Craftivism is like punk. So says Sarah Corbett, so gently and rationally that if you squint at her workshop of women peacefully stitching dream clouds in a Devon studio, you might try to summon the spirit of the Sex Pistols at Free Trade Hall. You might.
Where punk snarled and spat to dramatically shake up the nation, craft looks ineffably twee by comparison: needlework is not the Buzzcocks, knitting is not the Ramones. And yet through painstaking, collective action, craftivism has become an unlikely social and political force.
So how has the movement successfully managed to convince Marks & Spencer to pay employees the living wage? Or protect migrating birds from dredging in Spain? Changing laws and business policies, as well as hearts and minds, is no small feat. It seems inexplicable that craftwork – laborious, small-scale, delicate – has done all three.
In April 2015, Corbett and her Craftivist Collective, “googled the hell out of” each of M&S’s board members in order to make them personalised, hand-embroidered handkerchiefs. The group presented them as individual gifts at the company’s annual meeting. They sewed on hopeful messages, encouraging the company to pay 50,000 of their staff fairly; within 10 months, M&S had made a U-turn. Corbett tells her workshop the chair of the board took her aside and said it was “the most powerful campaign they’d witnessed”. It’s inspiring stuff.
The dream-cloud makers – teachers, business owners, grandparents, artists – are here as part of a People Power campaign organised by Heritage Open Days. By September, each will have been trained to help put on a fortnight-long series of Dare to Dream events, getting the public to use craftivism to make positive change in their communities.
“Punk means different bands to different people in the same way craftivism does,” explains Corbett. “And my approach is not aggressive or loud, it’s gentle protest – and I mean that in a non-fluffy sense. It’s not impassive or weak. It’s bloody hard to be gentle in your approach as an activist, to have self-control when you’re angry. It’s about being tough of mind and kind in heart.”
Corbett was born into an activist family and has been on protest marches since she was three. She grew up in one of the most deprived districts of Liverpool and has been fighting for social and environmental justice for as long as she can remember. Only now, her weapons are creative: she handmakes her way to social change. And she’s not alone.
Natalie Melton, creative director of the Crafts Council, believes craftivism is taking hold “because it’s a powerful way of expressing political, social and cultural values – and at the moment, lots of people feel disenfranchised from the political system but are more politically engaged. So you find outlets to channel that energy and express yourself on the environment, on feminism and so on.”
Salma Zulfiqar, an artist and activist from Birmingham, has used craftivism to help a community of vulnerable refugees in the city. In January 2018, she began a 10-week project concerning 15 women whose lives she describes as “chaotic and difficult”, and got them stitching a quilt together. “It was tough in the beginning – many of the women didn’t speak English and had such little confidence,” she says. Together, they made the Migration Blanket.
The public were shocked when they read the stories of what these women had been through and the response from the city council meant a lot,” she says. The women became a close-knit group. “I asked them to think about their hopes and dreams, and the future just wasn’t something they thought about, so we worked on that.They made panels in the blanket on their aspirations, and I think they were able to express and deal with their pain in a way they hadn’t before.” The blanket went from exhibiting at Birmingham Library to the Venice Biennale, where it now hangs until November.
While craftivism has a practical purpose, Harriet Vine, co-founder of Tatty Devine, says it has a social one too. She and Rosie Wolfenden began a craft collective in the 90s just to go against the grain. As art school graduates, they put on events, pub room knitting circles and eventually made a handmade jewellery brand that was embedded with a DIY ethos.
“What you wear is a way of communicating yourself to the world,” she says. “Wearing a Remain necklace or a Suffragettes badge starts a conversation. It’s wearing your heart on your sleeve and it transmits a message of who you are and what you believe.” Walking through Misshapes, the Crafts Council exhibition celebrating 20 years of Tatty Devine, she is proud of what the company have achieved but mostly wants to emphasise that “creating things with your hands is important. Since the dawn of time, humans have been compelled to make – just think about all the pots and jewellery you see at the British Museum – that’s what you want to save.”
According to the government’s Taking Part survey, all forms of craft – be it pottery, embroidery, lino printing – have been undergoing a revival in the UK at the same time as art and design education has fallen off a cliff; since 2010, the number of people crafting has jumped by 24%, while the number of students taking art, design and tech GCSEs has fallen by 57%.
Melton is aghast at “the weird dichotomy between the creative industries being the fastest-growing sector in the economy but so undervalued in education”. The broader picture is more encouraging. “What is interesting is the huge rise of people engaging with craft now,” says Melton. “Since 2014 it’s been a 25% jump for white people and a massive 70% for those from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. Craft is growing at a faster rate than any other creative discipline.”
While there are proven meditative and creative benefits to working with your hands, craftivism is slow and time-consuming. From acts of guerrilla knitting, where people colonise public spaces such as lampposts and knit around them, to the hand-woven banners seen at protests, the principle remains the same: to get a conversation going by prompting people to stop and look, to think or smile, or share it on social media.
For Corbett, making something small and beautiful to hang in a public space should spark curiosity without confrontation. “Everything I do is based on psychology and neuroscience, and a lot of change in society comes from mirroring behaviour.”
As an introvert, she says she finds anger in activism emotionally exhausting and wants to broaden the activist space for people who want to do more but don’t feel marches, petitions or shouting loudly is for them.
“Living what you do, rather than telling people what to do, can be a really good nudge and it just reminds you not to be on autopilot. Activism is still the priority but craft is the tool – the focus is to make the world a happier, more harmonious place.”