The Craftivist Yarn Bomber as Critic/Carer

The craft of questions, the craft of stories, the craft of the hands – all these are the making of something and that something is soul.

Post-trauma therapist and novelist Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Bikini Yarn Bomb by Abegail Tett,  Launceston, Tasmania, Australia

Bikini Yarn Bomb by Abegail Tett, Launceston, Tasmania, Australia

Bikini Yarn Bomb by Abigayle, Launceston, Tasmania, Australia

My Launceston Craftivist-Action Day Objects

I have on my university office bookshelf a few pre-loved Craftivist items that I pinched from Launceston’s Yarn Bombing Day at the end of November 2009. These are: a few multi-coloured wool pom-poms, a sparkling bright blue-ish knitted collar-type of thing, that I removed from its cable-ties, a knitted sweater fragment in warm mossy green colours, and an inventive ecological ‘pasta’-knit found on the grass (at first malleable and brown; now… having dried out in the sun… crisp and almost black. Because of my own 1990s earthworks practice, I am prone to preferring “environmentally P.C. art-as-a-living-system” — so, I really appreciate the latter crafted object, which I have had the pleasure of watching change states).

The ironically-entitled activity of Yarn Bombing in the public sphere, is about returning a ‘kindness’, albeit with a prankster-type of ‘guerrilla-cheeriness’ to plazas and streetscapes (which have become increasingly privatised spaces since the mid-1980s). Generally a ‘pink-ghetto’ profession: to be a Yarn Bomber-Craftivist you need a bit of the fearlessness, but I think Craftivism is a ‘service’ industry whose activist-participants carry the subtext of being ‘Carers’. The above quote, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, is to remind readers of the roots craft has with ‘narrative’ and ‘preserving’ diverse culture, as well as connections with making new, contemporary culture which engages a strategy of ‘civility-to-be-different’ through creative endeavours.

Pre-internet era of site-specific Collective Protest

Craftivism is a return to the 1980s pre-internet era of site-specific collective protest, the most infamous of which was the Greenham Common Fence at the infamous Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp at the USA air force base in Cardiff, Wales, early to mid- 1980s. The Greenham Common (open-weave-wire) fence perimeter was used exclusively as a textile arts (craftivist) communication strategy via the use of the on-going display of stuffed toys and knitted craftivist objects etc. which were stuffed into it. Historian and cultural theorist, Anna Feigenbaum, analysed the Greenham Common protest, with specific reference to the fence, and the protestor’s demands for a televised debate with the Ministry of Defense. The media strategies worked well in terms of garnering popular attention regarding the U.K. stockpiling of cruise missile nuclear weapons.

Craftivism, (although it was not called that back then), has been a strategy of women artists-activist-leaders such as the media-saavy (grand-scale) installation-performance artist Suzanne Lacy, USA, and tapestry weaver-turned new media theorist/smart-textiles designer, Prof. Janis Jefferies, Goldsmiths College, London (a Greenham Common Fence social activist / craftivist).

Bauhaus Weaving

Long before the 1980s, I am reminded of the unwilling Bauhaus weaver, painter-performer Gertrud Arndt (1903 – 2000), and her early and playful work in self-portrait photography. One could say that Arndt’s early creative and rebellious strategies ran somewhat counter to the seriousness of the Bauhaus (and, in doing so, she protested her ‘ghetto-ism’ into the ‘pink’ profession of weaving design, a field in which she also, paradoxically, excelled). Arndt’s tongue-in-cheek conformity to the strictures under which she lived and worked as an artist show that, despite this, her creative soul was thriving – and this mirrors craftivist strategies of today. Arndt was known as sensible and practical, as well as an endlessly witty person in the midst of war-time hardships. Her infamous series of 43 Masken-Selbst Portrăts, or Mask Portraits, (1930) are testament to ‘her inner personality’ and her awareness of performative strategies needed to survive (6 Bauhaus women artists were killed in concentration camps) (Müller, 2009, pp. 7 – 13, p. 59).

Craftivism as ‘encoded’ communication

Craftivism is ‘encoded’ communication, and as such, is ‘fraught territory’ which is split right down the middle between ‘social conformity’ and ‘social protest.’ ‘Quiet’ or ‘silent’ protest has been called into question in various eras for many reasons. As a result of its ambiguous stance, Yarn Bombing is safe-to-practice, but contentious in its reception. I think the new generation of (mainly female) artist-craftivists might wish to acknowledge that their energetic polemics sometimes just ‘don’t deliver’ the desired results of ‘voicing’ or ‘making’ using other creative or organisational socio-political strategies. This may be because this art activity can be trivialised into the decorative trimmings of ‘events or festival management’ and/or conflated and reduced into an infantilised cute-ness, ready for erasure by other types of community-engaged leaders. Folklore theorist, Linda Pershing discusses the fraught aspects of such art practices in her book Peacemakers by Piecemakers which is about the needleworked Ribbon-Around-The-Pentagon, a monumental social-protest artwork by Justine Merritt, U.S.A (generally erased by the media as an ‘odd woman’s’ social protest against the nuclear arms race, 1985, but finally taken up as a United Nations ‘global citizenship’ day commemoration, from 2005 onwards).

Carer or Critic? The (female) Craftivist’s Fraught Territory

When I read Pershing’s research at the turn of the millennium, I was in the middle of making The Irish Linen Handkerchief Memorial. Pershing’s detailed findings made me realise that the ongoing reception of my own artwork (which had a similar approach to Merritt’s Ribbon) might be more obscure and more complicated than I had anticipated (despite the gains made in the last 40 years of the ‘fresh ungendered face’ of the Postmodern Sculptor). I think this has proven to be accurate. From the all-male journalist team, who compiled the post-1994 chronological Names List-of-those-killed-in-The Troubles sectarianism, Brian Feeney (on behalf of David McKittrick et al) rejected my counter-monument without even taking up an invitation (mid-2008) to walk through and experience it. The Linen Memorial was once staged as a ‘social protest – against – sectarian – violence’ and then, subsequently, it has become a commemorative Craftivist artwork-memorial, in 2007, due to the quieter socio-political situation in (‘post-conflict’) Northern Ireland.

Craftivists, themselves, come from various backgrounds with various intentions and might feel disconcerted, disconnected and / or unaware of the focus of their artistic intentions and unable to target and work effectively with their subconscious creative identity-politics concerns. If a Craftivist’s orientation is unquestioningly naive, then their craftivism remains a ‘past-time’. Full participation in an artworld can be scary: this is where the competition can be ‘catty’-between-competitive women and very steep for any professional opportunities. Anonymous home-making may seem preferable and more peaceful. Either way, the artwork is often playful (with avant-garde references) but often claims a serious subtext.

Textile arts / needlework craftivism is an interdisciplinary artistic field with conceptual concerns regarding the body, migration theory, gender studies, the history of non-erotic ‘Christian’ love / charity and communal well-being. Craftivist practitioners need an understanding of the complex history of public and private space, including of both incredibly intimate (sexualised and/or taboo ‘sites’) as well as a sense of the opposite and larger scale: urban planning.

Craftivist as Carer

Whether a professional or amateur pursuit, Craftivist / Yarn Bombers should acknowledge that they, indirectly, become carers of 1) the sustainable environment and 2) the sustainable (non-violent) community and, as such, their art-making becomes a service. In these methods, public artists also critically protest the lack of time for conversation in an highly mediatised world increasingly reliant on e-communication and e-relationships.

Craftivism Action Day

November 21st 2009 was Arts Action Day organised by Kim Schneiders at Arts Access Link who had heard about the colourful cult following of contemporary knitting /yarn bombing. The day was a ‘test-run’ for a collaborative festival to be held later this year, associated with Arts Alive, an artist-run gallery space in Launceston, Northern Tasmania.

The Launceston Access Arts day was also, in part, a non-council approved anti-bureaucratic plea for art-for-community-by-community and for ‘art-as-we-like-when-we-like’. Some of the main players in Launceston’s action were Amy, a twenty-year-old Scottish conservationist, Abigayle, and Tess. Tess is a 30 year old University of Tasmania Arts Academy BCA graduate: a ceramicist, now apprenticing in animation in the U.K. Tess and Amy spent some time talking with me about the event.

Tess who learnt knitting from her grandmother when she was young, wanted to use it as a healing therapy with her mother. She was re-learning the skill from You Tube videos, also in order to send a gift to her friend overseas. She wanted more camaraderie and so she volunteered for Schneiders’ Arts Access Link to help lead a weekly creative group for physically challenged persons to learn craft-based skills at the Invermay Arts Railway precinct (where the UTAS art school is also located).

They consider themselves Yarn Bombers who appreciated the connection with the future festival, but who preferred (at this point) not to get caught up with its administration. Abigayle’s most pleasurable highlight of the Craftivist Action Day was wading through the newly renovated fountain at Prince’s Park in the centre of Launceston to place her knitted bikini bra on one of the female nude sculptures (in part a two-pronged protest against a recent local Tasmanian newsworthy tid-bit about public nudity and the history of the ‘male gaze’ in the traditional high arts of painting and sculpture). After this climax, the collective group was freezing cold, so they all disbanded, leaving the town more than colourful and the townsfolk questioning. The aftermath was that, in an expensive endeavour, the city council had to drain the fountain, remove the bikini and re-fill the pool.

Background to Craftivist Communication strategy

Craftivism cannot escape its direct, unrelenting and very specific links with the gendered history of craft, the lack of women’s equitable employment / financial independence (especially in craft in the first and forth worlds for very different reasons), lack of creative or organisational leadership opportunities, (and the resultant consequences for their independence and safety). For the young female artist / craft /design person who wishes to work with their matri-lineage in the art of textiles, or just because they are talented with textiles, or they like the contemporary issues which textiles connotative of: such as references to mobility/migration/time/touch/cultural or ethnic diversity/ ‘the abject’ etc. and/or for the sculptor of either gender who wants to participate more fully in the public realm (with textiles) — then, that artist needs to be knowledgeable about the gendered history of public space and realistic about how conventional media will perceive the Craftvist genre. Increasingly, the dauntless artist with lasting mainstream credibility who is able to gain funding for their inter-disciplinary art/craft/conceptual voice has been (since the mid-1990s) the committed practice-led doctorate/post-doctorate researcher.


  • Estes, Clarissa Pinkola Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, Ballantine,1996.
  • Müller, Ulrike with Ingrid Radewaldt and Sandra Kemker, Bauhaus Women: Art, Handicraft, Design, Flammarion, Paris, 2009

For more information, see: Crafitivism —

Tasmanian Renegade Craftivism let loose in the public realm: Crochet Yarn Bombing and Knitted Graffiti

Now that I am based primarily in Tasmania, it has been a pleasure to visit the cosmopolitan “mainland”, over the past few days. For example, I have just had a teatime chat with Dr. Dorothy Jones (b. New Zealand, based South of Sydney NSW; Jones writes on the links between postcolonial novels, needlework; she was a pioneer in gender studies 1970s-90s). Jones introduced me to some of the interesting critical concerns in the 2009 Joanne Turney publication entitled The Culture of Knitting [since 1970], ISBN 1 84520 592 8. Jones and I also spoke animatedly about the international Yarn Bombing and Knitted Graffiti ‘Craftivism’ movement!

So, for my final response to the theme: Revivalist or Renegade, I ask the reader/other bloggers, Is ‘Soft’ Crochet Craftivism an effective public art ‘sub-culture’ strategy-for-social-change? Does craftivism work to achieve goals for the environmental movement, Tasmania’s primary concern-of-the-day? Many citizens in Northern Tassie have been garnering national, if not international, press by rallying against the nebulous processes of implementation and the negative impact of the proposed pulp mill by Gunns Ltd. Corporation on the ecology of the Tamar Valley. Some of my art students and craftivism colleagues have been involved either directly or tangentially. (see Banner photo image).

Photo provided by Aaron Lyall

Photo provided by Aaron Lyall

Melanie Kershaw

Melanie Kershaw

Even though artist-designer Melanie Kershaw is a staff member of Tasmania’s Wood Design Centre , she wanted to speak out against the logging. We spoke at the end of November. She went about making a seemingly innocuous crocheted hand grenade object (shown here). Kershaw said to me that she was responding to Melbourne Craft Cartel ‘s nation-wide ‘woollen weapon stockpile’ call (last August), which hopes to present a ‘vicious-yet-gentle and lovely’ community-engaged opposition statement to Gunns, as well as a Pro-Wilderness Society message. Visit Craft Cartel’s message to join “Save-The-World: Bang, Knit, Purl, KaPow!” campaign (fun, cartoonish tutorials included)!

Around the same time of year, Kershaw created a sedate ‘gratuitous’ crocheted-hamburger-object for the annual Tasmanian Design Award. When I asked her whether she was worried about public perception and, therefore, perhaps a type of sentimental ‘erasure’ of her ideas or serious intentions, (because of the almost-absurd incongruity between her 2 concepts)? Kershaw simply stated:

I like the medium of crochet, but I do not want to do knee-blankets, bed jackets and doylies… I learned this inherited skill from my mother and she learned from her mother…They used to sit around drinking tea calmly and talking about ‘the garden’ – how the roses are coming along and that sort-of-thing… But I wanted to do something meaningful; something contemporary in an ‘old-style’ medium. These two artworks operate in different genres, and that is ok.

I was a bit jealous of Melanie’s last remark: an off-handed au-fait enjoyment in her practice and in her ‘right’ to indulge in either ‘high fine art’ or ‘low-political public art’ practice if and when she chooses. This would have been an ‘open-ended luxury’ that might have worried high-brow ‘Fine Art’ artists of my generation. Creating, and ‘going public,’ in two widely-differentiated genres would have entailed considerable deliberation in ‘serious’ women painter and sculptor predecessors who would have been aware that their ‘gendered’ idealistic or political pursuits and ‘crafted’ concerns could be critiqued and ‘read’ as superficially decorative (lacking a depth of integrity), fluffy, sentimental or, even, simply dismissed as ‘mad’.

Kershaw’s sentiments about her art being ‘either’ are echoed in variously defined ‘knitting culture’ books out there: either the light-hearted: It’s my Party and I’ll Knit if I want to! by popular self-help writer, Sharon Aris, an entertaining adjunct to Joanne Turney’s serious academic epistle which positions knitting politically and historically within postmodernism and consumer culture, since the 1970s. (Turney is a senior visual and material culture lecturer at the U.K. Bath School of Art.)

A hasty visit to the Victorian and Albert Museum website helps position contemporary craftivism in terms of nineteenth century progress. Under the search terms ‘Knitting and Crochet,’ the website has approximately 15 entries and an Acknowledgement section. I reviewed ‘The Emergence of Crochet and Knitting in American Popular Culture from 1840 – 1876: The Hook and Book’ which links these crafts with the rise of Victorian ideals of ‘useful and silent’ femininity, and consumer, leisure culture (e.g. time freed up for more fanciful pursuits, because of the invention of the sewing machine in 1860, which made straightforward sewing and dressmaking less laboriously time-consuming).

When I left Dr. Jone’s home, after tea about the text and textile arts links, I ran into ‘Grace’, outside the Art Gallery of NSW. Grace, who stated that she is ‘not necessarily an artist’, holds a quiet day job: – that of The Gallery Attendant of Kaldor Public Art Projects, Art Gallery of New South Wales – at the site Tatzu Nishi’s artwork, directly in front of the gallery.

Grace responded to my question, ‘What are you knitting?’ by saying that she was a ‘Yarn Bomber!’ Grace was not concerned with the seeming obviousness of her task-at-hand: knitting. Grace was more concerned who she was – her identity as ‘a subversive avant gardist’, a Craftivist.

Therefore, I ‘read’ Grace as an unintended ‘performance artist’ who had subversively inserted herself, as Actor/ Actress, into Nishi’s artwork, and, therefore, I saw her as a subversive ‘Craftivist’. She was certainly a part of my journey, as a viewer, into Tatzu Nishi’s two-part site-installation, entitled ‘War and peace and in-Between’, in which he re-shaped the large-scale figurative 1923 bronze (public art) sculptures by Gilbert Bayes: ‘The offerings of Peace’ and ‘The offerings of War.’ Grace was sitting at the entrance of one of the two ‘housing-boxes’ scaffolding. By ‘doing knitting’ Grace was ‘speaking to me’: her activity allowed me to re-think the position of the lowly paid female domestic in and amongst two large-scale male creations. Performing quietly in the corner, at the entrance to Nishi’s domestic, but grand, bedroom, Grace’s silent protest was made-visible by her craftivism. Nishi’s art already comments on the domestic versus public juxtaposition, together with his concept of ‘The Colonial Grand Narrative made post-colonial.’ Yet, in my eyes, Grace empowered his artwork by performing the miniature. Therefore, her subtle craftivism made her role-playing in-situ more outrageously symbolic against-the-presumed-social-order-of artworld policies and procedures. If artist Nishi is asking the viewer to imagine a ‘fresh’ perspective, I suggest he might want to take a leaf out of Vanessa Beecroft’s provocative portfolio and re-imagine ‘Grace’ (as legitimate Performer) in his and Baye’s “rightful” bedroom (Installation versus Sculpture-on-Pedestal) setting? At the same time, I would ask Grace to re-define herself, as Artist-Provocateur and both Careerist/Home-maker .

I wonder where protest Craftivism will take contemporary art, when viewed, not only in ‘fun’, ‘youthful’ and ill-defined public settings by anonymous makers, but when Craftivism-for-social-change sets itself within high-brow contexts such as the seriously-minded ‘High Contemporary Art Practice’ at traditional museum locations around-the-world.


Forbat, Sophie excerpt from 40 years: Kaldor Public Art Projects Art Gallery of NSW, ‘Bending Perceptions: Everyday Scenes turned into Surreal Experiences’ in ‘Look’, 12/09 – 01/10.