How Women Are Using Knitting And Needlework As A Form Of Protest

by Beth Ward

In October 2017, Vogue magazine ran a headline on its website that read, “How That ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ Embroidery Became the Internet’s Response to Harvey Weinstein,” referring to an embroidery work created by Shannon Downey of Badass Cross Stitch. Downey runs a blog and website dedicated to her arts, crafts, needle and activist work, and her cross-stitching — the same medium used by grandmothers throughout history to display ABCs and “I Love Yous” on pillows and dish towels — is used to declare clear political and feminist messages: “No Human Being is Illegal,” “Anything you can do, I can do bleeding.” She hand-stitched a pumpkin for Halloween that read, “No treats for Trump voters.”

The needlework Vogue referred to loudly proclaimed “Boys will be boys held accountable for their fucking actions.” It went viral, with countless celebrities and media outlets, magazines and activist groups tweeting and posting the embroidery work, its message swelling to a full-blown rallying cry, a galvanizing battle flag to accompany the #MeToo movement.



“I actually made that piece months before the Harvey Weinstein disaster,” says Downey. “I made it the night I saw the video of Trump admitting to grabbing women, thinking for sure, it was the smoking gun and he would never get elected. The piece got new life when a few celebrities shared it in response to Weinstein, because a powerful man was finally being held accountable for his horrific actions.”

bleeding ab015“Anything you can do, I can do…” by Shannon Downey, Badass Cross Stitch

Fast forward a few months and the #MeToo movement is tidal, Downey and her work is just one vein in a whole living system of feminist political and social resistance through handmade arts and crafts. Dubbed “craftivism” by Betsy Greer, its participants are taking back traditional women’s hobbies that were originally used as a way to market a girl’s domesticity and femininity — like embroidery, knitting, and needlework — and re-appropriating them to advance the resistance and advocate for social change.

Historically, girls weren’t allowed the same educational opportunities as boys. Instead of learning math and science, they were relegated to the domestic sphere. A girl’s curriculum demanded that she know how to raise and care for children, how to cook, and how to keep a clean and tidy home — valuable skills to be deployed in her future as a wife and mother. She also had to know how to craft with needles, thread, and fabric. Girls were taught from the ages of five or six how to do needlework using samplers, and the completion of these embroidery projects served as symbols of a girl’s “obedience, patience and skill…,” their verses reinforcing messages of female virtue and obedience to God and family.

“In European and Western cultures, a woman’s marriageability and worth were directly assessed by her embroidery,” says Jessica Lewis, programming designer for the Museum of Design Atlanta (MODA). “Both the process and the content of what was made was highly socialized. The process kept women from thinking, and the content was a way of decorating the home with wholesome images.”

Jen Ventry FuckNazis ba750“Fuck Nazis” by Jen Ventry and Museum of Design Atlanta

It was a form of domestic propaganda, selling female suppression one small stitch at a time.

“The process was all about, ‘you are the silent wife doing this silent thing.’” says Lewis. “‘Your mind is quiet. Your hands are moving. You are busy. You are creating something that brings God into the home.’”

But women have been using craft to subvert these social mores for decades. Before the Revolutionary War, women organized knitting circles as a means of protest against the Stamp Act. According to Tove Hermanson in Knitting as Dissent: Resistance in America Since the Revolutionary War, “Knitting [was] so cozy and unthreatening that its very execution [was] used to cover subversive deeds, though history books rarely include the stories of female characters like ‘Old Mom Rinker,’ who would transport enemy information overheard in her family’s tavern to General George Washington inside her knitting balls of yarn….” Sojourner Truth taught freed slaves how to sew and knit as a means of becoming more financially independent. During both World War I and World War II, women like Phyllis Doyle acted as spies, knitting coded messages into fabric to be passed along to soldiers.

futureisfemale c03ec“The Future Is Female” by Shannon Downey, Badass Cross Stitch

Today’s craftivism reached its fever pitch in January 2017 at the Women’s March. Organized in response to the Trump presidency, millions of women (and several thousand men) around the world cut, glued, sewed, knitted, colored and crafted signs, slogans and emblems that screamed out messages of resistance. The unifying symbol of the event, the knitted pussy hat, was a brilliant and clear reappropriation of Trump’s proud proclamations of “grabbing women by the pussy.” Downey took part in the march, hand-stitching a sign that read, “I’m So Angry, I Stitched This Just So I Could Stab Something 3,000 Times.”

The home embroidery, the knitted hat, Downey’s needlework — they’re different kinds of crafting. Through craftivism, however, they’re all working to take back mediums demoted and dismissed in popular culture as frivolous and feminine, and giving them teeth, giving them the power to free the people they were used to subjugate.

And it’s this juxtaposition of crafting’s history with its current manifestation that help make it revolutionary. The sugar, spice and everything nice that imbued the sewing, knitting and making of yore, the assumed harmlessness of it, the silence of it — and by extension supposed harmlessness and quietude of women — is coupled now with powerful, gnashing, roaring messages against that same suppression. They’re also leveraging its ignorant dismissal as a form of marginal, lowbrow art to better reach the masses.

Mithila Tople NoCactus b2745“No” by Mithila Tople and Museum of Design Atlanta

“‘Craft’ has always been an extremely gendered word that people use to lump together what they deem ‘women’s arts,'” says Lewis. “And as such, these crafts aren’t really highly valued.”

And, unfortunately, those “women’s arts” were even devalued by many in the second-wave feminist movement. BUST’s own Editor-in-Chief, Debbie Stoller, made this exact point in her best-selling knitting primer, Stitch ‘n Bitch: The Knitter’s Handbook, published in 2003. Calling on women to “Take back the knit,” Stoller wrote, “…all those people who looked down on knitting—and housework, and housewives—were not being feminist at all. In fact, they were being anti-feminist, since they seemed to think that only those things that men did, or had done, were worthwhile.” 

Not only does crafting deserve to be respected,  today’s craftivists argue, but the threshold to entry is lower than many other arts, and that accessibility is part of what makes crafting such an effective medium for activism.

“I can teach anyone to embroider in under an hour,” she says. “It requires very few supplies and the supplies are inexpensive. Folks who don’t think of themselves as artists aren’t afraid to try it because it has the association with craft. And you can create something tangible and practical — you can wear your protest. It’s unexpected, and therefore amplified in power and effect.”

resistispersist.jpg“To Resist is to Persist” by Julie Jackson,

Lewis agrees. Unlike “high art,” she says, which can alienate the everyday person, crafting can be done by anyone who wants to learn.

“Even the places where you get supplies are less intimidating,” she says, “It’s Holly Hobby. Ironically though, that prejudice creates a kind of accessibility that can reach more people more effectively. People don’t feel like they have to be Serious Artists.”

Lewis is exploring these themes in her workshops and programming for the museum. MODA events like Subversive Cross Stitch invite participants to learn about the history of cross stitching while making their own subversive samplers — stitching xs to create messages like “Tell Me to Smile.”

“I wanted to create a space where people could learn a craft while also interrogating the gendered nature of that craft,” Lewis says. “We need [those] spaces where we can have the opportunity not only to learn a new skill, but also to build our capacity to interrogate the world around us.”

KathrynColohan TellMeToSmile 49c57“Tell me to smile” by Kathryn Coleman and Museum of Design Atlanta

It’s clear that crafting is changing the way women are expressing their anger at current political and social systems. In making these crafts, they’ve completely co-opted their own oppression, something Downey finds empowering.

“I hope my work is inspiring more folks to pick up a needle and thread and say something powerful,” she says. “I want folks to think differently about the role that craftivism can play in the advancement of social justice. I want them to see that they can start a movement. There is no higher purpose for art, in my opinion, than to create positive social change.”

Through people like Downey and Lewis, and the thousands of women stitching and sewing through their outrage, it’s clear that crafting is no longer an effective way to keep women quiet.

Now, “knit one, purl two” is a protest song.

Published January 19, 2018

Top photo: “Boys will be boys…” by Shannon Downey, Badass Cross Stitch

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