Needle Exchange – Exploring Craftivism, Part Two


Welcome back! Last time we looked at historical examples of fiber arts being used to explore sociopolitical issues, this week we’re going to look at the contemporary counterparts. Now I could spend pages writing about different craftivists and their motivations. However, because this wave is fairly recent, this information is more widely available online and elsewhere so I’m only going to focus on a handful of artists.

Before, I split the work into two categories. Work that calls attention to a specific issue and work that supports a cause. This week I’m going to add a third, fiber as an instrument of change.

One of the examples I touched on last week was the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, but I confess, I didn’t really understand how massive it is, literally. Not only is it estimated to weigh over 54 tons, as of 2010, it is the largest piece of community folk at in the world. Cleve Jones had the idea of the quilt when he was attending the 1978 memorial for assassinated San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. Because of the stigma surrounding AIDS, many people were unable to properly grieve, or even have their loved one’s remains properly cared for, as many funeral homes and cemeteries refused to handle the remains of AIDS victims. The quilt became a way for family, friends, and the public to honor people that died.

Each panel measures 3’x6′, about the size of a cemetery plot

Gwendolyn Magee is a textile artist in Jackson Mississippi. Many of her pieces depict what she calls, “… dramatic, visual representations of the African American experience.” I first read about her work in the issue of Quilter’s Home that was banned from Joann’s for being too controversial, (which fits in nicely with this article… Banned art that questions the status quo… Hmmm). Anyway, that’s where I first encountered her piece, Southern Heritage/Souther Shame. She said it was a response to “… The failure of a referendum to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the Mississippi state flag.”

She went on to say, “There was all this talk, ‘I’m not racist, I want to keep this as our heritage.’ I felt a need to show very explicitly that heritage. It involved a heckuva lot more than sipping mint juleps on the veranda or strolling around the plantation with a parasol.” Read more about her work HERE.

Next we have a MrXStitch favorite, Alexandra Walters or Knit-R-Done, as she’s know around these parts. She boldly and honestly explores themes in her work that would make a less courageous person shrink. Her embroidery piece Gay for Eagles reflects her position on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and as a military wife, she has keen insight into the argument.

She says, “… military service is an expression of love and devotion to a country, personal love relationships have no bearing.” See more of her work HERE.

But what about fiber itself being used as an instrument of change? Anyone who’s thumbed through Craft Magazine or browsed Etsy knows about “Upcycling”, but many communities have taken it a step further. As a spinner, knitter and weaver, I’ve become less interested in my Local Yarn Store and really had a great experience buying fleeces and fibers form ranchers in my area (DIY! Buy Local!), but I will always continue to purchase yarn from Manos Del Uruguay.

From their website- “Manos Del Uruguay was founded in 1968 by a group of women aiming to promote social and economic development in the rural areas or Uruguay. The craftswomen are the owners of Manos Del Uruguay and have set up a not-for-profit organization for rural women, to allow them to develop their communities without the need to leave their homes. They are grouped into 17 co-operatives which spin, dye, knit and produce finished garments for sale throughout the world.”

Finally, if you’re looking to purchase amazing needlework of searching for a worthy cause to donate to, I strongly suggest you take a look at Fine Cell Work, the “unofficial” charity of MrXStitch. Click HERE to read how needlework has dramatically impacted a prisoner’s life for the better.

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Penny Nickels is a printmaker that started playing with needles with tremendous effect. She and her husband, Johnny Murder have been described as “The Bonnie and Clyde of Contemporary Embroidery” and you can discover the power of her creativity at her blog.

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Reference material for this article- Photos and quotes are taken from the artists’ websites. I welcome any suggestions for future articles, contact me at donkeywolf@gmail.com

Let me know what you’re interested in!


Penny Nickels
Penny Nickels is a print maker, a former book binder, currently a fiber artist and fledgling writer.
Penny Nickels

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