A Constructive Revolution: The Important History of Craftivism

Craftivism is the practice of engaged creativity, especially regarding political or social issues. Fiber art and textiles have played an integral role in the history of our species, and the history of our contemporary cultures, and it is often impossible to imagine a time when clothing did not serve a multitude of purposes. Because fiber and clothing were valued so highly by communities everywhere, it is no surprise that textiles have, throughout history, been highly involved in social communication and political uprisings.

Craftivism both plays on and challenged the female stereotypes about domestic craft, but it also embodies and reclaims the value in this rich history of traditionally feminine culture.

Photo Courtesy of Centuries Past

Photo Courtesy of Centuries Past

Women have been involved with fiber and textile production for tens of thousands of years.
Clay Venus figurines recovered from France that date earlier than 20,000 years ago, depict a large woman with a shapely body, wearing a string shirt around her waist, covering a small portion of her backside. This tradition (slightly more modestly) has continued in a small way to this day. Scientists believe that this depiction refers to a very early adornment that sought to represent and emphasize the female’s sexuality, framed with the placement of spun threads.

Elizabeth Wayland Barber, professor at Occidental College in California and foremost authority on prehistoric textiles, says that it is only common sense that textiles became the responsibility of women. Since women are the only parent available to feed infants in prehistoric societies, it makes sense that their other tasks should be compatible with caregiving. These tasks needed to be stationary, safe, repetitive, and easily interrupted. Textile production certainly falls under all of those requirements, and the two tasks naturally went hand in hand.

Artwork by Antonio Coche

Artwork by Antonio Coche

As time went on, these gender roles, perpetuated by adherence to tradition, gave women an indispensable, yet overshadowed seat in history. They held together their communities by providing necessities, and doing their duties by caring for their families. They didn’t have time to start wars, they were too busy milking the goats and weaving clothes to keep their children warm and hope they all survived the winter. But when they were needed, when there arose a cause that was important to them, women spoke out; not with a campaign, or by running for office (since that was illegal throughout most of human history), but with their own unique skill set.

Knitting and activism dates back to the French Revolution, where women sat by the guillotine and knitted red hats during executions.

Knitting and activism dates back to the US Revolutionary War, when women began spinning their own wool, and knitted clothing for soldiers instead of importing them, a defiantly patriotic act.

Knitting and activism dates back to 1860, when UK textile designer William Morris created a crafting movement, to speak out against the industrial revolution in favor of a simpler lifestyle. He denoted 4 components of craft activism guidelines: unity in design, joy in labor, individualism or imperfection that comes with handmade objects, and regionalism, which basically meant sourcing material from a place that embodies your mission.

Knitting and activism dates back to the 1st and 2nd World Wars, when handmade goods were valued as the rationing of material goods was important for the ‘war effort’. American, British and Canadian women volunteered to knit and sew clothing for soldiers out of love and support. During the first World War, women donated over a million pairs of hand-knit socks to the troops. In the 2nd World War, soldiers received 26,000 sewn or knitted clothing items that were put together by female volunteers in just 6 days! In addition to that, 420 items of clothing were made and donated to refugees.

Fiber arts have been consistently employed as a political and social communication tool when women were not allowed to have a voice. It is inherently expressive, and to decide what art is or is not allowed to express would be to silence the human spirit.

Today, we remember this. We remember all of the love that was shown through the abstract looping of string around sticks of wood, through the mundane pressing of a needle through sheets of fabric. Whether for practical necessity, or for non-functional art, the value and meaning remains. Fiber art today makes just as much of a statement as it has for the last several thousand years. Fiber artists around the world are using their craft to communicate with one another as a symbol of community and hope, just as women did during the local-wool movement of the Revolutionary War. 

Barb Hunt, an artist in Newfoundland, is known for an exhibit they created in 2013, where knitted replicas of land mines were displayed. In an interview, Hunt said “There is a close association of knitting with caring for the body. Bandages for soldiers were once hand-knitted, and women still knit socks for soldiers overseas, and for the homeless. Thus knitting functions as a metaphor for recuperation, protection, and healing. In Antipersonnel [exhibit], I use these associations to contradict the abuse of power and the use of violence, by transforming a destructive object into one that can do no harm”.

Micaela Hardy-Moffat writes that craftivism is “a revolution that [crafters] hope will bring people together into peaceful, wholesome communities despite the immorality that weighs so heavily upon society. As well as featuring work by various knit artists across North America, [the Revolutionary Knitting Circle] specifies that people of all ages, ethnicities, classes, and genders are welcome to participate, articulating the significance of inclusiveness that craftivism upholds.” She highlights some groups that are currently working to encourage expression through fiber art. “The Revolutionary Knitting Circle calls upon people everywhere to take up the struggle through the tools of local production. We shall bring forth not only our voices raised for global justice, but we shall rise together, with the tools to liberate local communities from the shackles of global corporatism”

The lessons we can learn women’s use fiber craft as a tool for communication throughout history is universal. It is not longer only women’s work. Fiber art is being engaged with and used as expression by all genders, today.

Hardy-Moffat writes, “Craft artists and social action groups are thus driven to create their art in conjunction with a framework dedicated to political change and constructive protest. Through the manipulation and exploitation of stereotypes that lie in the assumed innocence of knitted artwork, the familiarity and gentleness of craft art has become a tool for assertive social action.”

Photo Courtesy of Rodrigo Isla OF THE HOMBRES TEJEDORES

Photo Courtesy of Rodrigo Isla OF THE HOMBRES TEJEDORES

Around the world, local groups are getting involved with using fiber craft as a means to change their society for the better, and reach out to their communities. In Chile, knitting men have taken to the streets in visual protest, and also host events to teach men to knit, working to breaking down prohibitive stereotypes and embrace creative hobby.

The PussyHat project has taken the world by storm, encouraging folks to wear handmade pink cat-eared hats as a visual statement in support of equality, but also in local, small-scale production as a bridge that brings communities together in creativity and compassion.

Fiber arts have been consistently employed as a political and social communication tool when women were not allowed to have a voice. It is inherently expressive, and to decide what art is or is not allowed to express would be to silence the human spirit.

When we engage in fiber arts, we honor the work and the risk that our ancestors took to give us a better life than they had.

As our foremothers and forefathers did, let us create. Let us stitch up a brighter future.