Activism for Introverts: Craftivism

The second in a series of posts exploring Activism for Introverts.

As I swelter in the heat of summer, my thoughts turn to cold, rainy days and an excuse to sit inside on a Saturday with a cosy craft project.

Since returning to reading and writing after a long hiatus, I haven’t made much time for knitting or embroidery. There are only so many scarves I can wear at one time, and there are only so many hoops I can hang on my wall.

Of course, I knit and stitch gifts for friends and family (like this floral bird I made for my mother, an embroidered portrait of my friend’s pooch Pacha, and this fox for my foxy sister).

But I’ve also begun to think about creating embroideries to raise awareness (and maybe even money) for issues, causes and organizations that are close to my heart.

A year or so after taking an embroidery class with a couple of friends, Ireland (my home country) held a national referendum around a constitutional ban on abortion. As I no longer live there, I couldn’t vote or canvass, but as a citizen and a feminist, I wanted to advocate for women’s privacy and bodily autonomy in my native home.

Along with difficult conversations on social media or over the phone with friends and family, stitching an embroidery was one way for me to articulate my support to repeal the 8th amendment. My embroidery was modeled after a controversial and contested mural by the Irish artist, Maser, which became one of the most enduring symbols of the Vote YES campaign.

Then, when the Irish people voted an overwhelming Yes to repeal the 8th, I made another embroidery to mark this incredible sea change in Irish society (the word for Yes in Irish is ). When I made it, I was thinking of the poem ‘The Cure at Troy’ by Seamus Heaney, and the lines:

History says, don’t hope on this side of the grave. But then, once in a lifetime the longed for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea change on the far side of revenge. Believe that a further shore is reachable from here. Believe in miracles and cures and healing wells.

At first, I didn’t think of these embroideries as a form of activism. For a long time, I held onto traditional understandings of activism and felt that I couldn’t claim to be an activist as I wasn’t doing anything hardcore, confrontational, or even particularly visible or apparent to anyone but myself. It’s taken me a long time to expand my understanding of what activism can be.

In part, these embroideries were a way to ‘say’ something when actual words failed me or made me feel so weary. Then, when staff at the Center for Disease Control were told that seven words or phrases would be banned from use in budgetary documents, I found myself furiously stitching–or stabbing–the seven words into a square of fabric, which I then turned into a Christmas card for my in-laws, along with a donation to the ACLU in their name.

I have a ways to go before I perfect being able to ‘write’ in stitches–this embroidery is not as pretty as some others I’ve made (though, when it comes to activism, that’s beside the point, of course).

So far, these few pieces have been my only overtly ‘political’ embroideries, but I’m scheming up some words and images to stitch in a spirit of compassion, consistent anti-oppression, justice, and resistance this fall and winter.

A spot of craftivism is the perfect form of activism for arty introverts.

And, if you’re anything like me, embroidery is an easy and inexpensive entry into the world of arts and crafts for those of you who are not naturally artistically gifted but looking for a crafty hobby that won’t break the bank or take too long to learn. (Not only am I an introverted activist, I am also a lazy, impatient, and broke-ass introverted activist.)

But enough about me. Below, I take a very brief look at the history of craftivism, then focus on a couple of artists–and counter-perspectives–from the movement.

A Brief History of Craftivism

The term ‘craftivism’ was coined in 2003 by Betsy Greer who defined it as so:

Craftivism is a way of looking at life where voicing opinions through creativity makes your voice stronger, your compassion deeper & your quest for justice more infinite.

Betsy Greer

Of course, the practice and spirit of craftivism long predates the word. From “spinning bees” during the Revolutionary War to suffragettes who used their needlework as a tool in their fight for equal citizenship, women have been using their knitting and sewing skills as resistance and activism for hundreds of years.

Traditionally, women were taught embroidery as a way of learning ‘feminine’ characteristics. It taught them to follow a pattern, to be neat and docile, to be inside the home rather than out in the world. You learned embroidery to advertise your marriageability. But there was no way of controlling what women were actually thinking about while they were stitching.

Craft’s Long History in Radical Protest Movements

Craftivists have turned their attention to everything from voting rights to civil rights to the pro-environment and anti-war movements. Others have written much better and more thoroughly on the topic, so rather than replicate their work, I will simply point you towards it before focusing on a couple of contemporary craftivists in particular:

Sarah Corbett & the Craftivist Collective

Though she didn’t coin the term and I was already familiar with other arty crafty activists, I came across the word ‘craftivism’ through the work of Sarah Corbett when I started reading about how to reconcile my introverted personality with my passion for justice and a desire to speak up and do something.

Sarah, a former professional campaigner and self-proclaimed introvert, is the founder of the Craftivist Collective–an inclusive group of people committed to using thoughtful, beautiful crafted works to help themselves and encourage others be the positive change they wish to see in the world.

Her first book, A Little Book of Craftivism, came out in 2013 and a more in-depth guide, How to be a Craftivist: the art of gentle protest, has just been released. I can’t wait to get my hands on both.

I also love their Craftivist Manifesto, available for free download or letter-pressed purchase in English, Welsh, Portuguese and Spanish:

In this TED Talk, Sarah discusses this quieter form of activism that uses handicrafts as a way to get people to slow down and think deeply about the issues they’re facing, all while engaging the public more gently. 

As she elaborates, repetitive stitches help you meditate on complex, messy, social change issues and figure out what you can do as a citizen, as a consumer, as a constituent: “It helps you think critically while you’re stitching away, and it helps you be more mindful of your motives. Are you about joining people in solidarity, or do you want to be the savior, which often isn’t very ethical?”

At the end of her speech, she calls upon extroverts to think about introverts, and how valuable our skills are, when planning campaigns: We’re good at slowing down and thinking deeply; we’re good at bringing out the details and nuances of issues; and we’re good at intriguing people by doing strange little things that help create conversations and thought.

For introverts, her call to action is this:

I know you like being on your own, I know you like being in your head, but activism needs you, so sometimes you’ve got to get out there. It doesn’t mean that you’ve got to turn into an extrovert and burn out, because that’s no use for anyone, but what it does mean is that you should value the skills and the traits that you have that activism needs. Whether you’re an extrovert, an introvert, or an ambivert, the world needs you now more than ever, and you’ve got no excuse not to get involved.

Sarah Corbett

Plant Posse & The Vegan Craftivist

Plant Posse is a posse of plant-powered people producing jewelry and art promoting plant pride. They donate a portion of profits to various animal sanctuaries and animal rights organizations.

One of the artists, Brittney West, resonated with me in particular. I especially love her installation ‘Into the Fold,’ composed of origami cows at a slaughterhouse, some made from meat and dairy recipes.

From ‘Into the Fold,’ an installation by artist and animal activist, Brittney West

I’m not sure if she (or any of the Plant Posse) call or think of themselves as craftivists exactly, but I was happy to happen across them when writing this post, as I envisage using my love of embroidery as a way of raising awareness about animal rights and veganism.

I wasn’t vegan when I made most of these embroideries. But as I began to extend my sense of compassion and justice to animals as well as humans, I realized that Greer’s definition of craftivism is perfect. Once again:

Craftivism is a way of looking at life where voicing opinions through creativity makes your voice stronger, your compassion deeper & your quest for justice more infinite. 

Betsy Greer

As a vegan who also cares deeply about social justice and human rights, I seek to cultivate this deep, expansive, infinite and all-encompassing vision of compassion and justice within myself and that which I bring forth into the world.

This morning I also came across the Vegan Craftivist who was creating a banner project with a hope of collecting enough vegan banners to sew together and create a flag or quilt display made up of individually crafted banners. I was excited to contribute to the project!

When I dug in a little further, however, I discovered that they have since become disillusioned by the concept of craftivism and the movement’s failure to recognize its white, heteronormative privilege. (I also realized that they are founder of the wonderful Sanctuary Publishers that I wrote about a short time ago.)

While I certainly understand these frustrations and have no doubt they are 100% valid and real, I don’t think these patterns of thinking and behavior are unique to craftivism. No activist movement, from feminism to veganism, is immune to being dominated and coopted by white people, and as a white woman I challenge myself to not only be cognizant of the fact but to actively work on dismantling my own oppressive and racists actions and behaviors.

While I of course respect this critique, as well as the decision to distance oneself from a space in which you are being silenced, as someone who is new to the practice of craftivism, I would rather learn from the movement’s mistakes than abandon the concept or practice altogether.

Artwork by the Vegan Craftivist

Clearly, there is much to think about and be critically conscious of, and I’m thankful to have come across a counter-perspective while I’m still so new to this form of activism. However (and however naively), I’m still excited to creatively express my values and beliefs through embroidery and other art forms.

Too, for me craftivism is likely to be but a small component of my activism, and I think there are times to push myself out of my comfort zone and times to integrate activism into a pastime that brings me comfort and relieves my anxiety, at least momentarily. It’s a long story, for another day, but embroidery has literally stopped me pulling out the hair on my head or picking at my skin during intense periods of stress!

As an introvert with anxiety, I believe that quieter forms of activism are valid. I agree that more disruptive, forceful, and tangibly results-oriented forms of activism are urgently necessary, but not everybody is able to commit to such actions, at least not on a substantial and sustained basis. Some people can do this, and I both admire and applaud them, but I think it’s unnecessary and impractical to dismiss certain forms of activism as inherently ineffective.

Though they may be slower and less obviously or immediately impactful, art and writing play an important part in a social change ecosystem, and I consider craftivism to be a legitimate way to express dissension and resistance to injustice and oppression–provided that your artistic practice also commits to practicing consistent anti-oppression.