Coined by artists and collectives in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, the term craftivism relates to creative, traditional handcraft (often, assisted by high-tech means of community-building, skill-sharing, and action) directed toward political and social causes. Craftivist actions are often described as if they create micro-utopias, fleeting communities of participants who work together toward a common goal, using traditional techniques of handwork to answer or speak to current political situations. The process is often more important than the product.
Type “craftivism” or “radical knitting” into any search engine, and one can expect a flood of results, ranging from documentation of artists and community groups to coverage of the recent exhibition Radical Knitting and Subversive Lace at the Museum of Art and Design in New York, from a clip on the popular Colbert Report documenting radical knitting artist Jerilea Zempel’s crochet-covered tanks to sites offering advice on how to knit and crochet free from the constraints of patterns. What many of these wide-ranging examples have in common is a concerted effort to create community and to engage with politics of anticapitalism, feminism, environmentalism, or other, more personal, causes. Stereotypes nevertheless abound, and much [End Page 197] of the media coverage of craftivism tends still to highlight the peculiarity of the combination of craft and activism, as often as not subsuming the politics of the action under ill-disguised surprise that this could be activism—Isn’t knitting, or embroidery, or quilting more often “the preserve of elderly ladies declining towards senility?”1
These stereotypes contribute to what Jack Bratich and Heidi Brush, in this journal, term a “humor of incongruity.” Certainly, activists using textiles—stretching from Penelope in the Odyssey through the Peace Camp at Greenham Common and more recent actions designed to stage “knit-ins” amid the clouds of tear gas at antiglobalization protests—have pointedly made use of such stereotypes, using crafting to unsettle mainstream media coverage that tends to dismiss protest as the pastime of violent hooligans. Knitting, for example, was used in protests in Prague, Quebec City, and Calgary to produce utopic zones in the violence—spaces of community that could not be overcome by (but could draw attention to the extremes of) police crackdowns. Such actions received a great deal of coverage, so much in fact that knitting in particular has come to be seen as one of the excoriated pastimes of anticapitalist activists (dismissed recently in a widely circulating Internet posting as “holier-than-thou lentil knitting trustafarians”).2 But at the same time activist knitting has largely vanished from the alter-globalization movement. There was, in fact, no coverage and no obvious presence at all of knitting activists at the 2009 anti-G20 protests in London that prompted the above comment. However, as radical knitting has emerged from the tear gas, the number of political knitting actions separate from the massive anticapitalist protests is on the rise. These include but are certainly not limited to such well-known actions as Wombs on Washington (reproduction rights), Afghans for Afghans, and the UK Knit a River (global water rights) project.3 Other actions include a wide variety of fund-raisers organized through knitting blogs, most notably Stephanie Pearl McPhee’s Knitters Without Borders, which, under the title “If you can afford to knit . . . you can afford to donate” has collected almost C$600,000 for Doctors Without Borders. In this mix of activist groups can also be found MicroRevolt, which distributes freeware online that allows users to copy and knit corporate logos to demonstrate the labor behind mass-produced goods, and the act of “yarn bombing” or making “knit graffiti” (for example, covering lampposts in knitted cozies) as an act of asserting the need for comfortable human spaces in our increasingly industrial, urban surroundings. Since 2001, [End Page 198] there has been a fairly remarkable expansion of venues wherein crafting is used for political purpose.
Simultaneously, exhibitions such as Radical Knitting and Subversive Lace and Pricked: Extreme Embroidery have drawn a great deal of attention, as have knitting artists such as Jim Drain and the...