Calgary 'craftivist' tries to unravel the patriarchy one stitch at a time

This weekend, the Calgary resident who markets herself as Femmebroidery will be one of the dozens of vendors at the Royal Bison Craft Fair in Edmonton.

Femmebroidery is one of dozens of vendors taking part in Royal Bison Craft Fair in Edmonton

Maria Arseniuk is a Calgary-based artist who is participating at the Royal Bison Craft Fair in Edmonton this weekend. Her embroidery has a feminist streak. (Maria Arseniuk/femme.broidery/Instagram)

When Maria Arseniuk was working toward a PhD, she picked up embroidery as a hobby, hoping it would help her unwind.

She dropped the PhD program eventually — opting to earn a second master's instead — but held onto her needles and thread.

Her creations combine the traditional style she learned as a girl with some of the progressive themes she studied in grad school. Intersectional feminism and social justice are two of her favourites.

She scoffed at first when a friend suggested on Facebook that she start selling her art.

"I thought, who would want to buy these? That's ridiculous," she told CBC's Adrienne Pan on Thursday.

It turned out plenty of people wanted to buy them. She started selling out of items on Etsy and at craft fairs, and she has amassed nearly 36,000 followers on Instagram.

This weekend, the Calgary resident who markets herself as "Femmebroidery" will be one of the dozens of vendors at the Royal Bison Craft Fair in Edmonton. The fair starts Friday at 5 p.m. at 8426 Gateway Blvd., just north of the Strathcona Farmers Market, and runs until Sunday at 4 p.m.

'It's not really meant to be pretty'

Most of Arseniuk's pieces are hand-stitched phrases and flower wreaths framed by embroidery hoops. Many contain sociopolitical messages: "believe survivors," "riots not diets," "punch Nazis," "make racism wrong again" and "smash the patriarchy." 

"I really wanted to create statements that are confrontational," she said, adding that they are "not really meant to be pretty."

Art, she said, should make people question what they see and think.

Eight of her nine most-liked creations on Instagram last year had what she called "anti-establishment" themes. (The ninth was the word "CATS," framed by a red heart and roses.)

A community of 'craftivism'

Arseniuk started posting on Instagram in August 2015, and the more she browsed the platform the more she noticed there were other artists sharing embroidery with a feminist streak.

Now there are more than 28,000 posts associated with the "craftivism" hashtag on Instagram and more than 4,000 with #feministembroidery.

She has made 415 sales so far on her Etsy store, where customers have left pages of comments about their purchases.

"I got this for [a] friend as a Christmas gift and they cried they loved it so much," wrote the buyer of a hoop that read "gender is a drag."

Taking on Trump

Her most popular item featured an expletive directed at U.S. President Donald Trump.

"That doesn't surprise me," said Lily Tsui, an Edmonton-based cross-stitcher who is also fond of creating political designs.

The night Trump was elected, Tsui stitched her own angry art directed at the president.

Though embroidery was at one point Arseniuk's sole source of income, she is now working full-time and pursuing her hobby on the side.

You can find more of her work here.

With files from Julia Lipscombe