Betsy Greer’s Craftivism Trades Picket Signs for Knitting Needles
Betsy Greer believes in activism so quiet you can hear a pin drop. Or a glue stick. Or a knitting needle. Or a ball of yarn, for that matter.
The 38-year-old Arlington resident is the mother of craftivism, a word she coined to signify the grassroots movement that eschews megaphones for quilting, yarn-bombing, sewing, and the like.
“I always thought activism was something that involved holding a placard or yelling,” Greer says. “I’d done that before and didn’t really like it. Then I was knitting in my apartment and thought, ‘How can this be used for change? How can activism be quiet?’”
That thought, which birthed the concept of craftivism, came to Greer in 2001—four years before the launch of Etsy and long before the Pinterest era made “You know, just spray-painting some Mason jars gold” an acceptable answer to “What are you up to Friday night?”
Greer’s gotten good at identifying projects that fall under the craftivism umbrella: Her new book, Craftivism: The Art of Craft and Activism, is an anthology of stories from DIY do-gooders from four different continents.
Chapters in the book include “Ugly on Purpose: Demystifying the Enemy,” “Don’t Get Angry, Get Cross-Stitch!” and “The Blood Bag Project.” The latter is a campaign that originated in the U.K. as a way to raise awareness of a rare blood condition that’s afflicted the founder’s niece, Chloe. Crafters can use a free online template to make and mail in hand-sewn textile “blood bags,” inspired by those used in transfusions (below).
The blood bags are obviously nonfunctioning, and they’re not being sold to raise money for the cause. So what’s the point? Wouldn’t little Chloe be better off if a would-be crafter just cut a check in the amount of the materials and donated it directly? Maybe so, but that would qualify as charity, not craftivism. “As soon as you send a check, the conversation is over,” Greer says. “Craftivism is about opening a dialogue instead of closing it down. And it goes both ways: You can talk about the project while you’re making it, and you can talk about it once you’re done.”
Greer, who laughs at her own jokes and uses words like “rad!” and “boom!” in conversation, is not your typical sociopolitical rabble-rouser. Her dream knitting circle, she says, would include the French philosopher Roland Barthes, Lucille Ball, and Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill. (“Because, you know, she would sing for us if we asked.”)
This idiosyncratic authenticity is part of what makes craftivism—which Greer jokes is “activism for introverts”—so appealing to some. It mixes high and low art, humor and gravity, the easily accessible and the complex. And most importantly, all are welcome.
“All you need is good intentions. You can be quiet or loud. You can do it by yourself. You can do it in a group,” Greer says. “I sound like a Dr. Seuss poem! ‘You can be alone! You can be in a group! You can be in a pair! You can be in’…I don’t know, something that rhymes with ‘group.’”
During the years that followed her 2001 epiphany, when she wasn’t bouncing around various temp jobs in medical research, Greer was knitting baby hats and donating them to hospitals and posting her unfolding philosophies about craftivism on LiveJournal and DIY blogs. Though the online crafting community was small at the time, Greer amassed a captivated following because it was so tight-knit. (It lends itself to twee wordplay, too.)
Craftivism doesn’t have a clean-cut definition. “When you make up your own ‘ism,’ there isn’t a booklet that tells you what you can and can’t do,” Greer says. But she’s managed to sketch out three main pillars of the movement: donation, like knitting scarves for a homeless shelter; beautification, which turns an otherwise neglected area into something pretty through acts like yarn-bombing; and notification, drawing attention to a cause through craft, like an exhibit of cross-stitched anti-war graffiti.
“As long as it’s something that’s hand-crafted and making the world a better place, it counts,” Greer says. “It’s one of those things [that] if you see it, you know.”
At a signing for the book in May hosted by SCRAP DC, a nonprofit shop that sells donated, reusable crafting supplies there was no shortage of substantive discussion on the meaning of craftivism among local DIYers. One of them, Caitlin Phillips, is an artist who makes purses and e-reader cases out of recycled books and sells them through her company, Rebound Designs. She shared with guests her latest project: pins that display snippets of text cut from trashy romance novels. Options included “felt his tongue thrust” and “teasing was easy.”
Though Phillips doesn’t typically use her work to champion a specific cause, she wants the project to start a dialogue about female consent. “It’s not just dirty words on a pin,” says Philips, who is a member of the Burning Man community and distributes the pins as gifts at the annual art festival. “It’s about sexual politics.”
Not every form of craftivism is so provocative or in-your-face. Simply by making something yourself instead of purchasing it—whether it’s an evening gown or a picture frame made from Popsicle sticks—is inherently a form of activism. It’s a rejection of mass-consumerism and, if you’re using recycled materials, you’re also reducing waste. (Boom, as Greer would say.)
“Sometimes people step in and say, ‘Well, that isn’t craftivism.’ And now I can say, ‘Well, I wrote the book on it,’” Greer says. “I think it all comes down to the intent, and that can easily be found out.”
William Morris, a 19th-century English textile designer and socialist, is credited with spearheading the use of arts and crafts as a means to fight industrialism. He and his compadres strove to maintain a link between the craftsman and the finished product, a cause that was picked back up during the ’60s in response to the cookie-cutter mass production of the ’50s. Today, the struggle continues as online shopping and a global manufacturing economy further separates shoppers from producers. “To have the touch, the feel of handmade is really warming,” Phillips says. “I think people feel really alienated sometimes by all the technology, and crafting is a way to get back in touch.”
You could argue that the main tenet of craftivism—using forms of creativity as a nonviolent means to draw attention to a social or political issue—is nothing new: Artists have been doing the same for centuries. (See: Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica”; Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series; pretty much everything by Keith Haring.) But craftivism trumps those artists in one important measure: accessibility.
“People feel really intimidated by art. It becomes Art, with a capital ‘A,’” says Greer. “But crafting is something that anybody can do. Your crafts don’t always have to be pretty. They just need to do their function you intended them to have, and then you’re good.”
All photos courtesy of Arsenal Pulp Press. Blood bag photo by Leigh Bowser. Mosaic photo by Mark Baker.