This year the Feminism in London Conference ran a workshop entitled Crafting Politics. Laura Price, academic at Royal Holloway, chaired a conversation with panel members Sarah Corbett (Craftivist Collective), Lauren O'Farrell (Whodunnknit and Knit The City), and Catherine West (Significant Seams). The subject: craft as a political act.
Image courtesy of the Craftivist Collective
Craft's apparent politeness, says Lauren O'Farrell, enables craftivists to take their work to places usually inaccessible to protestors. Police even watched her dress a telephone box in a giant knitted cosy in Parliament Square (one of the most policed areas in the country) without making a fuss. If your craft doesn't do any permanent damage (unlike traditional graffiti), then you're more likely to get away with it.
So how can craft be used to say something about politics? According to Sarah Corbett, craft's apparent innocuousness is key. It's deceptively polite. It can engage people without frightening them off with megaphones and shock-tactics. In this form of political engagement, intimate connections forged between individuals take centre stage. For Sarah, the conversations she has with people approaching her to ask what she's making are crucial to getting people talking about political issues. In knitting together fabrics, communities are knitted together, too.
This is something Catherine West well understands. Her organisation, Significant Seams, uses sewing to give much needed emotional support to vulnerable women in Walthamstow. Not only can crafting be used to make a political statement; it can help to bring about positive changes. This was at the crux of the panel's debate: the politics of craft lies not only in the product itself, but in the act of making - in the meeting, engaging, discussing, and organising around an issue.
Part of the attraction of using craft in protest is the rebellious nature of using a traditionally belittled art form to create something that challenges the status quo. The V&A's fantastic Disobedient Objects exhibition shows how objects have been used in protest, featuring everything from liberated Barbies to the Guerrilla Girls' gorilla masks.
The Guerrilla Girls wore gorilla masks in public to focus on their protest rather than their personalities.
Image courtesy of Guerrilla Girls
It's the textile objects on show that perfectly capture how craft can be used subversively to further a cause. Arpilleras, as they are known, are appliqued textiles originating in Chile. They were made by women to visually document the horrors of the Pinochet dictatorship and were sold through solidarity networks overseas, bringing in vital income. Women would sometimes conceal messages in the backing of their work addressing the purchaser overseas, bearing witness to the atrocities.
An Arpillera: Families of the Detained and Disappeared protest before the Supreme Court
Image courtesy of Cachando Chile
The exhibition notes echo the thoughts of the workshop panel:
"For a time the authorities were blind to the subversive nature [of the arpilleras], dismissing arpillera-making as folk art. Women found strength and solace in communal arpillera workshops. When their hands and eyes were focused on sewing, they felt safe enough to speak and share their stories."Using craft, feminists not only continue the traditions of their foremothers; they subvert the expectations that constricted them. Crafty, eh?