Embroidery. Knitting. Quilting. Weaving.
Each of these craft forms takes skill and time to do well and each has been used to tell stories as elaborate as any painting or sculpture. And yet, if these items are on display at a major art gallery, it’s almost always as part of a special exhibit rather than as part of the main collection. Why? Because despite having for centuries, in today’s world they are art forms that are associated with households. With domesticity. With women.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, these handicrafts, along with many others, were viewed as skillful trades, a way for lower classes to earn money from their abilities. The skill that had once been necessary to embroider a piece of clothing or weave a tablecloth was stripped away, assigned either to the frivolity of the hobbies of the upper-class women or to the necessity of lower classes who couldn’t afford “better” for their homes. Into the 20th century, mass production meant that these items were readily and cheaply available, changing the nature of these items from things that were made and crafted to things that were produced and consumed.
In the art world, the decorative arts—usually fine craft with a practical or household purpose—are viewed as less significant than other art forms. This 1918 quote from Amédée Ozenfant (Le Corbusier) sums up the attitudes of the time that continue to persist today:
”There is a hierarchy in the arts: decorative art at the bottom, and the human form at the top. Because we are men.”
Women began to reclaim these art forms in the 1970s, using traditional techniques to create works of art with unexpected messages and approaches. Today, artists are creating quilts, installations, embroideries, and more that tell complex stories about diverse communities.
Even as these art forms gain recognition in the modern art world, they continue to be accessible at the grassroots level. Even if you don’t knit or sew or embroider or quilt, chances are that you know someone who does. With that accessibility comes the opportunity to use these skills to make political statements through craftivism, a term coined by textile artist Betsy Greer.
Greer defines craftivism as “the use of one’s creativity for the greater good.” Craftivism includes a variety of endeavours from yarn-bombing to stitching ‘Fuck the Patriarchy’ onto an embroidery hoop. There is a collective component to craftivism as well. Many of these skills have been passed down among circles of women who came together to knit or quilt or embroider together, sharing news and information, sometimes subversively. After all, an art form that is ignored by the establishment is an obvious medium to share messages with those who are paying attention.
Today, most people don’t need to sew their own clothes or knit a sweater or embroider a tablecloth. Purchasing the materials to do these things ourselves is more expensive than buying a mass-produced item. Despite this, these art forms continue to thrive as people choose to invest their time and money into creating their own items. Which suggests that as with an original painting, these items have value that transcends their purpose. No matter what medium you use or how you define it, isn’t that what art is?