In my other life as a college English instructor, I am constantly making the case to my 18-year-olds that writing matters. People write to communicate, and they write for a reason. Writing does not happen in a vacuum or bubble; our writing is constantly motivated and influenced by what we wish to accomplish, with whom we wish to communicate, and what is happening in the world around us.
But the more time I spend in the quilting community, the more I realize that modern craft matters in a similar way. We’ve all seen ways in which people have used their knitting talent to “yarn-bomb” street signs, bike racks, and buses, making an argument for bringing the personal (and traditionally feminine) to public (and by default, traditionally masculine) spaces. They’re using craft to begin or contribute to a conversation. Betsy Greer calls this sort of creative activism “craftivism,” and claims that by “using their creative energy to help make the world a better place, craftivists help bring about positive change via personalized activism. Craftivism allows practitioners to customize their particular skills to address particular causes.”
Though “craftivism” is a new term, the practice of stitching with a purpose is likely as old as stitching itself. There are so many examples, particularly of marginalized people who could not express themselves verbally. In the Odyssey, Penelope weaves to mark the passage of time, and picks away her work each night to buy herself more. Mary, Queen of Scots was imprisoned by Queen Elizabeth for years, and used her time to embroider pieces featuring thinly veiled barbs and threats against Elizabeth. (Probably not the wisest move, since she was executed.) Others have been more subtle; in A Tale of Two Cities Dickens features total badass Madame DeFarge, who encodes the names of those to be executed for treason during the French Revolution into her knitting. Queen Lili’uokalani of Hawaii was put under house arrest in her bedroom in the Iolani Palace by the U.S. government in 1895; she used the duration of her time to assemble a 95″ square crazy quilt, embroidered with the names of her friends and symbols of the Hawaii that she lost. Major Alexis Casdagli, a British POW during World War II, added secret messages of resistance (most notably, “God Save the King” and “F*ck Hitler”) to his cross-stitch projects while he was imprisoned by the Nazis.
Activism has had no shortage of contributors in the modern quilting sphere, either. Thomas Knauer has provided some fabulous examples of contemporary quilt activism (quactivism?); for example, his collaboration with Lisa Sipes, “In Defense of Handmade,” features a UPC barcode label for a mass-produced Martha Stewart quilt. Then there’s the “Give a F*ck” quilt from QuiltCon 2013 (link NSFW, obviously), which challenges notions of what is “appropriate” subject matter for modern handicraft. The Monument Quilt, an enormous (over one square mile!) crowd-sourced collection of quilts by survivors of rape and abuse is an ongoing project as well. Jacquie Gering created a stark, bold response to issues of gun violence. And there are many, many more.
In fact, I might argue that modern quilting itself is an act of communication and of resistance. Styles of modern traditionalism, such as the work of Heather Jones and Lee Heinrich, extend and continue the conversation begun by quilters hundreds of years ago. But by referencing traditional quilts and changing our approaches to them (either by replicating old blocks in new ways or by rejecting them altogether), we are contributing to the conversation about quilting and its purpose in contemporary craft. Our messages are varied: we might be attempting to prove to traditional quilters that our new approaches are valid; we might be paying homage to their skill and showing that we have listened to them before contributing our own voices.
In any event, this whole “conversation” framework can be helpful for those of us who like to design our own quilts. While a lot of quilting is about the process itself, eventually most of us want to share our work with others: no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential, we each have something to say. It’s fitting, then, that we celebrate those who have invested a considerable amount of time and skill in making a statement through sewing. They remind us that quilting isn’t just about the craft; it’s about the world in which that craft exists. And even the most potentially controversial statements can make people pause and listen when they’re quilted, bound, and wrapped up in something soft.