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Crafting a difference

Sarah Corbett talks to Renée Davis about combining craft and activism to make changes in the world

The gentleness is about letting people choose to engage so that they’re open-hearted and open-minded

AS the daughter of a politician and a vicar, campaigning for social justice seems engrained in Sarah Corbett.

‘I’ve been an activist since I was three years old because if my family and I weren’t squatting to save social housing, we were doing anti-apartheid work,’ she says.

‘From the age of 16, I learnt that activism isn’t always loud but can be very quiet. I became head girl at school and campaigned for student lockers. But because I’m an introvert, instead of staging a demonstration and asking pupils to carry placards, I simply asked the head teacher why we couldn’t have them. She told me it was for health and safety reasons. I spoke to the caretaker who didn’t think it was right, so we measured all the rooms at break times and checked the health and safety regulations. Then I found a parent-governor who was well respected by the staff and they appealed to the head teacher. Eventually, we got lockers.’

By 2008, after many years of traditional campaigning, Sarah felt like ‘a burnt-out activist’, as she explains in her new book How to be a Craftivist, in which she promotes ‘the art of gentle protest’.

‘I didn’t like shouting, demonising people or telling them what to do,’ she says. ‘I also didn’t feel as though I fitted into certain activist groups. So much of my work as a professional campaigner and as a spare-time activist was online and not particularly creative. I missed using my hands to create and make things.’

After trying her hand at cross-stitching, Sarah found that it was calming and empowering. It allowed her to address some of her difficulties with traditional activism and helped her to think through issues more clearly.

When she embroidered a message on a handkerchief for a politician and offered it as a gift of support to help tackle injustices as a ‘critical friend’ rather than an ‘aggressive enemy’, something clicked. It was effective. Sarah knew she was on to something.

She searched ‘craft and activism’ online and found that the term ‘craftivism’ had been coined by American crafter and writer Betsy Greer in 2003. Betsy defined it ‘as a way of looking at life where voicing opinions through creativity makes your voice stronger and your compassion deeper’.

Seeing that there were no craftivist groups in and around London, in 2009, Sarah – with Betsy’s blessing – launched the Craftivist Collective. It has since grown to become a worldwide network that uses craft to address and challenge pressing issues through gentle protest.

The Craftivist Collective equips people who want to join the movement through workshops, events and its starter craft kits. All the kits are ethically sourced and handmade by Sarah, and they also include all the materials necessary to become a craftivist. Inside the pack is A Little Book of Craftivism, written by Sarah, which includes hints and tips for beginners. There’s also a ‘my footprint kit’ where users can stitch a thought, lyric or quotation onto a canvas footprint as they think about the impact they’re having on the world and their development as a good global citizen. An ‘I’m a Craftivist’ badge is included to help wearers strike up meaningful conversations about activism.

One of Sarah’s interests is raising awareness of the need for ethically sourced clothing. Throughout the world, many people still work in sweatshops, experiencing dangerous working conditions while being paid poorly.

‘Members of the collective do what’s known as a “shop drop”, where they take mini scrolls tied with a ribbon and place them in the pockets of items at fast-fashion or unethical fashion shops,’ Sarah explains. ‘The scrolls say “please open me” with a smiley face and a kiss. The gentleness is about letting people choose to engage so that they’re open-hearted and open-minded before they even open the scroll. The message doesn’t judge, label or make people feel bad. It is simply trying to get people to be curious about who made their clothes. Were they made with joy or pain?’

The collective also makes gifts such as a ‘don’t blow it’ handkerchief for those in positions of power.

‘We use it to tell them not to blow it, but to use their power for good. We are saying: “I know you’ve got a tough job, but I’m here to encourage you to do the best job you can and I want you to tell me how I can help be a part of it.”’

Sarah has seen such an approach work numerous times, especially alongside the charity Share Action, with whom the collective worked to persuade one of the UK’s largest retailers to start paying its staff the living wage.

‘The CEO of the charity approached me and said that for three years she had been trying to have a conversation with the business about providing a living wage,’ Sarah says. ‘Five weeks before their annual general meeting, I recruited 24 craftivists from around the country. We each bought shares so we could go to the meeting and we stitched bespoke quotes on hankies for each of the board members. We even researched them online to see what colours they liked to wear and incorporated them into the designs.

‘The messages were along the lines of: “While I was stitching this – which took me hours – I was thinking about how difficult your job is, but also how amazing and rewarding it must be. I was also thinking about your amazing staff members who aren’t on the living wage, and how difficult it is for them. They’re brilliant and they should be valued.”

‘The board members were moved by the gifts,’ Sarah continues. ‘The chairman told me that he wouldn’t have engaged with us if we had been outside the meeting waving placards. For the next 12 months, we had regular meetings with the board. Just 14 months on from the AGM, they announced that they would be increasing staff pay in UK stores. This wouldn’t have happened without our gentle protest.’

When it comes to tackling injustice, many people feel that achieving a breakthrough as part of a collective is easier than going it alone. But how can craftivism help individuals who want to do something to make a change in the world, but feel helpless or traumatised by the news stories they see portrayed on TV?

‘I don’t watch the news a lot,’ Sarah says. ‘It doesn’t provide solutions. Rather than empower and educate people, the news tends to overwhelm and disempower them.

‘I’m not particularly a craft lover, but I am passionate about activism. I picked up a cross-stitch kit because I could see that I was burning out. Being in a digital world, I missed using my hands and I knew that doing so was good for mental health.

‘I do craftivism because I believe it is good for activism. The repetitive action of using our hands, head and heart is calming while stitching and gives confidence.

‘We need to do our best with what we’ve been given. Throughout history, we’ve seen that if we are strategic, campaigning works. There’s a proverb that says: “In a state of emergency, slow down.”

‘While doing craft you can think about who’s in power and the relevant people to target. It’s hard for power holders to ignore the gifts someone has created for them.

‘From time to time, I get emails and letters from people around the world telling me that they didn’t feel as though they could engage in activism, but through craft they have the confidence to take a stand in a different way. After a while, it tends to dawn on craftivists that gentleness is good not only for them but also for the person with whom they are trying to engage. Gentleness is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. It’s not about being passive and weak, but about self-control, care, compassion and consideration.’

Such attributes were cultivated by Sarah’s Christian upbringing.

‘My upbringing definitely shaped me,’ she says. ‘My mum and dad were good and we always talked about faith. Growing up, I heard all the Bible parables as my bedtime stories. But they never pushed faith on me and it never felt pressured at all.

‘For a few years, I didn’t go to church. Faith-wise, I just sat on the fence. But I always saw and experienced faith in everything my parents did. It is only in recent years that I’ve fully surrendered myself to God.’

With her faith and more than 30 years of activism behind her, Sarah continues to inspire others to change the world.

‘Through my new book, I want to create a resource that would be useful for the Craftivist Collective and the wider world. As well as including practical crafting tips, I look at various aspects of power and those who hold it.

‘Craftivism is about sending the right message to the right people through a gift that’s not manipulative, but graceful and humble. For craftivism to be truly effective, we’ve got to put the work in and change the world one small stitch at a time.’

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