Visual Arts

Crafting contemporary subversive handcrafts


“Historically Inaccurate”, embroidery by Richard Saja

This is not crafting by necessity. This is not crafting to kill time. This is crafting to claim identity, to save the world from soulless junk. To casual observers it looks like adults making toys and keeping them. But this is a resurgence with a vengeance.


Nothing says love like a skull and crossbones tea cozy: Crafting contemporary subversive handcrafts
by Therèsa M. Winge And  Marybeth C. Stalp
in Craft Research : Volume 4 / Issue 1

IQ Overview:

Since 2004, Therèsa M. Winge and Marybeth C. Stalp have been interviewing self-identified North American crafters. Drawing on almost 50 interviews, they trace craft’s shift from the domain of ‘grandmothers’ to that of a younger, more vociferously political crowd—one that includes men as well as women. In addition to collecting these transcripts, the authors “participated in crafting circles, visited craft stores and fairs, documented spaces, stashes (i.e. crafting supplies) and finished products”. Wool socks and cross stitch might seem like the epitome of benign, but Winge and Stalp assert that, “The integration of subversive messages on traditionally domestic objects place handcrafting within a global, political context… highlighting feminist, environmental and DIY issues.” They quote an article written by Anneli Rufus for Alternet:

This is not crafting by necessity. This is not crafting to kill time. This is crafting to claim identity, to save the world from soulless junk. To casual observers it looks like adults making toys and keeping them. But this is a resurgence with a vengeance.
(Rufus, A. (2008), ‘The new knitting’, this_is_not_your_grandma%27s_arts_&_craft. Accessed 28 July 2008. )

Subversive craft very often employs humour. An historical—and persistent—tendency to associate craft with softness, delicacy, even obedience, provides a useful foil for more irreverent elements. Winge and Stalp cite Julie Jackson’s Subversive Cross Stitch patterns as an example of this, as it “combines charming traditional motifs, such as flowers and animals bordering amusing expletive messages…” One benefit of this tactic is the ability to express resistance without being aggressive or confrontational. Social aspects of crafting, both online and in craft circles and knitting groups, serve not only to maintain and perpetuate skills, but can also reinforce the counter-cultural values above, often with the same brassy, jocular attitude:

Subversive crafting groups suggest their dissident sociocultural and socio-political positions with humorous group names with overt illicit drug references, such as ‘Dirty Needles’ and ‘Yarn Junkies and Needle Hoppers’. Facebook crafting groups are named with tongue-in-cheek humour – ‘Radical Knitting’ and ‘Subversive Cross Stitch’, as well as ‘Renegade Artist Coalition’.

The DIY aspect of craft also has a political nature insofar as the act of making is inherently anti-consumerist. Furthermore, the stash that many crafters maintain consists of recycled fabrics and items that might have otherwise ended up in landfills. Crafts can of course become commodities, and the authors highlight the online marketplace Etsy as an example of how “crafters are often forced to exist in a conspicuous space between politics and profits.”

The most strident and visible expressions of subversive craft have generally come to be known as “craftivism”. The practice of “yarn-bombing” and “craft-fiti” involves diverse activities such as wrapping public objects in boisterous rainbows of knitting, hanging homemade scarves and gloves for the homeless in public spaces, and adorning neighbourhoods with playfully embellished bras in support of breast cancer. This all throws into question the idea that ‘mere’ decorating is an innocuous or even vapid activity. Crativists have been known to face fines, or even arrests, which is a curious contradiction because, as the Winge and Stalp observe “Unlike typical vandalism, craft-fiti does not leave permanent damage to public space, but groups of (mostly) women engaged in craft are not taken seriously as they make handmade goods while simultaneously being seen as a threat when they share those handmade goods with the public sphere.”

However, crafters have proved themselves more than able to stand up for one another. In 2012, an event called The Ravelympics, in which participants competitively crafted while watching the Olympics, was served with cease and desist from the US Olympic Commitee (USOC). The USOC was ultimately forced to apologise, twice, as a result of massive pushback largely expressed through social media, demonstrating the fearlessness and social influence that crafting communities can wield.
The duality of contemporary crafting, the seeming incongruity, even, of historical and current practices, is one of craft’s most powerful characteristics. And the authors point out the travelling exhibition, Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting, launched in 2007, as an example of the increasing cultural acknowledgment that subversive craft is earning. They conclude:

In a time when planned obsolescence and increased consumption cannot be sustained, crafting is well positioned as an alternative approach within consumerism. Within the Western capitalist cultural landscape, subversive crafters concurrently exist as part of tradition while redefining the domain. Even as it occupies many traditional craft tropes, subversive crafts exist in opposition by employing visual cues about the current political topics by utilizing vernacular from popular culture. Accordingly, subversive crafts challenge the preconceived notions of crafts, crafters, and by extension, femininity.

— IQ Editor


Tank wrapped in pink by Marianne Jorgensen. Protest against the Danish (USA’s, UK’s) involvement in the war in Iraq.

The original article is available on IngentaConnect

Marybeth C. Stalp is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Northern Iowa. She received her B.A. in Sociology, Communications and English Literature from Regis University, her M.A. in Sociology from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, a graduate certificate in Women’s Studies and a Ph.D. in Sociology, both from the University of Georgia. Her research is centered in gender, leisure, and culture, and includes US women quilters, North American handcrafters, the Red Hat Society, and women and men craftartists. Her recent work includes the book, Quilting: The Fabric of Everyday Life and research articles appearing in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Journal of Leisure Research, Sociological Perspectives, Journal of Women & Aging, Sociological Focus, Gender, Work, & Organization, and Textile: The Journal of Cloth & Culture.

Therèsa M. Winge is an Assistant Professor of Apparel and Textile Design at Michigan State University. Common throughout her research and design, she focuses on the construction/deconstruction of visual and material cultures. Her research examines subcultural dress for its meanings and construction of identity, which informs and inspires my designs and creative scholarship. She deconstructs the bricolage of specific subcultural dress for its significant elements that contribute to the construction/creation of my conceptual apparel designs, utilizing both traditional and innovative techniques and methodologies. She recently published a book about subcultural body modifications—Body Style (2012).

The aim of Craft Research is to advocate and promote current and emerging craft research, including research into materials, processes, methods, concepts, aesthetic and style. This may be in any discipline area of the applied arts and crafts, including craft education.

The journal will portray and build the crafts as a vital and viable modern discipline that has a vision for the future. It is distinct from mainstream journals in that it is dedicated to presenting and reporting on research, in the widest sense, in order to advance the knowledge in the field. Making this knowledge, in whatever form, available to the community will help build and advance the field, and present it – in all its diversity – as a strong and essential force that cannot be overlooked.


Kristina Niedderer
University of Wolverhampton, UK

Katherine Townsend
Nottingham Trent University, UK