I’ve split the article up into four sections- my criticisms of radical spaces and scenes I’ve known, of the fashion industry, and of the current commercial craft revival, and then at the end explaining the ways I think doing textile crafts can be radical. In writing the article, I was specifically thinking of crafts such as sewing and knitting, both because they are things I do, and also because they are stereotypically done by women and often dismissed as silly and frivolous, but a lot of the points can apply to any handicraft. As well as dealing with the topic of crafts, it’s really more of a kind of wander round my thoughts about “radical”. The section on crafts is actually the shortest, but I’ve used it as the overall framing device. I’ll probably manage to piss off both the cliquey punx and the craft blogger people with this, but never mind.
To make myself clearer, I’m specifically defining “radical” here as freeing people from the oppressions and inequalities of mainstream capitalist society. It’s no good claiming a place, group, behaviour or people are “radical” if they just continue the racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist or classist (and every other bad -ist) structures of the rest of society. It’s also no good calling something “anarchist” or “non-hierarchical” if there’s just a different unspoken hierarchy at play (that no-one is allowed to talk about).
The incredibly depressing political climate of the last few years, with its lurch to the extreme right and increased support for oppression and exploitation makes genuine radical spaces more important than ever, but also means that it’s important to not treat the whole thing as a silly status or fashion game.
Over the years I have often felt disheartened, disappointed and let down by supposedly radical spaces and groups (not all of them, but a good chunk of them). When writing bullet points to plan this essay, I started this section by writing “Nothing that is only straight white boys who dress alike can ever truly be radical”, which probably sums it up.
A lot of people conflate DIY with being in a hardcore or crust punk band, and not much more. Radical and non-hierarchical doesn’t mean “you must dress exactly like us and listen to exactly the same music”, but that’s often what it boils down to. There are supposed to be no hierarchies, and an idea that humans are fundamentally equal, but in practice there tends to be an unspoken hierarchy of cool based on whether you have exactly the right clothes and hang out with exactly the right people, which often leads to extreme snobbery, cliqueyness and unfriendly snotty attitudes. Activist communities do have a problem with infiltration by police agents (who have been caught in the past doing extreme things like having children with other activists under their false identity, while secretly being married to someone else), but it’s unlikely that all of the people who don’t quite dress or speak right are waiting to report on you to MI6. It’s also very shallow. Just because you have the right back patch and haircut doesn’t mean that you will actually follow your purported ethics or treat other people with respect.
It’s also still a boy’s club in many ways, despite a lot of women’s best efforts. Strike magazine famously did their pointed and accurate profile of the Manarchist– that activist bro who “understands other peoples’ oppressions better than they do themselves” and “is the best activist. he is the best at saying he is the best”, “his voice is louder, his words truer. His anarchist future is inevitable, drawn from books written by other white men. It is a superior vision. He knows more about any given topic than you, for he has a degree in it”. and essentially whose “‘anarchism’ is hierarchical politics by men who are not in charge yet”. Women who dress in a more masculine-coded way are respected more than those who don’t in these scenes. Women who wear dresses are particularly suspect, even in situations where they actually do the majority of the work and treat other people well. More times than I can count, people have been horribly rude to me or friends because we aren’t dressed ready to join in a black block, yet as soon as they realise that you are running the event or are friends with someone they consider cool enough they are suddenly nice to you.
There are also plenty of men who have done bad things, hurt, mistreated and abused people, yet always seem to be considered a default and indispensable member of the group. You can’t have someone who doesn’t quite have the right clothes or listen to the right music, yet violence or abusing partners can get a pass from a lot of people if you’re in a cool enough band or everyone knows you. As the Strike article puts it “his friend may have hit his girlfriend once or twice, but he does really good activism and anyway he regrets it now”.
Every day grinding low-level sexism is also present. I had to deal with a guy on a project who wouldn’t listen to me or another woman talk about something we did regularly as part of our work in our day jobs. He had no experience of the topic, yet still ignored and dismissed everything we had to say in a really patronising way until a man backed it up, and he constantly acted like he was our boss rather than that we were equals. He also had a really crappy attitude about including disabled people – he thought it was a pain, not that important, and did we really have to bother? When I complained about working with this guy, I was told (by another woman no less), that I just had to put up with him, because he was a “real” activist. The inference was that I didn’t really count as one. Matey-boy hadn’t actually done anything useful at that point, but he was a “real” activist because he was involved in squat parties and crust bands and I wasn’t. What’s radical about having to claw a tiny space in a boy’s club? Why is it a boy’s club to begin with? Why do they assume it belongs to them, and they are the gatekeepers who get to decide whether you come in or not?
Performing music is also a minefield for women, whether in bigger bands at festivals or small local gigs, often even in settings that are supposed to be radical. There are a lot of women pushing away and doing it anyway, but it can be an uphill struggle. There’s an assumption that men are the default setting for bands, it’s natural for them to form a band and play music, and they are judged on the quality of the work they produce. Women often get treated like a novelty or an interloper, scrutinised for every tiny mistake to prove that women can’t play or treated like a performing poodle who can do a surprising trick when it turns out they’re good. They have to deal with patronising soundmen (there are sadly much fewer soundwomen/non-male soundpeople than there should be), creeps in the audience who catcall or try to touch or grope them, creeps in other bands they perform with and reviews that focus on their looks and whether the reviewer wants to have sex with them or not and treats their actual music as an irrelevance. To have to steel yourself to put up with all of that before you’ve even got started with the music puts so many people off. My friend Kirsty has written an article here about her experiences of being a woman in the music scene (and being a fat working class woman, with all the extra harassment and classism-induced self-doubt that brings).
In my teenage years in the late 90s and turn of the century, I don’t think I saw any women on stage at local gigs. Once I recall there was a woman bass-player, and creeps in the audience made slimy remarks about her breasts. There were women in big acts in the music press such as PJ Harvey or Le Tigre, but I didn’t see any in my local surroundings. The attitude was that the boys did things, and you watched, admired them, and inflated their egos accordingly (with a resulting tantrum if you failed to inflate their ego sufficiently). I remember in 2001 I went to see Le Tigre with a group of friends, and afterwards one of my male friends said that he hadn’t had a good time despite enjoying the music. He said that he felt out of place there as a straight man, and like they didn’t really want him there. I said that that was how I often felt at gigs, and he was surprised. He was 19 or 20 at the time, and that was the first and only time he had had that feeling that is far too familiar to everyone else. When gigs form such a huge part of what is even considered a DIY social scene, the fact that women have to actively fight to be included on an equal footing shows how far from truly egalitarian and radical these scenes still are.
These spaces are also very white. Not entirely, but no way do they represent the mix of population in their local areas. People of colour are disproportionately affected by social injustice, yet their presence is also disproportionately low in places and groups that are meant to be about doing something about those injustices. It’s clearly not because they’re not bothered by injustice, it’s because the spaces and people don’t feel welcoming. There’s something very disconcerting about being in a gig crowd in London, and it’s 90% white, and/or 90% men. It makes me feel like I’m on shaky ground myself being there, it could be made clear to me any minute that I’m not really welcome and shouldn’t be there, and I’m vaguely included at least by being white. I particularly noticed this after I went to see Toro Y Moi. The crowd was a pretty even 50-50 split female and male, and reflected the ethnic makeup of London pretty closely. It felt really relaxing and nice, everyone was having a good time and no-one was being obnoxious, and I realised how rarely you get that feeling.
My friend Stephanie has written a very good article here about her disheartening experiences as a black woman playing in punk bands. A lot of the bad experiences result from both being one of the only black people there, people’s surprise that she’s there at all, people’s assumptions that she’ll be the only black woman there (and that she’s interchangeable with any others who happen to be present), and that now she’s there people act like they’ve ticked off a box and don’t have to bother including any more non-white people. As she says “What if there are millions of black kids sitting in their bedrooms listening to ESG and X-Ray Spex like I was, that would love to come to shows, but are put off by the racism they fear they may encounter, or just generally the anxiousness brought on by being the odd one out?”. (Of course, the article immediately brought her a lot of stick from defensive, whiny people claiming she was the racist one for complaining, and everything was fine and they knew her life better than her, which meant she had to write another follow-up article here.)
Again, I can’t speak from personal experience about LGBQT+ issues in radical spaces, but friends also complain about cliqueyness, unspoken hierarchies and rigid dress codes. Inclusion of trans and gender-queer people has improved, the idea of having gender-free toilets also becoming more and more common, but still, acceptance depends on wearing the right clothes and knowing the right people. Being inclusive of disabilities is also another weak spot. People have started to be more thoughtful about wheelchair access lately, but things like accommodating visual or hearing impairments are not considered important, or even smaller things like seating. It’s lovely you can fulfil your vision of a stark, spartan space, but not everyone can actually sit on a hard, narrow bench, and their health needs unfortunately top your need to feel cool.
Classism also plays a big part. A lot of the most heavily involved or most visible people in these places are from very well off backgrounds, and are playing at slumming it, and just using their punker-than-thou image as another way to gain social capital. I’ve got a Classics degree, which isn’t something you can get down a coal mine, true (although people assuming that studying Ancient History is something only posh people are allowed to do is a pet hate of mine), but I grew up in a poor, decrepit ex-shipbuilding town, and was the first person in my immediate family to do A-levels, and the joint first (same year as my cousin) in the whole extended family with 30+ cousins to go to university. Although I don’t have a strong accent, anyone who hears me say words like house, down or milk can hear the Medway in my voice (it’s not considered an attractive accent). In so-called radical spaces I’ve often felt simultaneously sneered at for not looking ratty enough but also being kind of common. It’s like the ideal is to portray as down at heel image as possible, but secretly inside to keep upper middle-class ideals of stiff-upper lips and covering up conflict with managerialist talk. There’s also the issue that in expensive cities like Brighton and London there are a lot of punker-than-thou types with suspiciously vague finances, probably covering up serious family financial input.
The classism also feeds into the idea that manual labour is something anyone can pick up, and is all a bit of a lark, not something you’d do day in, and day out. It devalues practical skills and assumes that the important work is creating incomprehensible organisational charts and indigestible prose filled with academic jargon that only those in the know can decipher. The idea of DIY being “have a go! don’t worry if you’re not a virtuoso!” gets warped to become “knowing how to do things is uncool”. It’s a continuation of the Victorian idealisation of the “Gentleman Amateur” – you couldn’t possibly dirty your hands by being too devoted to or good at something.
There’s also a strong macho streak running alongside. Hardcore and crust punk are valued above all other kinds of music and seen as intrinsically more political and powerful, and especially women who want to play other genres are seen as a bit weak, not really a radical- tying into the idea that it’s only related to your taste in music and fashion. Activities like hunt sabotage are valued over community events. Hunt sabs are mostly amusing themselves by annoying posh people, yet it’s seen as much cooler than doing work to include or help marginalised people. The Strike Manarchist article (the gift that keeps on giving) sums it up clearly as “However often when unglamorous labour needs it turns out that the Manarchist is busy with something very important. The Manarchist prefers to be at the centre of the action. He was at Millbank. He was at G20. He was at Occupy. He’s a hunt sab. In fact he was always there. Were you there?”
The general misogynistic idea in society that if it’s mostly or stereotypically done by women it must be worthless and stupid carries through to radical spaces. Hunt sabbing is more important and gives you much more cred than making sure the toilets get cleaned and people get fed. There’s a real disdain too that visual arts are “bougie”. Gig posters and graffiti are acceptable, but nothing else. The only acceptable craft it seems is screen-printing for patches and tees. Please don’t knit your jumper here, it isn’t punk enough.
Failings of the fashion industry
I think most people realise that the fashion industry is immensely fucked up. Huge numbers of garment workers (often women and children) in poor countries like Bangladesh are horribly exploited in sweatshops where they are paid a pittance for long working hours in unsafe conditions, which regularly lead to disasters like the Rana Plaza Disaster. These terrible working conditions were also prevalent in the west (see the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Disaster) until campaigning, unionisation and regulation abolished them, and companies were forced to pay a living wage and provide a safe working environment. With the advent of container ships and cheap oil making long-distance transportation feasible and affordable, the manufacturers then moved production to much poorer countries with little to no worker protection and large pools of people desperate to earn a living. If one country tightens up its regulation and working conditions, the manufacturers look for a new cheaper place rather than clean up their act.
Fast fashion is also a major waste of resources. The clothes are disposable, poorly made, poorly fitted, and made of shoddy fabric (usually synthetics made from fossil fuels) and shipped halfway round the world at short notice. However, it’s not so simple to say “oh just don’t shop at Primark then”. Shopping at more expensive stores isn’t going to fix the problem, and with the continuing financial crisis, stagnating wages and lack of reliable work around, cheaper stores are the best a lot of people can afford. Saying “buy fewer clothes then” doesn’t help much when the clothes wear out so quickly, and society requires you to look clean, presentable and wear appropriate outfits for different settings to even take part. Pretty much all of the manufacturers are part of the same unhealthy system. There are ethical manufacturers out there, but their clothes tend to be expensive because they actually cover the costs of workers having decent wages and conditions, and are rarely available in larger sizes. In the UK and other western countries we’re currently dealing with a situation where wages for labour are increasingly decoupled from living costs, leaving the money and assets to be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, while more and more people scrabble for the leftover crumbs. A solution that relies on you being able to spend more money isn’t very radical at all.
The clothing industry is also very harmful for mental health. Theres a strong pushing of the idea that if clothes don’t fit, the issue must be with your body, not the design or cut of the clothes, and that the number size on the label reflects your worth as a person in some way. As clothes get more and more cheaply produced, obviously the fit is going to get worse. About ten years ago I used to regularly buy clothes from H&M. They were good quality, medium price for the high street, and had the bonus feature for me that because they were a Swedish company, their clothes were a good fit for tall people. Their clothes have rapidly gone downhill, and I would say the prices are lower than they were a decade ago, but the clothing is probably worse quality than Primark now, especially with the sizing. The last time I was there I picked up a dress that looked vaguely the right size and tried it on. It was tight round the arms, and far too short for me. So short that it could have been from the children’s section. I was astonished to find that the label claimed it was a 20 from the plus-sized range. I’m a UK 12 (I think this is a 6 or 8 in the US) and it was too small for me. I thought of some poor woman who actually wears a size 20 getting upset in the changing room because she couldn’t remotely fit herself into this rare piece of clothing that was supposed to be her size, upset caused just because someone did a very crappy job on quality control.
The clothing industry also does a very, very poor job of serving plus-sized women, and seems to a actively want them to feel bad about themselves. The main ranges of clothes are rarely available in larger sizes, instead there’s a rack of unattractive polyester tents in loud floral patterns in-store, with the few nicer items only being available on the website and selling out very quickly. This treats women who are above a certain size as a problem or a sideline, not as normal people who can be part of mainstream society or clothes ranges. Yet there is absolutely no physical reason this has to be the case. You only have to make the same clothes in some larger sizes. The shops just don’t want to.
High fashion also has a lot to answer for with causing body image problems. Fashion shoots in magazines like Vogue push only one acceptable body shape – very thin, and increasingly these days abuse Photoshop to create images that are almost anatomically impossible. There’s a standard size for catwalk and couture models- they are required to be both 5 ft 10 and have 34” hips. Almost no-one has both of these things. Even if the models are close enough, they are pressured to diet to come as close to the magical 34” as possible. There’s an interesting article here from Priya Dieterich, a student who was approached by a modelling agency when she was a teenager, and then horrified at their attitudes to her body, weight and health, and gave it a pass. When called out on these issues, people in the industry trot out the same old excuses about “aspirational” or “bodies distract from the clothes” or “we need to have a standard sample size, and it saves fabric”.
Addressing the sample size excuse: Yes, it is very useful and convenient to be able to swap outfits between models of the same size, but there is no need for the sample size to be so tiny that almost no-one can fit into it. This is a modern development, the sample size didn’t used to be so small. Even asking for the most tiny change in industry practice, of making the sample size a bit bigger (which isn’t even a radical option- it’s still one size and a small one at that) is apparently impossible, because it would apparently use too much fabric. This is bullshit. Clothing fabric usually comes in widths varying from 40” to 60”. Once that’s folded in half to cut pieces in doubles, you’re not going to be able to squeeze in two full body pieces next to each other. Adding 3-4” to the width will do nothing to increase the length of fabric you use, it just shaves a few inches off the useless offcuts.
On the “aspirational” front- I’m about that height, and the only time I’ve ever approached that weight was after a very nasty bout of gastric flu. I certainly didn’t look aspirational or glamourous. It’s just not realistic or healthy for a lot of people’s bodies, and presenting physical outliers (or more often than not, young girls who haven’t finished growing yet) as a standard everyone should want to be is harmful. “Apspirational” is supposed to mean something that you could possibly achieve, like a career or achievement, not something you can’t change like your basic body shape. There’s already a lot of social pressure for women to take up as little space, both physically and socially, as possible.
It’s supposed to be the ultimate compliment to tell a woman that she could be a model, but actually models aren’t treated well unless they’re a superstar. I guess in combination with the “don’t take up space” idea, a tiny, pretty, young looking (or possibly actually 15 years old) model who never gets to say anything or have any opinions is an ideal woman for a lot of society. Top, top, models can earn a fortune, but the lower level ones get badly exploited. A lot of models are teenage girls from poor backgrounds from countries like Russia or Brazil sent to work in wealthier countries. They’re missing out on their education because they want to earn money to send home to their families, are worried about losing their visas, don’t speak much of the local language or know about their worker’s rights, are eager to please and be a success, and are ideal candidates to exploit and abuse. There’s a disturbing documentary about model scouts looking for teenage girls from Siberia to send to Tokyo.
Even when the models are older, educated, women from wealthier countries, the agencies still nickel-and-dime them and exploit them. Gawker/Jezebel journalist Jenna Sauers worked as a model for a number of years after graduating from university, and despite keeping in regular work, ended up in debt to her agency. She has written an article here about all the ways the agencies fiddled her money. They treat the models like indentured labourers- they send them to work abroad and then overcharge them for substandard accommodation, which in combination with the fact that agencies are allowed to add business costs like flights and photo printing to the model’s tab, means that they start out work in debt to the company. The agencies seem to be essentially unregulated, especially as a lot of their models are not local citizens and are only there short-term, and are probably working under the table. Jenna Sauers says “How, exactly, I was supposed to make a living as a model never became entirely clear; when I worked two months in Australia last year, after agency fees and the rent (for dormitory style accommodation shared with other models) were deducted, nearly AU$5,000 worth of earnings became AU$690.90.”
As well as the financial exploitation, models also have to deal with sexual harassment and even assault from photographers and stylists who continue to get work again and again no matter how they treat the models (Terry Richardson being a notorious example).
Put a bird on it?
I have been making things all my life, it was never really something I had to actively decide to take up. My grandmother was a dressmaker, and before she had me my mum was the manager of a fabric shop, so I was introduced to textile crafts very early, and the idea that making your own things is normal. A lot of people don’t grow up learning how to make things and decide to take it up as a hobby themselves as an adult. There has recently been a real surge in popularity of crafts, leading to a whole new range of books and magazines aimed at beginners.
However crafts are often still presented in media as commidified, twee, mannered thing for fussy, silly women with too much time on their hands. I wrote in my bullet point outline “Explain loathing of Alsopp”, and Kirstie Alsopp sums that type of craft media up for me: a smug, cold, heartless Tory who portrays a cosy image while looking down on, and supporting politics that actively make the life of anyone who has less than her more difficult.
Crafts aren’t a complete answer to the problems of capitalism or an excuse to feel smug- it’s hard to track down or control sources of a lot of the materials used, and done in the wrong way crafts can be incredibly wasteful of resources and an excuse for just another kind of consumerism. Making your own things also doesn’t really stop clothes companies from doing any of the exploitative things mentioned in the previous section- only unionisation and regulation of worker’s rights can really improve the situation of the garment workers. The attractively designed books and magazines available to appeal to new crafters are often sorely lacking in actually teaching you to do a good job. They skip essential steps and skills, because they treat making things as a novelty, and it’s patronising to their audience. It’s no good sewing badly made and badly fitting items that will never be used and never learning the techniques to produce good and useful items. You shouldn’t use craft skills to churn out useless items. Use the skills to meet real needs, save resources or fix things that would normally be thrown away under consumerist models. Are you literally taking hold of the means of production or just using materials to waste time? It’s also important to avoid turning buying craft supplies into another form of consumerism – for example scrapbook layouts where you must buy commercial scraps and follow specific set layouts. It’s easy to turn buying materials into outright hoarding.
There are a lot of crafting blogs around now as well. I have mixed feelings about the biggest sewing blogs- It’s good to share projects and tips, but they are also often very materialistic and churn (sometimes unnecessary) projects to get as much blog content as possible. The typical “upcycling” projects are bloody awful and also often cut down decent plus-sized clothes to fit smaller, more easily available sizes, creating something wasteful just to generate blog content, rather than making things to genuinely fill a need (and taking away scarce plus-size vintage items from people who could really wear them). The big blogs become vehicles for gaining commercial sponsorship rather than genuine sharing of ideas and techniques. I wrote this article a little while ago about why I still write paper zines as well as having this blog, and in the part where I discuss the growing commercialisation of blogs I said:
“You see a lot of now professionalised lifestyle and fashion blogs which a few years ago were records of the interesting lives or style of the (nearly always female) writers, which is what attracted their large audiences. Once they quit their jobs and went pro-blogger though, the blogs gradually turned into lacklustre sets of photos of comped outfits from clothing companies or pristine houses only achievable by someone who stays at home all day without much to do, ridiculous sponsored posts about how much they love a certain breakfast cereal or whatever, and a general sense of a bored, listless person sitting at home all day feeling obliged to keep churning this stuff out and suppressing anything personal or less than super-positive to keep the money coming in, and the advertisers happy. The whole situation becomes that the product they’re selling is their own life, and as a result the writer becomes more and more isolated in a strange little blogging bubble. It’s like some weird, modern, neoliberalised digital paid version of being a 50s housewife.”
The commercialised big crafting blogs cover up the blatant marketing spiel of general lifestyle blogs with projects they’ve made, but it’s still basically marketing copy masquerading as someone sharing their life. There’s also a weird idealisation of indie pattern designers vs “the big 4” pattern companies yet McCalls are hardly Coca-Cola, and the indie patterns are often very expensive, fit badly, poorly drafted and don’t have plus-sizes. Buying a different company’s more expensive, not as good pattern makes you somehow an outsider or “radical”, yet actually it’s all just down to consumerism and using the ability to spend more money as the criteria for who is “better”. Spending more money makes you more “creative” in the commercialised blogger world- another way that classism can slip in.
So, with all those criticisms and caveats, why do I think crafts can be liberating and radical? If you can make your own thing you are not restricted by what is in the shops or what is marketed to you. Clothes are made for your body rather than feeling like your body failed by not fitting into the ready made clothes, which can only be good for mental health. Hand-made clothes if done well, are higher quality and longer lasting than most high street stuff. Things can be fixed and adjusted and reused and reimagined- you are not reliant on what can be bought in the shops, or on the lifetime dictated by built-in obsolescence to force you to buy products again when they break prematurely (by the manufacturer’s design). Crafts also keep continuity with the practice of manual work- keeping culture and self-reliant traditions alive- further rejecting modern consumerism.