Crafting Herstory

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Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series of reflections from winners of NCPH awards in 2021. Sarah Marsom won honorable mention in Excellence in Consulting for her projects Crafting Herstory and #DismantlePreservation.

How women have utilized textiles as a form of activism and therefore, a radical act of self-care, has recently garnered attention through publications such as Crafting Dissent: Handicraft as Protest from the American Revolution to the Pussyhats. Fabric banners and sashes were integral to women’s rights movements around the world; they were utilized in protests, hung from buildings and vehicles, and worn during meetings and on the streets. When assessing how to connect people to the past,  garner an understanding of the efforts to pass the 19th Amendment, and address issues related to voting rights today, I decided to take a “craftivism” approach. Craftivism, as defined by crafter and activist Betsy Greer, is “a way of looking at life where voicing opinions through creativity makes your voice stronger, your compassion deeper and your quest for justice more infinite.” Enter the Crafting Herstory workshops.

Black and white cloth banner with applique blue and yellow bird labeled "VOTE."

Author Sarah Marsom’s banner made during Spoonflower Instagram Live workshop, inspired by Massachusetts right to vote imagery. Image credit: Sarah Marsom

The Crafting Herstory workshops were developed with the following goals in mind:

  • Cultivating a new perspective on a craft (sewing—by hand or machine) often associated with women
  • Developing an understanding of voting rights history, with a focus on the ephemera/messaging created as a part of advocacy campaigns
  • Empowering people to learn from activism strategies of the past to be advocates for themselves and others in present day

I developed in-person workshops that provided participants with a historical overview of women’s use of sewing to advocate for voting rights, followed by a hands-on workshop that taught participants how to design and sew their own banners. They could use their banners to pay homage to the past, advocate for something they believe in today, or simply develop sewing skills. I collaborated with Spoonflower, which I had worked with previously. Spoonflower donated the fabric that the in-person workshop participants used to create bold and meaningful banners in a variety of colors and patterns. With Spoonflower’s material support, I confidently began scheduling workshops for 2020 with groups including arts nonprofits, political action committees, history organizations, and more. Working with Miami University Libraries and Makerspace and in collaboration with the local chapter of the League of Women Voters, this workshop provided a space for both students and the general public to learn about the past and tools for expressing themselves through an artistic endeavor.

I spent the afternoon having conversations over craft and seeing people sew for the first time. I considered the different ways events from over 100 years ago continue to impact people today. Participants created whimsical banners that read, “Woman Making Man Say Woah Since Forever,” for example. Other pieces paid homage to the past, reading, “She Persisted.” Yet others advocated for rights today with messages like, “We are not ovary-acting.”

If you create public programming, you know that feeling when you successfully execute your vision. I drove away that day feeling excited and motivated for all of the workshops that were lined up for the rest of the year. But in a blink of an eye, the world and the ways we do public programming changed. I knew I could not lose the opportunity to facilitate Crafting Herstory workshops in 2020, a year of significance not only for the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment but also for a presidential election. It was imperative to help people understand what advocates worked for in the past and understand how to participate in the process today.

By the end of March, once the coronavirus pandemic had started, I reassessed Crafting Herstory and created a virtual version that allowed participants to create smaller-scale banners from felt that could be hand-stitched or pieced together with glue. Looking back, I can recognize that shifting to a virtual format allowed Crafting Herstory to reach a broader audience than I could have ever connected with in person; for example, the Instagram Live workshop facilitated for Spoonflower has had 15.3k views (as of March 25, 2021). It would have been impossible for me, a one-person consulting firm, to facilitate enough in-person workshops to reach that many people.

The virtual conversations over craft touched on a range of historical and contemporary topics ranging from the first women who received a college degree to concerns for voter rights infringement today to enthusiasm for learning more about how to become civically engaged. Participants ranged in age from youth to the elderly. One participant made a suffragist sash for her doll, and another made a small “vote” pennant to hide in the apartment she was moving out of with the hope that it would inspire the next tenant.

Whether people were being encouraged to craft connections to the past, conceptualize their own creative storytelling techniques, or reconsider the history being made at their polling places in the present, Crafting Herstory was an exercise in different storytelling strategies that can support and empower civic activity and foster conversations on social justice.

~Sarah Marsom is a heritage resource consultant working to empower the next generation of community advocates and increase the representation of lesser-known histories. Her work has been featured in Curbed, Traditional Building Magazine, and the National Parks Service’s LGBTQ America Theme Study, amongst other publications and podcasts.


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