Textiles and Politics

Weaving, stitching, and knitting have always had a place in politics. As an act of defiance or solidarity, art gives way to expose a reality, make a statement, and in turn form a community. During World War II, knitting was an act of patriotism – a means to participate and make a difference. Today, we use art largely as a form of protest and awareness on topics such as race, identity, and climate change. The emotional world of art brings a human sensation into the realm of politics, that is oftentimes lacking in its empathy. Textile arts, specifically, have a profound capacity to incite political action.

Fiber Arts as a Form of Solidarity. Most profound movements have resulted in a sense of togetherness. Intentionally or not, an act of political artistic expression forms a community. Upheaval and injustice often create a strong need for solidarity. World War II is a good example of solidarity in an effort to support the troops. Trench warfare, although not as prominent during World War II, was still a feature of battle. One unsightly condition of trench warfare was trench foot. This was the exposure of the foot to consistent wet and cold conditions, which ultimately caused the foot to deteriorate. Wet and cold environments were just as much a threat as the enemy. The call for undergarments started a knitting revolution of sorts back in the states.

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Knitting socks, sweaters, scarves, and hats became a widespread extracurricular activity among not only women, but children and men as well. The traditionally female practice overcame gender and age because of the patriotic duty it now employed. Men on the job would knit in their downtime and wounded soldiers were taught to knit in order to pass the time and keep their minds relaxed. It acted productively in war participation and as a way to de-stress.

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Fiber Arts as a Form of Resistance. Resistance being the motivation, solidarity being the byproduct. Modern day resistance is rampant in the art world. One example being Chi Nguyen in efforts with The Textile Arts Center and The Center for Reproductive Rights who began a stitch-in. In a court case Whole Woman’s Health vs. Hellerstedt, the latter was attempting to place restrictions on all abortion clinics in the state of Texas. The embroidery project allowed for people across the world to stitch tally marks in whatever fashion they liked in order to contribute to the quilt that would be present at rallies. This physical representation of the 5.4 million women who would be effected was a bold visual.

“The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.”

- Toni Cade Bambara

This quote was pointed out by Chi Nguyen as a reason to why ‘craftivism’ is so appealing in the threat of political injustice. Writer Betsey Greer coined the term in 2003, and explains why craft enhances activism.

“‘Craftivism’ is a way of looking at life where voicing opinions through creativity makes your voice stronger, your compassion deeper & your quest for justice more infinite.”

- Betsey Greer

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 - Photo Courtesy of 5.4 million and counting -

On June 27th, 2016, the court ruled 5-3 in favor of Whole Woman’s health.

Artist, Jesse Harrod, resists the patriarchy and gender norms in her maximalist works conveying body parts and symbols of queerness. Her loud sculptures boldly break the silence often prescribed to oppressed groups. This, in itself, is an act of resistance, marked by a refusal to stay silent. Using “lowbrow” materials such as sequins and fringe, Harrod equates the disposable attributes of the material to the way society tends to treat certain bodies. Below, she describes the connection of cloth and identity.

“I’m also interested in this idea that something is “chintzy,” and how we use that in everyday language today. For this piece in particular I used the worst kinds of chintz that were available, so really crappy synthetic polyesters that were imitating these higher end cloths and failing at doing that. I guess what was most interesting to me was that failure. That this failure was perfection. That then to me became linked to my ideas around gender and identity and trying to be something that you’re not and not quite accomplishing that but then what you end up being is so much better.”

- Jesse Harrod

Install2_550   - Photo Credit: Jesse Harrod, “Enormity of Lesbian Grief” -

Fiber Arts as a Form of Awareness. The nature of art in society leads to an increased sense of awareness and visibility. Margaret and Christine Wertheim pulled focus to the increasing depletion of the coral reef through crocheting. With a background in mathematics and physics, Margaret Wertheim is interested in the math behind the reef as well as the activism. Learning of the unique ability of crocheting to create a hyperbolic shape gave Wertheim the extra motivation to follow through with the ambitious project. Hyperbolic geometry was a non-euclidean form of geometry that features curved lines as opposed to straight. This space is difficult to visualize, and initially thought of as impossible to render in 3D. It made a hyperbolic space somewhat mysterious. That is until 1997, when Dr. Taimina discovered that a specific crocheting technique is the only way of rendering this space in the real world. This led to the realization that this shape occurs relatively often under water. Coral, kelp and sea slugs are among some of the naturally occurring hyperbolic forms you find in the ocean. Melding the love of math with the sympathy for the reef led to the beginnings of  the wooly coral reef.

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- Photo Courtesy of MAD museum -

Coral bleaching, an effect of global warming, is an underwater epidemic affecting 90% of the barrier reef. Caused by water temperatures being too high, corals lose their vivacious colors and basic functioning skills. This happens when the Zooxanthellae (a small organism) that lives symbiotically with the coral are deprived of nutrients and can’t photosynthesize. The difference in color between the crocheted life above and below is stark, making a good representation of whats happening below sea level.

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- Photo courtesy of MAD Museum, Bleached Coral reef -

Humble beginnings, the twins crocheted until they no longer had the space in their apartment to host the wooly reef. After gaining attention from galleries focused on the issue of global warming, their project took off in a different way. Teaching the crocheting technique in local towns and cities, their hobby turned into a protest of sorts. Internationally, thousands of participants knit corals. This, in turn, attracted more attention to the rapidly increasing deterioration issue.

Awareness of racial disparities and violence in the states have also been achieved, in part, by the arts.

Artists like Sonya Clarke use textiles as a way to express the deep rooted social and political injustices still present in the United States. Not only does she bring attention to the matter, but she elegantly comments on the amount of work required to undue decades of systematic oppression and everyday racism. This is symbolized in the act of unravelling the confederate flag. Slowly and considerately, the flag is manually unravelled into its original and separate parts. She stated,

“To fully unravel the flag takes time and patience, much like change in society.”

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- Photo Courtesy of Sonya Clarke -

Many times, artists don’t begin their artistic journeys with a revolution in mind. It’s the byproduct of an honest assessment of the individual in relation to society. Resonating with others experiencing similar strife’s allows for its growth and power. With persistence, it branches outside of the art scene affecting the world at large.

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