How to be a craft activist: a panel discussion at Craftworks

How to be a craft activist: a panel discussion at Craftworks

From left to right: Jade Ilke, Sarah Corbett, Katy Emck and Vanessa Marr

Fine Cell Work were honoured to take part in the Craft Really Works showcase at Craftworks Show, held at Shoreditch Town Hall in May. Curated by Jade Ilke, Director of Designing Futures, the showcase presented a selection of projects and approaches from across the UK, focusing on the positive effects of craft for the wellbeing of society.

On display was a selection of our stitchers’ work, including our iconic Hope is the Key Cushion, which encapsulates everything we stand for as a charity – hope, rehabilitation, and beautiful craftsmanship.

Our Founding Director, Katy Emck, took part in a panel discussion, How to be a Craft Activist, alongside Sarah Corbett from Craftivist Collective and Vanessa Marr from the Domestic Duster Project, chaired by Jade Ilke.

All three panellists highlighted the power that stitching and craft have for transformation whether it be personal, domestic, societal, environmental or political and all three projects are working to give marginalised people and unarticulated feelings a voice, each in a slow, gentle way.

For those of you that couldn’t make it to the event, here are a few highlights from the conversation.

Jade Ilke: Firstly, tell us about yourselves, what you do, and how you use craft as a means of activism.

Vanessa Marr: I’ve been running a project called Domestic Dusters for about ten years. What I aim to do with the dusters is to give a voice to unheard women, whether they’ve been silenced or ignored. I work with charities and organizations where women are disadvantaged in some way in terms of their domestic context we’re currently working with displaced refugees. The project is a really fantastic way of telling stories through this invisible cloth that you would otherwise keep under the kitchen sink.

Katy Emck: I helped to set up a charity called Fine Cell Work that trains people in prisons to embroider, quilt and hand stitch, mainly in their cells. These are long and lonely hours, where they've got nothing to do. We work with people who are fairly troubled, and in places which are challenging. Stitching, above all, gives people a chance to be at one with themselves, and to feel calm and quiet. The focus, precision and care required to do intricate needlework is a way of bringing the body and mind, which may have let you down, back into control. Doing this very fine, precise work is almost like rewiring of the brain.

Sarah Corbett: My passion is activism. I see craft as one tool in the activism toolkit. It's not to replace other forms of activism, but at certain times with certain people, it can be really powerful to add that to the tapestry of activism. I see it as particularly useful for introverts, highly sensitive people and burnt out activists. It can be really good for de-escalating polarization and division. We use mostly hand embroidery, which has a meditative, repetitive action.

We are using the comfort of craft to grapple with quite uncomfortable, complex questions. ‘What's the injustice I care about?’, ‘Where can I be of use?’, ‘Who are the decision makers and power holders, and who do they listen to? Is it me, or is it someone else?’ ‘When can I be an effective activist and channel my anger and sadness into something strategic, proactive and calm?’

Vanessa Marr stitching a duster // Craftivist Collective in the Craft Really Works showcase 

JI: What’s the one sentence that would summarise your message?

KE: A long time ago, a stitcher said to me that ‘perfection isn't usually expected in prisons’. The products we create are very high quality, and this is a sort of paradox in prisons. Fine Cell Work is very much about raising pride in places which are grim and sad and grey, very much not fine, places where people have low self-worth. There is something quite profound and transformative in doing delicate, sensitive work in places that are so brutal.

It's also about transforming expectations, and how the product and the craft speaks to a wide audience. Prisons are places that people afraid of. Suddenly, you're sending out this beautiful, fine piece of work, and it's like an ambassador for sensitivity and humanity in people who've committed crimes. You see hope in the skill that the products display, you see another side to the prisoners, and that is uplifting.

VM: I should say ‘domestic is not a female word’, since that's my the latest message that I’ve put on my badges. But I suppose the other way to sum it up would be, ‘so-called women's work has value’. It's about that invisibility, and whether or not that's in a destructive sense, or just in the sense that it's this everyday discrimination that has somehow, over hundreds and hundreds of years, become acceptable.

SC: ‘Gentle craftivism is a catalyst, not a conclusion’. It’s a catalyst for deep thought for the person making it. It can be a catalyst for conversation and building bridges with powerholders as critical friends rather than aggressive enemies. For me, it is a catalyst for real change. We've got evidence: it has helped change laws, change policies, change hearts and change minds

JI: Have you any memorable occasions where you've seen the wider effect of craft as activism?

SC: For me, my handkerchief project was a good example. We worked with The Living Wage Foundation and ShareAction to encourage a large retail corporation to pay the living wage. The CEO of ShareAction had been trying to engage with the retailer for three years, using traditional forms of activism, and had gotten nowhere. After reading my book, A Little Book of Craftivism, they discovered a new way to engage, using ‘craft as the tool, not the taskmaster’.

Realising that the retailer’s CEO listened to the Board, we got fourteen Craftivists, who are part of their core customer demographic, to buy shares and attend the Annual General Meeting. We made them bespoke handkerchiefs, using non-violent language, to say ‘Don’t blow it, use your power for good. We know you have an impressive, sometimes difficult, role and a really important role’, as well as writing handwritten letters to say ‘we’re your customer and we love your brand, but we’re shocked that you don’t pay the living wage’. The very robust argument was delivered quietly, alongside the boxed handkerchiefs.

It was a great catalyst to initiate conversation, and to build a relationship with the retailer. We had several meetings with them within the space of a year. We sent them cards saying ‘All we want for Christmas is the living wage for your lovely staff’, ‘All we want for Valentine's Day is for you to show your love’, and within ten months, they announced they would pay the living wage to their 50,000 employees.

VM: Over 700 people have embroidered a duster, and each one of them is special. People will often write a note with it, telling me a story.

There was one lady who told me that ‘my duster counselled me’, which I think absolutely sums up the relationship that develops when you're stitching this cloth. We asked her to embroider her experience of unpaid caring onto a duster - thirty years’ worth of angst, from caring for her mother when she was a young girl, right up to being a woman in her forties. It just poured out of her when she was stitching. When her family asked her about it, that opened up conversations. They asked her, ‘Do you really feel like that?’. Just by stitching this cloth, all of this stuff came out.

I'm working with refugees at the moment. We're spending a lot of time in tears, in a positive way, because there’s something about stitching that binds your heart somehow. And if you're stitching your story onto the duster, other people can see and share that story.

KE: For me, one stand out project would be the Wandsworth Prison Quilt, commissioned by the V&A Museum for their Quilts exhibition in 2010. The quilt was about prison life, and it was the work of about fifty male stitchers from HMPS Wandsworth. 200,000 people came to the exhibition – many of them were incredibly moved by the experiences and emotions shown in the quilt, which was teeming with untold stories. As a small, unlikely enterprise, having work featured in the V&A was a was a huge moment for Fine Cell Work suddenly everyone knew about us.

When working with people who have felt a lot of shame, it can be challenging to get them to express their emotions. But this huge quilt about life in prison – a hidden world was displayed in an international museum. It was just a huge thing and soon it will be going to on display in the new V&A East. Isn’t that great?

JI: Do you have any tips for people who might want to set up a craft-based project, with the aim to make the world a better place?

SC: I'm going to be that cringey panelist that says ‘I've just written a new book!’ It’s called The Craftivist Collective HandbookIt's twenty projects, each with different sections, with ‘whys’ and ‘how-tos’, along with case studies of people who've done gentle Craftivism effectively and how to create your own campaign.

VM: I think look inside yourself and find something that matters to you, because you need that drive. And if it matters to you, it's more than likely matters to someone else. And then I would say, make the most of every opportunity.

Go to Sainsbury's, buy a duster and write something on it that you want other people to know  it could be people in your house, maybe not, depends on your situation and talk to them about what you're stitching on it, because it starts at home.

KE: I think being open is one of the things that resonates. Fine Cell Work started out very small, and it seemed all very unlikely, but what's interesting is that it's like threads it just has this way of extending. There is something about the work of hands that speaks to people. So be open to collaboration, I would say, and to other people's ideas.

From left to right: Jade Ilke, Sarah Corbett, Vanessa Marr and Katy Emck

Find out more about Sarah Corbett and Craftivist Collective here, and follow them on Instagram here.

Find out more about Vanessa Marr and Domestic Dusters here, and follow them on Instagram here.


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