Crofters, crafters, diggers and dreamers: Romantics or radicals?

Naomi Millnerby Naomi Millner, University of Bristol

There’s a new political movement on the scene and it’s not afraid to get out its knitting-needles. Craftivism is “the practice of engaged creativity, especially regarding political or social causes” and “an idea whose time has come”, according to Betsy Greer’s (2007) definition. By teaching knitting lessons, crocheting hats for the less fortunate, and sewing blankets for abandoned animals craftivism “allows for creativity to expand previous boundaries and enter the arena of activism”, Greer continues, describing this turn to pre-industrial practical skills as part of a feminist praxis specific to the malls of contemporary consumerism. On busy weblogs like Craftivism Collective and the pioneering, set up in 2003, witness the revival of the ‘do-it-yourself spirit’ of pre-modern crafts in a globally-networked, socially-conscious community of fibre-crafters.

A heavily-trafficked hub of this community is Ravelry, a social network for knitters and crochet-lovers, where ‘yarnheads’ can catalogue their ‘stash’ (unused wool), find patterns, get advice, post pictures, and send messages. And the two million strong network was up in arms last month when its ambitious series of active pursuits, which has run alongside the past three Olympic iterations, was accused of denigrating the ‘true nature’ of the Olympic games (see Suddath 2012). The United States’ Olympic Committee (USOC) dispatched a ‘cease and desist’ instruction including the demand to remove all Olympic symbols from patterns, projects, and photos. In USOC’s view, to associate knitting, crochet and other such frivolities (more precisely, a set of events including the ‘felted freestyle’, ‘rhythmic machinastics’ and ‘sock put’) with the sweat and profile of international high-jumpers made a mockery of Olympic sport, and, worse, was an infringement of copyright law. The ‘Ravelympics’  must change its name or face the consequences.

But what followed can only be described as a phenomenon of the times. Twitter (#Ravelympics) hit a pitch and frequency that told an entire neighbourhood of cats had been set loose in the aviary. Facebook exploded with campaigns and polls, while crafting blogs reeled off response letters in the hundreds. The moment brought millions from the comfort of the wool-closet out into broad cyberlight, in a campaign that saw not one but two vocal apologies from USOC hastily constructed. But this wasn’t before the first error on their part – an early response ended with this appeaser: “To show our support of the Ravelry community, we would welcome any handmade items that you would like to create to travel with, and motivate, our team at the 2012 Games”. Needless to say, the crowd were not greatly mollified.

There are interesting questions to be asked about the legal power-play and the place and seriousness of the Games in today’s social world. But news of this event took me down a different avenue. I had been to the Bristol Radical History Group’s bookshop – Hydra Books – and had come back loaded with intoxicating pamphlets on Ned Ludd, the machine-breakers and occupations of forest-lands in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (see especially Peter Linebaugh’s [2012] fascinating recent booklet[i]). From there I had participated in an excellent set of panels on the ‘commons’ – an insurgent buzzword amongst today’s radical geographers – one focused on the histories and geographies of occupation (‘Hope in a Securitised World’), and the other on ‘Empowering the Commons’. To learn about the tribulations of the Ravelympics I was on the London tube with a friend, a budding author, who was recounting the marvel of how, for about 24 hours, she “turned into a crazy knitting freak, who could not stop angrily tweeting”. It’s not just a fad, my friend insisted; it’s a new social identity. Something is happening under the name of craftivism that galvanises thousands of people to act as one body. There is a feeling that something both profoundly personal and political is at stake in knitting’s reputation.

This thickening of threads led me to freshly consider the role of the historical imagination in activism today. I remembered the medieval feel of the craft tents in Glastonbury Festival’s Greenfields, and the great fervour for the hedge-breakers and seventeenth-century Digger movement at environmental protest sites I’ve been to in recent years. I confronted the myth and magic such stories hold for me, and began to map out a new set of questions: Why do the myths of pre-modern rural dwellers grip us (scholars, activists, environmentalists) with such intensity in this historical moment? What does it mean for politics that they do? Does it mark a romanticisation of the earthy, hands-on making of pre-modern pragmatics which obscures important technological (websites, blogs, tweets, online knit-stores) and economic (new markets, middle-class leisure pursuits, global conditions of inequality, online knit-stores) relationships today? Or do such tales of the past resonate precisely because we are still confronting the same enclosures of space, time and experience now as then?

Initially, my response is to respond affirmatively on both counts. And this is exactly why the question of the rural dream is one we should be asking ourselves today. There is great power to the myths of past protests and creative practices, which should not be overlooked in a moment when we can’t seem to change our practices of dwelling and consumption (Shove 2010). On the other hand, the recitation of such myths can leave out large parts of complicated pictures, through time flattening activism into a reproduction of moral platitudes (see Wright 2009, Rangan 2000).

Recent work on the commons is starting to do this work of thickening (see, for example, Blomley 2007; Gidwani and Reddy 2011; Jeffrey et al. 2011; McDonagh and Daniels 2012). Interestingly, this nexus of emergent literatures also forms a new intersection between political and historical geographies. For me this is a move which promises to significantly sharpen radical geographers’ critical teeth. McDonagh and Daniels (2012) suggest that revisiting past practices of occupation can disturb the usual stories told about the commons – not so as to erode possibilities for action, but to sharpen our understanding of the ways that economic and contextual details are entangled in specific historical moments. This speaks back to political geographies of the present: it’s never a matter of asserting a pure commons against new forms of enclosure, but rather of grasping and engaging the layered way that commons are produced in relation to new kinds of boundaries, and new kinds of power relations. This intersection also offers a third possibility for critical scholars, which neither coldly unstitches nor romanticises the rural dream. It means asking why this dream, with these myths, have such a grip on us, and what, in practice, they do. Thus we may grasp the importance of mythological narratives in the present, both in the solidifying of socio-spatial possibilities for common life, and in their transformation.


Blomley N (2007) Making private property: Enclosure, common right and the work of hedges. Rural History 18:1-21

Gidwani V and Reddy R (2011) The afterlives of ‘waste’: Notes from India for a minor history of capitalis surplus. Antipode 43(5):1625-1658

Greer B (2007) Craftivism. In Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice. London: SAGE

Jeffrey A, McFarlane C and Vasudevan A (2011) Rethinking enclosure: Space, subjectivity and the commons. Antipode 44(4):DOI:10.1111/j.1467-8330.2011.00954.x

Linebaugh P (2012) Nedd Ludd and Queen Mab: Machine-Breaking, Romanticism, and the Several Commons of 1811-12. Oakland, CA: Retort Pamphlet Series

McDonagh B and Daniels S (2012) Enclosure stories: Narratives from Northamptonshire. Cultural Geographies 19(1):107-121

Rangan H (2000) Of Myths and Movements: Rewriting Chipko into Himalayan History. New York: Verso

Shove E (2010) Beyond the ABC: climate change policy and theories of social change. Environment and Planning A 42(6):1273-1285

Suddath C (2012) Why the U.S Olympic Committee cracked down on a knitting group. Business Week 22 June (last accessed 17 July 2012)

Vasudevan A (2011) Dramurtugies of dissent: The spatial politics of squatting in Berlin, 1968-. Social and Cultural Geography 12(3):283-303

Wright M W (2009) Justice and the geographies of moral protest: Reflections from Mexico. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 27:216-233



[i] And if you live in the UK, the Hydra is well worth a visit. They’ll recommend you sit with a coffee and read a chapter before hazarding a purchase. You are likely to come home with a bag much fuller than planned…