Craftivism: The Introduction (part 1 of ?)
“Craftivism” (a portmanteau of “craft activism” coined by Betsy Greer in 2003) refers the practice of expressing a political message through hand-made goods or art. It’s most often applied to crafts or “domestic arts” that use yarn or fabric (i.e., knitting, crochet, sewing, embroidery, quilting, etc.) but can also include work in other media such as printing and wood- or paper-crafts as well as the use of yarn/fabric crafting techniques with atypical materials (e.g., knitting with videotape). Craftivism often overlaps with political fashion, the distinction being that craftivism describes the context, intention, and processes used to create something while political fashion is more about the product and how it’s deployed.
The field is broad and eclectic. Craftivism can create both “fine” and applied or functional artworks and both wearable and non-wearable finished pieces. It includes everything from street art (like guerilla yarnbombing, which has detractors and defenders) to sanctioned public art to formal gallery installations; solo and group projects; single-instance events and ongoing movements; crafting for charity (though you should pause to think about how that donation might be put to good use or if donation in another form would be more helpful) or for any political cause. It extends even to the simple act of making conscious crafting choices like using socially and ecologically responsible materials.
Craftivism is open to anyone to practice. However, because craft in recent history has been strongly gendered (as well as age-segregated to children and old people), its activist enactments frequently connect in one way or another to gender identities and expressions. Craftivism as we know it was defined in the midst of a popular resurgence of knitting simultaneous with third wave feminist conversations around reclaiming “traditionally” feminine symbols and practices that second wave feminists had largely eschewed. Those conversations are ongoing; we’re still struggling with misogynistic indoctrination that conflates femininity with submissiveness and superficiality and tells people of all genders that power and respect can be obtained only by rejecting dresses and makeup and the hobbies of “homemakers” and adopting (currently) masculine-coded attributes instead. Visibly engaging in craft can serve as a political statement in itself, whether that statement is about claiming and celebrating femininity and/or femme-ness or throwing off the limitations of kyriarchal social ruts and “gender-appropriate” behaviour.
The revival of yarn crafts specifically and growth of the handmade and Slow Fashion movements more generally have absorbed much of the inherent transgression of crafting between adolescence and retirement, but it’s still somewhat incongruous—and therefore noteworthy—for masculine-presenting people to craft, especially cis men and boys expected for other reasons to be rough, tough, or macho. Public discourse about dudes engaging in “girly hobbies” like knitting may invoke titillation, if not outright sensationalism (That bro did a chick thing yet retained metaphorical testicles! Unprecedented!), defend men’s historic “rulership” of craft (craft was the manly domain of men who were manly men until all the good crafting jobs got swiped by machines and ladies), or seek to rationalize such a frivolous or shamefully domestic behaviour by citing external benefits as motivation (It’s okay for a man to do this because he’s doing it for a reason and not because he just likes it).
That’s not to say crafting doesn’t have demonstrable benefits. Evidence is piling up and word getting out that practising a craft, socially or solo, is medicinal. It can keep your hands and brain limber longer by resisting conditions like arthritis and cognitive deterioration. On top of that, neuroscientists are confirming what crafters already knew: crafting feels good. Almost immediately, picking up knitting needles or an embroidery hoop can improve mood and relieve anxiety. A partial explanation is that crafting, like many other activities ranging from chess to rock-climbing to dancing to BDSM, allows us to access a state called “flow”, a condition of serene focus and satisfaction achieved when the difficulty of the activity we’re engaged in is in balance with our ability to perform it (too challenging and we get frustrated; too easy, we get bored). Because flow makes crafting autotelic (intrinsically rewarding) many find the process of crafting a greater motivation to craft than the finished product. Crafting in groups brings further benefits as these groups can become close-knit communities (pun intended) and vital sources of emotional support, acceptance, encouragement, and recognition of accomplishments for their members. Crafting is then a powerful tool for self- and community-care, which for marginalized peoples politicizes it in another way because surviving in a culture that would prefer you invisible or dead is a courageous act of resistance; engaging in craftivism magnifies this effect by combining the benefits of crafting with the energizing charge of participating voluntarily in a political action.
If you’re interested in further exploring craftivism, political fashion, and social dimensions of design, watch this space for future blog posts on the interweaving of politics and craft, examples and icons of politics in fashion and vice versa, the role of visual style in defining and communicating identity, and other fashion with functions beyond form.
By Claire Dalmyn
Craftivism manifesto from craftivism.com
“Buttmunches” by Lorna and Jill Watt of Knits for Life