about how to be the best global citizen I could, the best consumer, the best neighbour. It also gave me time to stitch messages that I was passionate about.’
It made me think about how to be the best global citizen I could
Corbett has gathered a community of people who have come alongside her. Devising projects within the umbrella of her Craftivist Collective, she speaks to charities, festivals and universities about her aims of presenting beautiful handmade items as gifts to powerful people, and building relationships without the need for the shouting commonly associated with activism. There are now thousands of people across the world supporting her projects.
‘I started getting offers from galleries, museums and art centres,’ she says. ‘They didn’t like the “p” word [politics] but were interested in projects with a social justice element. And then NGOs have cautiously got involved.’
Corbett particularly likes working with women’s groups and has been involved with the Women’s Institute as well as individual churches and Christian organisations, and will happily engage with middle-class populations. ‘These people have the time, money and the influence, and they are unlikely to be in activist groups. Women have typically been alienated by the loud, bullying culture of activism,’ she says, ‘but they are the heads of families.’
There are knitting and sewing groups associated with shops, libraries, churches and clubs throughout the country. London’s Cast Off Knitting Club has organised public knitting in locations such as the Circle Line. Festivals have craft tents, or feature guerilla knitting or yarn-bombing where trees, lamp posts, benches or bikes are covered in knitting.
‘Craftivism cuts across the threecorded DNA of Greenbelt – faith, arts and justice,’ says Paul Northup, creative director of the festival, which features yarn-bombing and craftivism workshops. ‘It’s a wonderfully creative response to injustice advocacy and campaigning that we have loved introducing to our festival-goers, and now always try and programme into the festival.’
‘Craftivism has made activism sustainable for me,’ says Corbett. ‘It has allowed me to thread activism through everything I do. Craftivism has allowed me to stop and think deeply about issues before I act on them, and given me time to reflect on how I can be my best self and be the change that I wish to see in the world.
‘The things I make are beautiful, unique and, being handmade, are a little bit imperfect. They remind us how gorgeous the world is, and how we can make it even more gorgeous by making a difference.
HOBBIES WITH A PURPOSE GOOD GYM
This not-for-profit organisation is a community of runners who get fit by doing good. You can join in a group run where you might also clear a community space or distribute flyers, or you can volunteer alone and be sent on a one-off ‘mission’. You can also be paired with an isolated older person who becomes your running coach. Launched in 2009, there are now groups in London, Liverpool and Bristol. goodgym.org
FINE CELL WORK
There are 60 volunteers training more than 400 prisoners in paid, skilled, creative needlework in 29 prisons across England, Scotland and Wales. The cushions, hangings and gifts they create are highly prized items for sale through the website. Through teaching prisoners creative needlework, Fine Cell Work aims to foster hope, discipline and self-esteem, giving them a skill which will connect them with society and leave prison with the confidence and financial means to stop offending. finecellwork.co.uk
This community project was launched in 2011 with the aim of connecting people who like to cook, with their older neighbours who aren’t always able to cook for themselves. Now an international initiative, 7,000 people are involved, forging strong friendships and building community. casseroleclub.com
These free outdoor sessions focus on health and fitness as much as planting trees, sowing meadows, clearing scrubland and establishing wildlife ponds. Through increased contact with nature, the social benefits of group activity and contributing something positive to the local community, the initiative also helps mental well-being in its participants. The scheme is run by The Conservation Volunteers who have thousands of other projects reclaiming local green places. tcv.org.uk/greengym