“Spin. Spin with full understanding. Let those who spin wear khadi. Let those who wear khadi compulsorily spin. Full understanding means the realisation that spinning symbolises non-violence. Reflect on it. It will become apparent.” – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Sevagram, March 28, 1945
Back in the early 1920s, in pre-independence India, MK Gandhi had devised a sartorial strategy to non-violently revolt against the colonial rule. Spearheading the Swadeshi movement was the understated khadi, and, the charkha (wheel), that spun khadi, became the nation’s symbol of unity, self-reliance, empowerment, and liberation. It represented the end of dependence on foreign material, and khadi became “the livery of India’s freedom”, in the words of Jawaharlal Nehru.
Gandhi’s politicisation of craft — using it as a mode of protest against British imperialism, was instrumental in unifying Indians in their fight for freedom, both in form and spirit. This was perhaps our country’s earliest known forms of ‘craftivism.’
Craftivism: Then and Now
Coined by writer Betsy Greer in 2003, the term craftivism “promotes the symbiotic relationship between craft and activism”. As a concept, craftivism isn’t new, even though the term may have garnered mainstream recognition only since the turn of the 21st century. In the early 20th century, British suffragettes used handiwork techniques like embroidery, fabric appliqué and collages to create decorated banners amplifying powerful messages about feminist issues. In the latter half of the century, Argentinian women started a campaign to protest the disappearance of their children during the military dictatorship that started in 1976. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (Madres de Plaza de Mayo) wore white head scarves embroidered with the names and the date of births of their lost children; the shape of the scarf symbolising baby diapers, and the colour white symbolising peace.
Today, craftivists all around the world stand to challenge the politics of capitalism, social injustice, terrorism, fast fashion, climate change, and misogyny, using creativity as a weapon of peaceful resistance.
In the United States, the 2017 Women’s March saw a sea of protesters wearing pink hats as a symbol of solidarity against Donald Trump’s sexist and offensive comments on women. Started by Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman, the Pussyhat Project movement called on knitters, crocheters, and sewists to craft pink “pussyhats” that went on to become a major material cultural phenomenon across America.
In Makassar, Indonesia, artist Fitriani Dalay is well-known for her work in yarn-bombing — an art form that involves decorating objects or structures in public spaces with knitted or crocheted yarn or fiber. She uses her art as a tool for political commentary, focussing on concerns like women’s safety and consumerism.
Recently, the Anti-CAA and NRC protests held across India, had protesters use the traditional Indian art form of rangoli to design messages resisting the discriminatory laws. Some protesters painted calligraphy of revolutionary poetry on scarves.
In Melbourne, Australia, artist, researcher, craftivist, and community development worker, Tal Fitzpatrick, runs multiple community craftivist projects around the themes of “social, political and environmental justice”. She uses the techniques of quilting and patchwork as modes of rebellion.
These are some of the many ways in which craft — an activity traditionally dismissed as a trivial pastime for lonely women, is being used to spark important, meaningful, and actionable conversations for a better, more equal world.
The Effectiveness of Craftivism as Tool of Dissent and Action
During the second-wave of feminism, several women rejected domestic crafts like knitting and sewing, for being “apolitical, conservative, and mundane.” Craft scholar, Kirsty Robertson, in her essay titled, “Rebellious Doilies and Subversive Stitches,” in Extra/Ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art, points out how craft’s role in the history of activism is “often trumped by a need to quash still-perpetuated, gendered, stereotypes of crafting.” She further argues that craftivism is often criticised not just on the level of gender, but for also being passive and futile.
The ethos of craftivism are that of “gentle resistance”, but that doesn’t mean the efforts are ineffective. In the U.K., in 2015, Sarah Corbett and her community of craftivists at Craftivist Collective presented the board members of Marks & Spencer personalised, hand-embroidered handkerchiefs, urging them to pay their staff a living wage. Moved by the campaign, within less than a year, M&S had made an announcement to fairly pay its workers.
In several parts of the world like India and Palestine, the slow craft movement intrinsically helps preserve a region’s culture and heritage, while also providing employment and financial opportunities to many skilled artisans. It resists the paradigm of mass-production that hugely contributes to environmental damage and labour exploitation.
One of my earliest encounters with the craftivist movement was in the summer of 2018, right about the time I had decided to give up fast fashion for good. It was then that I came across the wonderful work of Bryony Porter, popularly known by her Instagram handle, Tickover. Her work focusses on “exposing the fashion industry” through embroidery as a medium. She tells me that she believes embroidery to be an effective means of activism because it is tangible. “Thread has a rich history of conveying messages, and it’s as quick as picking up a needle and immortalising what you stand for. It carries with it emotion, love, care, and anger. It’s a political act that doesn’t demand perfection, that is inherently human. It contradicts the fast and unappreciative nature of social media, and has depth in its ability to raise awareness by sparking thought and conversation.”, says Porter.
In the current turbulent political climate globally, people are widely protesting for correction and justice. From the Black Lives Matter movement in the West to protests against the discriminatory conduct and policies of India’s ruling political party, it stands to reason that this is the era of dissent. The message is loud and clear — “We will not be silenced!”
But if one is still struggling to find their voice, craft might be the tool they’ve been looking for.