For as long as she can remember, Sarah Corbett has been fighting for social justice. Growing up in an activist family, she experienced firsthand how energy-intensive, frustrating, and ineffective conventional campaigning and protesting can be. In her search to engage the public more respectfully, she founded the Craftivist Collective to channel the meditative crafts of embroidery and cross-stitch into vehicles for change. What started out with a few miniature protest banners, earnestly rendered with messages such as “Now’s the time to act for justice” and “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” has since exploded into a global movement more than 1,000 members strong. It’s easy to “pick up the thread,” as Corbett describes it. Would-be “craftivists” can even purchase ready-to-stitch kits at the group’s online store. Ecouterre caught up with Corbett to learn about this new form of “gentle protest,” how crafting can lead to a more mindful approach to activism, and the role craftivism can play in promoting a more ethical fashion industry.
How did the Craftivist Collective come about?
I’ve been an activist since I was 3 years old. I grew up in a low-income area of Liverpool in the United Kingdom. My parents were both activists campaigning on local issues like healthcare and housing, as well as fighting against global injustices such as the apartheid in South Africa.
I learned the craft and ended up working as a professional campaigner for charities such as Oxfam.
As an introvert, I would become burnt out quite often attending meetings and going on demonstrations. I didn’t like treating people like robots, just asking them to sign petitions, and I was reading reports on how quick easy activism and aggressive activism techniques were not having the influence on politicians and businesses that we needed.
Shouting and demonizing people didn’t feel like an effective or respectful way to encourage people to do the right thing.
“Shouting and demonizing people didn’t feel like an effective or respectful way to encourage people to do the right thing.”
In looking for a better way, I picked up a cross-stitch kit to do on a long train journey and immediately noticed that it slowed me down, gave me time to think through how to be a better activist, and I noticed that people were asking me what I was doing.
I felt like craft could be a really useful tool do to a different form of activism.
I started creating my own craftivism projects in August 2008 after Googling “craft and activism” and finding the word “craftivism.” There were no groups to join or projects to take part in so I created my own.
I set up the collective in early 2009 after people around the world wanted to have a go at the craftivism projects I had created. Friends in London wanted to join me and organizations wanted me to do craftivism events for them.
It all happened within months of coming up with craftivism projects. It was never a plan and was a bit scary, but when people want to engage in social justice you can’t say no and it’s been so inspiring and rewarding hearing that I’ve helped people gain confidence to stand up to injustice but with the tools to do it in a gentle and respectful way.
When did you get that “aha” moment that crafting could address injustice?
I always loved to paint and draw but being an activist professionally, and in my personal time I didn’t make any time to be creative and use my hands to make things.
Spending so much time on computers, and traveling for my job with the U.K. Department for International Development a few years ago, I didn’t find time or space to paint but I missed being offline and creating things.
I couldn’t paint on trains but craft kits were easy to travel with and do a bit of when I had time. By accident, the benefits I got from crafting I thought really addressed my concerns with the world of activism: I had to slow down and it gave me headspace to think deeply and critically about what I could do to address an injustice.
“Leaving small provocative street art around was intriguing, attracting, and engaging the public on and offline.”
The small delicate and—hopefully!—beautiful creations could be powerful tools to give to people in power to encourage them in their role to use their power and influence for good rather than bully them to change into submission.
Crafting in public and leaving small provocative street art around was intriguing, attracting, and engaging the public in thought and conversation on and offline.
There were so many ways I saw craft could complement activism but I am also very careful that craft is our tool not taskmaster. Sometimes craft isn’t needed in campaigns to challenge injustice.
I’m always mindful of making sure we don’t shoe-horn craft where it won’t be effective or where it might actually harm an issue rather than help. Our priority is activism and challenging the root causes of injustice so we be part of creating long-term change.
What is “slow activism” and how does it relate to craftivism?
“Slow activism” is my response to very quick and transactional forms of activism: You can sign a petition so easily without having to engage deeply and it makes it easier to forget what we’ve just signed.
Going on a march can be a really powerful way to show the public care about an issue, but we also need other ways to tackle injustice.
“It’s important that when we are angry at an injustice, we channel that anger into a strategic and effective response.”
It’s important that when we are angry at an injustice, we channel that anger into a strategic and effective response. We need time to slow down and think clearly to come up with the right thing to do.
The craft I focus on using is mostly hand embroidery and cross-stitch—handicrafts that require you to slow down and do gentle repetitive actions that help you to think deeply and critically about the global issue you care about.
These handicrafts also allow you time to consider what you can do, what others can do and how to go about making a positive difference—threading your values through all your thoughts and activities.
The slowness requires discipline and commitment and means people tend to be very proud of what they have created and take ownership of the messages they’ve stitched.
What advice can you offer to the activist who feels unheard or burned out?
I’m a doer so I have to make sure I don’t burn out, too.
Crafting is such a powerful tool to force you to slow down and be mindful—mindful of how healthy and strong you are so you don’t try and do too much but focus on doing less, better and more effectively.
“Crafting is such a powerful tool to force you to slow down and be mindful.”
It’s a very comforting tool so you can challenge yourself with uncomfortable questions like “Am I part of the solution or the problem of sweatshops?” and “What can I do to change that?”
It’s also very empowering because with every stitch, you are reminded that you can achieve things, you can shape your world, and your message can be heard in way where you don’t have to shout or be extroverted.
Is there a favorite craftivist project you’re proudest of?
All of our projects have different aims and objectives, and I’m always honing them to be the best they can be.
I love reading emails and social media comments from people that our “footprint” kits have really helped them think through improving their habits, think more about what they buy, and what journey they are on to be a good global citizen using their passions, talents, and opportunities.
It’s surreal to remember that Malala [Yousafzai] took part in a workshop with me creating her own footprint!
“I love that our kits have helped people be critical friends rather than aggressive enemies.”
I love that our “Don’t Blow It” hanky kits have helped people build relationships with their local politicians and others to be critical friends rather than aggressive enemies.
And we have craftivists around the world who make lots of mini-banners to leave around their area to express their concerns using courage and care.
At the moment I’m most proud of teaching charities, arts institutions, and students around the world a new way of doing activism, which I call “gentle protest,” that is more respectful, loving and positive.
It’s amazing hearing that my work has helped changed the way people think and work.
How can craftivism be a vehicle for change in the fashion industry?
So many ways! Crafting reminds us of the skill and time needed to create garments which naturally makes us question “fast fashion” and how so many items can be made so cheaply.
All of our craftivism kits include detailed instructions, tips, and “crafter thought” questions to reflect on while stitching. And they give you time to think through whether your values are threaded through all you do, including what you wear.
Our mini-banners are really powerful when put near unethical fashion shops provoking shoppers to ask questions like “Who made my clothes?”
“Small actions can lead to big change, and craftivism can be part of that toolkit of ways we can improve the fashion industry.”
At my solo exhibition in Stockholm this summer, I had people make mini-scrolls to place in people’s pockets in clothes shops.
They were finished with pretty ribbon and on lovely paper so that people would be excited to find them, open them up, and be intrigued. They then read messages like “If you’re clothes could talk, what would their story be?” and “What’s your fashion statement?”
The scrolls all ended with @FashionRevolution so they could find out more info and join that movement.
Small actions can lead to big change, and craftivism can be part of that toolkit of ways we can improve the fashion industry.
We can also buy more ethically, become shareholder activists, make sure the conversation around the ugly side of fashion is happening, and more.