Sarah Corbett: Interview (Part 1)

In part one of this interview, Trebuchet’s Sarah Corbett speaks to the Craftivist Collective’s Sarah Corbett about the growth of craftivism, practical issues and how craftivism can change and influence people.


[dropcap style=”font-size:100px; color:#992211;”]C[/dropcap]raftivism (activism through craft) has been around for some time, but has gained popularity in recent years.

The Craftivist Collective was formed by Sarah Corbett in 2009 as a form of slow, reflective activism.

They have stitched their way from strength to strength, with an increasingly high profile amongst activists, in the craft world and beyond.

In part one of this interview, Trebuchet’s Sarah J. Corbett speaks to the Craftivist Collective’s Sarah P. Corbett about the growth of craftivism, practical issues and how craftivism can change and influence people.

So Sarah, what have you got there?

This is what I carry around when people ask me, “What do you do?” My new favourite thing is making little post-it notes that you just leave on laptops and pin boards and people think that they look like normal post-its and then say, “Oh my word, they’re actually stitched.” It’s cotton and I’ve bond webbed it to felt. I did a few different prototypes but it’s quite good because you know when paper curls up because of the sticky bit, you can curl this up for photos and it looks more realistic.

This one’s on the back of our book which comes out in September, which is quite exciting.

We have mini protest banners that we sell in little kits.  It’s always donated fabric as much as possible and because it’s so small, it’s brilliant because normally fabric that small just goes in a landfill because no-one can use it, whereas if someone gives me a sleeve of a shirt, it’s brilliant, I can use that.

Stitched letter to MP

This is an example of the hanky I made for my MP. You can see how messy it is on the back but we try to get everyone to do it in their own handwriting so that it’s individual and personal. I take these to workshops so that everyone can see them and my MP’s obviously got hers.

We’ve got little “Craftivist” and “Craptivist” badges, which are quite funny.  People can decide if they want to be a craftivist and a change maker or if you don’t want to craft but still support us, you’re a craptivist!  It’s another way for people to go, “You’re a what?!” and then they can talk about it. Everything’s always about trying to get people talking about activism issues. So it’s all quite tongue in cheek.

There are little cards as well, so they’re quite nice for birthdays and we do prints.  It’s a social enterprise because I’ve tried to do this as a full-time job and then a part-time job and you just kill yourself so it’s nice that people can support us to do it.

There’s also the project that we did in New York recently with little footprints.  That’s the same style as in the hanky kit; it’s a similar format.

There are postcards too. It’s proper lowbrow – I try to make it nice but not too glossy because you want people to feel like everyone can achieve it rather than be uber-glossy and corporate.

You’ve said in the past that craftivism, for you, was partly a response to being burnt out by the more usual forms of activism.

I didn’t realise until I got burnt out that I was an introvert. I don’t like being around big crowds that long. When a third of the world are seen as introverts, it’s very important that we don’t all burn out or just not get involved.

You’re now extremely busy with craftivism – ironically do you now feel burnt out by all of that?

A burnt out craftivist?! Sometimes, yeah. I do all the admin and stuff and because I love it, it can be really hard to switch off. I don’t feel that burnt out; I wake up excited. I’m tired because I stupidly work long hours but I do love it and I do make time to sit and stitch and think.

Craftivist Sarah letter

I’m making myself an embroidered letter. I’ve never made myself a craftivism piece before apart from examples for kits so I made myself a footprint but I thought it would be nice when I was on holiday to make myself a letter.

So it says, “Dear tired Sarah…. from your energetic and hopeful self” to try to remind me to not burn out. But there’s always that worry but I think once you’ve gone through it, you know not to.

Also I don’t want to be a hypocrite, as I’m saying this is sustainable and fulfilling and hopeful. If I ever do any projects that don’t work I’m constantly tweaking it.

There is a worry, especially because you want people to support you financially and value you with support, whatever that is, and in the arts world and in the charity world, lots of it now people think you should be doing it for free because you love it or, “We don’t have a budget to pay so could you do it for free,” so it’s a real challenge.  You know, you pay an accountant but not pay us. So at the moment I’m feeling that pressure that I think a lot of freelancers do really.

I was just speaking to my friend actually and was saying that a big organisation’s just made a poster for a craftivism event and they used one of our pictures and they’re doing two of our projects but there’s no accreditation to us and we’ve got a website so we could promote it for them and we could tell people to go to it and people can write blogs for us on the project they’ve done so that they feel part of a big thing. So that’s quite frustrating.

All of this stuff, people can do without buying anything. We do videos for that reason. Also we hope that as human being, people will value it and support it in lots of ways rather than just take it and not credit it or not link it up.

Do you feel that there is any contradiction between your political beliefs and working with profit making organisations?

We work with charities and their campaigns but then we work a lot with galleries, universities, some clothes shops, but I think that’s good. In some ways I’d rather work with, well it hasn’t come up so I might say no, but work with big companies like Nike because they’ve got a big budget but a big audience.

The whole thing of our stuff is a bit of a bridge to reach people who might not be politicised or have got a skill but they haven’t made that connection that they’re going to use it yet. So sometimes I’d rather that. There’s no point in preaching to the converted.

You know if someone came in an Adidas trackie to one of our events, we would never say, “I’m sorry, go away”.  If anything, it’s brilliant, let’s talk about it in a loving, friendly way.

That’s where our priority lies, in engaging people who aren’t already engaged or burnt out activists who had just given up and we go, “No, no, no, don’t give up, just maybe think about how it can be more sustainable for you”. [quote]I really felt like I didn’t fit into

any activist groups because it

was very purist, a lot of it was

cliquey, a lot of it was extrovert[/quote]

Are you constantly sewing – do you do it on public transport?

Yeah, yeah, when I get a chance.  Less so now with running it all but yeah, I always try to make time.  For me, it does help me mentally, it does help me to reflect on what I’m doing, if I’m doing things for the right reasons, if I’m getting sucked in to paying my rent. Yeah, I always do it.

I could never not do a project and ask someone else to do it. Everything we ask me to do, I’ve done because I just think it would be awful not to do it.

What is the balance between new craftivists and older, burnt out activists?

I think it changes every year, so at the beginning it was probably 60% burnt out activists and 40% creative crafty people whereas now I’ve got the craftivism column in Crafty Magazine and we’ve got really strong contacts with big craft celebrities in the craft world who do lots of stuff and really love it, now it’s probably 60-70% crafty people.

I think it’s good that it seems like a natural fit for them and they’ve gone, “Of course this makes sense and this is something that I should be doing and this is something that I’m aware of.” So more crafty people and more fashionistas because we do our fashion project every year around London Fashion Week in September, so we’ll launch that next month and get cracking on that again.  And just creatives in general, so graphic designers and illustrators, which is great.

Do you feel that there has been a resurgence in craft in recent years?

Oh yeah, massively.  Whenever there’s a recession, if you look through history, craft goes up. People feel disempowered, they don’t know what to do, they’re overwhelmed by the stress of it and you darn your socks. So people get more into it. It brings people together, gives them a purpose to make something tangible.[quote]I can’t campaign on sweatshops

if I’m standing in Primark

clothes; that would discredit

me while I’m campaigning[/quote]

I think with the power of the internet in the last five years, even the last three years with Instagram and Pinterest, you can visually see people connecting with each other around the world and because it’s so visual you do think, oh maybe this is bigger than a few years ago. I do Instagram everything; I’m a little bit obsessed! You can see all the “likes” and people Tweeting.

Is most of your craftivism based around stitching or is it wider than that?

We always try to do stuff that’s repetitive so it helps with meditation and it takes a while to do so most stuff is cross-stitching and hand embroidery. With hand embroidery you can use your own handwriting so people connect to it more and it’s very repetitive. The same with cross-stitch, it’s nice and small.

We don’t knit because if you try to put words in knitting you have to make it really big and again that goes against what we’re about.

Craftivist post-it note 1

We do a bit of shrink plastic for a Valentine’s project. You colour it in so that helps with connecting your hands to what you’re thinking but we get people to write out the love letters as well so that adds to the meditative side of it.

We wouldn’t say to do something that is only machine embroidery because often you’re focusing on not putting your needle through your finger, which I’ve done, so you can’t really think too much about the issues.

When you paint stuff, you don’t get the same feeling and the same aesthetic, which limits the ideas we can come up with massively.

What about things like woodcarving?

I’ve created in my head a really detailed checklist and wood is too big, it can be a bit aggressive, there are only so many people that can do it, you can’t do it on the bus. If anything doesn’t fit those labels then it’s quite hard.

I’ve seen beautiful stuff made in wood but our craftivism is very particular so people know what they’re getting and can do it. We stick to this, I think it works best for what we’re trying to get.

Where do you source your materials?

What’s brilliant about our community is that I have a big suitcase at home, a big old one, and whenever it gets a bit empty of fabric, I put on Facebook and Twitter: “The suitcase is empty!”  Then people post stuff.

So also it’s a great way for people who think they’re not sure if they can write something political but they’re really keen to help and to dip their toe into it, they can send stuff. We’ve got one woman who has got arthritis and another woman who has got ME, so they really struggle with doing a lot of this stuff but they’re really keen to help.

Also there are people who are really time-poor but can afford to give us thread, they know it’s expensive, so they donate loads of thread. So it’s another way people feel involved and it gets them thinking about landfills and recycling and upcycling.

It all helps feed your mind, thinking about stuff that we can easily forget. I love it and I love getting post!

Craftivist Sarah 1

Some activists might be keen to get involved but lack craft skills.  To what extent do you train people?

We do lots of workshops, either ones we set up ourselves or with organisations.

I’m excited that in Scotland in autumn or winter this year, we’re doing a boot camp for three days for fifteen Scottish people to learn all of it, so all of the history of it, why we do all the different elements, how we communicate in a certain way and all the frames and values, as well as the craft and actual techniques. So hopefully by the end of the three days, they’re hardcore craftivists who can then go and do talks and workshops and do it more with groups of friends and have the confidence to do it rather than me having to say no to stuff or running around.[quote]I’ve never been able to have

as much honest conversation

with a politician as when

I gave the hanky to my MP[/quote]

So I really want to try to get funding to do that in England and Wales and further afield so that we’ve got a real body of skilled, confident craftivists.

How easy is it for you to get funding?

Well that’s through Craft Scotland so they got it from somewhere else to do it in Scotland as part of their fixed remit of getting craft out to the masses and pioneering new techniques.

But I’m awful on funding apps! One, it’s really hard because this is all about behavioural change and attitudes and long-term engagement and thinking, I mean how the hell do you show evidence of that? We’ve got lots of stories and quotes from people and I can see people who’ve grown in confidence and done stuff but it’s really hard to put that in a funding application with all the conditions on, which is why I want it to be a social enterprise where people buy the kits and the prints and buy in the workshops so we can fund it ourselves without restrictions. But it might be a pipe dream.

Are you doing craftivism at any festivals this summer?

Yeah, this year we’re doing Secret Garden and Wilderness. We’re doing some workshops where people come for an hour. We always get asked to do drop-in stuff but the whole point is that it’s slow activism, it’s not transactional, it’s not come and just quickly do this and leave, so I’m pretty strict at saying no to all of that.

We’re doing the Jigsaw Project at both festivals in a tent where we’re going to put all the jigsaws on the roof and they all trickle down, it’ll look cool. The footprint workshop is especially good for festivals that have talks and stuff because then people can come and do the little footprints and think about what they’ve listened to and what they’re going to do next. Over the summer, you do have a bit of space to think what you’re going to do next, from September onwards.

So we do a lot of that but try not to make it quick and easy, so that people sit down and we go, “This might take a while.  Have a read or just ask questions if you want,” or everything’s in zip-lock bags so they can start it and carry it off at home.

But the last thing I want is lots of wasted fabric going in a landfill, so I don’t want people to just quickly go, “I’ve done it,” and leave it with me. So it’s getting people to slow down. Often you’ll get people who’ll stay for three hours and you’re like, “You’ve just missed the last band,” and they’re like, “Oh no, I really want to do it.”

Craftivist badges

You mentioned the power of the internet earlier.  Are there craftivists all around the world now?

It’s a real mix because all of our stuff you can get anywhere. We’ve got a cluster around the South East because we’ve got a lot of people around here and in the UK, but we’ve got quite a lot of people in Canada especially around Toronto and a few in LA because there’s a big craft scene there.

There are people from around the world. There are lots in Melbourne, there’s quite a bit thing there. So all over and I try to make sure people can do it wherever they are.

Our Save The Children campaign with the puzzle pieces was for the UK government so we didn’t push it out internationally but we still got probably about 50 from around the world that people just did and posted, which was brilliant.

Because of the internet, people don’t think location-wise any more. People think, “I can do that here”. Some people have done our hankies for Senators and some people have done it for local councillors, some people have done it for bankers, for teachers, for religious leaders. It’s a project to get people thinking how they want to use it rather than going, “Do this now by this date, thanks”.

Do most people do their craftivism in groups or is it more common for individuals to buy the kits online and do it at home on their own?

It’s a real mix. There are a few women who email me saying it’s brilliant because they’re not well and at home or they live in a very rural area and they can do this on their own or they’re just testing the water and want to do it on their own first.

So you get a lot of introverts who are going to try this out with no pressure, they’ve got the youtube videos and the kits and I’m on email.  Sometimes I even phone them up and go through stuff with them.

Then we’ve got other people, we’ve got one craftivist in Reading who just moved there and loves doing the stuff and is a bit of an introvert but was like, “Right, I’m going to form a group and find people who are like-minded and love craft,” and her whole thing now is getting it out to people.  So it’s a real mix.[quote]Because of the internet, people

don’t think location-wise

any more. People think,

“I can do that here”[/quote]

I mean I can’t support monthly groups and we tried to do that with our London group and it’s just really hard to sustain. Also groups in general, if you’ve got a clear aim and purpose, it’s quite hard to do it every month so it’s much more about ad hoc projects coming together.

We get lots of WIs (Women’s Institutes) doing it, which is brilliant. I’ve done workshops with them where there’s seventy of them in a hall and you’re thinking, “Oh my word, I’ve got to run around all seventy of these and have a chat and see if they’re all right,” and then smaller ones of like twelve. But WIs are such a great audience because they’re already quite political, they’re really crafty, they’re really well connected, rightly or wrongly they’re much more influential than lots of groups in the country in terms of the current government and tend to have a stronger voice than others. So politically it makes sense to work with them.

Also we work with lots of craft groups.  Sometimes you get a real random mix. Like we get more schools doing stuff now, which I never proactively, well I don’t proactively contact anyone! But I always think with schools, the kids are so manic, this is really good for adults, for slow reflection, when they need to think deeply whereas kids just want to grab things, but there are quite a few youth groups and schools that do it and have said how brilliant it is.

So who knows?  Next time you might get a group of body building boxer men, you never know?!  We do get some token men, which is good.

What would you say to people who say that all this craft is quite regressive, not exactly women back in the kitchen, but women at home sewing rather than out on the streets?

We never use the F-word for that reason sadly, much as I am a feminist. We want to make sure that people don’t see it as a feminist activity because it is for everyone whatever gender identity you see yourself as.

I don’t know how I got into cross-stitch when I wanted to do something creative. But I initially thought, oh no I’m not going to cross-stitch a teddy. But the more you do it, the more you think.  And men will do it as well.[quote]You can love fashion

but hate the industry

that’s come out of it

and challenge it[/quote]

We did a month with Secret Cinema doing Shawshank Redemption last November and it was about 50/50 customers men and women and it was the men often who really got into it the most. They were all dressed as prisoners and we were talking about how this is good for your mental health, this is good for anxiety if you’re new and it’s really scary, this is good if you have tendencies to self-harm in your cell on your own because you’re stressed by it all or if you have tendencies to whack people because you’re used to being quite violent and not thinking and it helps you to exercise your inner monologue which a lot of low income people don’t really get a chance to because there’s so much fight and flight and survival.

The guys were getting into it and were like, “Yeah, I can really imagine that,” and “Yeah, this is really calming,” and “Yeah, I can express myself”.

It was actually the women going, “I’ve done this all before, yeah, yeah, yeah”.  So we were like, “No, come on, stop and think”. I think because I haven’t done craft when I was younger, a lot of this stuff I’m like, “Oh yeah, I’m thinking this”.

I do think it’s great personally for meditation as well.

I’ve been a campaigner all my life really, all my work has been campaigning and I’ve never been able to have as much honest conversation with a politician as when I gave the hanky to my MP. I’ve never had her open up as much with other ways such as giving petition cards and booklets and doing photo shoots.

To give someone a hanky going, “I’ve just spent hours making this, days making this,” and I want to encourage her. It doesn’t have a specific ask. It’s to have a chat and to link it in.

Every time I meet her, I go to the toilet afterwards and write down all the stuff about how she said she crafted a wedding present for her mate but hasn’t finished it and now it’s her 25th anniversary of the wedding and how she used to work for a co-op and how she loves doing this stuff so I can go, “Jane, you used to work for a co-op, you know this works more than big top dog companies and you used to craft so you know this is good for mental health.”[quote]Whenever there’s a recession,

if you look through history,

craft goes up[/quote]

So really, as soon as you give anyone something, they’re not going to hate you, they’re more likely to listen to you and because it’s so soft and visual and pretty. It’s different than if you give someone a screen print or poster. I think because it’s so flimsy and delicate that even if you gave it to Putin or something, you’d hope that it would be, “Come on mate, let’s have a chat, I’ve made you a hanky, I want to know what your opinion is”.

We know that in normal life, in everyday life, if you want to change someone’s opinion or talk to them you don’t do it with a placard. You sit them down and go, “Right, why do you think that? This is what I think.  Let’s have a chat about it”.

Do you really think that giving a hanky to someone like Tommy Robinson of the EDL would change his opinion on anything?

I think it depends what you’re trying to get out of it.  So I always say that craftivism should be part of the activism toolkit. It’s not the solution.

Short term stuff when there’s an enormous urgency, yeah we need to look at how to get mass media, how to target a certain person or a certain company, get them to change it straight away.

Often with big companies, it’s to shame them, not a certain person but to shame the company and straight away they’ll go, “Oh crap, we’ll change that,” because it’s all about their brand, whether people like them or not. But to target individuals and say, “You’re a demon and you’re awful and we’re right,” and they’re the head of the company, they’re not going to listen to you.

Craftivist post-it note 2

You look through history of what’s worked and it tends to be the non-violence that works – the Gandhis of the world, the Martin Luther Kings saying “tough mind, tender heart”.

Mandela went into prison completely believing in violence as a valid method, came out twenty-five years later after going through shit, saying it doesn’t work, I’ve thought about it, non-violence works and then his first speech was something about how we need to forget everything that’s happened from both sides otherwise we’ll never be able to move forward together.

I do think, as much as it can be hard to do when you’re so angry, it is so much about tough mind, tender heart rather than screaming.

In the case of Gandhi, having spoken to Indian political activists about this, they have told me that they believe that the non-violent action was effective in India only because there was an underlying prospect of violence if things weren’t resolved.

That’s the thing; it’s part of the toolkit so I think it’s important to build those individual relationships.  He had key influential people that he could work with, that he could speak to one-to-one in a very intimate way more than big crowds of people but you also have big crowds of people saying, “We are bloody angry, how dare you do this?”

So it’s saying, let’s look at all of the different methods and what works where.

So for me, I see this as trying to help people much more long-term, it’s much more about deep engagement than quick reactive stuff that’s needed but isn’t what we’re about.

You need that long-term engagement where you’ve thought deeply about the issues, you’ve thought about what you can do as an individual and whether you’re part of the problem, which often we are. I can’t campaign on sweatshops if I’m standing in Primark clothes; that would discredit me while I’m campaigning.

So I think you need to change yourself before you ask someone to change themselves. If I’m saying to you about climate change and how you should be a vegan and it’s really important, well I’m not a vegan so that’s not helpful to anyone. I think someone who is vegan can say it. You’ve got to be much more strategic.

For me this is a real reaction to clicktivism and slacktivism and that being everything, the be all and end all. It’s very shallow, it’s like: “Right, you want to campaign, do this!”

Actually we want you to think first, we want you to have your own voice. MPs will look if there are big crowds of people doing stuff but if it’s all under charities’ branding, often they just think that their constituents aren’t engaged because they’re all charity zombies; “zombie campaigners” as one MP called them in Parliament recently. So we have to think much more deeply about how to be our best selves and help people.[quote]it’s much more about

deep engagement than

quick reactive stuff[/quote]

I feel that we’re missing a real foundation. It’s like, “Come and campaign here on this day”. It’s an opt-in once in a while but actually our whole lives should be making sure that we don’t harm each other and we strive to create a better world together.

There’s a fine line, isn’t there?  On one hand, like you say, you don’t want to be a hypocrite by, for example, shopping at Primark.  But on the other hand, there’s a danger of getting into very elitist lifestyle politics, which I think some anarchist groups in particular can be prone to.

Oh yeah, massively, oh yeah and that’s why I really felt like I didn’t fit into any activist groups because it was very purist, a lot of it was cliquey, a lot of it was extrovert, doing extrovert things. Sometimes it was people doing activist activities because it was fun or because it was rebellious, for the sake of it, which made me quite uncomfortable, or sabotage and violence and demonising and attacking and preaching.

I don’t ride a bike because I’m too scared, you know? I think it’s brilliant that people do, but just because I don’t ride a bike doesn’t mean I’m not a good person.

I love fashion and I’m not going to stop that just because it’s very consumerist and capitalist – you can love fashion but hate the industry that’s come out of it and challenge it.

You’re just putting people off if it’s very elitist, like if you don’t join then you can’t do stuff. We’re all about going to where people are rather than getting people to come to us.

Part two of this interview can be read here


Photos: Carl Byron Batson



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