British Museum blog

Can craft be used to help change the world?

With Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman opening on 6 October 2011, the Museum has asked contributors from the world of craft for their perspective on craft today. In this blog, Sarah Corbett from The Craftivist Collective discusses whether craft has the power to change the world.

Join in the live Twitter debate around the themes of this blog at 13.00 BST on Wednesday 31 August 2011 using #craftdebate.

I’m guessing when someone says “craft” many of you picture old women knitting, tapestries of leaves and birds, maybe hipsters starting to crochet or at a push, Tracey Emin’s banners about her life. Mostly pretty images; Tracey might be controversial, but sadly it doesn’t leave you thinking that craft can change the world. We want to challenge that thinking!

Craft + activism = craftivism. Craftivism might be a new-ish word, but it’s not a new concept. There’s a long, fascinating and inspirational history of craft being used to expose injustices.

You heard about the terrible human rights violations in Chile right? Well did you hear that women in Chile, under the dictatorship of Pinochet, used handcrafted tapestries (called Arpilleras) to raise international awareness of the political situation? The Catholic church and NGOs smuggled these Arpilleras out of the country to raise international awareness of the brutality of the Pinochet regime. Not only that, the craft of these women also encouraged a powerful grassroots political movement by providing them with an opportunity to express and record their grief and emotional turmoil about the death or disappearance of their loved ones, something that the regime and the poverty they lived in didn’t allow.

In the UK, another group of craftspeople are challenging the norms and making people think about justice. The Craftivist Collective have volunteered to support the amazing Fine Cell Work, a social enterprise that teaches needlework to prison inmates and sells their products. As an Officer at HMP Wandsworth said, “Fine Cell Work gives these men dignity in work and, through this, dignity in life. When a man gains self-respect he may start addressing his offending behaviour”. Not only is craft positively changing the lives of inmates who are often ignored or written off by society, but 53 of these craftspeople provoked thousands of visitors of the V&A British Quilts exhibition last year to think about the socio-political situation in the UK through the medium of quilting.

The Craftivist Collective are inspired by the work of people like those amazing Chilean women and the talented UK prisoners. We are a collective of hundreds of craftivists across the world who marry craft with activism to expose the scandal of global poverty and human rights injustices through the power of craft and public art. We do this as individuals and groups through provocative but non-threatening creative actions. Our aim is to provoke discussion and ideas about global injustices and plant seeds in people to encourage them to act to make the world a more just place. We also want to prove that activism doesn’t have to be violent, preachy, threatening, elitist or negative. Anyone can get crafty to expose injustices and even maybe have a chill out and a laugh in the process!

Like the Chilean women and prisoners we are not always noticeable. You might find us cross-stitching our Mini Protest Banners on buses and trains; we are happy to talk about what we are doing if you take interest. You might see us in a cafe drinking tea whilst hand-embroidering handkerchiefs for MPs, asking them not to blow their chance of using their power to make a positive change in the world. If you are really eagle-eyed you might see us sneakily gaffer-taping up a battered Barbie with a mini placard to provoke conversation about gender inequality.

So what can make craft so powerful? Using craft means we often engage people who have had little involvement or interest in politics and activism. Craftivism projects can be delivered by individuals or groups, of great or no skill in craft, anywhere in the world. People seem to want to read our messages because they are presented in an interesting, often beautiful way and we don’t tell people what to think.

OK, so we admit that, on its own, craft would struggle to save the world, but it can move us in the right direction. Handmade, personalized craft can and does often provoke conversation, personal reflection and empower people to take action. The incredible bravery and determination of the Chilean women who crafted Arpilleras is difficult to forget. The message of the quilt made by UK prisoners and the stories of the positive effect craft has on their lives challenged thousands of people who saw it at the V&A. The Craftivist Collective have been in The Observer, filmed by French TV, lead workshops at the Tate and Hayward Gallery, exhibited in Brighton and craftivists have even been seen stitching on stage with comedian Josie Long. Craftivism gets people talking and always encourages an active response. Hopefully, seeing a craftivist’s piece of public art will make you take a photo on your phone, share it on Facebook and talk to your mates about how this craft has reminded you that we all need to encourage each other to do our bit to change the world into the just place it can be.

What do you think? Join in the live Twitter debate around the themes of this blog at 13.00 BST on Wednesday 31 August 2011 using #craftdebate.

Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman
is supported by AlixPartners, with Louis Vuitton. Book tickets now

Photographs by Robin Prime.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

6 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Craft made our world, didn’t it? If you mean can engaging in crafts have a positive effect on the world, the answer must be yes. Very difficult to engage in negative pursuits once you experience the buzz of creation.

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  2. Really interesting article about craft and whether it can be used to change the world

    Like

  3. I believe craft can influence people’s opinions which in turn could change the world. However with so many people struggling to make a living it can be hard to appreciate what craft has to offer.

    Lately I have been doubting my work because I haven’t sold anything for a while and it is hard to remain optimistic. But I love it when people ask me questions about my work and appreciate the work put in.

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  4. lulastic says:

    Hey Sarah
    Great article, I love your examples and the Crativist’s world changing antics.
    I totally agree but reckon there is also another level to it- crafting changes people on the inside, making us more whole, and increasing our capacity to change the world in other ways too. Your post sparked my own post:
    http://lulastic.wordpress.com/2011/09/01/power-of-making-making-makes-you/
    Let me know what you reckon!

    Like

    • It’s great reading all of your thoughts. Thank you for commenting. I especially like Lulastic’s blog and comment about craft making us whole and therefore also willing to campaign in other ways as well as craftivism. Craftivism is definitely a stepping stone and confidence-builder for many of our members who are new to activism. With our current hankie project many craftivists we know are going to meet their MP for the first time because they have lovingly stitched them a handkerchief urging the MP to use their power and influence to make positive change. I maybe naive in thinking craftivism might have helped them on that journey but it’s an interesting thought and something I will discuss with them more and discuss the wholeness comment too.

      Like

  5. DC Museum says:

    Thanks for sharing, I’m not sure if craft be used to help change the world but every little bit helps. It’s what we can do as people on this earth for each other to help not only us but our children.

    Like

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For our final #MuseumInstaSwap post we’re highlighting the 'Make Do and Mend' campaign of the Second World War, as told by our partner @ImperialWarMuseums in their #FashionontheRation exhibition.

The campaign was launched to encourage people to make their existing supplies of clothes last longer. Posters and leaflets were circulated with advice on subjects including how to prevent moth damage to woollens, how to make shoes last longer or how to care for different fabrics. As the war went on, buying new was severely restricted by coupon limits and no longer an option for many people. The ability to repair, renovate and make one's own clothes became increasingly important. Although shoppers would have to hand over coupons for dressmaking fabric as well as readymade clothes, making clothes was often cheaper and saved coupons. ‘Make Do and Mend’ classes took place around the country, teaching skills such as pattern cutting. Dress makers and home sewers often had to be experimental in their choice of fabrics. Despite disliking much of the official rhetoric to Make Do and Mend, many people demonstrated great creativity and adaptability in dealing with rationing. Individual style flourished. Shortages necessitated imaginative use of materials, recycling and renovating of old clothes and innovative use of home-made accessories, which could alter or smarten up an outfit. Many women used furnishing fabrics for dressmaking until these too were rationed. Blackout material, which did not need points, was also sometimes used. Parachute silk was highly prized for underwear, nightclothes and wedding dresses.

We've really enjoyed working with and learning from our friends at @imperialwarmuseums this week. You can catch up on all our posts and discover many more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 4773 For #MuseumInstaSwap we’re discovering the street style of the Second World War in the #FashionontheRation exhibition at @ImperialWarMuseums. In this archive photo a female member of the Air Raid Precautions staff applies her lipstick between emergency calls.

In wartime Britain it was unfashionable to be seen wearing clothes that were obviously showy, yet women were frequently implored not to let 'standards' slip too far. There was genuine concern that a lack of interest in personal appearance could be a sign of low morale, which could have a detrimental impact on the war effort. The government's concern for the morale of women was a major factor in the decision to continue the manufacture of cosmetics, though in much reduced quantities. Make-up was never rationed, but was subject to a luxury tax and was very expensive. Many cosmetics firms switched some of their production to items needed for the war effort. Coty, for example, were known for their face powder and perfumes but also made army foot powder and anti-gas ointment. Make-up and hair styles took on an increased importance and many women went to great lengths to still feel well-dressed and stylish even if their clothes were last season's, their stockings darned and accessories home-made. As with clothing, women found creative ways around shortages, with beetroot juice used for a splash of lip colour and boot polish passing for mascara.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap © IWM (D 176) In the @ImperialWarMuseums exhibition ‘Fashion on the Ration: 1940s street style’ we can see how men and women found new ways to dress while clothing was rationed. Displays of original clothes from the era, from military uniforms to utility underwear, reveal what life was really like on the home front in wartime Britain.

Despite the limitations imposed by rationing, clothing retailers sought to retain and even expand their customer base during the Second World War. Britain's high street adapted in response to wartime conditions, and this was reflected in their retail ranges. The government intervened in the mass manufacture of high street fashions with the arrival of the Utility clothing scheme in 1942. Shoppers carefully spent their precious clothing coupons and money on new clothes to make sure their purchases would be suitable across spring, summer and autumn and winter. Despite the restrictions, the war and civilian austerity did not put an end to creative design, commercial opportunism or fashionable trends on the British home front.

#FashionontheRation exhibition runs @imperialwarmuseums until 31 August.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. For our final day of #MuseumInstaSwap we’re learning about the Second World War @ImperialWarMuseums, and discovering the impact of the war on ordinary people. 
Clothes were rationed in Britain from 1 June 1941. This limited the amount of new garments people could buy until 1949, four years after the war's end. The British government needed to reduce production and consumption of civilian clothes to safeguard raw materials and release workers and factory space for war production. As with food rationing, which had been in place since 1940, one of the reasons for introducing civilian clothes rationing was to ensure fairness. Rationing sought to ensure a more equal distribution of clothing and improve the availability of garments in the shops.

As this poster shows, the rationing scheme worked by allocating each type of clothing item a 'points' value which varied according to how much material and labour went into its manufacture. Eleven coupons were needed for a dress, two needed for a pair of stockings, and eight coupons required for a man's shirt or a pair of trousers. Women's shoes meant relinquishing five coupons, and men's footwear cost seven coupons. When buying new clothes, the shopper had to hand over coupons with a 'points' value as well as money. Every adult was initially given an allocation of 66 points to last one year, but this allocation shrank as the war progressed. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 8293) This week on @instagram we’ve joined up with other London museums to highlight our shared stories. Our partner is @imperialwarmuseums, whose incredible collection brings people’s experiences of modern war and conflict to life. Follow #MuseumInstaSwap to discover some of the intriguing historical connections we have found, as well as insights into everyday life during wartime. As part of our #MuseumInstaSwap with @ImperialWarMuseums, we’ve been given special access to the Churchill War Rooms – located deep below the streets of Westminster.
This is Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s bedroom, which includes his private desk, briefcase and papers, his bed and chamber pot and even an original cigar! The bedroom is located close to the Map Room, keeping Churchill as close as possible to the epicentre of Cabinet War Rooms.
Following the surrender of the Japanese Forces the doors to the War Rooms were locked on 16 August 1945 and the complex was left undisturbed until Parliament ensured its preservation as a historic site in 1948. Knowledge of the site and access to it remained highly restricted until the late 1970s when @ImperialWarMuseums began the task of preserving the site and its contents, making them accessible to as wide an audience as possible and opening them to the public in 1984.
Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap
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