According to Betsy Greer’s entry in The Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice (Sage Publications, 2007), “the term craftivism surfaced in the first few years of the 21st century and gained an online presence with the website www.craftivism.com in 2003 to promote the symbiotic relationship between craft and activism. After craft skills such as knitting regained popularity, the idea emerged that instead of using solely one's voice to advocate political viewpoints, one could use their creativity.”
Compelled to knit, but no longer compelled to make their families’ clothes, a lot of women (and some men) have been knitting hats for chemotherapy patients and premature babies for quite some time. There have even been “knitted knocker” projects for breast cancer survivors. More recently, some U.S. knitters have been following pretty specialized patterns to get their point across in the rekindled reproductive health debate in the U.S., but we’ll get to that later…
The interesting thing about craftivism is that it can be public or very private. As Greer points out,
“In promoting the idea that people can use their own creativity to improve the world, craftivism allows those who wish to voice their opinions and support their causes the chance to do just that...but without chanting or banner waving and at their own pace.”
I had the opportunity to take part in a study of craftivism last year, as one of the interviewees in a project called 'Making' Our Way Through: DIY and Crafting Communities in Toronto, by Arden Hagedorn and Stephanie Springgay. Their premise was this:
“Crafting, something seen as amateur and static in the past, should be understood as more than meets the eye. Though we must concede that mass production of items previously made by craftspeople are now subject to mass production on the largest of scales, the practice of handmaking continues because people do not see themselves reflected in capitalist products. They want something more, something they can feel grateful for, something that energizes rather than exhausts them, something that is beautiful. The seemingly organic persistence of craft is useful for more than those interested in taking part in these rising communities.”
So, handmaking can be seen as somewhat subversive in and of itself – a rejection, however quiet and personal, of capitalist products and mass production practices. A new homesteading movement is happening among people who wish to live “off the grid.” Handmaking has also come to be applied to activism of a very interesting variety.
Streetknit (www.streetknit.ca) is a Toronto initiative that encourages knitters to make warm scarves, mittens, hats, socks, blankets, etc. for people living on the street and in shelters. Wise Daughters hosts a packed monthly knit-up for volunteers. This is the group’s call for support: “Every year people in Toronto freeze to death because they have nowhere to come in from the cold. We can't knit shelter, but we can do the next best thing. We're asking you to put your needles together to keep someone warm this winter."
While knitting for the homeless is not necessarily a political act, homelessness is decidedly a political issue.
During the recent, brief strike by Toronto’s library workers, I received this email message one morning: "We’re having a Knit-In at City Hall this Wed (28th) at 11 am. Knit your support for Library Workers!" I’m not even sure who organized the knit-in, but I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated this variation on the classic sit-in.
There were also calls last fall to knit for the Occupy Movement, originating in the U.S. Last fall, at the peak of the worldwide Occupy movement, I came upon a Facebook page calling for knitters to take part: “Scarf by scarf, mitten by mitten. Support your local Occupy Protesters this winter. It's going to be a cold one and they need warm things! If you're a yarn whore like me I'm sure there is at least an extra scarf or pair of socks or mittens in your stash. Knit them up. If you don't know where to send things look on www.OccupyTogether.org or www.occupywallst.org.”
During WWII, women were busily knitting socks for soldiers as part of their own pursuit of freedom and democracy. The argument can be made that these knitters are doing the same. Whatever one’s opinion, it’s intriguing to see handmaking re-emerge as a response to a global political crisis.
Emily Matchar, author of New Domesticity, due for release in 2013 writes:
“One of the more interesting aspects of the New Domesticity is the way certain old-fashioned domestic skills are being used to make explicit political statements. While not all crafters have any kind of political agenda, of course, there’s a certain subset of the DIY craft movement that considers their work “craftivism” (craft + activism). Craftivism includes a wide range of beliefs and motivations, from environmentalism to feminism (re-valuing traditionally devalued women’s work)… to anti-capitalism.”
She notes, “Knitting has become particularly symbolic of an anti-status quo spirit. The knitting-as-social-protest seems to date back about a decade, though it has definitely become more prominent lately. In 2002, the first Revolutionary Knitting Circle held a “global knit-in” at the G8 Summit in Alberta, Canada, and the group has since spawned others across Canada, the US and Europe. Since then, there have been all kinds of “anarchist knitting mobs” and such across the country, and ”yarn-bombing” (covering pieces of urban infrastructure like lamp posts or parking meters in knitting) has become a new form of (illegal) street art in the past few years. In December 2010, yarn-bombers famously wrapped the Wall Street bull statue in a pink and black sweater.”
Just this winter, a very creative initiative has taken off in the U.S. Organized by a group called Government Free VJJ (www.governmentfreevjj.com), the idea is to knit a uterus (or other parts of the female reproductive system) and mail it to male members of Congress. Patterns are helpfully provided.
The group’s website explains:
• We are women, we are strong, we are smart. And we have a sense of humor.
• We do not need government interference with our doctors or our healthcare.
• We do not need government probing our vaginas to help us make decisions about abortion.
• We do not need government to give us guidance about whether or not to take birth control.
• We do not need misogynistic pundits calling us sluts and prostitutes.
• We are half of the population and we will not be treated as children or a disenfranchised minority.
Whether you are a Democrat, a Republican, or an Independent, female or male…Tell your male government representatives: “Hands off my uterus! Here’s one of your own!”
I can’t help but wonder if Motion M-312 (concerning when life begins and the rights of foetuses) coming before Parliament later this month will spark a similar wave of knitivism.