In the past few months, the world has closed down around us: physical ties between family and friends have been severed, once-thriving cities have become deserted ghost towns, and borders have shut. As countries sought to contain the alarming spread of COVID-19 via lockdowns, there has been a global shift homewards – for some, a sanctuary, for others, a place of violence and fear. The pandemic has laid bare the stark divisions between who have access to outdoor space, large and secure houses, financial stability, regular meals, and healthcare and those that don’t; it has forced us to confront the racism and inequality that sicken our society.
The links between craft and mental health and wellbeing are long established, so it’s no surprise that the lockdown brought a reported uptick in craft activities as people sought to occupy their hands, minds and feelings in uncertain times. Craft is understood to be a balm through trouble and turmoil: it represents an achievable short-term project, the time to finally start that long desired hobby, a resourceful way to repair when access to goods is limited. But what about the community? As the Zoom calls continue to loom – too everyday now to even joke about – does craft have the power to keep us connected? Or, what’s more, does craft have the power to model new forms of connection that offer respite from the ‘always on’ socio-economic demands of late-capitalist life? What roles can community and care play in a world that constantly disempowers and divides us, in a society that co-opts acts of resistance and markets them back to us in a de-radicalised, de-politicised form? Where several governments across the globe have failed – most notably the UK and USA – community-led mutual aid groups have succeeded, providing a vital lifeline for many of the most vulnerable. The resurgence of community activism provides an opportunity to look back on and appreciated the overlooked history of grassroots mutual aid groups, especially within the Black community – it’s also a reminder, as we craft new communities and models of care, to be mindful of who is being included, represented, and given a voice.
In their creative conversation, writer Stephanie Ruth and artist Anna Perach contemplate a return to the domestic and escape through mythic traditions of costume and play. Perach’s practice, which draws on mythology and folk traditions as an antidote to the failings of contemporary society, has gained new relevance in our increasingly fraught, terrifying times. For some artists and makers, the digital world has been key to continuing a sense of togetherness during the lockdown: in her interview with Leila Vilarrubi, artist and ceramicist Christie Brown praises Instagram and Zoom for allowing her to keep up-to-date with her peers’ projects. Using her own art to connect to interior worlds of fantasy and desire, Brown hopes that her sculptures take viewers on a journey through their inner consciousness. In Francesca Daytor’s review of Barbara Long’s Mother Material: Handle with Care, Daytor demonstrates the subversive ways that Long breaks down boundaries between interior and exterior, crafting tentacular sculptures that evoke organs and umbilical cords; Long’s fabric sculptures connect her to her mother and set up an ‘intergenerational alliance’ that makes visible the familial ties that bind us. Making becomes an embodied act of care, with recycled textiles bridging the gaps between Long’s elderly, blind mother in the UK and Long herself, now resident in Madrid.
Intergenerational community and legacy forms a large part of Rubina Singh’s essay ‘Crafting Resistance and Resilience’, which explores personal history to embroidery and her work as a ‘craftivist’. As Singh puts it: ‘The systems we’ve built continue to serve the overserved, more so in times of extreme crisis. There is constant change but seemingly debilitating stagnation everywhere. The digital has become the new personal where touch is in short supply but ambiguous information in surplus’.
Continuing the theme of making hidden histories and marginalised communities of makers visible, the team at Lon-art Creative explore the ideas and motivations behind their current digital exhibition Sheroes in Quarantine. Spotlighting key topics that affect women artists and activists, such as Policies, Ecofeminism, and Violence Against Women and Girls, Sheroes in Quarantine allows the viewer to connect with the realities of a wide range of women’s stories. Over the past few weeks Emily Grimble has stitched a direct response to the coronavirus crisis, creating simple designs that maximise the sloganism that has run through the pandemic. Unlike statements made by the UK government, Grimble’s slogans emphasise mutual care and community reminding us that any emerging ‘new normal’ has to centre the lives, health, education and support of every community.
In changing times, other groups have had to find new ways to connect. Our Spotlight on Black Girl Knit Club focuses on their mission to share craft skills for generations to come. They have been hosting ‘Black Women in Craft’ and have brought people together for their four-week long ‘Virtual Knit Sessions’, demonstrating how digital craft engagement can build solidarity, confidence, and lifelong skill sets. Our next Spotlight on Veiled Voices seeks to tackle prejudice and celebrate women’s rights to choose how they present themselves by opening up dialogues around the wearing of the hijab in Britain. In response to restrictions around physical gatherings, Laura Burril has set up a ‘remote stitching collective’ that encourages women to send in a small embroidered square with a word or phrase that sums up what the hijab means to them.
Grassroots community arts charity Stitches in Time have also turned to a collective, communal stitching project – the By You Tapestry – as a way of overcoming isolation during the pandemic. Having spent almost the past three decades building links and strengthening community ties in their local Tower Hamlets community, the impact of lockdown has been challenging both to Stitches in Time and to their borough, already one of the most unequal and deprived parts of London. Amid the crisis, the group tells us about their hopes for progressive change and a renewed appetite for grassroots community action.
Crafting has long functioned as a political tool wielded by the marginalised, a way for the powerless to unite in collective acts of community-building. Dora Housham’s article On the Fence: Crafting Resistance at the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp is an uplifting reminder, at a time of social distancing and isolation, of the important role arts and crafts play in amplifying voices of dissent. At Greenham Common, craft was transformational: by literally weaving themselves together and to the chain-link fences, the women of Greenham reclaimed the landscape through feminine-coded craft practices. The domestic and political merged on a public stage, inspiring women unable to be part of the camp – and, as Housham demonstrates, inspiring generations to come. In 2012, Jo Thompson worked in Holloway Prison to create a quilt that centred women’s voices and provided a chance to learn new skills. Through a collective act of quilt making, the women of Holloway strengthened the bonds between one another whilst taking charge of their own narratives. This fragile, haphazard community, which helped them survive in a hostile, violent environment, demonstrates the power of togetherness even in situations and power structures that seek to dehumanise and isolate.
For German seamstress Agnes Richter (1844-1918), held against her will in various psychiatric hospitals Natasha Hughes’s article ‘Sanity in the Seams’ suggests Richter ‘immortalised both her physical and emotional self’ through the act of sewing. She sewed a cropped jacket from her gown, embroidering it with messages in a near indecipherable language. Richter’s jacket is an act of caring for the self, in the face of the nineteenth-century medical establishment, speaking to and creating her identity.
The handmade object can be a talisman, a touchstone that returns us to the web of personal relationships and networks of care, exchange, and tactile communication that make up our lives under normal (that is, pre-pandemic) circumstances. Crafting an Education: the Handmade Gift as Talisman for our Times is a thought-provoking meditation on the power of hand-crafted gifts to stand in for the rituals and personal connections that have been temporarily lost; created as a collaborative essay by two university lecturers – Alexandra Peat and Alison Vogelaar – and their students Lilly Carr and Elsa Thompson, the article is a reminder that we don’t have to rely on the digital alone to sustain the connections of care, learning and friendship that are essential to our wellbeing.
Perhaps it is making, crafting and creating that provides a slower way to connect with our communities in the face of fast-paced, overwhelming, and an onslaught of uncontrollable change. The articles, artwork, and interviews in this issue remind us to look to and prioritise acts of caregiving and community-making as a way to lift up marginalised voices, sustain friendships and mutual wellbeing, and build a vision of progressive change for a post-covid world.