I believe we are all familiar with the terms: craft and craftsmanship. We might know friends and family members who are avid crafters; we might be crafty ourselves or enjoy doing craft activities as a hobby. I, for one, had seen a handful of people (thank you, Instagram) who had found extra time bettering their skills at embroidery or knitting when the world went into lockdown. This might also be the time to add that my mother crochets well. Crocheting is a hobby she picked up a few years back, and she enjoys the process of seeing an idea come to life. There are a few items in my closet made by her, which I use frequently and love. But for many with less dexterity, time and patience (I’ll be the first to admit that this is me), craft may seem like a foreign idea. Crafts are also articles created by skilful craftspeople that we admire and desire to own. In the context of fashion, they range from accessories to clothing, to footwear.
Seeing craft in a different light
I got thinking about craft and what various forms and meanings it can occupy. One of my favourite resources to get an immersive insight on the role of craft in the past, present and future has got to be Craft - New Narratives, a digital zine created by Nayanika Bharadwhaj, a fashion sustainability researcher and storyteller. She opens her zine by questioning how we should be considering craft beyond its commercial, cultural and traditional mediums. It is time we begin to see craft in a different light. Besides being a hobby and artisanal profession, craft could be essential in reimagining a distant future for the fashion industry.
Craft is infused in every corner of the fashion reformation that we have been talking about. For instance, mending is crafting. So is upcycling, because of the embroidering, patching and sewing work that goes into repurposing old clothes and fabric.
Nayanika writes in her zine, “... it becomes particularly compelling to explore how craft sits in it, through the strands of activism and innovation, each chosen for their relevance to the zeitgeist.” The current fashion landscape desperately needs slowing down—of course, without Big Fashion actively enforcing a slower pace, any talk is futile. Therefore, I also see craft as a form of resistance and evolution to bring about positive change. Let me explain.
What is craftivism?
Essentially, craftivism is a movement combining craft and activism.
Craftivism = craft (a verb) + activism (a noun)
I think of craftivism as a medium for intimate and non-confrontational activism. Craftivism possesses a fundamental agenda to provoke and oppose gently. Craftivist Collective, a UK-based social enterprise states on their website that, “Craftivism is for everyone: from skilled crafters to burnt-out activists, introverts, highly sensitive people, people struggling with anxiety and those people who want to challenge injustice in the world but don’t know what to do, where to start or how to prioritise their energies and time.” Craft is an activity for the community. It is an adaptable medium depending on the needs of the community that taps into the physical, mental and emotional resources of a group of people. It is definitely a luxury that is allowed by having ample time. It is also an art form, but more importantly, craft celebrates craftivism as a form of thought expression and a tool for social commentary.
Speaking with Agatha Lee, better known as Agy and @agytextileartist on Instagram, she points out that the slow pace of craft leaves room for afterthought. This allows the process of one’s activism to always hold space and leave time to reflect and adapt to new changes.
The concept of slow stitching
Agy specialises in free motion embroidery and shares the concept of slow stitching through conducting workshops with her community. The beauty of slow stitching lies in the ambiguity of translating one’s thoughts into stitch. It’s never clear what a final product looks like until the craftsperson decides to stop. When asked about why she strongly advocates for slow stitching, Agy points towards the emphasis on process, rather than the product. “The whole purpose of it is to have conversations about slowing down and coming to terms with what they want their lives to be,” she explains. Slowing down is also meditative for the craftsperson. “It is now about finding your inner tortoise,” Agy adds.
Similarly, Sarah Corbett, founder and author of Craftivist Collective mentions in her TED talk:
By doing repetitive actions, like handicraft, you can't do it fast, you have to do it slowly. And those repetitive stitches help you meditate on the big, complex, messy social change issues and figure out what we can do as a citizen, as a consumer, as a constituent, and all of those different things. It helps you think critically while you're stitching away, and it helps you be more mindful of [what your motives are].
Centring our conversations around glaring, and ever-present social justice issues can be draining. Stitching, being already slow in nature (I would like to think that fast stitching is an oxymoron), helps re-centre and recalibrate the spirit of an activist. Craftivism is not about chasing perfection or being overly concerned about how pleasing the end product looks. Like other forms of activism, it is about a community-driven process that taps into ground-up resources to pass the mic.
Stitching in grief
When the pandemic first hit, I felt an acute sense of fear and loss. It took me a while to reconcile with this new emotion I was thinking, seeing and feeling—grief. In one of my favourite articles on the subject of grief published on gal—dem written by Aisha Mirza, she mentions that “grief dances to its own rhythm”. There were days when I was hyper-aware of how I was handling my version of it. But grief doesn’t follow linearity, and I was afraid that it could grow into numbness, and then inevitably, indifference. “Grief is teeth grinding, nightmares, numbness, panic attacks, depression and insomnia. It’s creativity, connection and hope,” she writes.
So, when I came across The Covid-19 Lexicon created by Agy on Instagram, I was curious about her intention and working process of embarking on the project. “I didn't create anything during the circuit breaker. It felt like a grieving period. After it ended, I felt compelled to record everything down in stitch, and at least come to terms with the pandemic. Which is why I stitched the words I did. When I made it by hand, because the whole process is very repetitive, I felt at peace. It calmed me down a bit. I came to terms that we are in this for the long haul through the process,” she details.
The role of women in craft and craftivism
It is challenging to discuss craft and craftivism without acknowledging the inextricable relationship between craft and women. Traditionally, craft has always been gender-specific. In Fashion Craft Revolution, Jennifer Ewah writes in ‘Healing communities through craft’ (p. 88):
Our mothers, our aunts, and our grandmothers are knitting, sewing, weaving, embroidering. In gender-specific terms, women are the central participants in the global story of craft tradition and community, where the process and often meticulous making, is as important as the spanning of time in sisterhood and the often, healing relational interactions.
Ewah goes on to add that, “The craft economy has churned away invisibly with women’s invaluable contributions unrecognised”. We cannot overlook craft as an art form powered by craftspeople and artisans, whose labour and artistic sense are usually not compensated relatively for or regarded with respect. In other words, it is easy to reduce craft to commodities for commercial reasons.
Notably, the issues that craft and craftivism tackles to act against are associated closely with “feminine” concerns like nature conservation and over-consumption of material goods. Craft passes off easily as a feminine pastime. I believe, to subvert the stereotype is to keep crafting and engaging in the surrounding discourse of craft and the effects of craftivism.
Craftivism, privilege and sustainability
We cannot ignore the privilege of taking on crafting as a hobby or form of activism out of interest, which millions of craftspeople are dependent on for livelihood. This discussion has to address the underlying nuance that intersects with privilege and the role of women organising against structural inequality.
Craft is tied closely to the identities of artisans; forms of artistic expressions; various historical and cultural significance. The nature of craft is an indicator of resilience and a prevailing human spirit that never stops fighting.
Amidst the glamour and shine of the fashion industry that we are more familiar with, products of craft and craftivism aim to ignite a much broader role of what we can do with design and creativity. We know by now that sustainability needs to cover all grounds—including pressing social issues that can only be reinvented by reforming the landscape. Could we potentially create new landscapes through the innovation of craft? In Craft - New Narratives, Betsy Greer, a writer and researcher and reason the word ‘craftivism’ exists, mentions the following:
Not only can it make different people connect and see each other like in the sewing circle, that is not so heavily classist and stratified in race and gender, but we could imagine that craft could play a role in trying to help educate a more civic society which is not doomed according to how much we consume and which school we go to and which level of society we are in. Fashion can be so much more than consumerism. Fashion can play a part in this production of, training of and cultivation of social sustainability.
It is important to acknowledge that craftivism hasn’t always been inclusive of marginalised people. Craft, like activism, should never be alienating. It is principled by the free will of creation and one’s interpretation of art, opportunity and activism, especially for minorities and members of marginalised communities who are more vulnerable to systemic inequality and violence.
Sustainability is incredibly complex, and engaging with sustainability takes learning its nuances and caveats. But I like how liberating and freeing craftivism can be when it comes to igniting positive change and amplifying critical voices. I want to celebrate what craft and craftivism brings to the table, whilst acknowledging that craftivism might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Activism comes in various mediums and forms. And here lies the beauty in a world that is waking up—one that resists in the best ways we know how, anchored by the creativity and personal drive of an individual and driven by the will of a community.
Be it basic DIY projects, crocheting, embroidering, knitting, stitching, painting, letter-writing, collaging...the list is long and open for interpretation. Recognising the inherent inequalities that enrage us in the society we live in is the first step to one’s involvement with craftivism. Understanding the value of craft is the second. I would like to think that there is value and contribution in transforming the fashion system, one stitch at a time.
More resources on craft and craftivism:
- Craft - New Narratives by Nayanika Bharadwaj (digital)
- Craft of Use by Kate Fletcher
- The Craftivism Manifesto
- Craftivism by Betsy Greer (available to read as an ebook on the Libby app)
- Rise and Resist by Clare Press
- Fashion Craft Revolution by Fashion Revolution
- Craftivist Collective by Sarah Corbett
- Mend! (a new book published this year, written by Kate Sekules, which I am planning to listen to on the Libby app)
Some craftivists and textile artists I love on Instagram:
Xingyun is a fashion business graduate who advocates for a more humane fashion system. Seeking to address the importance of intersectionality when analysing fashion sustainability, she runs @noordinaryprotest as a platform to call for a shift in mindset. Her favourite time of the day is 5 pm, and her go-to fashion activity is swapping.