Take back the knit - Page 2

Urban crafting weaves "women's work" into protest

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Magda Sayeg stitchs up a Mexico City bus

That stereotype has been turned on its head by craft activism, a form of protest that has its modern day roots in the 1980s and '90s peace demonstrations at Greenham Common Royal Air Force base in England, where the U.S. military installed cruise missiles in 1981. Women gathered around the cyclone fencing at the base, stuffing its grid with knitted objects and hoisting handmade signs that read "Women's Struggle Won The Vote, Now Let's Use It For Disarmament."

More recently, as Kirsty Robertson recounts in an essay in Extra/Ordinary (Duke University Press, 306 p., $24.95), the Revolutionary Knitting Circle held a "knit-in" at the 2002 G-8 summit in Alberta, Canada. Betsy Greer — who has a day job as an anti-sweatshop activist and also wrote an essay in Extra/Ordinary — coined the term "craftivism" to describe efforts similar to her own antiwar cross-stitch art. In Greer's words, craftivism is "about using what you can to express your feelings outward in a visual manner without yelling or placard-waving. It was about channeling that anger in a productive and even loving way."

Which is not to say that all urban crafters — as I've come to think of the men and women reclaiming textile and other forms of craft in a modern setting — are explicitly political. I was reminded of Sayeg's desire to subvert the masculine face of street art when I visited the SoMa studio of Amy Ahlstrom, a San Francisco textile artist who is taking images from the walls of cities and translating them into painstakingly crafted quilts.

Ahlstrom, who has made her own clothes since her Molly Ringwald childhood, started quilting as an art student in 1991. She had a successful career in comic art and returned to stitching in 2005. "To me, this is a very natural thing," she says, surrounded by her eye-popping creations hanging on stark white walls. "This was the most unique way I could speak to the world."

Living in the Mission, Ahlstrom found the neighborhood's murals, street signs, and tags an integral part of her city life. She began photographing them and was struck by an urge to alter their context. "I saw this tag and thought, 'Wouldn't that be funny in gingham?' "

Like a textile DJ, she cut and sewed patterns made from the digital images she had captured into textured Dupioni silk. Now she's working on a series of pieces dedicated to the visual cues of specific neighborhoods. Her SoMa quilt contains depictions of furniture leaping from public art installation "Defenestration"'s decrepit Sixth Street building, Jeremy Novy's ubiquitous stenciled koi, and the neon signs of Holy Cow and Brainwash. She's not the only artist to harness the power of the quilt — Ben Venom is another SF quilter who creates heavy metal motifs from old band shirts (his "Listen to Heavy Metal While You Sleep!" skull-cross design is a Guardian staff favorite).

Ahlstrom brings the street to textile and the yarn bombers bring their textiles to the street, but they all work to the same end. Though Ahlstrom's pieces will sell for hundreds of dollars and hang like the gallery pieces that they are, she creates them with the intention of breaking down the art world stipulation that craft cannot be art.

She cites the Gee's Bend quilts as one inspiration for her work. Gee's Bend is a small Alabama River community whose women inhabitants came together to have their quilts exhibited by the Houston Museum of Fine Arts in 2002, to great critical acclaim. In contrast to previous exhibitions, the quilts were not divorced from their functional use — museum literature placed the stories of Gee's Bend quilters front and center in an attempt to highlight how the beauty of their geometric patterns was accentuated, not diminished, by their status as household objects.

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