Transition Culture

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9 Mar 2015

Sarah Corbett: changing the world one backstitch at a time

Sarah Corbett

Sarah Corbett runs the Craftivist Collective, which she describes as “activism through needlework” and “slow, gentle, joyful activism”.  The term was first coined by Betsy Greer in 2003 as “a way of looking at life where voicing opinions through creativity makes your voice stronger, your compassion deeper and your quest for justice more infinite”.  Given that our current theme is Social Change and the Arts, we thought it could be worth a chat, so we caught up with Sarah via Skype to find out more.

What is a Craftivist?

I didn’t coin the word ‘Craftivism’, but we’ve got a particular approach to it where, for us, craftivists tend to be people who are either burnt out activists, people who have done loads of activism and feel completely wiped out and struggling a bit with trying to get the motivation to do it again, also people who are often quite nervous about activism.

Mini Protest Banner workshop at Spitalfields City Farm, east London.

They want to make the world a better place and they believe it can be better, but they might be more introverted, more shy and quiet, tend to like doing crafty things so might be a bit of a loner or just a bit of a worrier, a person who is a bit nervous of traditional activist groups, which tend to be quite loud and extrovert and sometimes quite angry and threatening, or quite negative. So our craftivists tend to be within that bunch, but we’ve got a massive eclectic mix all around the world.

I wonder what’s the history of it as an idea?  Is there a rich history going back of this, do you think?

I grew up in a low-income area with lots of activism happening, I was squatting from the age of 3, so my background is being around activism, seeing where it can win. Doing stuff in politics at school and activism at university and then working as a professional campaigner for NGOs.

I got into the craft side as a reaction to a lot of the angry or quick activism that I didn’t think was always that effective. So I merged the two. I didn’t have a clue that there was a history of craft and activism, to be honest. I knew Gandhi had a spinning wheel and I knew the Suffragettes had their banners and the unions had their banners, but I was very ignorant on it. There’s definitely a massive history but I’m not the expert on it: I’m learning more and more about how it’s been used.

Ours is quite different in that everything tends to be small rather than large. We don’t make giant banners, we do quite subversive, guerrilla craft.  We think about what is our involvement in the world, when can we be helpful not harmful.  What do we buy? Who do we vote for?  All of those things.

Sarah cross-stitching on the bus.

It feels quite different, which is why I started doing craftivism.  I couldn’t find anyone using craft in activism. There weren’t any groups or projects. There was lots in history, but there wasn’t anything I could do, so I started doing it.

Can you give us a sense of what you do? What are your favourite projects that you’ve been involved in?

There are three main ones that I really like for different reasons. We stitch on ‘fabric footprints’ to keep for ourselves. Because stitching takes hours to do, it’s hand embroidery so it’s very repetitive, it’s really good to focus on one issue of what journey we’re on as global citizens, what impact are we making on the planet step by step, and that’s for people to keep somewhere in their home that they can see to keep reminding them to stay on the right track and be intentional in their living.

That’s fascinating because that’s quite a soft way into activism which isn’t too scary. People don’t need to have lots of knowledge about particular issues like fracking or climate change, but they can think more holistically about values and morals and making the world a healthier place.

'Banking on Injustice': created for an exhibition in Ink-d Gallery, Brighton 2010.  Photo by Robin Prime.

My particular favourite is I made a handkerchief for my local MP at the time a few years ago because her office was ignoring all my petitions and told me to stop contacting her, which I was quite angry about. It was a good challenge because it was good to think – why doesn’t she want me to contact her? It was clearly because we had very different ideologies and she didn’t see me as someone to win over to vote for her in the next election. She really just saw me as a bit of a slacktivist.

So I embroidered her a message on a handkerchief that was very timeless and encouraging – I know being an MP is a tough and a big job but please use your power and influence for good, with lots of smiley faces, “yours in hope from Sarah” and my postcode so she knew I was a constituent.

It was the only tool really, that I went and met her because she has to as I was a constituent. I gave her this handkerchief and she immediately warmed to me and opened up more about why she was an MP and what she wanted to do. We figured out where we could work together, we could challenge each other in a more loving, respectful way where we disagreed, which helped me understand where she was coming from and some of the barriers around some of the things she had to do. She still has my hanky on a pin board in the office and I’m known as “the hanky girl” in the office.

It seems quite cutesy and a little bit lame in a way, embroidering a hanky for an MP, but the relationship I’ve built with her from that catalyst of creating this beautiful delicate small thing with my handwriting just with backstitch over the top has really built a relationship with her of honesty and seeing where we can work together. And we have worked together on quite a lot of stuff which I didn’t think we would. I’ve learnt a hell of a lot on where she comes from in other ways. We don’t always agree, but it seems like we’re much better at being critical friends than aggressive enemies. Often as activists, we tend to sit in the park of aggressive enemies, sadly.

And then we do lots of street art and things as well that’s small and provocative, not preachy. That’s quite good for social media and we now have people all around the world doing our projects. The street art helps with those conversations, creating those conversations with people around issues they might not normally talk about.

What does craft, and using our hands in a creative way, do to us? I was reading recently that the average national attention span over the last 10 years has fallen from 12 minutes to 5 minutes and they’ve put a lot of that down to smart phones and iPads and Facebook and all that kind of stuff. Can craft be an antidote to that? Could you think of it as a kind of digital detox strategy?

Definitely. That’s one of the reasons I started doing it. I picked up a craft kit because I was travelling a lot with my job and I couldn’t read on trains because I was getting travel sick, and I was constantly online so I had huge targets. I was working on a DFID project at the time and I was emailing whilst texting, whilst writing stuff, whilst doing documents. It was ridiculous really.

Craftivist meeting at the Paper Dress Boutique in Shoreditch.

I, like many people, have itchy fingers to physically make something or be creative and I immediately noticed that when I took up craft I was specifically only talking about hand embroidery and cross stitch, not woodwork or glasswork which are different things. The work I’ve heard from clinicians and neuroscientists I’ve been lucky enough to work with suggest there are very unique benefits of craft in that the repetitive nature of activities like hand embroidery naturally slows you down, reduces anxiety, helps with depression, helps you feel empowered, you’re physically making something which is different to being online, and I think all of that is so useful for people trying to do social justice.

Often, we’re doing things online and we don’t see a tangible difference. Often we’re reading quite depressing, worrying things that we need to and want to read and understand, but it can get us in a downward spiral. So to be able to craft whilst learning about these complex issues really helps us stay sane, stay positive, see that we can physically make a difference because we’re making things. And it slows us down. We’re not being distracted.

We can spend hours crafting and thinking about the complexities of different issues and how it’s all tangled up, to see what our role is and what we can do, and to stop and think strategically as campaigners and not just rush off and do things with good intentions that, sadly, might not always end up with the best results. It’s a really useful thing o do.

My craft idea has become the global Craftivist Collective now very much by accident. Because I started doing it on my own, people started sharing it online because it was interesting imagery, it was hand embroidery. I started it 6 years ago.  6 years ago there wasn’t much craft online, contemporary craft that people wanted to share, so it was quite sharable. And now we’ve got thousands of craftivists around the word because it translates really well online.

So I wouldn’t say you should hide away in a shed and do craft. I’d say do that and come out of the shed and Instagram it and Pinterest it and share it on Facebook and use it as a tool for conversation, rather than as a goal in itself. It’s there as a tool and a catalyst.

 I remember I watched this fantastic film that was a black and white film made during World War II, one of the public information films. It had this scene of someone giving a talk to a Women’s Institute group in Derbyshire in some village hall somewhere, and all the women looked like something out of Monty Python, with these big coats and hats on, and they were all knitting. Every single person in the hall was knitting. Everybody used to do all that stuff, but we’ve lost it more and more. I wondered what you think as a culture we lose when we stop using our hands in that way?

What’s amazing is over the last few years you see more and more young people and older people knitting on trains and in conferences. There’s more and more evidence now, which is brilliant, about how using your hands while you’re listening in a lecture or while you’re with people helps you soak up more of that information because your brain is alert because you’re using your hands and not just sitting still and wandering.


Also, while you’re crafting together, what’s very unique about hand stitching as well, more than lots of other creative crafts is that you don’t need eye contact, so if you think about lots of activists meetings, it can feel quite intimidating for someone new or shy to say anything, because you’ve got to give eye contact and if you look at the table people think you’re rude because you’re not focusing. While you’re crafting, you don’t need to look at each other, so you can listen more intently, and you can share things without having to give eye contact.

I do workshops all the time, all over Europe sometimes, which is amazing, and the things people open up to, they would never have said: “I’m thinking about this”, or “maybe I got it wrong”, or “I hadn’t thought about how my clothes are made before, how awful”. They’ll open up about this stuff because they’ve got craft in their hands. I do worry a lot; I work a lot with young people and lots of different ages, but young people especially want to have these deep conversations but don’t feel they have any tools to do it.

So whereas my mum and my grandmother will know that craft has some of these benefits, because they would have experienced it, a lot of young people haven’t done textiles or they’ve just done machinery textiles, or CDT, so they don’t know that these are great tools for slowing down, thinking critically, using it as a way to have conversations with people and ice breakers. They just think everything is online. They just get thrown online tools and apps, rather than being told – maybe we should stop and think and get offline a little bit.

So I do worry, we live in such a busy, fast-paced world, people are craving to do something with their hands and to slow down, but aren’t quite sure where to look.

What are the things that inspire you most in terms of what other people are doing, particularly in that world of where activism meets the arts?

At the moment what I worry about a lot is people just doing, doing, doing without thinking, which often we do because we’ve got stresses and deadlines and so many things to do. What I love is when people have spent hours making something that’s very thoughtful. They’ve thought very clearly about what text to put on, who they’re going to give something to, the message they want with it, is it a gift, is it a tool for different things.

I did find that fascinating, that people have made the time and prioritised the time to say – I’m going to take a step back from this crazy world and think intentionally about what am I doing, how am I feeling. Being a bit mindful is a good thing, as long as we don’t navel gaze, which mindfulness isn’t about, but sadly the Western world has co-opted that world so it feels a bit individualistic.

The Craftivist Jigsaw Project: craftivists fitting some jigsaw pieces together to sayWe are piece of the solution (creating positive change one stitch at a time...)

One example is Lucy Neal’s book. I saw Lucy at our Well Making event a few weeks ago and the time and energy she spent on making this lovely book and meeting all these thoughtful people. She made the book not because she had a massive book deal, deadline and a big advance, but she saw a need for creating a tool that would encourage and empower and equip people to be intentional and be more thoughtful in the actions they take and how they treat people, and what we can do as global citizens as well as local neighbours. It keeps me going.

Do you know of many Transition groups who you’ve overlapped with or have got involved with craftivism? If so – which, and if not, what would be your advice for any Transition group reading this who might think – that sounds really good. Where would they start?

Have you heard of yarn bombing? It’s also called “knitting graffiti”. People often think craftivism is knitting around lamp posts because if you Google ‘craftivism’ that’s what comes up first. Any group or individual I talk to, when they say “what can I do?” I always remind them that craft should be the tool to do activism where it’s appropriate.

Sometimes it’s not appropriate to do craft, it needs to be a march or a petition, or a quick action or something. But it’s a tool for activism, rather than having craft as the task master. So if you love craft, it’s very tempting to squeeze your love of craft into using it for a good political cause. We need to stop ourselves from doing that and be much more strategic, and say “what’s the best use?”

So for some Transition Town networks, it might be that if you’re setting up a new group and you want to break the ice, get everyone to bond together, then our “footprints” is a lovely one to do where you get to know each other while you’re stitching: you talk about what message you’re going to put on your footprint, what are you most passionate about, how do you want the group to work, what can you offer the group. It’s a lovely comforting tool to think about uncomfortable issues of global change, but also how we can be effective together and have those conversations.

We’ve also got kits to do our little mini protest banners, where if you’re aiming for your town to really change its ways then you can plant these small bits of street art off eye level that provoke, not preach, and it could be a really lovely way to get people noticing that you’ve got this Transition network and you’re trying to change the world for the better, but you’re doing it in a very gentle way.

What we tend to do is our default, which is craft: let’s make a massive banner and scream down megaphones and tell people we’re here and you should join us. That doesn’t tend to work so much nowadays. It’s much more about individual conversations and word of mouth and being a little bit more sneaky so people don’t feel like you’re vying for their attention like everyone else, and I think craft is a very slow, organic tool to see what can happen, but be patient with it, use it as a slow and meditative tool. Don’t just go big and loud, which is the obvious. What’s often more effective is the small, quiet, humble actions.  

CoverSarah is just one of over 60 artists who have written sections for Lucy Neal’s forthcoming book ‘Playing for Time: making art as if the world mattered” (see cover, right).  The book is published at the end of this month.