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.

Episode 19: Lifelines, Dyeing, and Migrating Traditions

Photo Courtesy of the National Museum of Iceland

Photo Courtesy of the National Museum of Iceland

In this episode, I'll enable you to a lovely new pattern I’ve been working with as well as a great series of yarn dyeing tutorial videos. We’ll talk about what in the world lifelines are, and learn what the textile remains from a thousand year old burial in north east Iceland can tell us about the various places the inhabitants came from, and the kinds of fiber traditions they brought with them.

Top edge of the blue apron, with tablet woven decorative band of brown and white.

Top edge of the blue apron, with tablet woven decorative band of brown and white.

Fragment of a woven apron strap, a 2x2 twill from the Ketilstaðir burial.

Fragment of a woven apron strap, a 2x2 twill from the Ketilstaðir burial.

Preserved cheek from a woman who immigrated to Iceland and lived there over 1,000 years ago. Shout out to the copper brooches!

Preserved cheek from a woman who immigrated to Iceland and lived there over 1,000 years ago. Shout out to the copper brooches!

Why Textile History Matters

Unless you are among a distinct minority of nudists, you probably wear clothes every day. Clothing protect us from the sun, wind, rain, cold, and sometimes, judgmental glances at highbrow social gatherings.

While today's clothing serves as much more than utilitarian purposes, you may not often think about the rich insights that can be found in studying textile history. A great deal of symbology appears in motif and use of color, as well as choice of the fiber itself. It allows us to see the blending of utility and art. 

Clothing and textiles are one of the most outwardly expressive ways in which we share our societal values, on our sleeve so to speak, on a daily basis. Therefore, textiles have the ability to give researchers a window into the mind of people and cultures, past or present. It is also a type of work frequently associated with the the gendered role expectations of women. “The necessary compatibility of female labor with child care and breastfeeding led to women primarily engaging in repetitive, safe, and easily interrupted tasks.” (Barber, Women’s Work, 29-30.) Since women were primarily the workers of textiles throughout history, insights into this trade give us a glimpse into the lives of a huge portion of the population; a portion often invisible amongst the male-dominated stories of stone artifacts or history books. Men most often became a part of the textile fabrication process only after the industry became a part of a larger trade exchange network.

Textile production is and was an incredibly time consuming process. First, one had to grow and harvest fiber plants, or cultivate and collect fiber from silk worms, or wooly animals like sheep and alpacas. Then, this fiber had to be washed, beaten or carded, combed and spun. If the threads were meant to be colored, dyes had to be acquired, either through cultivation, wild gathering, or trading. Then, hundreds to thousands of meters of thread needed to be woven, cut, and sewn into just a single garment. Sometimes, lavish designs were embroidered , or card woven bands were used to trim sleeves.

From this very simplistic look at the process, we can already infer some of the kinds of information we can glean about how communities lived. In order to grow plants or keep livestock, people had to live in sedentary communities of relatively large size. In order to have production exceed the amount that just one family would need, there would have had to be specialized workers; meaning “I weave all the time, you make pots and pans all the time, lets swap”. If one needed to acquire a particular dye that was not indigenous to their region, we could assume they obtained it by trade, and were involved in an interaction sphere with members of other communities. Use of color and design can tell us much about self expression, social identity, religious belief or status, customs, trade, or the natural resources that were available in the area at the time.

The whole process was passed down to succeeding generations. Depending on the scale of production, we can assume that the knowledge was passed down through a family, or learned as an apprentice or at a trade school.

Exchange of these garments, especially the ones it was even more costly to produce, could be imagined as economic resources. Expensive, elegant garments or furnishings became so valued in some places, they were seen as a kind of currency. Some fabrics, such as Icelandic vaðmál, were so regulated in quality, that medieval manuscripts and law texts have their production standards and value preserved to this day.

Artistic expression was not limited to fashion and garments. We have a multitude of examples of expertly woven rugs and tapestries. Even the tools used to process fiber can be a craft themselves. Some of these examples include carved distaffs (a long spindle or paddle used to hold a cloud of fiber while the spinner draws from it), engraved spindle whorls (a small stone or clay weight fixed to the end of a rod used for spinning), polished whale bone weft beaters, intricately carved knitting needle boxes (that were also presented with marriage proposals), and hand painted lace bobbins, among others.

From a personal perspective, when I craft with fiber, I feel connected to a vast history that can be celebrated as a commonality of almost all humans across space, and one that reaches back far in time.

It brings us closer as a global community to learn about, not only the lives and minds of our ancestors, but also the universality of innovation that we all share.

Like any scientific field, our studies help us to learn the expanse of what we don't know. We are fueled by curiosity, and a deep desire to understand the reasonings and perspectives that lived in the minds of ancestral humans. It brings us closer as a global community to learn about, not only the lives and minds of our ancestors, but also the universality of innovation that we all share. The contributions of all the communities we identify with have brought us to where we are today. Our ideas shape the future and it may work to our benefit to cultivate appreciation for old things long forgotten.

Minoan woman picking saffron, from a fresco on the island of Thera

Minoan woman picking saffron, from a fresco on the island of Thera

10 Travel Tips for Fiber Artists

The Woven Road

The Woven Road

It is no secret that fiber artists, no matter where we are or what we are doing, will find ourselves fantasizing about our craft.  Inevitably, we're going to find ourselves wishing we had brought a project along with us.  Some projects lend themselves better than others to an "on-the-go" lifestyle.  (Good luck with THIS.)  Here is a list of 10 tips to make your take-along crafting run as smoothly as possible.

1) Plan ahead: Choose a project with a pattern that can be easily memorized.  This way, if you have to put it down at a moment's notice, you won't have too much of a hassle figuring out where you left off.  (I'd also like to note that I almost never follow this advice, and love to bring colorwork with me wherever I go! It is slightly more difficult but I love it too much to leave home without it.)

2) Go Digital: Download your pattern onto your mobile device, just remember to keep your device charged!  Aja recommends keeping a hard copy of your pattern, just in case your device is stolen, or runs out of battery.

3) Designate a bag just for your take-along project:  I don't know about you, but I used to constantly be untangling my yarn from various pens, keychains, gum wrappers, spiral notebooks (now that I write that, I realize I may have a larger problem on my hands...).  Invest in a nice project bag, one that provides all of the organizational pockets you could dream of.  This way, you'll never have to go digging and untangling before you can even start working on your project. (Spoiler alert: The Woven Road will be releasing our own line of project bags next year!)

4) Needle stoppers/point protectors are your friend: Keep your knitting on the needles and your peace of mind.  Check them out here, or some groovy handmade ones here.

5) Knitting needles are indeed TSA approved!: There is always some skepticism and I know many knitters that do not bring their needles in their carry-on just in case.  But they are indeed allowed (even large needles).  I have indeed heard the occasional anecdotal story about some folks getting their needles confiscated, so if you are concerned, choose wooden needles if you can.  I have also seen videos of folks using a drop spindle on an airplane (a bit to the dismay of the person next to them...)!  As long as your needles or roving do not contain more than 3oz of liquid, you'll be alright. ;)

6) Scissors with a blade length of more than 1 inch are not allowed in your carry-on luggage. I do recommend a Clover Yarn Cutter Pendant if you foresee a need to cut your yarn id-flight.

7) If weaving is your, thing: A simple frame loom, or the Woolery's Cricket Loom might be the best options for taking your crafting with you while you are traveling.

8) Ball your yarn ahead of time:  Let's be honest, crafting in public always acquires a few stares.  But you know what acquires stares AND awkwardness? Spreading your legs on public transportation so that you can place your yarn around your knees and wind it into a huge ball.

9) Locate yarn shops and textile museums:  So many places around the world have interesting traditions rooted in textile culture.  Know where you are going? Locate and plan to visit nearby museums.  While traveling in Nepal, my group paid an unexpected visit to a Tibetan refugee community and we were able to watch the women in their weaving, creating carpets to sell to tourists.  Finding things like this is a great way to see how traditional knowledge is being employed to support contemporary communities.  This was also a GREAT place to spend your money, because you are able to directly interact with the community you are supporting.  Here is a beautiful photo gallery of textiles from around the world.

10) Try a new craft in the style or tradition where you are traveling to: how delightful does it sound to plan your next travel adventure will be hopping around the British Isles and Scandinavia, knitting Welsh dragons, fair isle, Norwegian mitten patterns on tiny size zero needles, gazing out over the sheep and the fjords.

11) Sign up for a textile trip: They do exist, and pretty much all over the world. Most popular in Europe, you can sign up for a week of tours, classes, lectures, group craft-ins and more.  One popular fiber festival with a bit of a focus on local tradition is Shetland Wool Week.  What great fun it would be to learn a cool new style of crafting tradition while learning about its history from some of the most famous names in the business!  Iceland and Ireland are popular places for this type of fiber tourism.

On a final note, crafting in public is almost always a great icebreaker.  If you are undecided about whether or not to take your projects with you (whether to a sports match, or to the other side of the globe), we whole-heartedly recommend that you do!

Have any more recommendations? Send us your thoughts and experiences, and we'll be happy to share them!

-Meadow

Language Corner: Express Your Fiber Art Frustrations!

Advisory: This post uses some explicit language.

Photo courtesy of wendywelchbigstonegap.wordpress.com

Photo courtesy of wendywelchbigstonegap.wordpress.com


Textile art can be therapeutic, soothing, creative, joyous; all things that make us come back for more and seek solace in during times of laughter or grief. One thing is certain, however, not every project runs as smoothly as we initially imagine it will.

When this happens, we see a darker side of self-expression, one that brings with it a sharp tongue. If you do lose your temper with your knitting, crocheting or weaving, you can now do so while staying within the theme of your pattern.

So we have composed a collection of various verbal expressions in languages associated with textile traditions around the world. This gives you a library of cuss words and phrases, with which you can adequately express your frustrations in the language where your particular textile tradition is from! We hope this will make your "oops!" moments, a bit more bearable!

(Please note that some of these are phonetic transcriptions and are not written in their correct script.)

Arabic:
"Yah khara!" - "You shit!"
"Ya lbn el sharmouta!" - "Son of a bitch!"

French:
 "Nique ce putain de tricot!" - "Fuck this shit knitting!"

Icelandic:
"Fjandinn taki þennan andskotans prjónaskap!" - "Fuck this piece of shit knitting!"
"Ertu að fokka í mér?" - "Are you fucking with me?"
"Það er allt í fokki!" - "It is all fucked!"
"Djö fulli vel gert!" - "Fucking well done!"

Norwegian:
"Faen ta dette jævla strikke helvete!" - "Fuck this shit knitting!"
"Drit i det." - "Screw that."
"Breiddjame!" - "Son of a whore!"
"Morrapuler!" - "Motherfucker!"

Spanish:
"Joder este mierda tejido de punto!" - "Christ, this shit knitted fabric!"
"Manda huevos..." - "Fucking hell..."
"Me cago en la mierda!" - "I shit on the shit!"

Swedish
"Fan!" - "Dammnit!"
"Hujeda mig..." - "Dear me..."

Welsh:
"Cachu hwch." - "Pig shit."
"Dim gwerth rhech dafad." - "Not worth a sheeps fart."


Have anything to add? Let us know!

(Thanks to: Haukur, Aymeric, Travis, Håkon, Aja, and Óli!)