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Craft has a long history as a tool for the expression of political dissent. Betsy Greer, Sarah Corbett and Rachel Burke share their stories of craft activism.
Well known as a powerful tool for individual physical and mental health, craft also has a long history as a tool for the expression of political dissent. Around the world, craft activism or craftivism, a term coined by American Betsy Greer in 2003, is growing as a way to advocate for social change in a very personal, intimate and gentle way. Three of its leading proponents – Betsy Greer from the United States, Sarah Corbett from the UK and Australia’s Rachel Burke – share some of their stories.
HOW DID YOU BECOME INVOLVED IN CRAFTIVISM...WHAT'S YOUR STORY?
I started knitting in 2000 at the age of 25. At this point, I was putting together how I viewed the world still, and began to see how craft and activism were inherently connected. What we make with our hands is not only an act of agency for ourselves, it also can be an expression of our world view, which we can use to connect with others. I started to connect those dots over a few years, and when a friend in a knitting circle came up with the word craftivism one night when I was talking about it, I decided that was the license I needed to share my thoughts on the subject with the wider world. To my surprise and delight, I wasn’t the only one who thought those two things meshed together well.
I wasn’t an activist in any sense of the word beforehand. I was raised in the American South and the act of protesting was pretty much the antithesis of my upbringing. But, as I began to see that creating in itself is a form of activism, my thoughts began to pivot from, 'activism isn’t for me' to 'this is where my soul lies'. Craftivism came from a place of wanting to give and find goodness in this world. To my greatest awe, it has become a construct based on those two things that’s been fine-tuned by the hands of many.
It’s also about me creating what I was looking for in the world. When I was 25, I was on a super destructive path mired with alcohol and depression, and having a hard time finding my people as it were. Who knew that talking about an idea would have led to the creation of a like-minded community?
Finding craft saved my life, and finding craftivism saved my spirit.
I have been a keen crafter for a number of years, working across a variety of mediums to create wearables, sculpture, and photographic pieces. I guess you could say that I stumbled into craftivism, as I initially started off selling my hand-made headbands and dress designs to boutiques, before suddenly having the bright idea to make dresses specifically to raise money for charity.
I ended up doing two large-scale dressmaking projects over a few years via my website i make. you wear it. cumulatively raising over $10,000 for charity. Since then, I have gone on to launch the Apomogy project (saying you’re sorry through a pom pom). Both projects taught me how I can use my craft to make a difference and spread a message. It was empowering to realise that the things I made could be far from just decorative – it made me realise that I can use craft to make some noise and make a difference. Through my projects I hope to encourage others to do the same!
I’ve been a craftivist since 2008, but I’ve always been an activist. I grew up in a low-income area of Liverpool in the 1980s and aged three I was present with my parents and other local residents trying to save good local housing from demolition.
At secondary school, I successfully campaigned for lockers for the students and at university I campaigned on global issues and spent the first seven years of my adult career working for large charities as a professional activist and movement-builder.
But, by 2008, I was a burnt-out activist. I’m an introvert; going to protests, meetings and street stalls asking people to sign petitions drained me. I didn’t like shouting or telling others what to do. I worried about the increasing disengagement from power-holders to online quick actions or 'clicktivism'. Much of my work as a professional campaigner was online and not very creative.
In the summer of 2008, I picked up a cross-stitch craft kit from a local shop to stitch on a train journey when I felt too travel-sick to work. I immediately experienced how handicrafts could help address some of my difficulties with traditional forms of activism and add to the activism toolkit what I call 'slow activism', 'mindful activism', 'intriguing activism', 'quiet activism' and 'graceful activism'.
I Googled 'craft and activism' to see if others agreed that the two could combine for social change. Betsy Greer coined the term 'craftivism' in 2003 but I couldn’t find any craftivism projects or groups I could join. With Betsy’s blessing, I created my own projects and founded the Craftivist Collective in 2009 after people around the world wanted to join in with my projects. Over the years, I’ve been learning in this ever-changing world, where and how craft can be a powerful tool for positive change.
WHAT IS THE MOST POWERFUL OR EFFECTIVE CRAFT INTERVENTION YOU'VE BEEN PART OF?
Definitely seeing all the pussy hats made for the Women’s Marches held around the world. With the election of Donald Trump, and being back in the south now, I was feeling increasingly worried about how some of his comments were going to be extrapolated by society at large. Having been assaulted in various ways over the years, I was so scared of the culture going backwards now he had seemingly normalised certain types of behavior. For me, making the hats (I made six all together, wearing one and giving five away to friends) was about realizing we are not in this alone, we are in it together. Four of the hats I made were given to two mother-daughter sets, and that made me so hopeful to see how this fight was intergenerational.
And to see so many handmade hats, to see products of so many hands that spent several hours making each one was phenomenal. I know the march had critics, and rightly so, but seeing so many crafters come together for this was inspiring. After the marches, the hats continued to create conversation as people talked about them in various ways. They really showed how handmade items still have poignancy and relevancy in our lives and communities.
Since January, there has been a sharp uptick in people wanting to do craftivist work, which has been amazing! Craftivist groups have been popping up, craftivist projects have been started and, through the #craftivism hashtag on social media, people can share like-minded ideas as well as get inspired by what others are up to.
On a quieter level, the most powerful intervention I’ve been a part of has been knitting items for charity, something I’ve been doing off and on since I started knitting. I say quieter because it’s something many people do, but don’t really talk about. But it gives people agency to create change in the world and directly help other people. For some stitchers, it elevates what some may see as an obsolete hobby to something that is important and meaningful. It also connects people together in these efforts and creates lasting friendships, it’s a much quieter effort, but I’ve heard from many individuals, usually older women, who say creating items for donation has given their spare time purpose. This, to me, is important because it helps strengthen community ties.
At its heart, craftivism is about creating dialogue and effecting change, and that comes about both in scores of similarly made hats worn in protest and in helping people feel useful and that they are giving back. The ways in which people can use craftivism in their own lives are endless, and it’s always lovely to see how people are connecting craft and activism to better the lives of themselves and others.
One craftivism project I created in 2016 led to an increase in wages in line with Living Wage rates for 50,000 employees of a well-known retail company in the UK, allowing people to work and live with dignity.
The organisation ShareAction had been trying to get a meeting with the company but the Chief Executive kept refusing. The CEO of ShareAction contacted me for help. I had five weeks before the company AGM (annual general meeting) to plan a craftivism campaign to get a Living Wage for their lowest paid employees. My aim was to create a craftivism project that would initiate a new relationship with the company and encourage them to become Living Wage employers.
I asked 24 craftivists across the UK to hand stitch positive messages onto the company’s handkerchiefs that connected to the 14 board members, the five Chief Investment Officers of its largest shareholders, and five of its celebrity ambassadors. The handkerchief gifts encouraged them not to 'blow it' but to use their power to lead the way in the retail sector.
Each craftivist was encouraged to research their allocated person to make their 'gift' attractive and engaging: for example one board member seemed a thoughtful introvert and received a quote from Rosa Parks saying "memories of our lives, of our works and of our deeds will continue in others" alongside the words "Please don’t blow your opportunity to support life-changing decisions".
Each gift was delivered with a handwritten note putting a robust business case for a Living Wage for their employees, how the maker used the time creating the gift to reflect on the difficultly of employees living below a Living Wage, as well as the difficult role the hanky-receivers had, but how wonderful a legacy they could have by helping their company become a Living Wage employer.
I also coordinated a series of 'stitch-ins' outside stores of the company across the UK to engage the public and media in a gentle, positive way and show the company that their customers expected them to show leadership on this fairness issue.
We made 250 craftivism kits to give to shareholders when they arrived at the AGM and the Chair of the Board thanked us for our gifts in his introductory speech. After the meeting, he thanked us again adding that it was "an approach that appeals to us all: the way you’ve done this is remarkable. It’s a campaign that is thoughtfully done and heartfelt. We feel every bit as heartfelt about our employees". At the AGM a year later, and after their wage increase announcement, Board members told me that our handmade gifts had touched them and put the Living Wage at the top of their agendas when it had not been discussed before our campaign.
If we want our world to be beautiful, kind and fair, I believe our activism should be beautiful, kind and fair. Being a craftivist can be world-changing, one stitch at a time if delivered with care, courage and compassion.
My project Apomogy would have to be my biggest, personal act of craftivism to date. Apomogy is a communal art project, where people share their apologies via a pom pom. Since launching my Apomogy project in 2015, I have received thousands of submissions from across the world. I photograph the contributions and share them daily on the @apomogy instagram page. I have also exhibited the Apomogies in a number of intimate gallery spaces around Australia.
Apomogy has served as a powerful tool for people to share the things that they may otherwise keep silent or hidden by bringing them to the foreground. The act of sharing these apologies feels like an act of defiance and resistance… particularly to the #sorrynotsorry movement and the trend of idyllic self-curation (particularly occurring on social media).
Apomogy has brought about change in small ways for people who have interacted with the project. Some have been moved to share a verbal apology with someone who they felt deserved it, others have felt an immense sense of catharsis simply by taking the step to share their story. My own life has been affected by the project, in that an old friend (who I had previously had an awful falling out with) used the project to get back in touch with me and say I’m sorry we’re not friends anymore. Her apomogy led us to repair our friendship and let go of the old argument which was definitely occupying a nasty space in our minds!
Rachel Burke is a multidisciplinary artist, clothing designer, and stylist. She is the founder and artist behind Apomogy, a communal art project encouraging people to anonymously apologise through a handmade pom pom. Rachel has exhibited the Apomogy project at a number of galleries around Australia and recently completed a TEDxQUT talk on her findings. First gaining recognition in 2012 for her 365 dress-a-day project i make. you wear it., she has since gone on to pave an exciting career as a full-time creative, currently working as the Senior Womenswear Designer at Universal Store and a regular contributor to Frankie Magazine. Rachel has worked on a number of self-devised and collaborative projects including Fancy Free Time (a popular YouTube DIY channel starring alongside Patience Hodgson), Workshop Host for GOMA’s 2016 Cindy Sherman exhibition, and will also be returning to Splendour in The Grass Festival as co-Craft Captain for her third year in a row.
Sarah Corbett is an award-winning campaigner. She grew up in a low-income area in England and started doing craftivism (craft + activism) in 2008. Whilst she was a professional campaigner, she set up the Craftivist Collective in 2009. Members across the world take part in her craftivism projects using her kits and tools. She is a leading spokesperson in the craftivism movement and gives talks and workshops around the world at universities, creates events for arts institutions such as the V&A and Tate, and continues to be a consultant in the charity sector working with organisations from UNICEF and Fashion Revolution to the Scouts Association. She has collaborated with cult jewellers Tatty Devine and Secret Cinema amongst others. Her first book, A Little Book of Craftivism, was published in 2013 and her second, How To Be A Craftivist: the art of gentle protest, will be published in October 2017.
Betsy Greer currently lives in the Southeast United States. She makes political needlework and writes in a little house with a spotted dog. Since 2003, she has been fortunate enough to deliver talks and workshops on craftivism, and loves meeting like-minded folk who also believe that our craft skills can help make us into our best selves. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and found on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook at @craftivista.
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