Zines have a direct cultural link to the third wave feminist movement, with feminist zines rising to prominence in the early 1990s alongside the punk subculture known as “riot grrrl” (Piepmeier 8). Feminist zines provided an avenue for young women to write about their lived experiences of sexism or discrimination and to connect with other women who had shared experiences, much like the consciousness-raising groups of previous feminist activist movements (Duncombe 197). Contemporary feminist zines have continued to evolve in this manner, blending the personal with the political as zinemakers approach new topics and find new language and imagery to reflect their experiences.
Physical and digital contemporary feminist zines recall this legacy of feminist activism through signifying historically traditional feminist craft practices such as quilting and scrapbooking in their material construction. Reynolds suggests that it is the unique modes of creative self-expression offered by the zine medium, rather than the actual content, that offer opportunities for political expression for zinemakers (12-13). Zines allow the maker to have complete, unmediated control over the content, production methods, and distribution reach outside of mainstream media and capitalist mass production (Reynolds 12). Zinemakers become empowered through self-representation and reclaiming one’s own narrative (Piepmeier 5). Here, the type of political and activist work undertaken is local and individual, where cultural change is promoted through autonomous media consumption and production (Piepmeier 5).
Zines are most commonly defined as “noncommercial, nonprofessional, small-circulation magazines which their creators produce, publish, and distribute by themselves” (Duncombe 9). Prominent zine scholarship has historically analysed zines through the lens of subcultural or alternative publishing (Duncombe; Atton), as sites of resistance to mainstream representation (Schilt; Harris), and for their textual or narrative properties (Poletti; Piepmeier; Sinor). While the modes of production and content of zines promote unique lines of enquiry, the materiality of the zine also provides opportunity for informing and enhancing reading practices beyond the formal structures of traditionally printed materials. Duncombe suggests that the form of the zine “becomes part of the message from zine creators to their audience” (105). This is evident in contemporary feminist zines where the use of handcrafted elements adds layers of signification to the object, particularly concerning communal belonging through shared textual and visual narratives
It is through this lens that I will examine two examples of contemporary feminist zines, Fine Cloth and She’s the Girl U Want. I argue that the use of unique handcrafted elements such as thread and fabric in zine construction signifies a shared legacy with feminist craft practices as a means of self-expression and communication. I will first examine how thread acts as a binding mechanism in Fine Cloth, where the reader is required to physically untie the zine to gain access to its interior. This action is an invitation to read the enclosed contents and suggests a kind of intimacy between reader and creator. I will then investigate how the felt fabric embroidered cover of She’s the Girl U Want promotes an enhanced reading of the interior pages, transforming the zine into an autobiographical object. I will also examine how these handcrafted elements can translate to digital and online zines using the example of e-zine She Began to Question. Feminist craft practices have evolved alongside technological advancements and digital zines continue to utilise both real and perceived handcrafted elements to signify this shared legacy. The effect of materiality is not lost by reading and interacting with digital zines. Rather than viewing the digital zine as a reproduction of the physical, digital zines instead open space for new iterations and interpretations through existing in a new cultural context and offers an opportunity to continue to sustain these practices.
Intentional Construction: Quilts, Scrapbooks, and Zines
In order to understand how the material properties of the contemporary zine signify a shared legacy with traditional feminine craft practices, it is useful to explore the existing research linking the two sites of enquiry. Zines scholars Alison Piepmeier and Anna Poletti have both connected contemporary zinemaking to a legacy of feminism activism by drawing comparison to traditionally feminine craft practices such as scrapbooking and quilting, respectively. Poletti and Piepmeier establish similarities from the intentional construction of the object for individual women to communicate and connect with a broader community of women, utilising tools, themes, and language relevant to their own cultural moment.
Quiltmaking, scrapbooking and zinemaking are “conscious labouring choices” that privilege personal production as a means of communication and social connection (Poletti 55). The finished object tells the story of its labour, shown through seams, joins, stitches, and folds. Poletti explains, “the physical trace of the quilter is read by following generations, involving imaginative work which takes the object as a point of departure for constructing a sense of connection with one’s ancestry” (56). Quilts and scrapbooks are objects that are designed to be shared socially, but also passed on as an heirloom through generations, while zine distribution mimics this tradition through its unique gifting and trading culture (Poletti 56).
Christensen concludes that “the physical properties of stuff shape the ways social connections happen”, reinforcing the significance of the materiality of the object in connecting a shared legacy (264). These traditions have provided women with a means of participating in cultural production, using their outputs as empowering statements of unfettered creative expression. When reading zines through the lens of historical craft tradition, it becomes apparent that the use of thread and fabric in contemporary zinemaking can be read as a conscious choice of the maker to draw a link to feminist lineage.
The Use of Thread in Fine Cloth
Fine Cloth is a single cardstock page, folded in half and approximately A6 in size. It is colour-printed, with the front cover featuring a taupe damask pattern and an ink stamp that reads “for THOSE with discerning taste to follow and CHERISH” (emphasis original). The back page is plain dark brown and features computer-printed text alongside the words “fine cloth” with a floral illustration. A clear plastic button has been hand sewn onto the front page with a length of white embroidery thread that loops around the exterior of the zine to wrap back around the button. This acts as an enclosure, meaning the inner contents of the folded page cannot be accessed while the thread is wrapped around the zine. There is a small paper tag on the end of the thread stamped in ink with the word “entry” on one side and “fine cloth” on the other side. These structural elements evoke a sense of the zine acting as a private invitation to the reader.
The use of thread here is an intentional design element that blocks access to the inner pages and is therefore a significant element to consider when reading the zine. The act of unravelling the thread enclosure provides an interaction that is often not present in other text-objects. Piepmeier explains this act of “forcing the reader to untie the zine before reading it” means the reader becomes more invested in the act of reading (71). The ability to open, as well as deliberately close, the zine “evokes a sense of secrecy, of being invited to read hidden material” (Piepmeier 72).
Fig. 1: Cover of Fine Cloth zine.
Unwinding the thread from around the button and opening the zine reveals a double page spread of an intense and overwhelming digitally constructed collage. While the exterior of the zine appears quite formal and elicits an old-world sensibility through its print style, colouring, and font choice, the interior pages contrast this with the use of bold black, red, and yellow and extensive image layering. The reader’s eye is drawn to a misshapen plastic baby doll face surrounded by steampunk style ephemera such as an analogue clock, illustrated human hands, letter tiles, and accordion keys. The text of the inner spread is almost indecipherable due to the colouring and the busy background collaging. These design choices can be read as evoking a feeling of a scrapbook, a traditional item on the surface but its inner contents reveal a personal interpretation of the creator’s experiences.
Poletti supports this notion, explaining that wrapping or encasing a zine is a transformative action in which the reader must first negotiate the zine as an object before it becomes a text (247-248). The additional sculptural elements beyond that of a traditionally printed book draw attention to the fact that each copy of the zine has been constructed by hand, thus humanising the creator of the object. The use of thread also acts as a reference to specific forms of women’s labour and skill (Poletti 56). The quilt is a visibly constructed item through its seams and joins, and the addition of this thread draws attention to the zine as a visibly constructed item (Poletti 54). Unlike the largely invisible binding or stapling of other printed matter, the thread here makes the hand of the maker visible on the object. Through interacting with the thread that has been sewn and wound, the reader is “registering the time expanded on each individual copy and positioning the contents as something gifted, prepared, contemplated, and special” (Poletti 247). This interaction promotes an embodied connection between creator and reader, thus promoting a feeling of intimacy.
The Use of Fabric in She’s the Girl U Want
She’s the Girl U Want is an A5-size booklet, folded and stapled along the spine. The front and back cover is made from bright yellow felt fabric with a crudely hand embroidered “#2” and a heart in black thread in the bottom right-hand corner. The inner pages of the zine are standard colour photocopied printer paper, mostly featuring drawings and doodles of femme-presenting characters alongside handwritten text. On the first inner page, the photocopy includes the ring-binding of a notebook, presumably where the drawing has been photocopied from. The middle spread has photocopied fabric pieces decorating the edges of the pages, bordering the hand-illustrated elements. The inclusion of the ring-binding and the fabric further draws attention to the zine as a handcrafted item, signifying to the reader that despite being photocopies, these internal pages are the result of a conscious labouring practice.
Fig. 2: Cover of She’s the Girl U Want zine.
The yellow felt shows signs of being cut by hand, with the sides cut on a slight angle and not sitting flush with the printer paper. The zine is also clearly folded and stapled by hand as the staples are off-centre, causing the pages to sit askew. Piepmeier refers to features such as these as “a scrappy messiness”, which is “an aesthetic that serves to humanize the creator and the zine” and enhances the sense of personal connection when engaging with the object (67). It reminds the reader “consciously or unconsciously, that there is a maker, a creator, behind this text” (Sinor 243). The reader understands that each page here has passed through the hand of the maker and was constructed with intention and care, situating the object as a labour of love.
The fabric and thread of the exterior can therefore transform a reading of this zine from a booklet of doodles or scribbles to an autobiographical object. While books can contain the content of life writing, their formal structures remind “readers that they aren’t actually privy to someone’s confidential information” (Piepmeier 73). The handcrafted elements of the zine signify “fewer layers of separation between the reader and the creator”, and encourage the reader to approach the zine as a personal object, rather than a mass-produced object (Piepmeier 73).
The fabric zine cover is thus a performative gesture of self-making and a statement of communal belonging. Smith draws on this notion of performativity to explain the prominence of shared narratives in feminist autobiographical texts, writing: “the history of an autobiographical subject is the history of recitations of the self. But if the self does not exist prior to its recitations, then autobiographical storytelling is a recitation of a recitation” (21). I suggest reframing this statement to the context of appropriating material qualities to construct an identity through history and legacy. Sinor suggests this is particularly apparent in feminist zines, where the performance of making the zine enacts a performance of identity, one that can be read to reflect a historical lineage of feminist craft practices (245).
Online Community and the Digital Reproducibility of Zines
Technological advancements have historically played a significant role in feminist craft practices and have lowered the barriers to cultural production (Ramdarshan Bold 217). The invention of sewing machines drastically altered quilt-making practices both in terms of quilt construction but also the surrounding social interactions (Christensen 267). Likewise, digital scrapbooking spaces have opened up opportunities for self-expression and sharing “without requiring outlays of money and space during production” (Christensen 268). While many anticipated the decline of zines with the rise of the Internet, zines have continued to flourish in both physical and online spaces (Duncombe 217).
The technological impacts on physical zines can be considered in two ways. Firstly in terms of digital communities, that is the connecting and networking between members of the zine community that can occur in online spaces. The digital medium makes it easier for the reader to connect with the creator and for creators to connect more broadly with a like-minded network thanks to email and social media (Ramdarshan Bold 220). This means a more immediate and tangible sense of community is available to those making and reading zines, compared to the informal and distant networks of physical zines that primarily operate through the postal system (Ferris).
Then, secondly, zines can be translated into a digital form known as e-zines, made through desktop publishing applications or simply as digitised copies of physical zines. Digital zines are arguably more accessible as they are more affordable to produce and distribute than their physical counterparts and therefore more affordable for readers to purchase (Ferris). E-zines hold the potential to reach wider networks and new audiences as they are not limited by print runs, thus providing an opportunity to sustain the practice and continue to build a lineage alongside advancements in technology (Christensen 263).
While the unique material qualities of physical zines such as Fine Cloth and She’s the Girl U Want enhance reading practices and undoubtedly add complex layers of understanding to the zine as material object, it is important to understand that the zine form itself is inherently reproducible. It is rare that a physical zine is entirely original and homemade, with most zines undergoing processes of scanning and photocopying. I have argued here that the handmade qualities of zines can provide additional context in which to read that object, but I also argue that a digital reproduction of a zine opens space for new iterations and interpretations through existing in a new context (Burns 5).
Burns argues that “the embodiment of the physical object is carried into the digital file”, and this is evident in the example of She’s the Girl U Want (7-8). The inclusion of scanned fabric pieces still reads as fabric even after the process of reproduction, continuing to call attention to the zine as a handmade object. This can also be seen in the e-zine She Began to Question, produced as a 17-page PDF. It is black and white and features handwriting, hand drawn illustrations and doodles, computer-typed text, and collaging. The cover of the zine appears to be a scan of the front page of a physical booklet, where the left side of the image (where the spine of a physical zine would be) appears to curve, suggesting that, rather than being a flat image that has been digitally manipulated, it was previously handcrafted. While the reader does not open the page in the same way they would a physical zine, the ascribed meaning here positions the reader to understand the intention and approach the object as handcrafted.
Fig. 3: Inner page of She Began to Question zine.
The collaging technique of the inner pages of She Began to Question mimics the scanned fabric found in She’s the Girl U Want. While the reader cannot determine exactly if this is fabric or scrapbooking paper, the cut and paste style calls to mind scrap pieces of fabric and the floral design suggests a pattern that is viewed as traditionally feminine, or even a reminder of the damask cover of Fine Cloth. The use of floral patterns here signifies to the reader that the zinemaker understands and acknowledges the ways feminist zines recall crafting traditions, and thus directly situates itself within that lineage. It is through the aesthetic and ideological performances of previous feminist craft practices that emerging practices continue to draw on this lineage, regardless of their materiality (Piepmeier 42).
Christensen suggests that the existence of the material object itself “suggests a desire to leave a durable legacy” (240). Zines, much like scrapbooks or quilts, may not be created with the explicit intention of becoming a historical record, but implicitly do so through the act of recalling traditional feminine craft practices. Contemporary zine creators align themselves with a feminist legacy through ideological or aesthetic similarities, shown here through the use of material items such as thread and fabric in physical zines and the signification of these material objects in digital zines (Piepmeier 39). Zines continue to participate as a record of communication in both physical and digital forms, adapting the use of physical ephemera and digital technology to reflect the cultural moment.
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