FOR the past six months activists across Scotland have been sitting in their homes, or in gathered groups, knitting squares in wool colours that represent the land, the sea or the sky. Their clicking needles have also created honey bees, flowers, bugs and birds.

These are an Extinction Rebellion group called Knitstinction Rebellion, and what they are doing is often described as craftivism. Mass die-ins, blocked roads and fake blood sprays, of the type Extinction Rebellion have become known for, are not the only way to change the world. You can also knit your way to a better one. Or crochet. Or embroider. Activism, after all, has many threads, and the needle of protest already has a long history, dating back to the suffragettes and beyond. It’s also having a bit of a moment now.

One of the people who has done more than most to promote such an approach to campaigning is Sarah Corbett, a lifelong activist who describes her method as “gentle protest craftivism”. Corbett, who presented a talk and workshop this week as part of the Festival of Politics at the Scottish Parliament, has written a book, How To Be A Craftivist, and delivered campaigns across the country through her group Craftivist Collective. She is behind projects like Don’t Blow It, in which personalised, hand-embroidered handkerchiefs were sent out to the 14 board members of Marks & Spencer and ultimately persuaded them to deliver the Living Wage to 50,000 members of staff.

Craftivist Collective’s 10-point manifesto was used by the World Wildlife Fund in a campaign that led to the changing of a law to protect migratory birds. It’s an approach she has been honing for the last 10 years, on a journey that began on a five-hour train ride to Glasgow. She was working for the Department for International Development at the time and taking a Pendolino train whose swaying she knew would make it hard for her to read work papers or answer emails, so she decided that instead she would pick up a cross-stitch set of a teddy bear picture.

“I immediately noticed that doing it slowed me down, calmed me down. I was questioning the effectiveness of clicktivism, slacktivism and angry activism at the time. And people opposite me asked me what I was doing and I immediately thought, ‘Oh, if I was only embroidering a quote by Gandhi’.”

Corbett believes that in such a divisive society as the one in which we now live it’s important that we focus on solutions and not problems. “That means everyone can be part of the solution, rather than segregate some people off as the problem-causers,” she says. “A lot of my work is based on psychology and neuroscience. We know that when you focus on a dream, your brain proactively figures out how to create that dream. Whereas when we focus on a problem, we just go into fight, flight or freeze mode, which stops our brain from being able to think through what the answers are.”

Craftivist Collective’s work, she says, is about “being positive but actually making real change and not just being fluffy”. It’s also an approach, she adds, that appeals to people who are “naturally introverted or anxious”. Her online talk, “Activism needs introverts”, has been viewed over one million times.

The event at the Parliament was a dream-making workshop. “It’s about getting people to focus on what vision of the world they want, of a better world and stitching a line about that onto a cloud. Then when they stitch their cloud they think what does that feel like, what does that sound like, what does that look like, and how can they be part of making that dream a reality.”

What is her own dream? “I truly believe gentle protest is incredibly effective and if it’s done in a loving, kind way, it can change hearts and minds and policies. My dream is that everyone sees it as an effective way to do activism.”

Another successful project she cites is one Craftivist Collective did for the eco-fashion campaign group Fashion Revolution. “We made handwritten scrolls on this beautifully textured paper, tied in lovely turquoise, mauve or purple ribbon. We crafted three messages that are non-judgmental but intriguing and asked people to think about the story behind an item of clothing and who made them and be curious about the fashion industry. And then we shop-dropped them, dropped them in pockets in shops for people to find. It was about reaching people without making them feel judged, especially if they’re from a low-income area. I’m from a very low-income area in Everton, so I wanted to make sure people didn’t feel demonised.”

Another principle of craftivism is slowness. “In such a busy, fast-paced world we need to slow down and the power’s in the detail,” she says. “You could do something quick and easy but it’s not going to make the difference and it might be more harmful, it might be more demonising and create more gaps than bridges.”

But don’t some things need to be changed quickly, and almost violently? “I do worry that a lot that people might say, ‘Who is this white woman telling us to slow down when the world’s falling apart?’ We do need to act, but we need to act in the most strategic way,” she replies. “My background is in campaigning. I grew up in west Everton in the 1980s, in the fourth most deprived ward in the UK. Awful housing, awful health statistics, high unemployment. I’m far from telling people to just slow down and think. We need action and we need it now. But I worked in activism in school and university and my background is as a professional campaigner for Oxfam, so I know how complex activism is and how, if we want to make real change, it needs to be more than just screaming at each other.”

Among those who have done a workshop with Corbett is Dr Anna Fisk, founder of the Knitstinction Rebellion in Scotland. From the moment she joined Extinction Rebellion (XR), she was hoping she might marshal knitting to the cause. “I thought the blanket would be a nice thing to do,” she says, “especially for people who maybe can’t make it to protests, maybe because they live far away or because of disability, age, or because they can’t take any kind of risk of arrest. They could feel like they’re contributing. The thing with craftivism is it’s all about the process of the making and reflecting when you’re doing it. You’re using your body as well. If it’s something that’s made by hand it feels more like your body is there with the people who are protesting than if you had sent some money or something like that.”

It’s not her first craftivist project. Fisk, a part-time lecturer in theology and religious studies at the University of Glasgow, has been knitting since her grandmother taught her at the age of six, and regards it as a key part of her identity – she even used to work at the knitting shop Yarn Cake. Among her craftivist projects has been Knit Wild, a campaign to save the Children’s Wood in the west end of Glasgow. Last year, she felt compelled to join Extinction Rebellion after hearing about the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change) and World Wildlife Fund reports. “I was thinking why aren’t we all standing in the streets and screaming. Why are we all carrying on as normal? This is insane.”

Fisk’s activist ethos differs slightly from Corbett’s. She puts less emphasis on gentleness, though the blanket itself seems a comforting, homely item. “I really like Sarah Corbett’s work but there are some parts of it that don’t sit that easily with XR because a lot of it is about this sense of kindness and gentleness and leading people through conversations and reflections. But a lot of the XR way, and the way that we’ve been successful, is using words like ‘extinction’, doing things like spray fake blood from a fire engine. These are things that get attention.”

Often craftivism, she observes, doesn’t get the media attention it deserves, given its efforts. For instance, she cites the anti-Trident “Wool Against Weapons” project, which involved the knitting of an astonishing seven-mile pink “peace” scarf to stretch between Aldermaston and Burghfield atomic weapons establishments. “It didn’t get attention in the way that some brash thing does,” she says. “With this banner I wanted to combine the reflective, woolly and comfortable blanket with the XR approach. I wanted us to be blocking roads with a hand-knitted banner.”

Fisk doesn’t shy away from more dramatic actions. She is a road blocker as well as a knitter, and is the only Extinction Rebellion activist, so far, to have a criminal conviction in Scotland – for breach of the peace after she sat down in the road during the Edinburgh blockade in April. It happens that at the time she was wearing a teal-coloured hand-knitted hat.

Currently in London for the fortnight of protests, she hasn’t taken the blanket. “I thought given the kind of police reaction we were likely to get this time round, the chance is high of it just being lost and I feel like it would be good to have a bit more time for people to appreciate it before it gets used in that way. It was a big decision because I thought people have put so much work in. I’ve put so much work in. But I feel it’s better to not lose it instantly.”

Knitting, she observes, is also a good way of coping with the stress, grief and anxiety that comes with activism and contemplating the horror of the climate crisis.

“I find it is one of the few things that helps, particularly doing this blanket, because it’s very simple garter stitch squares, a very simple repetitive motion that has this soothing quality,” she says. “People have done neurological research that shows that the simple, repetitive action of knitting specifically has an effect on people’s heart rate and breathing and calms people down. So, yes, I have found that. I think the tension building up to action, it’s something that slows you down and takes you out of this hyper we’ve got to do this and got to do that.”