Craftivism Excerpt: Jamie Chalmers’ ”Don’t Get Angry, Get Cross Stitch!”

Written by Betsy Greer. Posted in Betsy Greer

Here is my last post featuring an excerpt from the anthology Craftivism: The Art of Craft and Activism! Thanks for putting up with my not knowing any Swedish (we Americans are a bit crap in the language department, sadly). If you have any craftivism projects you are working on at the moment, I would LOVE to hear about them, you can tell me about them by emailing me at:

This last excerpt is from Jamie Chalmers’ (who is also known as Mr. X Stitch) essay, ”Don’t Get Angry, Get Cross Stitch!” In his essay, he also talks about the work of both Fine Cell Work and the Craftivist Collective, sites which you also might find interesting. Thanks for letting me share the book with you this week and for your interest in craftivism in general, yeah!

Cross stitch is one of the humblest forms of embroidery, yet within that simplicity lies a huge amount of power.

For as long as anyone can remember, cross stitch has been part of our cultural heritage. Who hasn’t seen cross stitched samplers from the 18th century, an important training tool for children learning the important handicrafts in school? Cross stitch samplers have often carried with them religious and social messages, and we look back fondly on these works when we find them, as though they are windows into an era long since passed.

Thanks to the simplicity of its form, whether you are eight or eighty years old, cross stitch is easily achievable, with a short, not very steep, learning curve that swiftly leads into the gentle process of stitching the tiny Xs. Many people believe that they lack the patience or the skill to undertake cross stitch, however upon trying it, they adapt into their own rhythm with surprising ease, and before long are lost within the creative space stitching forwards and backwards across the fabric, creating pixelated images and artworks that are part of our cultural fabric.

The very act of cross stitching promotes a meditative-like state. The process of guiding the needle and thread through the holes in the fabric in a repetitive style forces slowness of approach and a natural rhythm that cannot be made much quicker. While there are many crafts that can be done at any pace, or in varying degrees depending on the production process, there is such a regularity and constraints within the traditional cross stitched format that the rhythm becomes everything; much like breathing or waves upon the sea shore, the stroke of the needle inwards and outwards, up and down, is something that is pleasant to experience and can lead to a relaxed state of being.

“…We all do find a feeling of calmness and we all do come together to help and support each other, just like a family and these two things are so rare to feel and find in prison.”*

Since 1997, the charity Fine Cell Work has worked with 300 prisoners across the UK improving their experiences through the power of embroidery and needlecraft. Working with volunteers, prisoners are taught the skills of embroidery, and provided with the materials that they may stitch in their own cells. The testimonials featured on the Fine Cell Work website give an indication of the power of embroidery as a healing tool. There are many moving accounts of the embroidery providing an escape from the darkness of their reality, and is a creative pastime that actually gives them a sense of purpose, and brings them a joy that had long since escaped them. ”Lock-up was always hard for me as I was finding it difficult to cope with my brother’s death, but having something to keep me busy helped deal with my own issues. Now, five years on, I have not self-harmed in three years. I have remained on the unit to do my courses, and went from a violent, disturbed prisoner, into a respectable rule-abiding prisoner; 90% of that change has come from the great work and support the Fine Cell workers have given to me.”

Cross stitch, as with all embroidery, is also bound into a socio-political debate about gender, wherein it is traditionally considered a past time for women, particularly those of older generations. It is this gender bias that adds to the success of cross stitch as a political media. One cannot help but feel a kindness towards cross stitch, as though it had been created by a senior matriarch, and therefore when the cross stitch contains a message of anger, of activism, or of social commentary, the impact is much greater than expected.

The Craftivist Collective use cross stitch as a simple tool in their battle for changing hearts and minds. The contrast between the gentle art of cross stitch, and the powerful act of political activism, acts as an amplification of the message contained within the work created. The recent #imapiece campaign inspired hundreds of people to create hand embroidered jigsaw pieces, containing messages of hope and inspiration. Their very nature, being made by hand using textiles, made it hard to ignore the level of time and energy put into creating the pieces. Put together as an ensemble installation, the jigsaw created an overwhelming sense of power and emotion for anyone who saw it.

“I’ve never really been politically active before,” said Andrea, one of the crafters at the Milton Keynes #imapiece workshop, “but with this project I feel I’m able to make a statement and show how I feel about poverty.”** This is one of many such statements that form a part of the on-going narrative of the #imapiece campaign. Traditional forms of political activism can be overwhelming, and for many people it’s simply not feasible. The gentility and familiarity of cross stitch transforms the political power into something that is more manageable. Sarah Corbett, founder of the Craftivist Collective, encourages crafters to reflect on the message they create, and allow the slowness and meditative processes of stitching draw them into deeper contemplation of the content.

Thanks to the simplicity of creating cross stitch, anyone can produce profound messages and make statements that really matter. And in this day and age, messages that take a long time to produce a much-needed antidote to the world of instant gratification and political spin. The familiarity of the production process instils a sense of gravitas in cross stitched work as people recognise that this is not a quick craft to create. Images that might be hard to digest in printed or digital form become almost overwhelming when translated to stitch.

*Quote from a Fine Cell Work prisoner testimonial, which you can read here.

**Anecdotal quote from a member at the ‘imapiece workshop I ran in Milton Keynes in December 2012

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