May 2022 Studio Hours Recap: Leanne Prain and Fiona Ellis on Art, Craft and Activism

15 June 2022

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For our Studio Hours meetup in May, we enjoyed listening to, and participating in, a conversation between noted knitwear designer Fiona Ellis, and author activist Leanne Prain. Shortly before their conversation with us, Fiona conducted an email interview with Leanne, but this Studio Hours session was their first live, in-person conversation, and they were a delight to watch as they discussed Leanne’s latest book, The Creative Instigator’s Handbook, and her earlier works.

Fiona started things off by asking Leanne about where the initial spark for the new book came from. In response, Leanne walked us through some of her history. She has formal academic training in art history from the University of British Columbia. She also was immersed in community and public art through summer jobs and indigenous pride and art at home. She wondered why these two worlds were so separate. Later, she was involved with the 1997 APEC protests in Vancouver using art in a political manner, making protest posters. Her first book, Yarn Bombing (with Mandy Moore), looked at the art of knit and crochet graffiti. After publication of that book, whenever Leanne was out, people would share with her their own textile pieces that had political messages, and Leanne wondered how these messages could be brought to a wider audience.

Fiona asked whether the new book is more of a personal essay and Leanne shared more of her background. Her family made things by hand, but it was seen as craft, not art. Fiona and Leanne mused on this action of making for use, and that making one’s own clothes can be a strong form of personal expression. This new book is also a form of making—of building a community. Leanne shared her realization that while she had been waiting around to find a community what she needed to do was to reach out to makers and create her own community.

Rather than asking someone, “What do you do?” at a dinner party, Fiona likes to ask, “What are you passionate about?” At some point, Leanne was asked a similar question herself and answered “textiles.” She wondered where the response came from! This led into a discussion about the book Strange Material, and we were impressed with Alexandra Walters’ work, stitching Prozac pill images onto tea towels and creating intricate embroidered portraits.

The Creative Instigator’s Handbook is not all textiles-based; there are interviews with wood workers and painters. There are no formal patterns as Leanne has found that her readers are creative and want to do their own thing. When asked if the pandemic influenced the book, Leanne said that it certainly did. These essays describe the act of somebody getting their voice out. Often, this kind of activism work is completed face to face, with people coming together in solidarity. The transition to COVID-safe activities was challenging for many groups, and Leanne’s work with them had to adapt. The book is a capsule in time, sharing specific events, but it is also timeless. It prompts and inspires future activities and activism.

Fiona shared that after reading Leanne’s books, she sees things differently. We discussed the movie 9 to 5, which is forty years old this year. Jane Fonda, the driving force behind the movie, made it a comedy rather than a documentary, as an easier, more accessible vehicle for getting the movie’s message across. As Leanne says, activism does not need to be aggressive.

One member asked how to distinguish between knit graffiti and craftivism. Is something yarn bombing or is it an art installation? We decided the difference was intention. Who are you creating for? Actions cannot be all things for all people. Another member brought up the work of Kirk Dunn and the rainbow yarn bomb he created outside a church one rainy Sunday. Monday morning brought emailed complaints (“eyesore and horrendous”), but after the Yarn Harlot posted about it on Instagram, many people expressed their support and interest. That yarn bombing brought an interesting juxtaposition: even though the work was a “soft art” and a gentle, nonaggressive way of stating a message, it was still capable of provoking a strong response.

We talked about the birth of the Tits Out Collective as a political response to both a “do it for exposure” request and an act of plagiarism. Members listed many more projects from the last few years, including the pussy hat movement and the Tiny Pricks Project in response to the 2016 US presidential election, and the Gay Sweater project in Canada. A member shared a beautiful example of a yarn bombing festival in Australia called Jumpers and Jazz.

Some projects that have come out of the COVID-19 pandemic are the From Behind the Mask community quilt of COVID-19-related stories, the global @covid19quilt Project, the COVID-19 Memorial Blanket, and The Quarantine Quilt Project.

The Tiny Orange Sweater Project (Facebook group) was started in response to the discovery of 215 unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, B.C. One woman knit a small orange sweater to wear as a pin. The project blossomed as knitters across Canada joined in, knitting small sweaters to display in libraries and schools, “grateful for a place to put a tiny, physical representation of their own grief and empathy.” The initial project has led to ongoing initiatives such as the Orange Shirt Project.

Leanne also reminded us of the activism inherent in projects that intentionally use less fabric and generate less waste as a statement on current industrial practices and shared her story about the Ontario Shirt.

Small or large, our personal projects matter. Small actions can inspire great change.


Copyright © Sarah Thornton except as indicated.
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About Sarah Thornton

Sarah Thornton is a connector - she loves bringing people and ideas together, especially over local fibres and foods. When not teaching college Biology labs, she knits, spins, designs, teaches, and occasionally weaves in her new studio space on Vancouver Island. She's also a cyclist, skier, hiker, and gardener! Find her patterns and classes at and @sarsbarknits on Instagram.

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