Sarah Corbett of the Craftivist Collective

Sarah Corbett

I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Maya Angelou

Mark Eris talks to Sarah Corbett of the Craftivist Collective about changing the world one stitch atatime.

Mark Eris

Hi Sarah. Could you give us a brief overview of your take on Craftivism?

Sarah Corbett:

Craftivism was coined in 2003 by an American lady called Betsy Greer. She basically said craft+activism=Craftivism. I always say Craftivism is abit like Punk music. To me Punk’s an umbrellaterm for lots of different artists I think sound completely different, you need to see Craftivism thatway. Google it and there’s everything from yarn bombing, to crocheted voodoo dolls of worldleaders, to swearycross-stitch. I call my approach Gentle Protest. Not passive or weak, but gentle asin compassionate, considered, thoughtful, and not polarizing.


Last issue I talked with Richard Norris, he mentioned that as a youth Punk showed him you could bypass gatekeepers.


I love that. Craftivism showed me that activism isn’t just one thing. When I Googled craft and activism in 2008, the word existed, but there weren’t any groups or projects to join.So,I askedBetsy if I could tinker. I felt there was something within craft as a tool for activism. She said anyone can use the word, do what they like. So like Richard, I thought “Oh…right!” I could really dismantle and explore what activism could be. Slow activism, small, quiet. It was very freeing actually.


That’s how you started?


That’s very specific. I had a five-hour train. I knew I couldn’t read or write reports because of travel sickness. I used to paint and draw but knew I couldn’t do that on a Pendolino train. So,I bought across-stitch kit-creative, but accessible. It immediately slowed me down. I noticed how tight my shoulders were, how shallow my breath was, which I’d never noticed before. It helped me be aware of my anxiety, my burnout as an activist. It gave me time to ask quite uncomfortable questions I’d been avoiding. Can I be an activist if I’m introverted? Can activism be non-confrontational? Why is so much activist imagery ugly? Then this lovely old couple opposite showed interest and I immediately thought “If I was cross-stitching a quote by Gandhi, we could talk about inequality.” I thought, “Oh, this is interesting-what if activism could be used so that people ask what you’re doing, rather than you forcing your views?” 

The process opened all these questions. Maybe I could make mini banners, postcard-sized, and leave them for people to find. Things that take hours to make rather than Xeroxing. It opened doors, that cross-stitch kit. 


I had a similar experience at an Installation in Gloucester Cathedral, a collaboration with the local refugee centre. Beautiful lights, ambient music, the backdrop of this safe old world-building. Combined with local refugees telling their stories. One I’ll never forget was living on a park bench but was happy because no one was shooting at him. I realised that an audience that was perhaps quite Middle England, quite Daily Mail, might consider this in a way they wouldn’t if being called racist. 


Exactly, gently touching hearts and minds. Allowing time to reflect. My work is based on neuroscience and psychology. I’m not using yellow because I like the colour, but because it’s a hopeful, active colour that focuses on what world we want to be part of creating. Rather than black and red, which can bring short term attention, but can create more chronic stress in the long term if you’re only engaging people in those aggressive colours. You need both for short term and long-term change. 


The neuroscience approach is fascinating!


It’s about focusing on what you want in the world, not just what you don’t. So, with refugees, what do you want? For them to feel safe and harmonious in a community. Once you start visualizing what that looks, smells, and sounds like, your brain starts figuring out the realities of that, how you can help create that change. If you’re just focused on people dying, or on xenophobia, your brain goes into fight, flight or freeze mode. You can’t think through realistic solutions. That’s why we always ask what’s the change we want to see? What does that world look like? Then to reach that lovely utopia-that we’ll never fully reach-we need this policy in place, this culture, this mindset.That’s much better than thinking “Sweatshops, this is all awful” which can become “Oh, I can’t deal with this, I’m too stressed.”


It’s important this isn’t just something you do whilst watching EastEnders. It’s a space to actually think about aims and values.


Absolutely. We all want to feel good with the least amount of effort. In reality, to feel empowered, it’s hard work. What frustrates me a bit with some Craftivism is people don’t create “crafterthought”questions to reflect on whilst crafting. They make lots of things to put into the world because they love craft. I often focus on quality, not quantity. We’re making canaries for MPs-cute little chirpy canaries-to say “we need you to act faster and bolder tackling the climate crisis. To fly towards a cleaner greener air with our lovely yellow canaries.” I include ‘crafterthought questions’ such as ‘what does a healthy world look and feel like for you?’ ‘As your local MP how would you feel receiving this gift? Named and shamed, which is not helpful? Or encouraged and held accountable by a constituent?’ We always create issue-specific questions for each project. They help with critical thinking. You could do Craftivism where you just make lots of voodoo dolls while watching Strictly Come Dancing. You put them on Instagram, people love them. But you’re probably preaching to the converted. It’s more divisive and polarizing. You’re focused on personality, not policy, which isn’t helpful. If anything, you’ve sort of got to restrict what you do in Craftivism to have the most impact personally and out in the world.

Sarah Corbett


There’s lots of empathy in this. Asking yourself questions, but also “who is the person I’m sending this to?”


I think you need both. We need to remember what we’re putting into our Craftivism, what baggage we bring, what presumptions. Whenever we receive a handmade gift, I think we all know what it comes with, whether it’s a knitted jumper from your Nan who loves knitting more than maybe considering what you want to wear, whether it’s a genuine gift from a friend or it’s a bit manipulative. It’s what you bring to it, having the time to think through how to be a strategic campaigner. Equally, what I feel is lacking in a lot of activism and I challenge activists in a gentle way about, is we often focus on what do I care about? But to serve the cause we need to think about who the decision-makers are? Who do they listen to? Me or to someone else? How do we frame things to resonate with them, for them to take part in a way that ideally is win/win?

I grew up in a very poor area. My mum’s now a local politician, my dad’s still the local vicar, and asa community of people of all faiths, and none, we campaigned and squatted in social housing. The housing is still there, which is quite rare for a campaign.I remember as a teenager seeing this picture of me and asking my dad “how did we win?-that’s quite unusual.”I remember vividly him saying it was about getting unusual allies, focusing on what will engage the power holders. They got both Bishops involved, Catholic and Protestant. They got people from all over the city supporting the campaign, saying this isn’t just a local issue for people directly affected. It’s a bigger issue about a corrupt Council. I’ve definitely brought that into my strategies.

If we want to get fashion magazines covering the ugly side of the fashion industry, I consider what type of images will attract their readers and advertisers, not worry the editor about losing them.What wording will connect with them? We’ll say we love fashion; we want the whole of the industry to be as beautiful as the clothing. Not be anti-fashion. I think it’s really important that while crafting you’re thinking, “How would I feel reading this as a fashion lover? What’s mutually beneficial for the magazine?” We often just scream and shout, hope that people listen because we think we’re right. But most people think they’re right, whatever side they’re on. Most change happens when people decide for themselves what to do. So, the more we can help them decide for themselves, the more likely they’ll take on board what we’ve said in the long term. They might not even realize that it was you who planted that seed.


In today’s hyper-polarized world, this gentle, empathetic approach seems incredibly radical. Back to it being Punk again.


In lots of ways, it’s counter intuitive. With our climate campaign #CanaryCraftivism, I said to my contacts at Extinction Rebellion, Climate Coalition and Greenpeace “I’m going to launch this campaign and I don’t want you to share it with your activists please. I’m specifically targeting people who’ve never done activism before-who are nervous of activists, apolitical or centre, centre right. In conservative constituencies, suburbia or villages. If you get involved, they might see it as another campaign that is not for them”. 

I’m really glad Extinction Rebellion get the national broadsheet media that they get. I’m not aiming to compete or conflict with other climate actions, but to fill gaps other groups struggle with. We want fewer people, meeting in flocks, attracting introverts and anxious people, creating unusual, intriguing images. We want MPs to have one Canary, or a small cluster from constituents, on their desk watching and encouraging them. Helping them be accountable. If you just make lots of Canaries, your MP will feel spammed and feel like you just care about craft.

I think creative people reading this magazine will know it’s so tempting just to make lots of stuff because it makes us feel better. But you could be lessening the impact by doing too much. It’s not good for the environment.


You’ve had some real success with this approach, haven’t you?


For three years ShareAction and The Living Wage Foundation tried to discuss Marks & Spencers becoming a real Living Wage employer. Lots of traditional activism, getting nowhere. They said, “We’ve tried everything. There’s five weeks before the AGM and your ‘Little Book of Craftivism’ is so weird, we thought you might have a new technique.”

I got 24 Craftivists, chosen to reflect their core customer demographic. I bought handkerchiefs fromM&S and asked them to Google everything about a designated board member. What colours do they wear? Are they flamboyant? A shy introvert? Have they come from tech or the shop floor? Try and understand them as a human. Then stitch a timeless quote on the hankie from someone they would admire about being part of the change you want to see. We wrote handwritten letters saying “As loyal M&S customers, we love your staff, we love your company. We’ve supported you forages and are quite shocked and sad that you don’t pay the real Living Wage because it makes sense in terms of dignity and ethics for your staff, it makes business sense for staff retention, productivity and reputation.

We hand-delivered them to the AGM in little boxes with ribbons and said we would love to just have one meeting with you. We got our meetings, followed up with handmade Christmas and Valentine’s cards. 10 months later they announced they were paying the real Living Wage to 50,000 staff. We went back to the AGM to say “well done you” – “not well done us.” The Chair of the Board took me aside and said it was the most powerful campaign they’d experienced. It was humble, encouraging and memorable because it was so unusual. It was very respectful. And it worked. I call this approach ‘intimate activism’.

An opposite is our Mini Fashion Statements which are little paper scrolls, handwritten on textured paper with a fountain pen. With an intriguing message like “What’s the story behind this item of clothing? Is it one of joy or pain? Find out more at Fashion Revolution.” Wrapped in luxury coloured ribbons. On the outside, we write “please open me” in neat cursive handwriting with a smiley face and kiss.

We shop drop them–shoplifting in reverse-in an item of clothing in a shop that maybe could be more ethical. Or maybe a colleague’s coat, wherever you’re comfortable with. It’s about engaging people anonymously, but also about engaging the fashion industry. We got on influential fashion sites, the homepage of BBC News. It got promoted during international Fashion Weeks. Fashion journalists emailed saying, “Thank you, your press release and images means I can go to my editor without worrying we’ll lose advertisers or readers.” It was a way to say to the fashion industry, we love fashion, and we want you to do better, not “We’re against you!”

Both are very different. But impactful through gentleness, empathy and the craft elements.


And the Canary project.


The Canary Craftivist campaign is trying to engage people who’ve never done activism before-more eco-worriers than eco-warriors. They might be quite shy, quite anxious in big crowds and not feel like activists. It’s a great way for politicians and business leaders to see the climate movement isn’t just one type of person. It’s about asking people to make these little canaries for their MPs. And ideally, dress up like a canary – upcycle yellow fabric or shirts they don’t use, make a little beak and create or join a flock in their local community, 12 or fewer people to sit near a locally loved, recognisable community landmark and take a picture of their little flock.

The Canary Craftivists Manual has loads of free patterns for outfits and canaries, whether knitted, crochet, cross-stitch or upcycles. We’ve got PR templates, loads of advice. It’s a lovely way to encourage people to engage, focus on creating that healthier, cleaner, greener world. Not just wallow in despair. Using your hands in positive ways, it’s good for your mental health. It’s not confrontational in your community, and people of all political persuasions get involved. It’s lovely on social media to create these conversations and have solidarity with each other.

We’ve had over 100 flocks gather in places where you’ve never seen climate action before. I’m getting messages saying “I’ve never done activism before, I took part and got lovely positive feedback from the community.” Some of them have then gone on their first-ever march, or taken more actions. It’s been a great way to encourage people who’ve been quite anxious-give them some confidence to do more. We’ve lots of quotes from politicians saying how much they love their Canary, sitting on their desk. We’ve charity campaigners saying it’s a really powerful way of bringing new voices to the climate movement to help lobby world leaders on a global level.

We’ve had craft magazines involved, including Mollie Makes, the biggest craft magazine in Europe. Craft celebrities making patterns. We did social media takeovers for them. Focusing on areas where you don’t see climate action discussed at all. Now there are people all over the world wanting to participate. This year, we’re going to focus on insurance companies that invest harmfully. They’re boring, boring to campaign at, boring for the media. Whereas the Canaries is a great way to shine a light on what insurance companies are doing, and invite people to ask them to change. It’s been a really good pilot project and had more impact than I ever thought it would. It’s engaged so many people who never thought they’d be climate activists but care about global warming.


Lots  of optimism! I love John Higgs’ idea that pessimism is for lightweights.


It can feel good in the short term to hang around and say, “I told you so.” But if we genuinely want our world to be a more beautiful, kind and just place, then it’s not helpful. It’s not good for our mental health, not good for the world. It can harm our campaigns. 

When people say it’s very privileged to craft, I think if you’re doing it well, you’re putting the cause before your love of craft. I think it’s more privileged to be pessimistic. I don’t want my little nephew, my friends’ kids saying to me, “what did you do with the climate crisis?”. “Oh, I did nothing. I just gave up.” We haven’t got that luxury.

I purposely don’t watch dystopian stories; I know it can slip me into despair. We need to make hope possible – not despair convincing. I absolutely agree that we need arms of activism where people are screaming and shouting and saying, “Look at this horrific thing that we haven’t done anything on.” But we also need people discussing some of the solutions we can put in place.

I’d say gentleness isn’t for lightweights. It’s really hard NOT to scream and shout at people that we think are wrong. It’s so hard to wonder where they are coming from. There’s that saying, “Hurt people hurt people.” Do they just want to make as much money as possible, because they grew up with so little? Do they feel unloved, are desperate for the love that comes from power and status? Everything harmful people do – me, you, whoever-it’s done from a lack, a need for something. Flip it on its head and say, okay, they’re doing awful things, because they’ve got an unmet need, what canI do to encourage them? Not shame them, because if you shame people, they never want to re-engage with you. Their physical body remembers you’ve shamed them.

This is why we make gifts. Creating dopamine in someone means they’re more likely to engage with you. Their body’s literally saying, “They gave me dopamine! I want more!” If you throw a milkshake at them, all their body remembers is the milkshake. It’s difficult to put other people before yourself. To craft everything to fit their language, their viewpoints without it being harmful.To put service before celebrity. But you’re ultimately more empowered, more inspired, more proud of yourself.

Gentleness is really bloody difficult. But it can have an impact.

It really has changed what the culture of activism can be, how it can also be beautiful, kind and quiet as well. That’s what we should all be doing. Trying to make the world more beautiful, kind and just. That’s my goal..


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