Subtitle: Imagination taking power

Sarah Corbett on Craftivism and the imagination

Sarah Corbett runs the Craftivist Collective. She is the author of the forthcoming book, ‘How to be a Craftivist: the art of gentle protest’.  She took a break from making the final tweaks to her book to chat with me.  I started by asking her whether she feels that the world of activism has an issue around imagination.  Could it be more imaginative than it is today?

“There’s some really creative activism going on.  But there’s also some really lazy activism. Lazy in the sense of going down the same old formula of, “Here’s an issue, let’s do a petition, let’s speak to MPs, and ask them to speak to the Minister on this issue, and we’ll sign people’s letter and that’s us done.”  So I think like any sector there’s people thinking outside the box but there’s also sadly more people who are doing what they’ve always done and stick to a formula, because as human beings it’s very tempting to stick to a formula even when we know deep down that it doesn’t always work.

What is Craftivism?

Craftivism was coined in 2003 by Betsy Greer. I always say Craftivism is like punk music, Rob, you know.  Under that punk umbrella label you’ve got the Talking Heads, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols and the Clash, and they all sound completely different but they’re all under that banner.  So you could say Craftivism is anything that links craft with activism.

Photo: The Craftivist Collective.

Some Craftivists do fund-raising and awareness-raising and donate as well, but I would challenge to say whether that’s activism or whether that’s a different form of charity work.  For me Craftivism should focus on activism as the priority and where it’s useful  your tool is crafts in terms of handicraft, so always using your hands not machines.  It’s such a broad label for lots of things, so my approach to Craftivism is ‘gentle protest’. You’re protesting against something but you always focus on what you want in the world, a positive vision of the world, and you’re using craft as a tool to do gentle protest which is careful, considerate and compassionate activism, hopefully.

How have you see any effects on the imagination and the curiosity of people that get involved?  Have you seen the impact it has in that kind of a way?

Yeah, I’m really strict with my Craftivism that it is about curiosity and it is about questioning.  So whether people do my little kits on their own, in Shetland in the middle of nowhere, or whether they’re in a big group of seventy people doing a workshop, or  I did a skype workshop in Ghent in Belgium recently – but wherever they are and however they’re doing it, on their own or in a group, all of my projects, I’m really quite strict on saying it’s also about looking at your thoughts.

So once your hands know what they’re doing, and all my craft is repetitive hand action, so whether it’s writing and reflecting on the words that you’re writing, or whether it’s craft stitching, or back stitching, once you’re doing the repetitive hand action and your hands sort of know what to do, and your mind then starts wandering off thinking about, “What am I going to eat for tea?  Or I’ve got this work to do…” then I have little ‘Crafterthought’ questions for people to think through.  Like critical thinking, so using the time of working with your hands to think.

It’s about using that comforting space, and comforting action, to ask yourself quite big, sometimes uncomfortable questions, like, “Where am I part of the solution for this question?  Where am I part of the problem of this issue?”  If you’re making a gift for a powerholder, which some of projects are, it’ll say, “With this gift, if you were a power holder, what are the barriers that you think might be in place that are stopping you from helping with this harmful or unjust issue?”  So it really challenges you to think and be pragmatic.

As well as on this issue, we’re asking a company to change a particular practice, but what else can we do on the issue of climate change?  So the questions are to get people to be curious.  To say, “Okay, what can I do in my local area?  What can I do in my workplace, what can I do on a bigger scale with family or globally online?”  It’s opening a lot of questions but they’re quite clear questions.  They’re not too broad that overwhelm people but they’re not too narrow that they stop people being curious.

A lot of activism actually stops curiosity because the messaging is, “Do this, or don’t do that”.  So you just go, “Oh, okay”.  And it doesn’t say, “Well, why are we doing this and is there anything else we can do?”  And this particular action we need to do right at this moment because of this law being passed, or these world leaders are meeting somewhere so we need to do a very specific thing on the street, but what else should we be doing because this is a big issue?

Photo: The Craftivist Collective.

I make sure that curiosity is quite a big part of Craftivism.  Psychologically people take ownership of what they decided for themselves much more than if they’ve been told to do something.  Because we’re quite stubborn, human beings, aren’t we?  If we’re told to do something, even if we agree with it, we’re less likely to really take ownership of it in the future, whereas if we feel like we’ve figured out the answer but we’ve been led along and nurtured to find out more about an issue, then we’re more likely to engage more deeply.

We use our hands much less.  We were talking before about we use our thumbs but the rest of our hands are a bit of a mystery really.  Why is that a problem?  And what do you see people discovering or learning or uncovering when they find theyre using their hands again?

One of the quick things I notice in people, and often people say it as well, is even if someone does one stitch or makes one little object with their hands, you can see it in people.   And they say, “Oh my word, I’ve made this.”

It’s not always the creativity element but a big thing for me is confidence, that people feel empowered.  They’ve done something, and they can do something because it’s physical and in front of them.  They suddenly get this confidence to be like, “Ah, I did that.”  Especially people who don’t feel creative.  I get a lot of people that are burnt out activists, or who might not see themselves as creative take part in my craftivism projects.  But they’re more likely to come to a craft activism thing than art activism.

Art’s a bit intimidating for a lot of my audience, whereas craft there’s still a structure.  So you don’t have to be that creative but you can put your own stamp on it like pick different colours.  So it’s a really safe space I think for people who are a bit nervous.  A blank page is a scary thing for a lot of people.  For craft you tend to get a grid system, a template to do.  So as soon as people do something, and pick a colour, and do a few stitches, that confidence suddenly makes people think, “I can do this.  Well what else could I do?”  Or, “I’ve actually made something.”

Much of our activism is so difficult to measure and to see tangible difference, sometimes you don’t see it for decades, sometimes you never see it, sometimes power holders say that your campaign made no difference at all, when it might have made but they just don’t want to tell you that.  So whereas with a lot of activism it’s really hard to see you’re making a difference, just by physically making something, people feel more empowered.  That stepping stone up helps people feel in a safer space to then ask themselves things maybe that they might not have asked before.

There’s a lot of clinicians and neuroscientists who talk about how handicrafts, using your hands, helps with anxiety issues, helps with depression, helps with feeling empowered, helps you feel valued.  There’s a lot around it stopping self-harm because you’re using your hands in a positive way rather than sitting worrying about something.

You can still worry about global issues, which is what I focus on, but because you’re using your hands in a positive way and not just sitting doing nothing, it helps you reflect on the negative but also in a space where you’re creating something positive.  It’s a really good way for people to grapple with big issues without them feeling overwhelmed or depressed.

Photo: The Craftivist Collective.

The part of the brain where dementia happens is also the same part of the brain where imagination comes from.  Theres some really interesting stuff about dementia and using your hands, and learning skills and crafts, as a way of countering dementia…

Yeah, early stage dementia.  I did a project with Falmouth University called the Wellmaking project which added on to a lot of work they did on dementia, with anxiety, with chronic pain. Betsan Corkhill did lots around handicrafts helping chronic pain, but the dementia is early stage dementia.  So the case study that I remember was a guy who’d only ever worked on big printing press machines.  So very physical – every day you’re in front of this big printing press and you’re constantly using your hands to make sure it works.  A bit like a letter press.  I think he did both.

He was put in front of one and he was asked, “What’s this?”  He said, “I don’t know”, but his hands suddenly knew where to go.  So because his hands knew what to do – our hand memory lasts longer than our brain memory; muscle memory in our hands lasts longer – it then triggered his brain to go, “Hang on a minute.  My hands know what to do.  What is this?  Oh yeah, a printing press.”  So late stage dementia it’s much harder for those hand actions to make a difference, but early it makes a big difference.

You mentioned before that its something people can do on their own as well, but what do you see as being the particular value of getting people together with other people to do it?  In a time where people have less and less conversations and less to do with each other, is there something important in Craftivism about enabling conversation and conviviality and so on?

I always make sure that people know they can do it on their own or in a group.  A lot of people I work with are shy or introverted, or both, or quite anxious.  So they might not be the most comfortable with the set-up of a workshop, and there’s only one of me Rob so I can’t go everywhere to help people out.  So you can do it on your own.

The strength of doing it on your own is if you do it well, you use that time to reflect on the Crafterthought questions that are in the kit that are specific to the project, and messages to reflect on while you’re stitching, or writing and doing the paper craft.  But in a group what adds to that is the power of the lack of eye contact: Its gold-dust!

Apart from things like knitting where you can often do it without looking – you still have to count and sometimes look down – but the work that I do, you do need to look at what you’re doing.  Not the whole time, but most of it because you’re stitching words.  So one, you’re not going to stitch a message you don’t agree with, whether you’re putting out into the world or just keeping it for yourself as a physical reminder.

But you also have to look down a lot, so if you’re in a group of people, because you can look down, you can listen to people without giving them eye contact, which is much less aggressive than staring at people in an activism meeting where you’re sitting there with your water or your notes, and it can be getting tense.  Especially for shy people.  Whereas there’s no awkward silence when you’re crafting and discussing big issues because people have to look down regularly.

It’s not a big deal if you’re silent.  It slows people down.  The repetitive action is very meditative so it helps you feel much calmer, so you’re more likely to reflect on what someone’s said and then respond rather than if it’s in a meeting where you’re all looking at each other and you’re like, “I’ve got to react right now.  I’ve got to nod, or I’ve got to say I disagree.”  So that’s what I think is brilliant with craft.

With activism, activism meetings can be quite intense and quite full on.  Often it’s certain people that talk and others don’t.  Often we don’t discuss our disagreements because it’s quite scary and intimidating, whereas when you’re crafting it slows us down.  It calms us down.  We can listen to each other without having to respond straightaway.

You’re not seen as lazy or disengaged if you don’t speak up, because you can just listen and keep stitching.  So for some people who don’t want to respond straight away, that’s fine.  And for other people that talk a lot, they tend to notice that they’re the one talking a lot so often they’ll open a space so more people can talk .  And it also just means in any conflict resolution, you know if you say to someone, “Oh, I’m not sure I agree with you on that”, if you do it without eye contact, and you’re sitting next to someone, side by side, doing the same activity, there’s equality in the room.  You’re much more likely to have a discussion around what you disagree than a conflict and challenging each other, or ignoring the disagreement.

Photo: The Craftivist Collective.

What have you seen as being the impacts on the curiosity of the people who encounter it?

Some of the Craftivism we do is then put out in the world like street art, or guerrilla marketing.  I again have a strategy where it’s small and beautiful rather than big and brash.  That is to make people curious, so it’s not preaching at people.  It’s provoking thought and conversation, on and off line, and hopefully action.  So one thing we do are these little mini fashion statements which are paper craft little scrolls you write in your neatest and prettiest handwriting and wrap up in cute ribbon and then you ‘shop drop’ them.  So instead of shoplifting, you’re shop dropping.  You drop them into clothes in fast fashion stores, quite unethical fashion shops where it’s cheap, and it doesn’t last long, it often goes to landfill, sometimes not paying workers very well and when it goes to landfill, not good for the environment, all of that stuff.

But the messages you write, there’s three to pick from, and the messages are not telling people what to think, and they’re not judging people.  They’re saying all of our clothes have a story.  What’s the story of this item of clothing?  Is it a joyful one, or is it a torturous one?  And then it just has @Fash_Rev at the bottom so people can google that, realise that that’s a Fashion Revolution amazing organisation and find out more.

But because it’s small, and people find it, rather than it being pressed on them, where they have to then make a response straight away, it means that people are much more curious.  And they’re anonymous.  So with that example, people will find it in a shop pocket if they’re trying it on, in a dressing room, or if they’ve bought it and take it away, and it’s all lower case.  The fonts are very curly and non-threatening, and the ribbon is very beautiful.  Very luxurious colours which makes our brain think that they’re expensive colours so it’s turquoises and purples and yellows rather than bright red which is quite an aggressive colour.

And you have to untie the ribbon.  So that interaction, and again, using our hands.  Whoever finds it, to know what the message is, they have to open up.  They have to participate with that object, and unravel it, and read something that someone’s spent a long time writing beautifully and neatly on textured paper with an embossed stamped pair of scissors on.  Every single element of the process and the product has been well thought out to be as effective as possible in terms of engaging people through intrigue and encourage curiosity in them about the unjust system you want them to campaign against.  This is why I’ve written a long book!  Every single element means that people are excited about it.

They feel like they decided to open it, so therefore they’re naturally more open minded, and hopefully more open-hearted to read that message.  And because it’s not telling them what to think, and it’s not negative, it’s not really positive.  It’s not this positive affirmation stuff of ‘You’re brilliant, you’re beautiful’, which is quite passive I think, and not always helpful.  You know, if Putin finds a little object saying ‘You’re wonderful’, is that helpful?  I’m not so sure.  So it’s getting people to be curious and find out for themselves, but it is trying to try and direct them in a way.

Fashion Revolution is a brilliant organisation.  Or it might be to a different organisation.  You’re not overwhelming them with something awful where they’re like, “I don’t know what to do about that”.  You’re giving them a bit of a supported journey but without telling them to do it.  All of my work is about planting those seeds so people aren’t overwhelmed, or even disempowered if you don’t give them enough information, or if you just shock them with something like a fact or a statement that’s shocking and people don’t know what to do with it.  But it’s not telling them exactly what to do.  And that’s a constant tension I think.

Photo: The Craftivist Collective.

If you had run for Prime Minister in the recent election and you had run on a platform of Make Britain Imaginative Again, what would you do?  What would you do in your first 100 days if your aim was to try and enable the population to be as imaginative as it could possibly be?

What I’d love to do is ask people what world do you want to live in?  I was helping one woman recently who said she’s in a very divided community and they’re just disagreeing with each other and every meeting they have is really negative and tense and how can she make it more peaceful and more of a cohesive and safe space?  I was talking to her about well instead of focusing on all the bad stuff going on, why don’t we all have a discussion about, “Okay, what do we want the world to look like?  What do we want our community to look like?  What do we want the country to look like?”  And go into all the detail and all the imagination of, “Well maybe I want flying cars.”  Maybe the person over that side of the room doesn’t want any cars at all.  Maybe the little kid in the room wants everyone to only wear yellow.  You know, really just be fun but visual, and come up with crazy things, but have this exciting vision that you can all add to and discuss.  You can disagree with each other but you’ve all got this positive vision of what you want in the world and then how do we get there.

Once we’ve got a vision in our head our brain starts trying to figure out how to get there anyway.  I think that’s really lovely.  So instead of everyone being told, “Well this is what we need, what we should be doing.  This is an awful thing in the world so we’re going to fix it with this issue”, all you then do is look at all the awful things, and you look at all the cracks.  Then you’re looking down and it’s all depressing.

I’d love as Prime Minister to say to everyone, “What’s your vision for our communities, local, national, and how you can help create that?”  In a really lovely way, not in a judgemental, “How are you going to create that?” but in a, “Isn’t this exciting? What gifts and talents and context are you in that you could help, and what contacts, and what fun ideas have you had that maybe have been niggling in your head that you want to tinker around with?”  Just get those conversations started.  Because everyone has an imagination.  We just often don’t get asked to use it.

Any last thoughts on imagination?

My worry with anything creative is we can scare people off by making it too broad.  So if someone puts a blank page in front of you, for a lot of us, that’s really scary.  For some people it’s amazing, they see that and they want to be creative.  You know, our world, nature, has an order, and when we mess it up, it tells us, and it has earthquakes and it has hurricanes.  I think it’s the same with our creativity.

You could be really creative and not do anything.  Or you could go okay, “I’ve got these wacky ideas but where could it actually sit and where could it be helpful?”  With a lot of creative stuff we can go really blue sky thinking and then not get anything done.  Or we could make it so broad that people who don’t feel that they’re the creative one in the group or family and it brings them back to their hang-up they have like it’s only a certain type of people that can be creative. I think we need to make sure that our creativity is accessible and supportive for people, and not too big that it overwhelms people, but not too narrow that it stifles people.  Does that make sense?

I remember  I did a talk for Norwegian Crafts which is like the Craft Council in Norway.  They came to London for some big conference and I did a talk and a workshop with them.  What was amazing was this one Professor of Design in Oslo.  Very cool grey hair and a black polo neck, you know.  He spoke to me in the break, and he was like, “I don’t understand.  Norway’s got so much money and anything our students want, we can give it to them.  We have a whole new design school but the students are coming up with really boring stuff.  It’s not creative, it’s not innovative, and I don’t know what to do.”  And I remember saying to him, a bit like what you said, “Well where’s the constraints?  Give them a brief.”

Think about some of the most creative people.  It’s often people who have really strict constraints.  So they might not have enough money to buy stuff, so they make amazing things out of coat hangers, or come up with really amazing things because they don’t have much time or resources or they only have a skill in one area so they come up with a whole new way of doing a skill because they haven’t been taught how to do it.  So I totally agree that I think we need to be aware that to put barriers in place can be a really good thing, and can make for creativity.  Yeah, not giving a blank canvas – I just think that’s not helpful.

Its like putting nothing into a Google search and expecting it to come up with something.

And it actually disempowers people which is exactly what we don’t want.  So if you say to people, “You can make anything”, well people are less likely to make anything because it’s so big.  It’s too overwhelming.  And also, if they don’t come up with an idea, they might leap to, ‘I’m really bad at this.  I’m not creative.  I can’t do it.  I’m never going to a creative activity again.  I’m never going to start questioning things because I can’t do it.  I can’t come up with ideas.”  We’re actually stopping people rather than encouraging people if we make it too big, too broad.


  1. Chris
    June 23, 2017

    Interesting – I was particularly struck by the importance of constraints in being creative. Reminded me of a quote from Picasso about becoming truly creative when the materials available are very limited. Having too much choice just makes us lazy.
    Also confirms what I’ve always felt about clicktivism – too easy, too formulaic and leaves us with the impression that we’ve done something when we’ve probably achieved nothing!

  2. jon stein
    June 23, 2017

    Another fascinating interview; thanks Rob. I was intrigued by the notion of “using the time of working with your hands to think.” Interesting, because it seems to run counter to the imperative of the mindfulness movement that we focus (gently) on the task at hand, getting deeper into the process – even if that’s doing the washing up! Personally, I prefer Sarah’s suggestion that once we give the hands something to occupy them, the mind can be liberated to move in unexpected and creative directions. Now I’ve just got to go and find those knitting needles I put down somewhere…

  3. Patricia Lee
    June 26, 2017

    Since I have permission to use my imagination here, what I call Third Eye imaging, I will share what came through for me via this creativity of Craftivism. I kept seeing hands radiating rays of colors like a graffiti for the planet. Our hands are healing hands when the intention is artistry….to make and share beauty. Bravo Sarah, for your beauty!

  4. Violet
    June 26, 2017

    I’m surprised you got through this interview without ever mentioning successful “craftivist” projects, especially from previous generations. This is hardly a novel idea, after all.
    Like, for example, the gigantic AIDS Memorial Quilt, made largely in the late 1980s and early 1990s (though it’s still being added to), and partly designed to drive home the sheer size of the pandemic to U.S. federal politicians who were ignoring it and not allocating sufficient funding for research and prevention, because it was seen as a problem of the gay community only. (Who weren’t really visible back then and therefore considered acceptable losses by mainstream society – hence the necessary humanizing effect of the many names of the dead, stitched, sequinned and bedazzled onto personalised panels by their loved ones.) The project got nominated for the Nobel Peace Price, for heaven’s sake, and is the subject of various documentaries and songs. It’s not exactly obscure.

    Though I guess your interviewee would have disapproved of that impactful project for being too “big and brash” and “preachy”.

    Personally, I would find that “shop drop” message she describes far more preachy and patronizing than something big and demonstrative in the public sphere, and annoyingly invasive of my private life in the same way that advertising broschures and spam mail are. If I found one, I’d probably just reflexively roll my eyes at it going “And where do you think your fancy art supplies come from if not mass production in China? Half of that is probably not even recycleable. Nice for you that you can waste money on this stuff and therefore presumably can pay for high quality clothing, but I have to make do with what I can afford.”
    But then, I only ever buy new clothes when the old ones fall apart beyond repair (i.e. a few items every few years). I don’t buy “fashion”.

    And what’s with that cryptic “@Fash_Rev” instead of a proper internet address? Is this a social media / smart phone thing? Why would you assume that people who buy their clothes cheap and low quality would be able to afford a smart phone? Why would you assume that a person receptive to your message would want to own the newest gadgets stuffed full of conflict minerals when their old phone / PC works well enough? And not everyone is on Twitter, dear, especially not those of us over 30 years of age. If you want to reach a sufficiently broad section of the population to effect change, don’t signal to them from the very start that you’re not interested in talking to the older or poor.

    I appreciate what you’re doing, but do you have to be so goddamn bourgeous about it?

    By the way, take it from this chronically depressed person suffering from anxieties: Arts and crafts can be rewarding, but the last thing I need is more time to think. Whenever I’m doing some hands/eyes-only activity (like food gardening, cooking or cleaning; I don’t do much arts and crafts anymore – real depression kills your creativity because everything feels so damn pointless), I actively have to keep myself from thinking, or I spiral down into the darkness. Podcasts and free audio books / lectures are a life saver.

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