This past June, I attended the Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting exhibition at New York’s Museum Of Art and Design. The show contained work by contemporary artists using fiber in unexpected, unorthodox, and often politically charged and socially provocative ways. Of particular interest was a video piece documenting artist and activist Cat Mazza and her project to create a handmade petition for Nike president, Phil Knight, in protest of his company’s use of sweatshop labor. Mazza asked artists around the world to “sign” the petition by contributing 4″x4″ crocheted squares which she then put together to form a 14 foot, knit, Nike Swoosh. An Adjunct Professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY and the creator and curator of www.microrevolt.org, Ms. Mazza encourages her students and readers to investigate the dawn of sweatshops in early industrial capitalism.
I recently had the great pleasure of connecting with her via email.
Matt: Can you tell me about your interest in raising awareness about sweatshops?
I did graduate research in the Women’s Studies program at University of Maine in Orono and worked with Peace through Inter-American Community Action (PICA). There I learned the important overlaps between the labor conditions in the textile industry in early industrial capitalism and the sweatshops in today’s global garment industry. I am a hobbyist knitter and have an interest in the political potential of craft. There’s a lot of work that can be done: it’s just a matter of being interested and getting engaged.
Matt: I was very impressed when I learned about your Nike Petition project. How did this come around?
The Nike Blanket Petition project started in 2003 and over 500 people have participated from almost every state and over twenty countries. The blanket has toured to knitting circles in Los Angeles, Cleveland, Chicago, Ann Arbor, Boston, New York City, Naples, Charlotte, Pittsburgh, and represented in festivals in Austria, the UK, and Brazil. Nike has not acknowledged the project. I am hoping to deliver it this summer.
Matt: What role does technology play in your art and craft?
The microRevolt.org projects have circulated through web media mostly because of knitPro – a freeware that translates digital images into needlecraft patterns. I studied, teach, and make artwork with technology – I use knitting machines, web media, and right now I’m working on software called Knitoscope.
Matt: Do you think that people will ever be willing to trade low prices (to which Wal-mart, Target, and the like have made them accustomed) for socially responsible products that cost much more?
Poor people in developing nations are making the products sold at Wal-mart and Target, and that is the problem. Consumers in the United States are starting to recognize how disturbing the labor practices are in these factories and there is a growing market for socially responsible products. The success of something like Etsy.com is a reflection of that. So far socially responsible businesses cannot compete with corporate monopolies. That’s why small acts of resistance (DIY and hobbyist crafting) and small steps in a campaign can be significant. People in the anti-sweatshop movement are fighting for government bulk purchasing of school, sports, fire and police uniforms (our tax dollars at work) to be made in sweat-free conditions. This adds up to billions of dollars nationwide and is something that people can organize around at the local level. Our public officials also vote on trade agreements that affect workers at home and abroad. This information is accessible it’s just a matter of getting on some list-serves, reading and writing your public officials, and voting with your dollar.
Matt: Can you share some important resources for our readers to learn more about sweatshops and business that have irresponsible labor practices?
Sweatfree Communities is a good place to start if you live in the USA; it is an organization that networks nationwide local anti-sweatshop initiatives (businesses, legal campaigns, faith based groups, etc.). If you are a student you can get involved with United Students Against Sweatshops. There’s also Behind the Label and Sweatshop Watch, whose mission looks at the labor abuses of particular companies. I make posts about DIY craft, new media and the anti-sweatshop movement at www.microRevolt.org/reblog. It’s a good idea to investigate your most local initiative, and go from there to see what you can offer and start building.