16 May 2012

Stitching with a Message: Craftivist Collective

Have you ever used stitching to get a message across?

Regular readers will know that I am fascinated by the link between sewing and well-being, in particular the immense impact that making things with your own hands can have on your sense of empowerment or agency in the world. So I was super interested to find out about Craftivist Collective, who take this one step further by using craft as a route to political participation, as a means through which people can publicly express their feelings about social inequality and injustices.

Cross-stitched miniature protest banners left in public places; bunting sewn with a motivational statement; and my personal favourite – embroidering a letter to your MP on a handkerchief. Craftivist Collective’s message is that activism is for everyone, and they use craft as an accessible way of reaching people who want to make their voice heard but may feel intimidated by more hardcore political activist groups.

Through a random coincidence, I recently had the opportunity to meet and interview Craftivist Collective’s founder, the inspirational and truly lovely Sarah Corbett…

Sarah, what made you set up Craftivist Collective?

I was a burnt out activist, a creative and an introvert. I’d tried to join lots of activist groups, but they were loud, extrovert, quite masculine in some ways, using violence and sabotage, demonising people. I felt like it wasn’t for me. I was tired of going on marches, I’m not vegan, I don’t ride a bike! I didn’t feel like it was my community.

Around the same time I moved into a flat so tiny I couldn’t bring my sewing machine and I couldn’t paint. So I got into cross stitch and really loved it. My mum and dad brought me up saying, “Whatever you do, do it for good,” so I was trying to work out how I could use cross stitch to talk about issues I felt strongly about. So I started making mini protest banners and leaving them in public places.

At the time I was calling myself the Lonely Craftivist – which is so emo! People were taking the banners down quite quickly so I set up a blog so I could talk about the issues a bit more. Then people from all over the world started asking if they could join in! In London a few of us met up – and suddenly I had found the group I had always wanted to be a part of.

What is it about craft that makes it a particularly effective tool for activism?

So many things! Politicians are inured to “clicktivism” (online petitions) or to receiving sacks full of petitions, which are so easy for people to sign. But if they get a letter as an embroidered hankie, they are much more likely to sit up and listen as it’s clearly an issue someone cares about if they put that much time and energy into making it. And the fact that it’s handmade shows that it’s their personal view, not something generated by a machine.

The embroidered hankies are polite letters reminding politicians to be the best people they can be, to remember the big issues like social inequality and to make best use of their power to change the world. “Don’t blow it!” Politically, they’ve got a lot more weight than the messages which demonise politicians – we’re not saying they’re horrible people, we’re simply reminding them to do their best.

It’s also satisfying for the activists themselves. If you go on a protest march against a war, sometimes you can feel like you’re not achieving anything. If you’re stitching a hankie, you get to create something and you get to finish it. Similar to what you say on your blog, by creating something you get to feel like you’ve achieved something, which is usually hard to do as an activist.

The craft itself also draws people in. The mini protest banners we cross stitch are non-threatening – they’re really small so you’re not forcing your opinion on people, they have to go up to it and read it. We stitch in public, so people often come up to us to ask what we’re doing, rather than us shouting at them in the street. A lot of people are intimidated by the idea of lobbying or the word “activism” which is such a loaded term. But people who find our banners in the street often tweet about them. And stitching a hankie is a powerful way of lobbying your MP. So craftivism is a way of getting people talking about the issues, and it's a stepping stone to further political engagement.

One of the joys of sewing is spending quiet time in a state of “flow”, which allows your mind a bit of time to wander free and come up with all kinds of interesting thoughts. Do Craftivists report a special kind of introspection?

Sitting there stitching gives you an opportunity to chill out – which personally I find important living in crazy London and working in an office – and to have an inner monologue with yourself and reflect on things you don’t usually give yourself the chance to think about. For me it’s a way of keeping myself in check.

You said you set up Craftivist Collective because you felt you didn’t fit in with other activist groups. What kinds of people are Craftivists?

A mixed bunch. Many are really shy crafty people who care about issues like global poverty but may be scared to go on a march. This is where we focus our energy – we don’t try to preach to the converted. Others are burnt out activists who want to chill out and get their message across in a different way. And some Craftivists are people who just want to meet new people.

How can we get involved?

Anyone can join Craftivist Collective. We’ve got people all over the world. Our website has examples of lots of projects with instruction videos. You can do them on your own or in a group. You can just start making things yourself, or if you want to you can buy a mini protest banner kit or a “Don’t Blow It” hankie kit. We have monthly Stitch-Ins at the Royal Festival Hall in London, and we also do workshops around the UK – events are listed on our website. And we always like people to send us a photo of what they’ve made so we can put it on our blog.

Do you craft just for fun too?

Yes! I love making presents for people. My poor sister gets handmade gifts from me every birthday and every Christmas. I’ve got my sewing machine in London now. I don’t make clothes because I’m not very good at making things three dimensional and I don’t have the patience for it. I make bags, cushions and crazy evil teddies! I much prefer hand sewing as it’s something I can do while I’m travelling.

But I still really enjoy craftivism – it’s never a chore. I get a kick out of making something, leaving it in a public place and wondering who is going to find it.

Finally, please can we see your awesome tattoos?