Wednesday, March 27, 2013


I’ve recently become aware of a movement whose name makes me gag – “craftivism.” Yet the underlying concept is worth exploring. It’s an umbrella term for many kinds of art and craft activities designed to promote good in the world. It’s as current as this week’s New York Times, as intellectually rigorous as my art history graduate seminar, as close to home as my fiber-art friends.

As I’ve read and heard about such activities from several different sources in the last couple of weeks, I think it’s time to think about what they are and how they fit into the art and craft scene.  These projects seem to fall into three major food groups.

First, charitable contributions or services, such as making scarves, toys, mittens, hats and afghans for soldiers, cancer patients, women’s shelters or the homeless; or teaching people to knit. This concept is as old as the hills (your great-grandmother might have knitted socks for soldiers in World War I; her grandmother might have done the same in the Civil War) but seems trendy with its new name.

Second, consciousness-raising display, making or doing something that will get people to think about political or social issues. In some cases, the audience is small and accidental; for instance, the Counterfeit Crochet Project encourages people to crochet and use "designer bags" as a commentary on brand identity and globalized marketing and manufacturing.

In other cases, the product is considered high art. For instance, textile artist Kelly Cobb enlisted an army of farmers and craftspeople to make a suit from products raised and produced within 100 miles of Philadelphia; it was exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Yarn-bombers covered a WW2 combat tank with pink squares to protest the war in Iraq; it was parked outside the Nikolaj Contemporary Art Center in Copenhagen.

Third, making things to sell.  This seems to break into two sub-groups.  

One seeks to make existing products more ethically or cheaply.  For instance, Blackspot sneakers, made from hemp and recycled tires, are made in fair-trade factories and sold through independent retailers, sans marketing hype.  Ethical Metalsmiths make jewelry using only socially and environmentally acceptable materials (no conflict diamonds), and recycle the metals and gems from old jewelry.

The second uses craft to help disadvantaged people make a living.  Not a new concept -- perhaps you remember the Freedom Quilting Bee, founded in Alabama in 1966 as part of the civil rights movement; rural black women made products to sell and the next thing you knew, we had the Gee's Bend extravaganza!  Professional craftspeople are often enlisted to go to remote areas and help the locals improve their skills and design products that will be more appealing to potential buyers.  For instance, my friend Philis Alvic, a weaver, has worked with craftspeople in a dozen different countries from Nepal to Tanzania to Peru.

Some of these projects seem like no-brainers (ladies who quilt, sew and knit have been making and donating things forever).  Others seem kind of cerebral, a variety of conceptual art, and still others seem like great ideas for collective action but hard to incorporate into one's personal agenda.  I'll be thinking more about this subject -- and if you have thoughts, please share them!


  1. Interesting to find these all under the same umbrella of 'craftism'. It gives new insight into the different facets. You have set me thinking!

    Following the thoughts on the first group,(My grandfather knitted socks for WW1 soldiers) It would also be interesting to look at the viewpoint of the recipients. For instance, My friend Karin works with orphans in Ethiopia. I asked her about this 'pillowcase dress' fad - someone has an idea of making and giving a dress to every girl in the world. So, they use pillowcases to make a little dress, put ribbons on the shoulders and ship them to the poor little Africans. In my head, having some knowledge of sewing garments, I would ask a daughter or grandchild or neice if they would wear it. probably no.
    My friend said the children don't like them. they are too short and because they don't fit the upper body area, they are too revealing/too cold to wear. You still have to wear clothes underneath them, which rather defeats the purpose. So, they took them to a local tailor who made them into skirts. - okay, someone got a job.
    Did the soldiers like the socks knitted by 8-12 year olds? Yet I am thinking about making my sisinlaw a quilt because she is starting chemo soon and I have heard people feel cold when having chemo. I do intend to make it 'in her colours' or with something on it that interests her.

    and then thinking further about your crochet designer bag. At first I thought - clever - I get the point.
    but...would they be as useful? Do they actually get accepted by the people who would buy the bag?
    Has anyone checked out where their yarn has been made? I am sure there are still only a few spinning their own yarn for projects like this.
    What do people do with these yarn bombed things anyway? Why is a yarn covered tree better than the way it was made?

    anyway, to many questions! I think I will go on thinking about this. Thanks for waking me up a bit.

    1. a few responses to your questions -- I don't think the faux designer bag is to be sold -- you make it and you carry it around, thus signifying how ironic and non-materialistic you are.

      the "local" projects like the 100-Mile Suit are indeed difficult to accomplish. that particular organizer had to enlist sheep farmers, spinners, weavers, etc. to provide the cloth, and she never did come up with local sources for a few items such as shoe soles.

      I think the whole point of yarn bombing and other display projects in this genre is to make other people see it and wonder about it. I guess when you have crocheted a tank cozy the meaning is fairly obvious, but you're right that activist display shoots itself in the foot if people don't have any idea what your message is.

      you're right -- a lot to think sbout!!

  2. Dear Kathy,
    For another slant on this movement, look up "Tragicrafting" in the archives on April Winchell's late, lamented website/blog Hilarious and horrifying at the same time.

    1. oh my -- thank you for the link!!

      if you have 15 minutes to waste and want to feel so good that you aren't these people....

  3. The label makes me gag too.

    I had wondered about those pillowcase dresses and whether they were usable for the recipients. That is important for me. I don't want to generate a pile of charity-item-of-the-moment when the usability isn't there. It's a waste of my time and materials.

    Plus, I've noticed a strong 'one-uppy' factor. "You're making a quilt? Me too... for charity." Like it isn't enough for someone to pour their talent and limited time into a beautiful piece, it doesn't count unless it is for charity too. Heaven help you if you're making something for yourself. LOL

    Perhaps I've gone curmudgeonly, but just because I sew/knit/bead/spin/etc. doesn't mean that I want to contribute same to every last person's charity. I am getting very good at "No thanks".

    1. Leigh,
      I get the curmudgeonly part. I think it is good to give, but not unless you have really thought it through. Does your textile related donation actually do something to help? or will it be better to find a way to give money or time.
      I am making skirts for the teen girls at my friend's orphan village. She said the younger ones get sent things, but not the teens. So, I have been gifted fabric, I can use it up and send it on to someone who needs it.
      on the other hand, I save to give money to my friend in Zimbabwe. when she comes back to see her children once or twice a year. It goes to help kids have the uniform and supplies for actually going to school.

  4. This is a rapidly growing trend. Two women from my area have been working in Kenya for several years establishing quality schools. More recently they have seen the need for women in that area to make money to keep their children in school, so they helped the women to establish the Tembo Trading company, which makes woven bags called kiondos. I applaud the approach of teaching the women how to run a business rather than just giving objects. Follows the old saw about giving a fish...

  5. I guess I'm out of the loop on this one, or maybe I'm wired differently. I don't see the value in shipping 'stuff' over seas and trying to turn the rest of the world into us. There are so many places to do good in this country whether it is teaching at a women's shelter so the women can be self supporting, knitting and crocheting mufflers and hats for homeless families or donating what you make to a charity that is really in need. I just see a huge one-up-manship going on rather than quietly doing good and know that you changed your one corner of the world. I don't see making your own designer knock-off as any kind of a statement other than you can't afford the real thing but you want to look like you can afford it thus signifying your own materialistic point of view.