Making The World By Hand (Before Craftivism Was a Thing)

Volunteers bundling hand-knit socks to send to soldiers, 1917.

As a named phenomenon craftivism (the practice of consciously melding hand-crafting goods and art with political activism) may be young, defined only in the first years of the 21st century, but the shared history of craft and politics stretches much further. For a supposedly tame and and dainty domestic practice, crafting has often played a significant role in times of conflict; we draw vivid examples of craft as a facet of public engagement and crafting with political intent from the American and French revolutions of the late 18th century and the world wars in the first half of the 20th. The illustrations in this post barely scratch the surface, leaving aside for the most part the ways in which practices we now categorize as crafts are themselves political, the roles they’ve played in histories of labour and technology or the construction of gender, or major events such as the slow fashion movement, eco-fashion, and the very existence of mass production.

However far the legend of les tricoteuses may stretch the truth, somebody had to knit all those Phrygian “Liberty caps”, floppy red hats which remain significant to French national symbolism.

As early as the 1760s, in what would shortly become the United States of America, textile artisans helped the move towards independence from Britain, cutting demand for imported goods and materials by recycling yarn and fabric and producing clothes and other necessaries themselves using locally grown and processed fibre. When war broke out they rallied to provision the rebel army with uniforms and blankets and to deliver these to soldiers on the front. Before that, crafting provided both a forum and a cover for revolutionary preparations when whole communities gathered at “spinning bees” organized by women who, without access to other venues of political participation, decided to create their own.

A decade or so later in France a proletarian faction known as les tricoteuses (the knitting women) garnered lasting attention, though biased sources and artistic license obscure the details of exactly how they earned it. Working women won an early victory for the revolution by marching on Versailles but were later bumped out of the decision-making process by a revolutionary government who felt threatened by their popularity and “rowdy and unpredictable” behaviour  (reports of obstreperous women accosting suspected bourgeoisie in the streets could be either cause or consequence of the government’s wish to discredit and distance themselves from their fellow revolutionaries, predictably favouring fraternité over égalité). Banned from political assembly, these women reportedly congregated informally in the square where public executions took place, with yarn and needles at the ready to keep their hands busy while they spent the days conversing and taking in the gory spectacle. That image, juxtaposing the innocence and wholesomeness of the private sphere with violence in the public, left an impression on the public consciousness that persists long after the last aristocrat left that square shorter than they’d arrived. Post-revolution writers like Emma Orczy and Charles Dickens embellished the story (real tricoteuses probably didn’t sit close enough to the guillotine to get the Carrie treatment, as Orczy suggested in The Scarlet Pimpernel, or work the names of the slain into their knitting in code like Madame DeFarge in Tale of Two Cities), but even without that publicity this 18th century Parisian knitting circle set a strong precedent for the title of “hardcore crafters” \m/

Knitters gathered at a “bee” in Central Park organized by the Comforts Committee of the Navy League of the United States in August 1918.

During our previous century’s world wars non-combatants were called on again to provide material support to soldiers in the form of handknit socks, vests, helmets, and other items (though not all of these crafters viewed what they were doing as political per se). Steady resupply of wool socks was especially critical, given the threat posed by conditions like trench foot (a nasty fungal infection). While the clear emphasis of propaganda campaigns was on civilian women knitting for the sake of sons, brothers, and current or hypothetical future husbands in service, no hands stayed idle long that could could be put to work and everyone from small children to movie stars and royalty to soldiers themselves “knit their bit”. With support from yarn suppliers and pattern publishers and organizational aide from bodies such as the American Red Cross, volunteers cranked out hundreds of millions of knit items per war.

There are also numerous stories from both wars about ways craft can be used in espionage, from the simple leveraging of craft’s innocuousness as cover by spies in public, observing and recording events while appearing engrossed in their pastoral pastimes and handily smuggling concealed messages past enemy inspection, to harnessing the esoteric nature of craft techniques for use in cryptography, encoding sensitive information into the work itself using systems of knots, special stitches, or carefully placed “mistakes”details beneath the notice of most people uninitiated in the relevant yarny mysteries.

Crafters gather to work on pussyhats at The Little Knittery in Atwater Village, Los Angeles, prior to the Women’s March on Washington in 2017.

It might seem hyperbolic to compare contemporary craftivist projects like last winter’s Pussyhat Project with the motivated crafting of prior generations. Indeed, it’s hard to find arguable cases of craft saving lives in the 21st century, although it can certainly improve them in significant ways (see our previous post on craftivism and watch for examples of compassionate crafting causes when this series continues). That doesn’t mean that politically charged crafting now is less worthy than it was in these eras: it still facilitates community building by providing an excuse to gather, still captures attention in a way that unsettles observers by disrupting hegemonic segregation of the private and the public, still links the ‘home front’ with the ‘front line’ by giving those on the former a tangible way to contribute and those on the latter proof that they are valued, to the mutual benefit of the crafter and the crafted-for, and successful large projects power global organizational networks to focus the energy of a mass mobilization of volunteers. The stakes today might not be life or death . . . but it can’t hurt to practice.


By Claire Dalmyn

Image credits:

Australian Comforts Fund ‘War Chest’ Sock Appeal in Sydney, May 1917, photo by G.A. Hills The Conversation

“Tricoteuses on the Steps of Saint-Roch Church on October 16, 1793”, painting by Henri Baron

Central Park Knitting Bee, August 1918, National Archives via Atlas Obscura

Pussyhat makers gathering in Los Angeles, January 2017, photo by Blair Wells KQED News