Getting crafty: a creative approach to activism

Forget placards and megaphones, Rin Simpson finds out how craft-based activism is making waves in fighting global injustice

Crafters are changing the world, one stitch at a time. From the ‘yarn bombers’ reclaiming their streets with knitted graffiti to the secret sewing brigade making their point with beautiful but thought-provoking cross-stitched mini-banners, activism has had an unusual and rather attractive makeover.

And it’s not just a handful of lone rangers who are extolling the virtues of ‘craftivism’, a term first coined by American campaigner and author Betsy Greer in 2003. New projects are popping up all over the place, and are increasingly organised and endorsed by recognised charities.

Save the Children, for example, is currently collaborating with the Craftivist Collective to create an art installation from hundreds of stitched jigsaw puzzle pieces, as part of the Race Against Hunger campaign. Greenpeace, meanwhile, has designed an ‘arctic craft kit’ for their supporters to use to raise funds and awareness and petition the authorities, as part of the Save The Arctic campaign.

But what is it that makes cross-stitching and crochet more attractive than marching and waving placards?

Sarah Corbett, who founded the Craftivist Collective in 2009, says that craftivism is about positivity and personal change rather than finger-pointing, and has created a checklist of goals for the work she and her supporters do.

“It needs to be encouraging and positive. It needs to say to people: ‘We want you to be your best self, to be committed to doing the best thing’, rather than pointing the finger”

“It needs to be encouraging and positive,” she says. “It needs to say to people, and to ourselves: ‘We want you to be your best self, to be committed to doing the best thing’, rather than pointing the finger and saying, ‘do this’, which isn’t going to work. It’s not about demonising people. What we do is to provoke conversation and build relationships and encourage people to be better people.”

The work of the Craftivist Collective often involves hanging mini-banners, stitched with important facts or encouraging quotes, in public places to catch the attention of passersby. At this year’s London Fashion Week, for example, one such banner tied to railings outside a women’s fashion store compared the wages earned by models with those earned by sweatshop workers.

“We use slogans and facts because that’s quite objective,” Sarah explains. “It’s saying, ‘How do you interpret this?’ rather than saying, ‘This is wrong’.”

By taking a more laid-back, less aggressive stance, craftivists engage with people, rather than blindly pushing a message regardless of whether people are receptive to it or not. It may not be as noisy as some of the more traditional forms of activism, but that’s part of its appeal.

“We need both, and people have different strengths,” says Helen Babbs, who worked on Greenpeace’s arctic craft kit as part of its artwork and editorial team. “If you’re really good at knitting there’s no reason why you can’t use that to protest and to raise awareness. It is softer-edged but it can be just as powerful. And it means we’re talking to different people. Someone who is interested in cooking or stencilling or knitting may not be as interested in those traditional ways of protesting. It’s just a different way.”

Of course, it also makes business sense. Charities are always looking for new ways to engage with their supporters – and those who have not yet bought into their message – and the increased interest in crafts over the last few years has made it a natural tool.

“It’s a great way of spreading the word about the campaign,” Helen admits. “It’s about creativity and doing stuff that’s fun and interesting, but also helps get the word out. There is a real desire for DIY and created things. It’s about reconnecting with objects; if you’ve made a product you know where it’s come from, you have more of a connection with it. In a world of mass-produced products, an individually crafted item is more desirable.”

Another advantage that craftivism has over traditional forms of activism, which its supporters are keen to stress, is the time it takes to complete. Traditional forms of activism tend to be quick – signing a petition or donating a few pounds to a campaign group takes little in the way of real investment. Craft, on the other hand, is a time for reflection.

“I burnt out as an activist because I was doing so much so fast and I felt like I was just a robot,” says Sarah. “Craftivism really helped me stop and think about what the issues mean to me and made me reflect deeply about whom injustice affects and how we can all be part of solving them. For the maker it’s a method of activism that I call ‘slow activism’.”

There are those that would argue that activism should be ‘in your face,’ that protest should be loud, grab attention, make waves. But the growing popularity of craftivism in the UK and around the world is testament to the fact that we cannot limit ourselves to doing things the way they have always been done.