Between sips of coffee, Casey Jenkins is busy moving around the room, two massive cardboard boxes crammed with leaflets and posters. An anti-cop knitted banner and a tiny craft kit containing threads and needles sit off to one side. Although the Melbourne Craft Cartel founder tells us she is going through a quiet period of crafty activity when we meet, the room displays trophies and trinkets reminiscent of a busy last couple of years.
Since 2007, Jenkins (34) has had her hands full running Craft Cartel, a Melbourne-based organisation that revolves around the concept of ‘craftivism’. A blend of craft and activism, craftivism came to light about a decade ago, following the rise of craft as an increasingly popular pastime with many practitioners eschewing it from its initial context.
“Some people define craftivism as just going into the streets and knitting a doily around a pole. To me it’s using traditional craft techniques for a political or social activism purpose,” says Jenkins.
Activism burst into Jenkins’s life well before craft did – and she still doesn’t consider herself as a master crafter. Particularly sensitive to feminist issues for a long time, she’s always been trying to have her voice heard.
“Craftivism was a very pragmatic way to have more clout than would normally be afforded to me. The contrast between doing craft, which is something considered so benign and so associated with women being harmless, and political ideas caught the attention at the time, so I thought it was really effective. And also more affective and light-hearted than yelling in the streets.”
Alongside with her friend Rayna Fahey, Jenkins started Craft Cartel as a market to exhibit people activism-focused crafts (“provided that they were not cutesy”). The duo quickly planned to organise more communal projects and a series of Trashbag Rehab workshops where people would craft together and share their skills.
Running these DIY events in various locations around Melbourne as well as at international festivals, Jenkins eventually managed to express her lingering frustrations. “The society is very gendered at the moment. You’re expected to identify either as a man or a woman and roles are very stringently laid out. This arbitrary hierarchy is quite ridiculous when you step back from it and it doesn’t correlate with our biologic abilities or instincts,” she maintains.
But further than denouncing what she sees as a contemporary absurdity, what Jenkins appreciates the most is raising people’s awareness by catching them off-guard.
“Craftivism is not just sewing. It’s respecting and honouring techniques that women have developed over centuries, and showing that because women do them doesn’t equal that they are not worthy of attention,” asserts Jenkins. “Craft imbues you with power because you’re forced to contemplate the issue you’re addressing. It’s very reflective in a sense of when you put that message out into the world, people know you must really care because you’ve devoted that much time to it.”
Since the inception of Craft Cartel, Jenkins has been organising workshops with themes like Embroidery Porn and Free Pussy Riot; the latest seeing participants crafting beard masks or balaclavas as a tribute to Russian all-girl band Pussy Riot and Parisian feminist collective La Barbe. Although these workshops featured guest artists teaching basic techniques and supply materials, some criticisms mentioned a lack of skills.
“It’s more about people having fun and a go at a really introductory level. It makes it more accessible because anyone can do this. It’s also empowering in a way that sometimes people feel reluctant to express themselves or feel that they don’t have creative abilities, but in the end they do something they’d not expect of themselves.”
Having also held events less related to feminist issues – like an Anti-Gentrification Festy Festival to protest the closure of some inner city artistic venues – Jenkins’ field of action proves quite wide. Nevertheless, her flagship struggle since she started Craft Cartel has more to do with the female genitalia, or, put simply, cunts.
“The fact that it’s considered the most offensive word in the English language is a real marker of the time that we’re living and of the society’s attitude towards woman. There’s nothing possibly negative about it. It’s just a deep, warm and delightful part of the female anatomy. I can’t even discuss that in the media because it’s censored, so I wanted to take it to the street with the Cunt Flings-up workshop.”
So if you’ve been wandering around Carlton anytime since March, you’ve probably seen colourful knitted cunts hanging from power lines like you often do sneakers.
Jenkins admits that, even if Australia’s getting more open to discussing ideas, she often had difficulties finding venues for workshops in Melbourne and never had an immediate warm welcome like she has in France or England. “When I was in Paris, I would sit in a cafe, stitching a cunt and people would just go ‘you’re an artist’,” she recalls.
Intellectually willing to explore other things and to work in a more methodical way (she just registered Craft Cartel as a business name), Jenkins has some pretty big plans in progress, setting up a website and building her own itinerant marquee to hold smaller workshops in remote areas.
As well as polishing Craft Cartel, she’s launched Femme Fight Club, a women-only fight club resulting from her desire to share her dissatisfaction with society’s notions about gender by hitting stuff. “We basically whack each other with disposable things like bread sticks, flowers or tomatoes…it’s more adults being playful than women being aggressive,” Jenkins explains. “I also wanted it to be no spectators, so it’s not for anyone but us. There’s so much about being a woman that’s about performance and presenting yourself in a way that’s only valid if it’s approved by the patriarchy. I like doing something that gets rid of all of that.”
When finally asked if she’s ever been afraid of going too far, Jenkins admits she doesn’t feel like she could get into much trouble because she’s not damaging property and mostly acts in daylight.
“I realised that even craft itself is a wonderful thing. Knitting a beanie for a mate is a beautiful connection with another person. It doesn’t have much point to it, but it doesn’t put evil into the world. In life, you’re either creating or destroying, and creating is the good one.”