I was walking through Brisbane’s Queen Street Mall in the same way that most people do–head down, earphones in, trying to reach my destination without making eye contact–but something colourful jerked me into the reality of my surroundings. The steel bollard that blocked traffic from entering a narrow street had been covered with a patchwork of colourful, knitted squares. It reminded me to look outside myself, and to be where I was.
The term craftivism (craft + activism) was coined by Betsy Greer in 2003, and has been adopted by many groups and individuals since then. Greer defines it 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, 2007).
Author and blogger Anna Branford suggests that the principles underlying craftivism were established long before the term was first uttered at the beginning of the millennium. She cites historian Beverly Kingston’s essay Faith and Fetes: Women and History of the Churches in Australia, which explores the power of women in fundraising for community causes, education and the war effort in the late 1940s. The resourcefulness that these women displayed in creating useful and commercial items from inexpensive, scarce materials, made a considerable difference in the lives of their children, family and wider community.
Craftivism can be tailored to suit a cause but is most commonly used for issues relating to environmentalism, third-wave feminism and anti-capitalism. The goal of craftivism campaigns are almost always about making the world a better place for everyone.
In 2013, Deborah Hamon worked with primary school children to create over two thousand pom-poms, which she carried all the way to the Arctic for her Polar Pom-Pom photography series. The photographs not only depict thousands of colourful yarn balls imitating rising sea levels in the fragile environment, they also show the strong young women who acted as Deborah’s guides and protectors during her trip. The juxtaposition of these women holding rifles in a sea of fluffy, traditionally feminine objects is truly striking.
Anti-capitalist craftivists focus primarily on the issue of international sweatshops, considering craft to be the pre-capitalist form of production. Before the industrial revolution and the introduction of mass production, items came from within the community from those who possessed specialist skills. To protest the appalling conditions of workers in Nike factories, artist and activist Cat Mazza formed MicroRevolt. She led a three-year project to create a 15-foot wide quilt of the Nike logo, made from knitted and crocheted squares from crafters in 40 countries and every US state. The blanket was displayed at various exhibitions, always strategically close to Nike stores and even the Nike national headquarters in Oregon.
This kind of activism also represents a reclaiming of “the domestic arts” for all genders. Women reclaim the abilities that were traditionally a necessity for survival of the family, and gain recognition for their effort and skill in tasks that their great-grandmothers would have been expected to complete thanklessly. For men, it can offer a freedom to express themselves equally through these traditionally feminine mediums without internal or external judgement.
Activism through craft is not just about the end product; equally valuable is the time invested in the item. The gentle and repetitive movement of activities such as stitching or knitting act as a kind of moving meditation, and provide an opportunity for quiet contemplation of the object’s purpose in being created.
The amount of time, effort and thought that goes into each project, large or small, is what I found so intriguing on the day that I stopped in the Mall. Physical and online communities are built around the shared ideal of changing the world one stitch at a time, and fighting for what they believe in with crochet hooks in living rooms rather than right hooks at rallies.
Craftivism is a step away from the use of negativity or destruction that has, historically, been one of the most effective ways to attract attention. Craftivism moves toward a more peaceful form of demonstration. It allows the creator to process strong emotions more thoroughly by creating a piece of art, and encourages a more positive and constructive dialogue about the things that light a fire–of anger, or sorrow, or hope–within us.