In the last six months of my life, (which I’ve decided to call “The great depression”) I have noticed another emotion bubbling to the top of the mess brewing in my head most days.
Perhaps “indignance” fits best.
And frustration, feeling generally unheard.
I was nearly ready to reach into the recycling to grab a bit of cardboard to make a sign to protest all of my personal injustices when I looked up from my knitting and saw this ugly pink catastrophe staring back at me from my hat rack.
Ahh, the pink pussy hat.
I don't know why, but those feel like simpler days.
With Trump-town welcoming home its native son for what is probably the first of many indictments in his mainland tour of criminality, and the good ‘ol US of A hellbent on screwing over the female population and poor people in the name of Jeezy creezy and capitalism, well, perhaps it’s time we all resurrect a garment worn in protest.
The Phyrgian cap would’ve been my hat of choice, but I suppose I already have this thing.
It feels so uncomfortable saying that out loud, but that was the point.
“Pussy, pussy pussy pussy pussy pussy pussy pussy pussy”.
I remember seeing women on newscasts make sure every person (not even sparing young ears) heard it, and said it over, and over, so the public could be constantly reminded of our collective American shame (even in Tokyo). We protested with our hands, our needles and our hooks. We marched, We stood there in D.C. and Aoyama while people made fun of us, but no one could answer when asked basic questions:
Should women be objectified?
Shouldn’t we be embarrassed of any person who says something like that outloud?
Or should we just go ahead and elect him president?
I also remember the sudden, booming market for these ridiculous symbols of feminine anger. Knitters who decided to partake in the short lived "pussy hat economy" were pulling in a tidy sum of cash as fast as they could produce.
Despite being coined in the early 2000’s, It was in that moment that a new word floated into the vernacular of most of my peers: “Craftivism”
The women who pioneered the pink pussy hat movement were unique in their shock and awe tactics, but hand craft has always been deeply political.
The intersection of feminism, craftivism and women using the tools of their oppression to “fight the patriarchy"(whatever that is) is surely the topic of many a thesis written at liberal arts colleges all over the world, so I’ll refrain from repeating what academics have communicated far more eloquently than I ever could. I’ll zoom out further perhaps.
When I first moved to Tokyo in 2006, I was wandering around a station on the west side of town and spotted a spinning wheel in a shop window across the street from where I was standing. Being who I am, I nearly lost my senses and ran out into traffic to see what other treasures might be ferreted away inside such a store. Thankfully I’d had many years experience playing “frogger” and a bit of luck on my side, so I made it safely to the door. The shelves held all sorts of wonderful things I’d never touched before, including a saleable reproduction of Mahatma Gandhi's wonderful invention: the “peti charka” used in the early 1910s to produce hand spun and woven textiles in the home of every rural Indian citizen.
Craftivism in India
In 1905 the floor charkha (a simple wooden spinning wheel with a distaff that was turned by hand) became the symbol of the Swadeshi movement - a part of the larger Indian independence movement that urged rural citizens to not only protest, but also create a new economy for their modernizing country. A few years later, Gandhi and a myriad of lawyers, scientists, writers and accountants, social theorists and bureaucrats attempted to reestablish the production of “khadi”, (locally handspun, and handwoven cloth) in the Indian countryside as a way of remedying rural unemployment, bucking off the classic colonial economy established by the oppressive British presence, and giving Indian people a way to protest non-violently, with their hand making skills and their wallets.
A traditional charkha wheel
In 1920, Gandhi developed a suitcase version of the Charkha called the “Peti Charkha” or “Bardoli Charkha” which was even easier to get into homes and portable enough to allow people to spin and work wherever they were. Gandhi called these hand spinners “freedom fighters” for the cause of Indian independence.
My favorite part of this story is that it is so very, very ordinary. Choosing to produce Khadi, and choosing to consume Khadi is not flashy, or something people remember as a revolutionary act. When we zoom out, it is so clear how developing a shift in a colonial economy helped set people free with the quiet, steady, and non-violent protest of hand craft.
Political protest is sometimes even more subtle. Sometimes it’s just a gentle reminder that forgotten groups exist, they have needs, and their lives have worth.
Craftivism in Japan
On March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake struck northern Japan killing 20,000 people, and displacing thousands of residents from the area around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The government quickly built temporary housing for people, piling those who once had sprawling vegetable fields and rice paddies on top of each other into condensed, flimsy temporary housing units built in empty parking lots. While young people could find new jobs in nearby towns deemed safe, older folks who had once found purpose and joy in farming were now stuck indoors with nothing to do but ruminate about what they had lost. They felt thrown away, and voiceless. While some residents succumbed to alcoholism and depression, it seemed many people were keen to build something for themselves again.
Projects began popping up all over the affected area to help people (especially women) rebuild their lives, and find some relief in community and purpose. Kesenuma Knitting, Yarn Alive, The Nozomi Project, and Amu-eco Net were all initiatives born out of that spirit. While Japan has a much softer version of “protest'' these days, the project I was involved with, “amu-eco net” (despite the cute exterior), had a strong message with a bit of political tooth. The women we were working with were all in their 70’s and 80’s and had been torn from their orchards, rice paddies and cucumber vines in order to sit idle in housing made of aluminum sheets and plexiglass that would have to be torn down and rebuilt every few years. They couldn’t grow things as they had their entire lives, and they couldn’t enjoy the homes they’d worked so hard for. While the Japanese government was probably doing the best they could to remedy everyone’s fiscal and logistical conundrums, it took people with time and simple ideas to help create opportunities for survivors to find purpose again. It was necessary to constantly remind the entire country that just because these women were beyond retirement, their lives were still worth something. They deserved more than just a parking lot.
In the autumn of 2011, A fellow knitter and I connected over the desire to do something about this problem after we’d both been hearing stories in the news through various outlets. We made a plan and chose a place she had personal connection to, to create a small program for residents to join if they wanted. We thought for a while, and eventually landed on “house slippers” as our product of choice, as they are a necessity in all Japanese homes, and could be sold in any part of the country. With the help of some training, Knitpicks, Hoppendako (a local leather producer), and some equipment donations from a shoe factory nearby, these women were able to make properly sized leather soled house slippers for children and adults.
While the slippers weren’t nearly as obnoxious and provocative as the “pink pussy hat”, These wonderful people were able to not only able to organize around one product, but remind the consumer sector that they still existed, and their lives and labor were worth something. It also gave people all over the country a chance to value their time and work by purchasing and using their hand made footwear instead of buying cheap slippers at discount shops like Niitori or Ikea. It wasn’t an entire “protest economy” like the Indians created, but it was definitely a statement, even if it was merely whispered. In 2018 the ladies still living in the temporary housing formally disbanded the project and were allowed to live out the rest of their years on the farms they were stripped away from. It was one of the happiest ends to a project we could have hoped for. The other projects and companies formed with younger survivors seem to still be going strong, and are now healthy businesses.
While the comparison I’ve drawn between these three very different protest movements is pretty stark, and comically loosely connected, they certainly have one thing in common. They have all united people toward a common goal, and empowered those who felt alone and without purpose. Whether the oppressed are wearing or selling flamboyant hats, marching in unison and causing a ruckus, quietly manufacturing mundane, everyday use items in their homes, or just making the choice to support the efforts and fair trade of friends and neighbors who's initiatives need help, over the exploitation of workers by corporate interlopers, the voice of protest from these, and millions of other craftspeople working in the same spirit, is still constantly, and remarkably audible.
I suppose the next question is: Are we all listening?
*special thanks to Dr. Leslie Hempson for leaving your doctoral dissertation online so I could learn more about “the social life of Khadi” and the development of the modern Indian economy. If you’d like to, you can read the entire thing here.
Stay tuned for my next instalment of politics in handcraft, where I discuss my personal policy, the importance of transparency, and what "hand-made" means to me.