Handicrafts are making a comeback among activists looking for more creative, personalised and effective ways of fighting for social causes.
One of the most notable human characteristics has always been the desire to improve our lives. Social movements are a prime example of our unwillingness to conform, the urge to build a better life for ourselves and to do away with any practice that puts barriers in the way of progress.
Today, in the 21st century, that struggle still goes on, although we now use much more sophisticated weapons. We have rejected the death and destruction of violence in favour of more creative, original outlets like craftivism.
The craftivists stitch their slogans, messages and demands into simple pieces of fabric as a way of making their voices better heard.
Craft + activism
The term craftivism was coined by the writer Betsy Greer in 2003 to describe a new, revolutionary activist movement that used art as a weapon of protest.
Its current focus is handicrafts like knitting which mean messages can be created and disseminated much more easily and in an original, effective way.
Craftivists are engaged with political and social causes and they incorporate elements from anti-capitalism, environmentalism and third-wave feminism since their ultimate goal remains the same – to make the world we live in a better place.
As Betsy Greer indicated in the Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice (2007), craftivism is much more than a way of making art. It is “…a way of looking at life where voicing opinions through creativity makes your voice stronger, your compassion deeper and your quest for justice more infinite.”
Creativity in power
While other kinds of activism see strength in the unity of many people under one banner, craftivism fights for positive change in a much more personalised way. It allows the practitioner to be empowered by their particular skills and their own creative energy.
In an article called “Activism stitch by stitch”, the Chilean journalist Camila Larsen Esveile explains how this movement aims to rediscover the particular cultural and social values of handmade objects that capitalism has robbed them of. Before the industrial revolution, craft skills were highly prized by society.
It was usually the women who made clothes for the family but there was also a range of specialised craftspeople from cobblers and tailors to potters and knife-makers.
Everyone made a living by their own hand and by working at what they knew best. But this way of thinking changed completely in the industrial period. As mass production developed, artisans were unable to match the cheaper prices of big industry. Materialism and consumerism grew exponentially while the craftspeople saw their long-established businesses collapse.
Now, however, the craftivists have found the present century the ideal time to rescue a creative spirit that was thought to be lost forever. In the struggle to build a fairer word for everyone, it is no use being part of a large crowd unless we are each prepared to give the best of ourselves.
Feminism and environmentalism
Craftivism definitely has a close relationship with so-called third-wave feminism.
As a movement it reclaims knitting, sewing, handicrafts and other traditionally female activities associated with the domestic sphere. It aims to give greater importance to underrated crafts and in so doing allow women the opportunity to express themselves through art.
Historically, these kinds of crafts have not enjoyed the same treatment or respect as men’s professional activities. In fact, patriarchy has exploited this association with the domestic to keep women in subordinate roles.
The craftivists are also environmentalists to an extent because they try to use non-polluting organic materials and promote sustainability. They also advocate recycling to minimise waste and encourage re-use. As Betsy Greer says, traditional crafts are for people who value their time as much as their money.
Knitting for peace
Craftivism is a powerful weapon in the fight against social injustice but it also strongly condemns violence and war for the bloodshed they have brought to the world.
Marianne Jorgensen is a Danish artist who, in 2006, covered an army tank with a gigantic pink blanket in protest against the Iraq war. As she explains on her web page: “When it is covered in pink, it becomes completely unarmed and it loses its authority.”
The Canadian artist Barbara Hunt has also made her own contribution to the struggle for peace by knitting woollen landmines and bombs.
Crafts in action
Cat Mazza is a US artist who set up the ‘microRevolt’ project in 2003 to investigate the expansion of sweatshops in industrialised capitalist economies.
She began by knitting clothes with the logos of some of the best known high-street brands, such as Nike or Gap, to highlight the huge disparity between the kind of lifestyles these brands aim to promote and the precarious conditions of workers in their factories.
With knitted squares supplied by participants from all over the world, Mazza stitched together a 14-foot wide blanket bearing the Nike logo. Every square acted as a signature in a petition calling for fairer working conditions.
MicroRevolt is not the only project of its kind. ‘Knitta’ and ‘Stitch for Senate’ also see their art as a way of protesting and calling for change. Knitta links handicrafts with street art by wrapping lampposts, telegraph poles and handrails in knitted material, while Stitch for Senate sends hand-knitted balaclavas to US senators to get them to withdraw their troops from Iraq.
(Translated by Susan Hubbard – Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)