Craftivism and DIY politics

Elena Solomon wrote a paper titled “Homemade and Hell Raising Through Craft, Activism, and Do-It-Yourself Culture”. This paper, published in the Journal of PsychNology (that is not a typo), begins with the interesting claim that while crafters and DIY-ers tend to take pride in the self-sufficiency demonstrated by their crafts and projects, this stands in seeming contradiction to their common dependence on DIY gathering spaces (real or virtual). In most cases, we learn to craft from others (in person, from tutorials, from examples, from books, from videos…), and even after gaining skill, we seek to share the results with other people, or sell them to other people, or get feedback from other people… Witness,, etc. Do It Yourself might in some cases be better phrased as Do It Yourself With Others.

Or at least that’s the argument I think the author wanted to make. While this was the teaser, and that’s what the article claimed to be focusing on, the paper then veers off into an analysis of “craftivism,” which I gather is when you use crafts to make political statements.

My first thought was, of course, of Madame Defarge.

Solomon first describes existing craft websites as “jarringly apolitical” (I am not sure what she expected to find), a phenomenon she attributes to “the DIY movement’s highly political ties with consumerism.” I think this is trying to say that craft sites are not political because they are created? controlled? motivated by? businesses selling craft supplies. It’s not quite clear.

The same sentence then asserts that

“the apolitical masquerade reveals, upon closer analysis, neoliberal ties to a more conservative capitalist agenda.”

I read that excerpt at least five times before admitting defeat. I have no idea what this is saying.

The paper then meanders into “retrograde postfeminism” and makes some actually plausible statements that a lot of crafting and DIY projects are marketed toward white, middle-class folk, who may participate without even seeing it as so. It guess that group of people would include me, but I don’t think I’d go as far as ascribing it to “the underlying political force that actively works to maintain a racialized and middle class market of consumerist individuals.”

Much more entertaining is the list of “craftivist” activities in this article. While Defarge doesn’t make an appearance, Chilean women who were imprisoned and oppressed do. These women sewed arpilleras to tell their stories and ask about missing loved ones, while living in fear of punishment.

Barb Hunt knitted a series of anti-personnel land mines to protest their use worldwide.

Kirsty Robertson designed a knitting pattern that encodes the Code Red Virus and made it freely available. Anyone can knit this computer virus (purl = 0, knit = 1) and transport it anywhere in the world… or encode their own favorite program into a new scarf. (Of course, the scarf-code is only meaningful if associated with an interpreter, compiler, or a computer that can run it.)

I can’t claim to have performed any acts of craftivism myself. What’s your favorite example?

2 of 2 people learned something from this entry.

  1. Brittany said,

    May 8, 2014 at 9:21 am

    (Learned something new!)

    Great post! I don’t think it’s a contradiction for DIYers to be both independent and also rooted in community. I think DIY is more about anti-commercialism and anti-establishment which shouldn’t isolate crafters/makers but bring like-minded people together. Great point about how some craft sites are created by the “establishment” and can have a commercial angle. Still, the internet is very DIY in that anyone can publish and create content to be shared with others.

    I’ve always been a fan of yarnbombing which can be a form of craftivism.
    Now that you mention it, I think I might own an arpillera! I have this really amazing applique of women picking fruit from trees and farming. I bought it from a museum sale (The White Elephant Sale in Oakland – it’s AWESOME). Now I want to to research more examples of craftivism!

  2. Kiri said,

    May 8, 2014 at 10:13 am

    I agree — and I was kind of taken aback by the article attributing political shades to craft/DIY endeavors. While “craftivism” exists and is interesting in its own right, I don’t think hobbyist crafters have to be labeled as “retrograde postfeminists” or whatnot — maybe they just like making things and aren’t trying to make a statement, and needn’t be considered poor consumerist victims of Michael’s or Joann’s.

    Have you participated in yarnbombing? I recently saw a random tree in a park in Mexico City that had a knitted cozy on it!

    And that is really cool that you have an arpillera. :)

  3. Susan said,

    May 12, 2014 at 1:51 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    Huh. I do think that the hip knitting revolution has some roots in postfeminist flap. It’s a hobby strongly tied to gender roles, and it was rejected as an arcane and too-girly pastime before being resurrected as a passion for mostly upper-middle-class white women. And I do think that in some circles it’s seen as a reclaimed hobby and symbol of girl power.

    Part of knitting revival seems to be passion for owning/knitting a lot of expensive, unusual fiber yarn. You could say that’s pretty consumerist. By the time you have knit a sweater in silk/alpaca blend out of yarn that costs 4x more than any comparable completed sweater would cost, I’m not sure you get to claim DIY cred anymore.

    I am, of course, poking the devil’s advocate stick at myself. :)

    That said, I don’t think you can say that about other DIY hobbies at all, and I don’t think that DIY has anything to do with placing oneself in social isolation. Those are two entirely different forms of independence.

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