Archive | why handmade.

Aside from what you can make with your hands (and who creates with them), why is it important?

A look at the Social Justice Sewing Academy!

At the start of this year, I was asked to write about the Social Justice Sewing Academy for the Craft Industry Alliance. You can check out the article here if you’re a member, as it shares more background and different photos. (And if you’re not a member, you should join!) 

Abby Glassenberg kindly said I could share some of the quotes and photos I got from the founder, Sara, so here goes! 

“The summer I got the grant, it was $25,000. UC Berkeley paid for it. So it’s a year-long public service project, where as long as you submit reports and you show that you spent the money appropriately they’ll give you $25,000 for a project. What kind of spurred it, was I was a mentor at Berkeley High School and working with the kids, you could kind of see how they would give me complaints, like at UC Berkeley they have Ethnic Studies, they have African-American Studies, they have Chicano, Latino, LGBT Studies, like UC Berkeley really gives you a holistic, a critical lens on how you view the world, on other people’s history, on the diaspora work, it just really gives you a holistic lens of American history.

And some of the kids were like, you know, in our history class we learn from African-American history starting at slavery, and I was like, you know, well before that there were kings and queens, I just like a lot of the like Paolo Friere, just I think Frierian methodology and more critical pedagogy like how to become a critical thinker and not just take whatever the teacher gives you as fact.”

At this point, Sara was tutoring kids and decided to bring in readings for them. She brought in readings about their own cultures and identities, so they could see themselves in the literature. 

She had them write research papers on the material and came up with the idea of having an art show where they could show related work and therefore involve the community. 

“I know initially when the boys were in my class and they were told, ‘Hey, you’re in Sara’s class,” and I said, “Hey, so it’s called Sewing Justice Sewing Academy and this is what we’re going to do.” “I don’t want to be in a sewing class, man.” I mean I had so much pushback, but it turns out the boys, they would come spend their lunches in the class just to work on their project, so I think initially after they got over the stigma, and I kind of framed it, “Like you guys don’t consider yourself seamstresses, consider yourself textile artists,” telling a boy that means all the difference.

Just the wording alone, but “And so you guys are going to be sewing, but consider yourself a textile artist, it’s not like I’m asking you guys to make a patchwork quilt. You guys are going to design and create your own social justice art quilt.” I think what matters, [is that you] use this art as a platform to share your voice, share your opinion, once they got their fabrics, everyone was super excited, there was a couple moments where I feel like kids were getting overwhelmed, ’cause I realized, some people made really detailed, detailed, patterns, and I’m telling them, you know every pattern you draw like that’s going to be something you’re going to have to cut out and pin… But ultimately everyone was so proud of their quilts – and the progress, other teachers would come and other students who weren’t in the Social Justice Sewing Academy they would come and say “Man, I wish I was in this class.” 

Want to see more of SJSA’s work? Check out their gallery of photos and find them on Facebook and Instagram

 

Interview with Elizabeth Shefrin!

Next in the interview series, we have the work of Elizabeth Shefrin! To see more of her work, go to stitchingforsocialchange.ca and middleeastpeacequilt.ca. You can also see more of the Embroidered Cancer Comic here on Facebook.

1. What is your definition of craftivism?

Craftivism is a new word for me. But I understand it as craft in an activist context and almost everything I do fits in that category. It could be banners, or tiny bits of knitting on a stop sign or magnets on the mailbox or embroidered book illustration about cancer. My studio and my website are both called “Stitching for Social Change” and that just about covers it. Also, I buy as little material as possible new. Much of my work is made out of leftover scraps.

2. What led you to start the Middle East Peace Quilt? What was the moment that led you from idea into action?

I started the Middle East Peace Quilt in 1998. I used to go to political meetings about Israel and Palestine, and noticed that everyone always said exactly the same thing and nothing moved forward, I thought we needed another way of having the conversation. I had been teaching a workshop for awhile called “Stitching for social change, the use of fabric to build a better world,” which included a slide show about projects like the Chilean arpilleras, the Names Quilt, the use of fabric and Greenham Common, etc., so it was quite natural for me to initiate a project like that of my own. I didn’t know if I would get ten squares or hundreds of them. I started by inviting some friends for dinner and putting out materials for them to make quilt squares, and went on from there.

3. At what point did you know when to stop at a certain number of squares vs. making it an ongoing project?

The Middle East Peace Quilt toured for about 11 years from 1999 to 2010. It was on display in almost 40 venues in the US and Canada, including galleries, universities, libraries, churches and community and cultural centres. Even now I occasionally bring it out of retirement if someone is interested. Some of the squares came to me in the mail and some were results of workshops I offered everywhere I could get anyone to invite me in. I collected squares for about the first four years the quilt was on the road, but touring 31 quilts was getting a bit unwieldy and it was time to stop.

4. The quilt has been touring for many years now, is that a result of you asking places to show it or of people contacting you?

Any which way I could do it. Sometimes people would see the quilts somewhere and contact me. Other times I would ask groups to consider hosting the project. I often worked with people to help them connect Jewish and Arab or Jewish, Muslim and Christian groups in their communities. I encouraged people to bring me in to speak and do workshops and helped them figure out how to get the funding to do so. Once I started chatting to someone I was sitting beside on a plane and she ended up bringing the project to her university.

5. What has the response to the quilt been? Has it changed over time?

People loved it. I got positive responses from both the Jewish and Palestinian communities. I got media coverage beyond my wildest dreams. Sometimes people were sKeptical and said, “What do you think a bunch of quilts can do?” And I’d ask them what they would suggest I do instead. I often listened very carefully to people’s anger and frustration and for me that was part of the project. But 1999 was a relatively hopeful time in Israeli/Palestinian politics. I’m not sure it would be the best response to the situation today.

Additionally, here’s more about what Elizabeth is up to in her own words and a gallery of photos below:

I am currently making quilts out of embroideries I created as illustrations for a comic book called “Embroidered Cancer Comic,” the story of our life after my husband’s cancer diagnosis. Another recent project is a series of fabric portraits of protesters on the recent women’s marches with their creative signs and wonderful pink pussyhats. A couple of years ago I did a fabric appliqué series called “Jews and Arabs Refuse to be Enemies,” based on photos people had posted on a Facebook page of that name. I’m also a children’s book illustrator and in that capacity I cut up little bits of paper to make the pictures.

Click through to see images: from Jews and Arabs Refuse to Be Enemies; Elizabeth’s cape for the Women’s March; images from the Women’s March; sculpture of Ladies’ Garment workers on strike; cover of Embroidered Cancer Comic—illustration is fabric appliqué and words are hand-embroidered;two puppets Elizabeth made of her and Bob as part of our musical puppet show which they use to introduce their talk about the true story behind Embroidered Cancer Comic; Embroidered Cancer Comic Quilt; garlic and the hamentaschen are cut paper appliqué illustrations from Jewish Fairy Tale Feasts; images from the 2012 protests in Montreal against Bill 78, which would limit the ability of students to protest.

 

Charlotte Ambach’s secret embroidering in Waldheim Prison

Today’s post is another by Amber Wingfield, as she posted some wonderful craftivism photos from the Mighty 8th Museum in Pooler, Georgia on Twitter recently and I asked to share what she had learned! Photos by Amber and her husband Isaac.

She wrote about the WWII POW embroidery of Thomas J. McGory the other week!

Thanks, Amber!

 

These shoes, no bigger than 2 inches or so, use the colors of Belgium—red, black, and gold—as symbols of defiance.

In 1936, Charlotte Ambach was a 14-year-old German citizen living and going to school in Brussels. One of her school assignments was to write a paper about her beliefs and values. Though she had voluntarily joined the Bund Deutscher Mädel, or League of German Girls—part of the Hitler Youth organization—she had been unable to reconcile what she was being taught with what she believed, so her paper included her refusal to be a Volksgenossin, or Volk comrade. She would instead be “a human being,” she wrote.

Soon Ambach became involved in formal resistance activities. These activities included supplying the resistance with sensitive infrastructure information, which she had access to thanks to her position as a stenographer for a civil and military engineering organization. Then she started helping smuggle out Dutch evacuees who had been members of the resistance but whose identities had been discovered, putting them in danger of capture or death. She also helped evacuate Allied airmen who had survived their planes crashing during reconnaissance missions or battles and who had managed to evade initial capture by the Nazis.

Eventually, in early 1944, Ambach was arrested, along with her mother, Elise, and the two were sentenced to death for their actions. After a short stay at the St. Gilles prison in Brussels, they were sent to Waldheim prison in the eastern part of Germany. There she and her mother were confined to their cell almost constantly, save for a few excursions to other areas in the prison. They, along with their other cellmates, were given work tasks to fill their days: processing corn husks, feathers, and twine.

When they had free time, though, they spent it making contraband creations like small dolls, embroidery, and even rosaries. They had to source all of their supplies on the sly. “Everything had to be acquired by devious means,” Ambach later recalled. They snuck some of the twine they’d processed and used it to make their own shoes to replace their prison-issued footwear that caused perpetual sores. They kept some of the corn husks they’d pulled from the cobs they’d processed and turned them into long, thin braids for making mats. Another prisoner turned her stolen cobs and husks into dolls that wore “clothes” from different historical eras.

Because the women were responsible for repairing their own uniforms, they were occasionally given needles and thread for this task. When the guards returned to pick up the remaining supplies, the prisoners would pretend that they had used more yarn and thread than they’d actually needed—the excess had been hidden away for use later. On the rare occasions that they left their cells, they’d scan the floors and grounds for broken needles and bits of fabric or thread. “The pieces of thread we found were sometimes barely an inch long,” Ambach told the Mighty 8th Air Force Museum in Pooler, Georgia. Then, when they were allowed to repair their uniforms, they’d keep the good needles and turn in the broken ones as if they’d broken while being used.

“A valuable source of thread was the pretty little navy blue scarfs [sic] that were issued with our grotesquely hideous uniforms,” Ambach told the museum. “The synthetic material felt silky, and pulling threads from it, some quite long (almost like threads from a spool), became a favourite pastime that provided a very special material for our creations.”

However, the guards at Waldheim would search the cells randomly, and when they’d find the women’s handiwork, they’d confiscate the items. Still, the women kept crafting, and when the prison was liberated by the Allies on May 6, 1945, Ambach and her mother had a small collection of crafts that had not yet been taken by the guards. They are now on display at the Mighty 8th Air Force Museum.

 

Ambach’s mother used this pouch to hold a tiny amount of soap powder on the rare occasions they were allowed to shower. The M stands for Muschka, which was her mother’s nickname. The pouch was made by prisoners in a cell who had been taught embroidery by one of their cellmates, a Belgian woman who had owned and operated a dress shop in Brussels.

 

This piece was embroidered by one of Ambach’s cellmates. The words are lyrics to two French songs the women sang to keep their spirits up. Note the French and Belgian flags at the bottom of the fabric: These national symbols were forbidden by the Nazis.

 

Ambach embroidered this piece for her mother’s birthday, which was May 3. The prison was liberated on May 6.

POW Embroidery: Thomas J. McGory

Today’s post is by Amber Wingfield, as she posted some wonderful craftivism photos from the Mighty 8th Museum in Pooler, Georgia on Twitter and I asked her to share some of what she learned on her trip! Thanks, Amber!

Before World War II, Thomas J. McGory was Chief of the Dryden, New York fire department.

After the war, he was an athletic trainer and baseball coach at Cornell University.

And during the war, he was a top turret gunner and flight engineer for B-24s, stationed in England—until his plane was shot down in Germany and he was captured by the Nazis.

Then Thomas J. McGory was a prisoner of war at Stalag Luft IV in modern-day Poland.

For nine months, he and around 8,000 other men struggled to survive the harsh weather, meager food, and poor sanitation. This alone might have been enough to occupy his time, but McGory was concerned about his mental health as well.

“I really needed a project to keep me from going stir crazy,” he said in an interview with the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum in Pooler, Georgia.

So he turned to embroidery.

A handkerchief and a needle in a package he received from the International Red Cross were good starting materials, but he needed thread and a subject to embroider. B-17s and B-24s were natural choices for the handkerchief’s corners, so he sacrificed some black thread from his shoelaces for them. In the handkerchief’s center, he decided to recreate his Eighth Air Force patch, so he needed blue thread. Those strands came from the tail of his shirt. Still, his piece needed something else.

It needed a flag. An American flag.

McGory used cigarettes (a common prisoner currency) to “buy” red and blue threads from other prisoners, who sourced the threads from their own clothing and towels given to them by the Red Cross.

The decision to embroider his country’s flag was not a flippant one. “I knew creating that kind of U.S. symbol was an offense that they could shoot me for on the spot,” McGory said. But he embroidered it anyway.

On February 6, 1945, the Germans forced the Stalag Luft IV prisoners to begin a march of 600 miles to another prison in Germany. The march, which the prisoners called the Shoe Leather Express, lasted 86 days. McGory’s handkerchief was with him every step of the way: He’d tied it around his waist before leaving the prison.

Today, McGory’s handkerchief is on display at the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum. It’s a remarkable example of craftivism among the museum’s exhibits of war memorabilia. Because we craftivists focus so much on the intended effects of our work on other people, we might forget to evaluate the impact our pieces have on us, their creators. McGory’s embroidered handkerchief served as a silent protest against his captors, but it also served as a rallying point for his patriotism, his identity, and his sanity.

 

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For more POW embroidery, check out the story of Jim Simpson!

To stitch is to start 

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Simply put, the act of stitching gives us agency. That’s why I’ve been making hats for the pussy hat project. I’ve been knitting my way back into action one step at a time. Too often I make to-do lists that are grand and have massive goals, like “be more productive,” which, while aspirational, don’t help much at all, really.

What does help is the act of creating something from two sticks and string. I can watch it grow in my hands, I can see it take shape, I can literally track my production.

Textiles (along with other crafts) give us time to process. We can rip out what is not working, in both our hands and our heads. We can be inspired by the actions of others. We can join the others that came before us, stitching along with them.

Textiles are catalysts for action. They show us that action isn’t taking one massive step, it’s taking lots of little steps and stitches from which to build on. Like the stitches our hands make, one stitch becomes two stitches becomes two thousand. And in this way, textiles show us how to move forward.

I’m going to the march in DC because when I interviewed some of Australia’s knitting nannas, one of them (Louise Somerville!) told me they started showing up at mining sites to let the companies know they were watching. (Apparently that was boring so they brought their knitting- and the badassery only grew!) I am going to the march not in anger or rage, there will be no yelling for me.

Because when I’m angry, I lose my capacity to make the world a better place. That’s my focus, seeing what craftivist-type work people make, maybe passing out some #yasvb signs and taking some photographs to share with you.

Do I hope our next president makes the world a better place? Yes. Despite all my feelings, I still have hope that there will be some good done. But I will watch. I will not yell, I will not scream, I will not rage. I will continue to work quietly towards making the world better stitch by stitch, the more that want to stitch along, the better.

And that’s just my reason. There are 200K other reasons. And we don’t have to agree on why we’re going. We just have to agree that showing up in our hats is a mark of resistance. A handmade notation that “this is not okay.”

That we sat down and made hats in our own time means that we care enough to take tiny action steps. For some, we may make out of anger, chomping at the bit, but, for others, we may be stitching to embolden ourselves to speak our truths on the matter.

These stitches we make we make to remind ourselves we have agency, our voice matters, we are not alone. They can help us stitch our ways into being activists of whatever sort of activist we wish to be. What matters is that we make these stitches, that we show ourselves that we are strong enough to make something from nothing.

And, along the way, if we meet others with the same hats or wishes or stitches, we can meet their strength with our own and stand together.

Our stitches do more than just make hats, they jolt us into being and becoming agents of change. They show us what is possible. They show us we are powerful. They are the sparks that remind us that change only happens when we take the first step, take the first stitch.

With them we join a legacy of makers, a thread extending both into the past and present, who have our backs too. And in both directions, we can make our voices heard loud and clear, we just need to be brave enough to listen to our hands and our hearts first.

So, if you’re not sure where to start or what to feel or what to do, first, stitch. Then the rest will come.

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