Needle & Thread: Image by jhenning from Pixabay
Image by jhenning from Pixabay

Subversive Threads: How Punk Inspired the Craftivist Movement

Craftivism’s core values of autonomy, subversion, political consciousness, and subcultural community make it yet another example of punk’s enduring influence.

Punk has spread far and wide through contemporary culture; however, few early days punks could have predicted that it would provide the primary inspiration and ideals for a subsequent crafts movement. Yet, such is the case with craftivism, a recent manifestation of “domestic arts” that draws from punk practices, aesthetics, and ethics. Sometimes purveyors of craft activism even integrate punk subjects and references into their work, as if paying homage to those that spurred them into action. 

In its capacity to impart its energies into the kind of slow-paced activities of leisure one might imagine one’s grandma engaging in, punk also shows once more its willful contrarian nature.  Whenever punks have been told they cannot do something, they invariably defy all stereotypes, assumptions, and put-downs by doing it themselves and in their own ways. In the process, DIY becomes more than just an act of independence; it also becomes an act of rebellion. This century’s thriving independent crafts movement can be traced back to DIY principles enacted particularly by the anarchist and riot grrrl traditions of punk; their legacies manifest in enterprises of creativity, production, and distribution that critique both consumer capitalism and patriarchy.

Punk was never not DIY and never not political, though these traits were highlighted and prioritized as “anarchy” became more than just a punk buzzword at the close of the ’70s.  Forming and organizing around the ideals of Crass and their acolytes, a more politicized punk subculture developed the DIY concept into a more holistic way of being that infiltrated all aspects of life for the ideologically committed. Anti-corporate, pro-environment, and self-reliant, anarcho-punks embraced craftivism long before the term entered the cultural lexicon.  They assigned use value” to crafts in contrast to the “exchange value” corporate capitalism had made of them. They treasured the time and skill involved in the making process, as well as the community and consciousness-raising fostered through collective endeavors. Driven by ethics, they avoided the labor exploitation, waste, and environmental destruction endemic to mass production by offering alternative approaches around a “recycle, reuse, and reduce” policy. The legacy of anarcho-punk craftivism can still be seen today—in progressive groups like Punk Ethics and No Sweat.

If the heyday of anarcho-punk was the ’80s, riot grrrl picked up its baton and expanded its gender awareness in the ’90s. Renowned for their zines and thrift store recycling, riot grrrl boldly took DIY where no punk had gone before. “BECAUSE we girls want to create mediums that speak to US” was one of their many mission statements.  Besides music, zines, clothes, and art, riot grrrls introduced punk aesthetics into “feminine” crafts like knitting and sewing, creating an apparent dissonance that was partially ironic and partially an act of reputational reclamation.  Traditionally encouraged and used by patriarchy to keep women passive and in the home, crafts were stripped of their stereotypes and assumptions by riot grrrls. They turned crafting into craftivism, previously private and passive handiwork repositioned for public purposes of community, protests, and resistance.

“Girls to the front!” had been a common cry of riot grrrl groups, but as Bitch Media co-founder Andi Zeisler points out, this “was about more than demanding an expansion of the mosh pit; it was about foregrounding female experience” (p.174). Crafts offered women safe spaces in the home, but riot grrrl craftivists demanded public spaces, too, where crafts could become part of the larger communicative processes of third-wave feminism. Street punk styles became adulterated by riot grrrl craftiness, thrift store dresses ripped and torn to signify a history of male abuse, handmade patches with provocative slogans sewn onto jackets as protest statements, and hand-knitted legwarmers worn (ironically) to indicate pride in the recovery of a conventionally feminine medium. Each item served public notice that women were no longer willing to accept male definitions and presumptions of female subjectivity.

Many female craftivists of the 21st century have paid homage to riot grrrl, recognizing its influence on both individuals and generations. Author and editor Betsy Greer, oft credited with coining the term “craftivism”, recalls listening to Bikini Kill and making zines in her youth; each put the fire in her belly to turn her talents to other crafts later on. “Craft to me is very punk rock,” she declares. In the Greer-edited book, Craftivism: The Art of Craft and Activism (2014), Faythe Levine—author of her own book and documentary, Handmade Nation (2009)—provides an essay entitled “Craft: Embracing Empowerment and Equality”, in which she, too, traces her craftivism back to teenage punk years. DIY punk “opened my eyes and ears…to the power of communication and community” (p.55), she comments, adding, “Punk told me to question everything” and “showed me alternative ways to do things” (p.56). 

After punk, and especially riot grrrl, crafting would no longer be seen as the preserve of old women and village fairs. It would and could now be an outlet for young, urban, progressive girls and women. Feminism itself was also transformed by this punk injection, radical energies and innovations ushering in new waves, new ways, and new blood.         

Punks’ recent embrace of traditionally feminine crafts has altered the identity of punk culture, too, its activism as likely today to be channeled through a gender-based lens as well as a class-oriented ideological framework. One sees craftivism seamlessly integrated into female lifestyle magazines and websites, accepted as just another outlet of multi-generational feminism. Some, like Jean Railla, founder of the Get Crafty forum, and Debbie Stoller, author of the Stitch ‘n’ Bitch books, openly proclaim their indie punk roots (Lowey & Prince, p.251). Others, like Shannon Downey with Badass Cross Stitch, put the “oi in embroidery by incorporating street slang and a “badass” attitude into her instructional website. 

Like Downey, the proprietors of Burda Style and Knit Pro circumvent corporate dominion over production and design by sharing information and patterns with their readers. In the world of clothes and crafts, this is the equivalent of Penn and Teller revealing to audiences how a magic trick is done.

Although craftivism is increasingly filtering into the mainstream, like punk rock, it still mostly operates on the margins in opposition to dominant corporate and capitalistic forces. Some of its most recognizably punk public displays have revolved around supporting or paying tribute to Pussy Riot, whose colorful balaclavas have become symbols of craft guerrilla warfare and women’s resistance. Indeed, the 2016-17 pink Pussyhat Project in opposition to the serial misogyny of Donald Trump can be seen as a splinter manifestation of Pussy Riot’s hat-ivism

The band’s street performance pranks have been copied around the world, adapted for various causes by craftivists like the Viral Knitting Project, Sisters in Stitches, and Yarn Mission. Among their methods for protesting against—amongst other things—war, guns, racism, and poverty are “knit-ins” in public squares and parks where dialogue and strategizing are facilitated and encouraged. The Anarchist Knitting Mob and Craftivist Collective engage in “yarn bombing”, a crafty equivalent to street graffiti in which trees, lamp posts, and benches are decorated and tagged with handmade materials bearing messages of protest. A recent article in The Observer contrasts such “gentle protests” with the rough and rowdy ones we are accustomed to, but also compares them to punk in relation to their subversive intent, sarcastic spirit, and capacity to spark conversations (Iqbal).

The viability, success, and merits of craftivism are—like punk rock—subject to endless debates, most of which take place within a movement that casts a wider net by the year. One issue of contention familiar to followers of punk’s many mutations is the purity testing that befalls anyone that steps outside the economic and social confines of the indie world. Singled out for particular scrutiny has been Etsy, Inc., this century’s foremost business beneficiary of conscious consumerism. Operating as an online craft fair, Etsy provides a personal storefront to thousands of independent sellers of handmade and vintage crafts. A cross between Amazon and eBay (indeed, you’ll see the same vendors on each of these platforms, and many of them are companies, not craftsy individuals), Etsy has grown into a multi-million dollar company by taking a percentage on the sales of the millions of items it has taken in since 2005. 

Like Green Day and Nirvana in the music world, Etsy’s success has created resentment in the indie craft movement, with charges of “sell-out” common within its ranks. Is Etsy encouraging DIY handcrafting or merely joining the consumer treadmill under the guise of concerned middle-class (wo)men? Especially purist conscious crafters—chiefly those from the anarchist school—evoke a further objection that despite Etsy’s professed environmental mindfulness, the company does not require its vendors to use only locally sources materials.   

Other internal debates echo those commonly held in riot grrrl consciousness-raising groups. A desire for diversity of representation distinguished third-wave feminists from some of their forerunners, but the problem of exclusion still persists. Within Etsy and beyond, conscious crafters have complained of a culture dominated and regulated by white, middle-class, heteronormative cliques. 

For some feminists, crafting itself is the problem. They argue that a return and retreat into a life dedicated to the making of the same domestic goods that have kept women in their place for centuries should not be cause for either celebration or valorization.  Instead of reinforcing traditional feminine roles, some feel that women should be fighting for equal representation in the art rather than craft world. They cite the likes of the Guerrilla Girls, those provocateur pranksters that fought against art establishment sexism during the ’80s, as their heroic role models. 

Despite their different cultural cachets, differentiation between the roles and valuation of arts and crafts have become blurred over time, reduced to distinctions that rely on where an artifact appears, how much it is sold for, or whether it serves a function beyond the attraction of the eye. Illustrator Naomi Ryder and embroiderer Jenny Hart have been designated as “artists” because their work has been accepted as art and periodically appears in art galleries. With her sewn portraits of Iggy Pop and PJ Harvey, there is little to separate Hart from other talented punk crafters, yet she has crossed over into the art world, her work featured as part of the “40 Under 40: Craft Futures” show at the Renwick Gallery in the Smithsonian American Museum in 2012. It is also displayed in The Graphic Art of the Underground: A Counter-Culture History (2014), an illustrated coffee table book authored by Ian Lowey and Suzy Prince.

According to Lowey and Prince, even crafted toys are being conferred recognition as art pieces today. They showcase the Felt Mistress, whose plush toy characters they analyze in punk terms as low-brow, urban, and mischievous  They are steeped in lessons handed down by punk, pop culture, and the Riot Grrrl movement,” claim the authors (Lowey and Prince, 247).  No wonder they caught the eye of ex-the Fall member, Brix Smith. Many punk parents have been drawn to punk-oriented “designer” toys, too, either for themselves or their kids, such that sites like Punky Moms, Kidrobot, and Plastic Passion Custom Toys have sprung up to meet their demands.  Want a Steve Ignorant action figure?  Visit the latter’s Facebook page. And those punk parents looking to bring the whole family together for a night of educational conversation about their music loves might consider “Punkzles“, a jigsaw puzzle start-up that eschews the usual drab subjects of mountains and castles in favor of punk icons like Johnny Rotten.

Crafting is currently showing no signs of decline, and likely will not as long as the current pandemic maintains DIY as a popular endeavor of our stay-at-home era. Moreover, craftivism’s core values of autonomy, subversion, political consciousness, and subcultural community make it yet another illustration of punk’s enduring presence and influence. Thanks to the slow pace, small economies of scale, and prized personal signatures of indie crafting, this manifestation is perhaps less likely than others to be easily streamlined and subsumed into corporate capitalist accommodations. 

Works Cited

Iqbal, Nosheen. “A Stitch in Time: How Craftivists Found Their Radical Voice”. The Observer. 28 July 2019.

Levine, Faythe. “Craft: Embracing Empowerment and Equality”. Betsy Greer, ed. Craftivism: The Art of Craft and Activism. Arsenal Pulp Press. 2014.

Lowey, Ian, and Suzy Prince. The Graphic Art of the Underground: A Countercultural History. Bloomsbury. 2014.

Spencer, Lauren. “Grrrls Only“. The Washington Post. 3 January 1993.

Zeisler, Andi. We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. Public Affairs. 2016.