Social justice with knitting

Welcome to the world of craftivism - a way of looking at life where voicing opinions through creativity makes your voice louder, your compassion deeper, and your quest for justice stronger. 

Kali Swenson
29 July 2014

A handmade message of protest by Sarah Corbett. Credit: YES! Magazine. All rights reserved.

When Betsy Greer saw political puppets at the Village Halloween Parade in New York City, she realized that activism doesn’t have to be “loud and brash.” A creative statement, like the gentle giants of the parade, could be just as powerful.

Greer began combining activism and protest with her own crafting. She coined the term “craftivism,” which she defines as “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.”

Greer uses knitting, cross-stitching, and embroidery to convey important messages—like her cross-stitched images of anti-war graffiti. Her latest project involves embroidering statements about the experience of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to raise awareness about the disorder. The domesticity of the medium makes the messages more accessible.

Greer says craft is an effective method of advocacy because of the attention and involvement it requires. “We all have personal histories with crafts in some ways, whether we remember learning to sew at school or recall our grandmothers sitting by the fire knitting.” It’s a personal activity that allows for more connection with other people and further connection to a cause.

Another craftivist, Sarah Corbett, felt she was an introvert whose personality and skills were not best suited to traditional protest methods. Rather than wear herself out with marches, demonstrations, and petitions, Corbett put her talents to work by turning to the slow, thoughtful placement of messages in public places.

Corbett started blogging as “A Lonely Craftivist” before branching out to form the Craftivist Collective in 2009. The collective focuses on being positive and non-threatening - more meditative than preachy. Messages like “Charity begins at home but should never end there” are cross-stitched onto small, colorful pieces of cloth in gestures that are inviting rather than confrontational.

Whether it is crafters cross-stitching miniature messages of protest or passersby noticing the small, eye-catching banners that are mounted in public places, Corbett’s brand of craftivism allows people to engage in their own way and on their own time. The hours, days and weeks it takes to make a work of craftivism allow people more time to ponder the issues at hand. Group crafting sessions like the collective’s “stitch-ins” become safe spaces for discussion.

Based in the United Kingdom but inspiring action around the world, Corbett and the Craftivist Collective encourage people to thread their activism through all aspects of their lives—their hobbies included.

Artist Cat Mazza’s first brush with activism came from working with the hacktivists of the Carbon Defense League. Their use of “tactical media” inspired her to start MicroRevolt, a feminist group that fuses anti-sweatshop activism with crafting, performances, workshops, and web-based projects.

Mazza’s “Nike Blanket Petition” was a MicroRevolt anti-sweatshop project undertaken between 2003 and 2008 that she says aimed to challenge the corporate monopoly of Nike. The blanket - a 15-foot-wide quilt - carries a large, white Nike ‘swoosh’ on a crimson background, with multicolored patches stitched along the border. Crafters from 40 countries and states across the USA knitted or crocheted squares for the quilt and signed a petition urging Nike to adopt fair labor practices.

In another of MicroRevolt’s projects, the sometimes-subverted logos of sweatshop offenders like Gap, Disney, and Apple were knitted into leg warmers, sweaters, and patches. Anyone can design their own version of these “logoknits” using MicroRevolt’s free web application called “knitPro.” The purpose is to “initiate dialogue about labor issues,” says Mazza, who describes herself as an artist rather than a craftivist.

Whichever word is used, Greer, Corbett, Mazza and many other artist-activists are showing how something as simple as a patch on a blanket can be used to protest the shadow side of the global economy.

This article first appeared in YES! Magazine, and is republished here with permission.

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