Trump has awakened an American “craftivism” movement that’s been dormant since the 1980s AIDS quilt


Thirty years ago, an enormous crowd-sourced quilt was first unfurled on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Comprised of thousands of lovingly hand-sewn panels commemorating lives lost in the AIDS epidemic, the massive Memorial Quilt was an indelible example of hobby craft deployed for political protest, called “craftivism.”

The quilt’s homespun aesthetic is making a comeback, said artist Marlene McCarty at Cooper Union’s Typographics design festival last month. Once “associated with the language of the oppressed, repressed, and the unrepresented,” hobby crafts such as needle-point, crochet, knitting, lettering, and quilting are giving voice to DIY makers of all stripes.

A view from the Washington Monument Friday October 11, 1996 shows the huge AIDS Quilt laying on the ground stretching from the monument to the U.S. Capitol.(AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)
The AIDS Memorial Quilt in Washington, DC (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

“Who knew that from that rich era of activism that the piece that would translate into 21st-century activism was the AIDS Quilt?” said McCarty, a member of the legendary AIDS activist collective Gran Fury. “The AIDS Quilt, during its time, was quietly reviled by AIDS activists for taking the soft line—being too sentimental, too mushy.”

During the branding-obsessed 1980s and 90s, the ideal protest sign looked very professional—using clear typography for optimal legibility, McCarty explained. “The idea was to make your work look super strong—the more activist work could immediate immensely influential advertising… the more people would look at it or the more people would take it earnestly.”

The taste for slick, mass-printed messaging has since waned. In lieu of ready-made, professionally-designed protest paraphernalia, today’s activists—armed with glue guns, sewing needles, and X-ACTO craft knives—are making one-of-a-kind protest gear. An eclectic sampler can be often be spotted in the various rallies and marches protesting president Donald Trump’s controversial policies.

Today, legions of subversive embroiderers, yarn bombers, rage knitters, and crusader calligraphers deliver punchy messages through traditional arts and crafts. There is a thriving “craftivism” practice on Etsy.

A story: stopped by an estate sale and found a few beautiful, antique handkerchiefs. The woman selling them told me they were her great grandmothers and were likely early 1900s. We talked embroidery. I told her about the #endgunviolence #craftivism project. She handed me the handkerchiefs and asked me to stitch guns on them. This is the first. This fabric is so old and fragile I held my breath with each stitch. I decided to #whitework it to honor its history. This is done with #trailing stitching and took about ten hours. I feel honored to have stitched on this fabric. There is definitely magic in it. —- #stitchersofinstagram #fiberart #antiquefabric #antiqueembroidery #handembroidery #whiteworkembroidery #handkerchief #estatesalefinds

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Among the most visible anti-Trump craftivist actions is the Pussyhat Project that debuted during the Women’s March in January. Spurred by Trump’s leaked “locker room talk,” thousands channeled their outrage into knitting pink beanies with pussy cat-like ears to “reclaim the term as a means of empowerment,” as founders Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman explained.

People gather for the Women's March in Washington U.S., January 21, 2017. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTSWR3A
A sea of pink during the Women’s March in Washington, DC. (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)

Beyond the sea of pink-capped protesters who made it to Washington, thousands more participated by knitting caps for others.

Angela Gee and Molly Cleator take part in the Pussyhat social media campaign to provide pink hats for protesters in the women's march in Washington, D.C., the day after the presidential inauguration, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., January 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson - RTSVH7O
Politically charged knitting circles. (ReutersS/Lucy Nicholson)

Craftivism in the US is largely associated with the resurgent feminist movement, but its roots trace back to colonial times. In the 1760s, women revolted against British taxation on textiles by spinning their own yarn and sewing their family’s clothes. Famous spy Molly “Old Mom” Rinker smuggled messages to George Washington’s troops through balls of yarn.

Eve Rydberg (L) and Megan Lee pose for a portrait with their sign as they take part in a protest against Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump outside the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. October 18, 2016.   REUTERS/Joshua Lott  TEMPLATE OUT. - RTX2PDOS
Protesters outside Trump Tower. (Reuters/Joshua Lott)
Demonstrators hold welcome signs for immigrants during second day of anti-Donald Trump immigration ban protests inside Terminal 4 at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, California, U.S., January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Kate Munsch - RTSXZGF
Homemade signs at the San Francisco airport (Reuters/Kate Munsch)
Men with cartoon suns wearing sunglasses on their backs stand with a "RESIST" sign as they await the start of a march by demonstrators down Pennsylvania Avenue during a People's Climate March, to protest U.S. President Donald Trump's stance on the environment, in Washington, U.S., April 29, 2017.     REUTERS/Mike Theiler - RTS14HGR
People’s Climate March in Washington, DC. (Reuters/Mike Theiler)
America Indians and their supporters protest outside of the White House, Friday, March 10, 2017, in Washington, to rally against the construction of the disputed Dakota Access oil pipeline. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Stencil signs at the Dakota pipeline protest (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magan)

Craftivism is all about intentional, individual action, explains Sarah Corbett, author of the forthcoming book, How to be a Craftivist: the Art of Gentle Protest. “The speed and ease of signing an online petition or tweeting our protests is making power holders doubt the commitment of protesters,” she says, calling craftivism an antidote to social media-enabled “slacktivism.”

As the title of her book suggests, Corbett advocates for a “gentler” rebellion. Craftmaking, she explains, is an avenue for less vociferous activists or those tired of angry polemics.

“I work with lots of people put off by traditional activism or extrovert activism because they are introverts,” she explains. Corbet, who founded Craftivist Collective in the UK eight years ago, describes the labor-intensive activity as “slow activism.” Craftivism “forces the maker to slow down and think slowly and strategically… using the comfort of craft to meditate on big, complex injustice issues with many different answers.”

Welcome Blanket re-conceptualizes the 2000-mile distance of the proposed border wall between Mexico and the US into handmade blankets to symbolize inclusion instead of exclusion. Representing the distance of the wall in lengths of yarn, volunteers will create lap blankets and accompanying notes of welcome for new US immigrants. The products of this crowd-sourced effort will be collected and displayed at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago beginning July 2017, with an exhibition in September 2017. After the show, the blankets will be given to refugee resettlement organizations for distribution to immigrant families. Visit for more info and details on how to get involved! #welcomeblanket

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“The Trump administration has basically given us a trope of what happens when we get too disconnected from ourselves, our realities and people who are different than us,” adds Betsy Greer, the so-called “godmother of craftivism,” Crafting, she explains, can foster non-threatening dialogue across party lines. “It helps change up the narrative some people tend to have that protest is [always] aggressive, which, while valuable, tends to shut down conversations.”

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