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Crafty approach to change

08 June 2017

The activist Sarah Corbett has turned to ‘craftivism’, Jemima Thackray reports. She is inviting visitors to Greenbelt to join in


Crafting success: a stitch-in that took place in Brighton. It was one of several events organised by the Craftivist Collective as part of its campaign that helped to persuade Marks & Spencer to pay its staff the Living Wage

Crafting success: a stitch-in that took place in Brighton. It was one of several events organised by the Craftivist Collective as part of its campaign...

THERE is a picture of Sarah Corbett, aged three, outside a line of social housing where her family squatted, successfully preventing the demolition of homes. She is holding a sign that says “Pulpit Towers”, which refers to the fact that it was a church-led campaign and her father was, and still is, the Rector of St Peter’s, Everton, in Liverpool.

When Sarah was eight, he took the family to South Africa. “It was the only sabbatical he ever took. We went to see what the churches were doing against apartheid and what my dad could learn in terms of community action.”

These are the experiences that Ms Corbett cites when explaining her drive to set up the Craftivist Collective in 2009, to use craft as a means of “gentle, respectful, and more targeted” activism.

Craft is cool these days, of course — knitting and felting has been replaced by “yarn bombing” or “kniffiti”: a type of graffiti or street art using knitted or crocheted yarn or fibre — but, even then, Ms Corbett, with her tattoo-emblazoned arms, does not fit any of the stereotypes about the domestic arts. The word “crafty” could really be applied only to her political manoeuvrings, her intuitive ability to understand hierarchies and whom within them to influence.

In a strong Liverpudlian accent, she talks fast and passionately about how “activism has always been the driver; the craft is just the means, a tool in the toolbox.”

Robin Prime/Craftivist CollectiveThought provoking: a mini banner on display in the window of Paper Dress Boutique, Shoreditch, east London, in 2012 “I am born and bred Everton, you see, under a Thatcher government. I was politicised because I’ve met so many people who work really hard, are really intelligent and creative, but they just can’t fulfil their potential. Some of it is down to structural issues, and discrimination, and lack of confidence, because they have been labelled so much. It’s only natural that I’ve felt the need to challenge this kind of harm in the world.”


THE term “craftivism” was coined in 2003 by Betsy Grier to describe her work “using creativity for the improvement of the world”. Ms Corbett came across the term when doing a Google search, trying to find a vocabulary to describe the blend of cross-stitch and contemplation which she was practising on public transport.

“I was doing a huge youth-engagement project for DfID [the Department for International Development],” she explains. “I was travelling on trains up and down the country, and feeling pretty burnt-out. I was missing a creative outlet; so I picked up a cross-stitch kit to take on the long journeys, and I noticed it slowed me down and made me more mindful. I was able to focus and be really strategic, and ask myself difficult questions.

“So, I began stitching miniature banners embroidered with messages about social justice, and I’d then hang them in places relevant to issues I cared about. I noticed people were asking what I was doing, and it led to so many interesting conversations. These conversations, as well as the slow process of making, helped with critical thinking, made me more strategic and effective.”

The word “effective” comes up repeatedly in our discussion — efficacy rather than self-expression is at the heart of the Craftivist Collective. “I’m all for people having their voices heard, but I also really want to have an impact. I’ve done lots of campaigns for big charities, including Oxfam and Christian Aid, but I got to the point where I was doubting the effects of traditional activism, like going on marches and getting people to sign petitions.

“It all felt too quick and transactional. I was trying to get as many signatures as I could rather than engaging in thoughtful conversations about complex issues of injustice. I felt like I was ignoring those people who asked questions, in order to get more signatures.”


THE Craftivist Collective is now a global movement, with 20,000 followers on social media; Ms Corbett travels all over the world, delivering its message through talks and workshops to audiences at universities, corporations, public bodies, and art institutions. She is looking forward to being part of the “Ideas” programme at this year’s Greenbelt festival.

Craftivist CollectiveActivist check-up: Sarah takes part in a Wellmaking Clinic in Stockholm, Sweden, in 2015, at which visitors could book a 30-minute appointment and then receive a letter-print prescription with recommendations to help them on the journey to become a good global citizen “I went to Greenbelt for many years as a child with my parents, and now I go every year I can. I feel like my faith suffers when I’m not there: I find the talks and panel discussions so helpful to help me grow in my faith and challenge any preconceptions I have that I might not realise were ingrained. Plus I love bumping into people I haven’t seen for ages and meeting them at the Tiny Tea Tent, for a cuppa and a catch-up.”

She is also a “one-woman factory” producing “craftivist kits” in response to a steady stream of online orders . These packs contain the instructions and materials to create such things as the mini banners, or stitchable “dot-to-dot” patterns of the faces of “change-makers” such as Malala Yousafzai. There’s even “Solidarity Bunting” for children.

Order a “Mini Fashion Statement” and you’ll be equipped to stage a “shop-drop” (as opposed to a shop-lift), which involves placing scrolls, tied up with pretty ribbon, inside the pockets of garments sold in fast-fashion stores. The messages inside are carefully crafted to make consumers think: “If clothes could talk, what tales would they tell? Stories of how they were made with love, joy and care? Or sadness, tragedy and heartbreak? What would your clothes say to you?”

When Share Action asked the Craftivist Collective for help lobbying Marks & Spencer to pay the Living Wage, Ms Corbett organised hand-stitched handkerchiefs with hand-written letters to be delivered to seven members of the M&S board, on the day of their AGM. “We’d thoroughly researched each person and used quotes from people we knew they respected, and colours we knew they liked. This led to a series of meetings, and this time last year they announced that they were paying the level of the Living Wage. We’ve been told that our campaign played a large part.

Mark Loudon www.markloudon.com“Inequality leads to confict”: a cross-stiched mask on one of Antony Gormley’s Another Place sculptures on Crosby Beach, Liverpool “One of the keys was the fact that it was sustainable, because we knew we could see the board every year at the AGM. I always advise people to pick someone they can have an ongoing relationship with, like their local MP, so they can challenge them regularly in a loving way through these gifts.”


INDEED, this “loving” approach is a direct response to the vitriol and violence that Ms Corbett perceived in her past activism. “Some of the voluntary projects I was involved with were highly demonising of power-holders, and that approach really did not fit my faith at all. I really don’t think Jesus would be screaming and pointing the finger, when all he ever did was never give up on anyone, even the tax collectors.

“The majority of power-holders do not want to harm people. We want to say ‘We know your job is really difficult.’ It’s about being intelligently empathetic: not agreeing or condoning, but engaging in dialogue. And also so-called power-holders don’t actually have that much power, and talking to them about the barriers to change they encounter. We want to be a critical friend rather than an aggressive enemy.”

“It’s also not effective or logical, because screaming at people makes them go into fight or flight mode. We’re never going to help people change hearts and minds by being so disrespectful. So, I use very hopeful colours and engaging fonts which look like handwriting, often the smaller the better, so that people have to go up close to read it and really engage with it. Mistakes and wobbly bits are fine, as I think this shows humility.

“What doesn’t work is stitching a giant banner with spiky capital letters saying: ‘Theresa May is a bleeeeep.’ This doesn’t create conversation: it only fuels hatred.”


WHAT about the disruptive campaigning practised by her father? Did the success of Pulpit Towers not convince her of the need to disturb the status quo, to discomfit people rather than simply hold dialogue with power-holders?

“We do direct action, too,” she says. “We’ll do stitch-ins (instead of sit-ins). Direct action is another tool in the toolkit, and the approach should depend on the context. It’s about what works in each situation to be as effective as possible, and craftivism is part of it. But, for me, that never involves anger or shaming people that’s a line I won’t cross.”

Engaging: Sarah Corbett, founder of Craftivist Collective  She is keen to make it clear, however, that “gentle activism”, as it is sometimes called, needs to shed connotations of weakness or passivity. “Gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit it’s about being careful, loving, and self-controlled in what you do. That said, “slow activism” activism which is done on your own, taking the time to be reflective is very good for people who are shy. And that’s me: I was always introverted, the shy kid who stayed indoors listening to Nirvana.”

The word “slow”, however, wouldn’t be a word that comes to mind to describe Ms Corbett. She is the author of two books — A Little Book of Crativism (Cicada, 2013) and one due out in the autumn; the speaker of four TEDx talks; a consultant to the V&A, as well to many other corporations on several “exciting but confidential” projects; presenter of more than 300 workshops and presentations around the world which have been attended by more than 11,000 people. When we meet, she has rushed straight from a meeting at Tate Modern about engaging teachers in social change. As I leave, she opens up her laptop to squeeze in another couple of hours work, before another engagement in the evening.

“Slow” in this context means something entirely different, of course. I am not surprised to hear the next day from Ms Corbett, who wants to add a few further thoughts to the interview, to bring greater clarity to her message. It is clear that in this context craft is an entire approach, not just a medium: a lovingly crafted message, as well as a message through the love of craft.


Sarah Corbett’s How To Be A Craftivist: The art of gentle protest will be published in October by Unbound. craftivist-collective.comThe Church Times is Greenbelt’s media partner. www.greenbelt.org.uk

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