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The rise of craftivism: Weaving together the political and the deeply personal

The knit graffiti trend, which has seen trees, vintage planes, buses and even entire structures like the Andy Warhol Bridge in Pittsburgh covered in miles of yarn, evolved into a more pointed political movement earlier this year when the headquarters of a craft store started receiving knitted uteruses in the mail.

The womb-bombing campaign erupted in protest to a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that said chains such as closely held American craft-supply emporium Hobby Lobby had the right to opt out, on the basis of religious grounds, of covering certain types of birth control through their benefit plan. In addition to community and activist groups breaking out their knitting needles, satirical videos demonstrating how to craft DIY-IUDs using pipe cleaners started surfacing. Funny or Die took up the cause with their own videos of birth control made from craft supplies. The medium became part of the message.

Personal stories and activism are the next logical steps from the revival that began more than a decade ago and repositioned craft, “pushing back against cute kittens and ducks,” says Leanne Prain, the author of Hoopla, and co-author of Yarn Bombing. Her new book, Strange Material, focuses on the art and process of storytelling through textiles.

‘Bridezilla’ dress, part of Noël Palomo-Lovinski’s ‘Confessions’ series

“Now I think people want to see things that are more personal, that relate to them and where they live,” Prain says. “That’s the thing about the knit graffiti movement that I’ve been reading and writing about for over seven years.” What began as a guerrilla crochet and knit movement, a covert, often anonymous underground phenomenon now has makers who acknowledge their work, and are thinking bigger.

“It went from a fuzzy pole to a personal marker to a more community-minded moment.” Prain says.

“Part of the reason I wanted to write Strange Material,” she says on the phone from her Vancouver home, “is that I really want to know people’s stories and what their motivations are – I find that much more compelling than what your business card is. That’s why I am pushing the question of what are you making and what’s the personal resonance in it versus what are you making to impress other people.”

It’s as much anthology as workbook, with each chapter exploring an approach, highlighting the history or an artist working in the medium and ending with an activity prompt, “because we do have a materialistic craft society now. Interested people are so used to going out and buying a craft kit and going from A to B,” she continues, “and I really wanted to focus on stories and story generation and explore personal themes through cloth. The hope is that the people reading the book will be able to generate their own projects.”

Carlyn Yandle’s Logo Sweater

Prain underscores how craft is “saturated with narrative,” from the chain of events that lead to creation to the choice of materials. In her 2010 “Logo Sweater,” Carlyn Yandle addresses the controversy surrounding the Vancouver Olympics Hudson’s Bay sponsor co-opting the traditional Cowichan sweater by knitting the logos of event sponsors such as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s into her pattern.

A “Bridezilla” dress of digitally printed fabric, part of Noël Palomo-Lovinski’s 2008 “Confessions” series, is one of a dozen gowns adorned with phrases taken from confessional websites she was reading while negotiating the demands of life as a new mother, wife and professional. Another of the artists in the book makes bereavement quilts using cloth items that belonged to the deceased, a craft way to approach the healing process that is laden with meaning. “It’s not just about telling stories with this book, it’s the fact that we have emotional attachment to fabric,” Prain says. “I don’t think we talk about that that much. We all wear fabric, we sleep under fabric.”

Tracy Widdess’s sculptural monster mask knit headpieces are deliberately disquieting, as an antidote to the proliferation of cutesy, while Philip Stearns’s Glitch Textiles are machine-knit renderings of digital patterns, a commentary on the technological world. “It’s interesting that you’re using a machine to knit visual examples of technical glitches, Prain says, “like when a CD skips or a computer file comes out bitty – in that way I think his process echoes what he’s trying to communicate. Which is meta.”

Tracy Widdess

Prain is partway through a shared book tour (with a stop earlier this week at Toronto’s Textile Museum and ending at the Smithsonian) with craft and visual art authors Kim Werker and Betsy Greer. It was Greer who coined the term “craftivism“ in 2003 and her new book shares a title with the portmanteau. “In the very beginning around 2002 when I was first writing about craft and activism they were definitely seen as two polar opposites,” Greer said. “That’s why I started writing about craftivism in general, because craft seems like it was this antiquated thing, not relevant, obsolete.

“For me it’s about them playing against themselves, to soften one and toughen up the other. Because when you use things that are opposites like that you open up a dialogue. People aren’t expecting it and that’s the device and methodology,” she says. The goal? To make the world a better place. In the case of Fine Cell in Britain, an organization featured in the anthology, it’s teaching British prisoners craft, in effect, both as an economically-empowering skill and as a means of managing anger and depression.

“Two things together that for most people don’t fit and a lot of people ask about why someone stitched about war – stitching is ‘quaint’ but war is violent. That juxtaposition leads to conversations.” Instead of a more violent or directly confrontational medium, she continues, craft is one that encourages dialogue and interrogation. “We in general turn away from protest signs,” Greet adds. “Craft is a back door into a conversation. A question has a response, whereas a statement doesn’t have a next step.”

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