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Melissa Starker, Creative Content & PR Manager
Jun 01, 2022
Next week, nationally renowned craftivist Shannon Downey, aka Badass Cross Stitch, is coming to Columbus. Downey's been traveling the country in an RV to teach the art of embroidery and how to use those skills to promote social justice (see an example of her pattern work above). During her stop here, she'll lead public workshops at Sew to Speak in Worthington on June 11 and, in collaboration with Wex Youth & Family Programs Manager Jean Pitman, Downey will work directly with homeless youth through the social service organizations Huckleberry House, Kaleidoscope Youth Center, and Star House.
At a stop in Kentucky this week, Downey spoke to us via Zoom about her work and how the act of making has the potential to build community and inspire change.
Shannon Downey, all images courtesy of Badass Cross Stitch
How did you get into crafting and embroidery?
I technically learned how to cross stitch and fifth grade. My teacher taught me and she made me make a pink bunny with a blue eye, and I thought, well, this is stupid. I’m never gonna do this again. So I made that bunny and I gave it to my parents and I didn't stitch again for like 20 years.
Then, 10 to 12 years ago at this point, I was running a digital marketing company in Chicago and I was connected to a device 24-seven because I had to be for my clients, and I was so burnt out. And I was on Etsy and came across like a Star Trek cross stitch pattern, and I was like, oh, nobody loves Captain Picard more than me, I thought, I think I remember how to do that. Maybe I need to like make something with my hands. So I bought it and I really taught myself how to do it, and I was like, oh, there's something there's something good here.
Then I quickly shifted from funny Star Trek and other people's patterns to using it as an opportunity to think about all of the issues and causes that I was working in. I would stick to something related to those and give myself silent time to just sort of like, meditate on it and ask myself questions about it. And that led to me writing around it, and then sharing it on Instagram. Each piece was meant to get people to stop scrolling, and then the invitation was to read the reflection or the thoughts that I had, and then hopefully engage in conversation around that. So that took off, and then folks were like, "I want to learn how to do this," and I'm like, "Well, that's easy." And then I thought, oh, this is great. This is a way to trick people into a room with me. They're going to stitch—and they are—but then we're going to be having conversations about all of these issues. And it really just blew up from there. I just saw it as an amazing tool for activism and community building. So yeah, that’s how I use it, exclusively for those two reasons.
The Community aspect of your work is incredibly impressive. What made you decide to take the leap to an RV and making a nomadic life of doing this work?
Originally, it was supposed to be a one-year tour. I had 150 events booked and then COVID hit. I like living in an RV now but that's not what was supposed to be.
I felt like I was at a tipping point. I was working as the director of development for a nonprofit I was teaching at Columbia and I was doing all of this work, and I couldn't sustain all of it. It felt like the potential for most impact would be going at this for real. So I thought, OK, people keep asking me to come to their communities and their places, and I can only do bits of it because it's [limited to] weekends or flying places. So I thought, well if I lived in an RV, then I could just go to all these places and I could make it a tour.
Then the pandemic came a month before I was supposed to take off. I’d already hired somebody to replace me and sold everything I owned, and bought an RV. I was like, well, I’m going. And so now I’ve been on the road two years and it was pivot after pivot after pivot, but things totally sorted out and I so much online work. I think I taught over 6000 people around the world how to stitch in the first year of the pandemic, because it was just like, y'all are desperate for stuff and this is such a great tool, and you have all the materials somewhere in your house and we can hack for anything you [have to go to a store for] because you can’t.
It turned into a really interesting gift. Were it not for a pandemic, we wouldn't have this sort of global agreement that we are going to try to use Zoom or whatever technology. Opportunity, gift, I don't know. It's really transformed a lot of things. Even at my live events, folks from around the world are here. [I was asked], "Would you stream that? Would you use Zoom so that we can be there too, even though we can't be there?" So it leads to a lot of really interesting and different perspectives, global perspectives, because prior to that everything I did was very hyper local and I moved around. In this way, the hyper local can also be observed by the global. It's really it's been fun and interesting.
The Badass Cross Stitch RV
It seems like what's happening in Columbus is a good example of this. You're working with a local business to have workshops, but you're also working with our Learning & Public Practice team on events with Huckleberry House, Kaleidoscope Youth Center, and Star House that are very community-based, and also need-based. What other types of groups have you worked with in your travels?
I mean everything. At the beginning, I was just parking in strangers’ driveways because all the RV parks shut down. I was like, oh my God, I don't even have anywhere to park this fucking thing. So I made a Google Doc and it was like, hey anybody on the Internet, if you have a flat driveway and a plug, would put me up for a couple days as I travel through? Fill out this form. Then, like 3000 people filled it out, so I've been driveway hopping for the better part of the two years. At the beginning, because [I had to cancel all my scheduled events], I was doing neighborhood workshops. Wherever I parked, the neighbors were just coming over. I’m teaching them how to stitch and we're 10 feet apart and I'm yelling through a mask in order to get them to stitch.
I also had this quilt that was a massive project, and so one of the things was that I was going to bring this quilt to all the places where people had worked on it, so they could see it in person. Then of course, I’m like, where am I putting this quilt? So I started working with small businesses, and I would have it on display in their shop windows so that people could come see it and experience it but be safe, and from there, I worked with museums and galleries, and a ton of libraries. So much library work and I love it so much. Also youth groups and youth centers. I'm doing a lot of work with the sober community, coming up with activities that aren't centered on alcohol. Most recently, [there's been] a queer bookstore in Salt Lake City and a lot of colleges. I've been in a bunch of high schools. It’s the whole gamut, and it's awesome.
And it’s fun because I might be in a small business where, you know, they pay me what they can, and then I'm hooked up with a library where everybody gets to come for free but I still get paid. That’s always like the dream, right? I want everybody to be able to access it and I can still pay my bills. And then you get hooked up with a college and they cover some stuff so that I can do a bunch of free community events. It's a constant puzzle of revenue streams in order to make sure that as many people as possible can access this work
What do you have planned for the youth organizations you’re working with in Columbus?
I believe our plan is an intro to craftivism embroidery workshop, so i'm going to give them a little bit of an understanding and context around what is craftivism and how can we use art and craft as tools within our activism. Then i'll be teaching them how to embroider, and they'll be embroidering around an issue or topic that is important to them.
Downey at work
What kind of what kind of feedback have you gotten from your travels and from working with different folks?
It's always that everybody's hungry to do more after they learn. For me, the whole point is to like bring community together. That bookshop in Salt Lake City is a good example. There are 20 people in a bookshop and this bookshop’s amazing—it’s like a queer community center—and so everybody's learning how to stitch and everybody's having so much fun and they're talking to each other. And then this one gal was like, I feel like this should be a monthly activity we do here, and I was like, yes, it should be—here’s a piece of paper. Everybody write down your email addresses and who's going to be in charge, and so that gal stepped forward and was like, yeah, I will. And so we brought in the owner and I was like, they would like to do this, once a month here and she's like, “hell yeah.” And so now they have this space, they have this starter community, and they've set up an Instagram account. And now, once a month, they get together for a queer stitch night, which you know is driving some of the community activism that's happening. They’ve developed this beautiful, ever-growing community in this space around the act of making, but with the higher objective of, what are we going to do with and for community.
I love that you have all of these free tutorials and patterns on your website, so it's built in—like, oh, you want to do this all the time? Here you go.
I have a Patreon, and at the beginning of the year in the Patreon, I was like, all right, it's the year of stitch, everyone. For me it's like helping people develop a daily making practice. I just think that it's so needed, particularly right now. So every week for the whole year, I teach a new embroidery stitch via video in my Patreon and then every six weeks, I give them a new sampler or pattern so that they can apply that six weeks’ worth of stitches to a designed piece, and it has been so much fun. There are like 925 people participating in it and what people are doing is amazing and phenomenal. It’s really fun and it just keeps pushing people to just dabble, just try something. I don't even care if you like embroidery—I just want you making, so if this gets you into a space where you're exploring other mediums and you're trying things, I did my job. You don't have to just hang out in embroidery, but I want you making stuff every day.