Interview with The Craftivist Collective’s Sarah Corbett
Last week Catherine shared some reflections and her recent learnings about homelessness, especially in Waltham Forest, inspired by Debs’ proposal to lead a Big Knitathon for the Big Issue Foundation. Last weekend, Significant Seams was wonderfully full of people, coming and going, knitting and learning to, checking out the exhibition by Mark Burton, and thinking about the complex issues of homelessness.
This past weekend, a week on, we were full again, of people dropping off squares, progressing them further, and visiting the exhibition. We have 130 squares so far, against a target of 200–we welcome your contributions. We are collecting-six inch knitted squares. Any pattern, colour, or yarn is welcome.
As a way to bring our activities into focus, we had a chat with Sarah Corbett, founder of the Craftivist Collective, an international group of activists who use craft to encourage meaningful engagement with complex issues and hope to inspire change, and regular columnist in Crafty Magazine.
She was lovely enough to answer a few questions for us about the craftivist approach and why it works. Belief in the power of ‘Craftivism’ is part of why Catherine founded Significant Seams, and talking with Sarah was a great reminder of why we do what we do, especially at this time of year.
If you’re interested in finding out more about craftivism, stop into 131 for a chat, or to check out Sarah’s new book, A Little Book of Craftivism (pictured below, with Sarah) from the Stitch & Craft Library.
Your Craftivism is aimed at political leaders, but how do you think it impacts on the craftivists themselves?
The Craftivist Collective approach to craftivism is not just aimed at political leaders. The first thing I noticed when doing my own craftivism was that it first of all impacted on me as an individual and challenged me to think about others, to put myself in other people’s shoes–including perpretrators, victims, and everyone in between, to think about how I could be my best self helping, not harming others.
Handicrafts such as hand-embroidery and cross-stitch slow us down in the busy world we live in, it’s repetitive so helps us meditate and create a safe space for honest thought and discussion. And when you link that to stitching messages about justice, it’s the perfect combination to connect your hands, heart, and head, and engage in global justice issues in a deeper, more personal way than signing a petition.
Before we tell others what to do we have to have strong foundations in what we are fighting for and how we can do it in a way that has integrity and fits our values of treating people how we would like to be treated (not screaming at them or demonising them). This slow stitching can help massively with our personal transformation and the strong roots we need before we do any actions.
To what extent do you find craftivism is a way crafty but non-political people are getting introduced to activism?
Craftivism is a great way to meet crafty people where they are. It would be ineffective to ask them to come to a demonstration straight away–we need to respect people and be relevant to them where they are and not treat them like robots. Craft can engage people in politics and activism who might be nervous of traditional, more aggressive forms of activism. Whether that’s making one of our Mini Protest Banners and hanging it in a place relevant to the issue you have stitched (such as outside an unethical shop) or making our Craftivist Footprint to think about the imprint you are having on the world and what your journey is to be your best self.
Craftivism can show that activism doesn’t just have to be signing a petition or joining a march, you can use your talents and passions to be part of the solution to injustices not part of the problem. Craft is an incredible tool to engage people in injustice issues in a respectful, thoughtful way. I love seeing craftspeople come together to do one of our craftivism projects because it really creates a safe space for honest discussion. It can be a tough pill to swallow when we realise that we all have responsibility to help rather than harm the world but we always say ‘a spoonful of craft can help the activism go down’.
Large installations like I’m a Piece have been really effective, but how do you think people can use craftivism to affect local issues?
I always try and make our approaches as transferable and universal as possible. Craftivism is another form of activism and, with any campaign, we need to not just think of using craftivism but actually challenge ourselves to see what forms of activism would be most effective. It might be that you need to focus on media attention so some guerrilla craftivism marketing like our Mini Protest Banners might be best to start the conversation off. It might be that there is one person or a small group that have all of the power on a local issue so it would be best to make them one of our Don’t Blow It handkerchiefs to start a relationship with them and create a safe space for respectful dialogue and collaboration.
The I’m a Piece installation was part of the Craftivist Jigsaw project to engage the craft community in Save the Children’s Race Against Hunger Campaign–it was effective in showing the craft community and G8 world leaders that the craft community care deeply about world hunger and we are all coming together to say we want to be a piece of the solution to world hunger, not the problem, and are challenging the world leaders to do the same.
Do you ever get to craft things just for fun these days?
I try to as much as I can because I love to craft and get itchy fingers if I haven’t crafted or been creative for a while. I do struggle to find the time now to make presents for Christmas and birthday presents for people but my priority is to support people in craftivism, activism, and how they can be their best selves to help not harm the world. I still make sure I have time to do all of our craftivism projects which I love to do. : )
Do you find that certain causes align well (or not) with craftivism? Has anyone used craftivism–or approached you to do so–in a way that troubles you?
Our approach to craftivism looks at long-term structural change as well as helping people with their personal transformation into seeing how they can be the change they wish to see in the world looking at what they buy, vote for, and how they treat people. Craftivism for me is about slow activism, personal reflection, building relationships with people, and engaging others in provocative not preachy ways. It’s not about quick solutions or transactions so when I see pieces of craftivism that are preachy and aggressive it upsets me and makes me worry that it dilutes the way craftivism is seen as effective. We always focus on looking at global poverty and human rights injustices, which can be complex, so using craftivism to reflect and provoke conversation on them is helpful.
Now that the book is out, what’s next on your agenda?
I’m doing a series of Craftivism workshops with the V&A December 2013 to December 2014, lots of talks and workshops at festivals–often linking to philosophical talks, and we have craftivism projects at key times such as Valentine’s Day, summer, London Fashion Week (in September), as well as timeless projects people can do alone or together any time of year. I will be promoting and supporting people to take part. Plus I have a column each month with Crafty Magazine & www.MrXStitch.com and so much more to do…
I know activism has been a part of your life from an early age. Have you seen craftivism as a way to get children involved in activism?
I focus on engaging the craft community and other individuals and groups who are nervous of activism but can be highly influential in the eyes of politicians, such as women’s groups like the WI. Because my approach to craftivism is about slow activism and reflecting on the effect our lives and behaviours have on others it can make it difficult to fit in to school or youth group timetables. I sometimes do school assemblies and workshops but I have to be strict with my time so I don’t burn out, so focus on engaging adults through craftivism. Schools often have lots of resources from charities and teachers to help with global citizenship, so it’s not essential I’m there.
Why do you think it works so well to combine craft with thought-provoking activism, rather than more traditional forms of activism?
As I’ve said above I always say that craftivism should be part of the activism toolkit rather than a replacement to other forms of traditional activism. There is a time and place for all methods to be effective. I think there are lots of benefits of craftivism and three main ones. The first is that it gives the maker time to reflect on global issues more deeply and take ownership of the issue through their crafting.
The second benefit is that when you hand make something for someone and give it as a gift it can really touch them in a way that waving a placard at them can’t. I hand-embroidered a message on a handkerchief for my MP asking her to use her power and influence to support the most vulnerable people in society and not ‘Blow it’. I gave it to her with a smile. She saw how long I took to make it and was really touched by the time and effort I had put in as well as the encouraging rather than demonizing message I had stitched. This piece of craft is now permanently hung by her desk and we refer to it in all of our correspondence. I believe that this piece of craft has helped us be critical friends rather than aggressive enemies which is far more effective when trying to make change.
The third benefit is that craft can engage people in politics and activism who might be nervous of traditional, more aggressive forms of activism because you can put our craftivism pieces in public or share them on social media, and crafting in front of people alone or in small groups can encourage people to ask what you are doing much more than if you stood there with a megaphone, don’t you think?