Reclaiming Craft As Feminist Art

A divide has remained throughout history between the views of craft and art, with art coming out on top of a manufactured hierarchy. Craft is seen as an object that’s usefulness outweighs its aesthetic purposes whereas art transcends the everyday, and the working class, and resides above. Sitting in the realm of the lower classes, craft is made for and by these people, and so cannot be separated from the texture of everyday culture.

As the Industrial Revolution came to a head, craft found itself being moved into manufacturing, into mass production and the power force of the industry took the working class from making things with their hands and into factories. A revolt against this came in the form of the Arts and Crafts movement. It meant to improve the quality of craft being made as industries had affected this, and to allow creative freedom once again for all. Craft had been a way for the working class to make an income with the skills and materials that they could, the movement intended to return to this. It also intended to liberate the roles of the female when it came to craft, to give women the ability to generate her own income by producing craft. It achieved the opposite, reinforcing the division of labour by creating a place of production in the home for the female. The Industrial Revolution fed off this, introducing to the domestic sphere the sewing machine.

Marketing as a way for women to live more “feminine” and “gracious” lives through their craft, it aided the push of women into the home. In the residence of the domestic sphere, suddenly craft was dismissible. It was now unintelligent and incompetent, patriarchal society completely disregarded the amount of skill needed for craft. The hierarchy of art and craft was reinforced because women were makers of craft and men were makers of art, craft was only meant to serve the domestic household and had no place next to the ingenuity of men. This new divide between craft and art began to develop the structure we know as the manufactured ideal female figure. Craft as Domestic Act The power of the Industrial Revolution’s was forcing the female back into the domestic sphere, but women also found an overarching patriarchal machine dominating society producing “subjected and practiced bodies, “docile” bodies.” So, femininity became a construction, it was “an artifice, an achievement.” Man created parameters for the female, to sit with their legs folded, to take up little space, to be quiet, to be erotic in the male gaze in her restrained modesty. This female was to look after the household and her husband, confined to the home where all she had to do was explore the world of craft in ways that could serve her family, for in these times it was, “as scandalous for a women not to know how to use a needle as for a man not to know how to use a sword.”

Imprisoned in the domestic sphere, females began to find their own form of power in the act of craft. They sewed, stitched and knitted all their joy, their anguish and their individual histories into heirlooms intended to keep their household happy. Craft became an outlet for the weight on her shoulders of the oppression at the hands of patriarchal society and she passed on this to her future generations, and to the women around her, to aid them in their lives, creating a strong bond between women. As invisible constructions of domesticity, women went unnoticed as they created small communities in the form of knitting and quilting circles. And so, in these circles, safe among their kind, women found a place to begin a quiet form of protest towards the male-dominated world they found themselves in. In the isolated sphere of the domestic woman, she found her solace in a place where she could talk, educate and vent her frustrations at the world around her. The knitting circle found its place as a guise for brewing of action and revolution.

Material Identity, the Imprint of the Forgotten Woman

Through craft and the gendered division of labour, women have a complex relationship with objects. The objects that these women made often going overlooked, underappreciated, in records of history. As the women of the domestic sphere lived and died in the home, without any acknowledgement of her presence, quite often the only way to remember the lives and conditions of these women is to study the craft that they produced. As they poured themselves into what they made, they created their own material identity and a record of themselves and their lives in that time. Even with the amount of self, skill, and knowledge that went into their craft, generations of anonymous women’s work have been omitted from the pages of history, historians choosing to focus on women’s consumption of things and not on their production.

The Suffragette

A woman that has not gone forgotten in the pages of history, a woman that used craft not only as a way of empowering herself, but as protest to the conditions of women in society during the early 20th century, was Jane Terrero, a British Suffragette. In 1912, while confined to a cell in Holloway Prison, London, Terrero spent her days embroidering her handkerchief. Among leaves and flowers of her work, she stitched details of her time imprisoned, the initials of the Women’s Social and Political Union with their motto, “Deed and not Words,” and a portrait of the two WSPU leaders. She chain-stitched her own signature with those of 19 other women who had participated in hunger strikes alongside her in the prison. As something that all women had on their person during this time, the use of the handkerchief in this way is important as Helen Gustafson says, “the handkerchief is much more than a simple piece of clothing. It is virtually an extension of the self.” Terrero was one of the first women to use her craft to initiate change, to protest her conditions as a woman, and employ something used to oppress her as a way of celebration of the empowered female.

Reclaiming Craft and the Rejection of Femininity

As women of the second wave of feminism began using art to aid their movement, they utilised the skill set forced upon the domestic woman to reclaim the idea of “domestic art.” Using craft found these women an empowerment like that of many generations before, using methods of “traditional femininity,” the “objects of their oppression,” to speak up for themselves against the patriarchy. Judy Chicago stood at the front of this feminist art movement, dedicating her entire career to fighting for women’s liberation as artists, fighting against their exclusion from the art world. She helped build Womanhouse in 1972, a house taken over by feminist artists as a form of critique on the domestic female, incorporating materials that were stereotypical of the domestic sphere.

Craft featured in the show in the work of both Faith Wilding and Susan Frazier. Wilding creating Crocheted Environment, a room fitted with a web meant to represent a womb as a protective shelter for women. Frazier’s work Aprons in the Kitchen had several handmade aprons hung on the wall as comment on releasing the woman from her place in the house as domestic labourer. Chicago then went on to collaborate with hundreds of seamstresses to produce The Dinner Party in 1979. The work consisted of a large triangular table with 39 place settings of porcelain plates and table mats, each to represent real and mythical women that had been disregarded over the course of history. Working as a representation of a female last supper, bringing women from the kitchen to allow them a place at the table, “the Dinner Party is intended as a symbol of women’s history,” Chicago writes “as such, it merely suggests the thousands of untold stories and unsung heroines who deserve attention, honor, and a place at the table.” There were problems with this work, it came from a place of white privilege and so only included one black female among those at the table, Sojourner Truth, an African-American women's rights activist of the early 19th century. Previously Chicago had been working against the notion of women’s work, and she avoid using these traditions, but now she aimed to raise them to the level of art in the hierarchy.

With the beginning of the social media age came changes to feminism. This platform allowed the new wave to utilise what they could of the previous waves, bring the issues faced by women that were being challenged to the forefront once again, and reach more people than ever before. As the second wave had focused on white, middle class, heterosexual women, new feminists focus on equality for all women, technology allowing for this idea of more collective action for the masses. There is a complicated relationship with feminist craft and technology. Women are using craft to disconnect from the internet and reconnect with people around them, to avoid the consumerist culture of society today, crafter Susan Beal says “the fact that I can earn my living with my creativity feels very feminist to me… a radical act to make something that’s homemade when it’s so easy to buy something that was made in Bangladesh.”

On the other hand, women are using technology to spread the word about the issues they’re combating through making craft. Unfortunately, there is still a hierarchy when it comes to craft in the art world but that is beginning to change with the revival of craft as a form of feminist art. Feminist groups before now had mostly been using craft to fight against stereotypes of femininity, to reject it to claim equality, women now are using it as a way of fighting for the ability to make craft, be feminine and still be a feminist, to choose their own path whether that be the domestic female or otherwise. There is less shame when it comes to craft, it’s about allowing women to make choices when it comes to their lives and their identity. Women making craft has been influential when it comes to craft being accepted as art, mainly as now women are being accepted as artists. Women are no longer making craft anonymously in the home, they’re being invited into the public sphere of the gallery. This history of craft, the association with these anonymous women and their forgotten work, is unavoidable for women working in this medium and is something they must always be aware of. As women use craft as a voice for political and social issues, they are representing the times when women’s only voice in the isolation of the domestic sphere was through making craft. Balancing the weight of craft history, and breaking down of the walls that early feminists built where femininity and domestic art can’t be celebrated, women working in this way find that they are rewarded with a community reflective of the knitting circles of generations before, where they can work, share with and empower each other, using a medium “of what generations before her devalued or took for granted.”


“Quiet strength need not be mistaken for useless vulnerability.” This is the attitude of creator of the Craftivism movement, Betsy Greer. This movement aims to quietly and gently bring activist form of joy to the community. In her book Craftivism she states that this “isn’t just some millennial arts and crafts fad. For centuries women have used the “domestic arts” to educate, protest, and connect.” When talking about how she named the movement, Greer said: “I felt that artists needed a term for crafting that was motivated by social of political activism, and “craftivism” fit the bill.” She wanted to remind us making objects by hand shows us that we have power as women, power that comes from these quiet moments experienced while crafting and can result in a reflective form of activism. People looking at craftivism perceive it as impractical, that quiet craft-making won’t create any important change to the conditions of the female, that playing so strongly into the idea of the vulnerable, invisible domestic female it can’t possibly be a kind of activism for female rights. Greer counters this saying, craftivism aims to be a “permission-giver”, to allow women to feel they can work in a medium that is dismissed in society as obsolete, to show that something slow, hands-on and archaic still has a place in our fast-paced technological world.

Craftivism allows those who participate an opportunity to make something that supports growth and nurturing of the self to give good back into the world. She believes that changing yourself, creating love, empowerment and confidence in one’s self is the first step in inspiring positive change in the world around you. “Guerrilla Kindness” is one craftivism project, created by Sayraphim Lothian in which she places fake cupcakes around the city she lives in as pieces of happiness to bring to stranger’s lives. Lothian says that the project is about showing the community that people care, to brighten people’s day with something small, and to experience shared joy between maker and those that witness her work.

Problems with craftivism

The craftivist movement isn’t without its problems. As Julia Feliz says in “An Open Letter to the Craftivism Movement”, the quiet, gentle nature of craftivism acts to silence people of colour, disregarding other forms of more forceful activism as unnecessary which is another way of oppressing women. She views the Craftivism movement as solely founded in white privilege, saying that it refuses to recognise this. Greer replying to the plaints of Feliz saying, “people come to activism/craftivism from all points and sides… To me, all work done in the name of making a better world has its place, because it will resonate with different people and maybe cause them to act where and how they can,” failing to see that work such as pink pussy hats as protest to Trump exclude both trans people and people of colour. Feliz says in this article that she’d “like the craftivist movement to have a dialogue about what it wants to be and how it can truly change things for the oppressed without hiding behind empty and self-congratulatory actions, such as the creation of symbols that don’t really change anything.”

Response to Pussy Hats

Feliz is not the only person that views the pussy hats of Trump protests as non-inclusive, saying that they act as damaging to the work of fourth wave feminists, unravelling progress and reverting to the white, privileged focus of previous waves. The response to this from Krista Suh, the cofounder of the project, is that she “never thought that by calling it the 'pussyhat' that it was saying that women's issues are predicated on the possession of the pussy," that the project was in retort to Trump saying "grab 'em by the pussy” and was intended to reclaim the word pussy and empower women. A trans activist, Deja Lynn Alvarez, also rejected this critique on the movement as detrimental: "when we're busy fighting with each other, we're not fighting the oppressors." Hannah Hill Hannah Hill is one artist that uses craft as a feminist art. She uses it to discuss the issues that all women face today, issues of body positivity and taboos of menstruation and female sexuality, but also to speak about more personal issues, playing with the juxtaposition of medium and subject matter. She is best known for a meme, an embroidered recreation of a cartoon fist meant to represent repressed frustration at something, in this case it was Hill’s frustration as people dismiss the skill, time and effort put into embroidery because it’s seen as “women’s work.” Most of the response to her work was positive, one person asked her what the point was, that she could have just photoshopped an image, this entirely misses the point, and acts as a representation of exactly why she embroidered the image in the first place.

Craft and the Menstruator

Using craft to make artwork in a feminist context also allows for the exploration of other female issues. Women artists using menstrual blood in their craft to aid this understanding that all elements of the female body are important and should be celebrated, not dismissed or, in the case of menstrual blood, reacted to with repulsion. Carina Úbeda was one of the women to bring menstrual blood back into the public sphere using craft objects. Her work Cloths in 2013 was created after saving her “soiled” sanitary cloths for five years. She hung them individually within embroidery hoops and surrounded them with rotten apples, stitching words onto each of the cloths in Spanish, words associated with the female condition; “Production,” “Discard,” and “Destroyed.” By using a palette drawn from within, something as intimate as her own menstrual blood, the work is powerful and influential, forcing the visibility of both craft and menstruation on the public sphere. In that same year, Australian artist Casey Jenkins also chose to expose the intimacy of her own menstrual cycle as she performed intermittently knitting wool from her vagina. Over the course of the 28-day cycle, the wool moved from white to red and back again as it became soaked with the artist’s blood.

Cast Off My Womb as someone’s shared personal experience of menstruation allows the viewer insight into an intimate relationship between a woman and her body, as well as her thoughts about her body and societies expectations of her. Both artists chose to imprint themselves on their craft as other women had before them, this time in the most intimate way possible, creating a material identity in both their work and the materials taken directly from their own bodies. Both women working towards a reclaim of the fragile female and normalising the female condition.

11 February 2020
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