Stitch For Survival

I'm currently reading an utterly unputdownable book. Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors may occasionally induce eye-rolling at the puerile preoccupations and sheer quackery of psychoanalysis, but for all that it remains a vital and fascinating case study of the treatment and interpretation of women throughout the ages. Unexpectedly, it also throws light on attitudes to needlework over the years, from the opinions of proto-feminists to the most famous mind doctor of them all.

Two famous Marys decried embroidery as a subjugating, dullifying activity that diverted women's attentions away from more intellectual pursuits, and ultimately, away from their emancipation.


 Mary Lamb, early nineteenth century co-author of the enduringly popular Tales from Shakespeare, even wrote that "Needle-work and intellectual improvement are naturally in a state of warfare". Indeed, literature of the early 1800s would lead us to believe that women were forever busied with their "work", hands industriously sewing away creating embroideries of questionable usefulness or purpose, kept in the home at their embroidery frames rather than in the same spheres as "great" men. 





Mary Wollstonecraft, in her watershed text A Vindication of the Rights of Women, perhaps for the first time in English literature, urges men to treat women as equals, and speak to them rationally. In fact, it is almost as if she does not believe women are the fragile little flowers men would make them out to be, capable only of embroidering yet more fragile little flowers rather than turning their minds to more lofty pursuits. Curious.


Now, as a feminist and an embroiderer, I am of course a little sceptical that needlework and so-called lofty pursuits are incompatible. Embroidery gives me space to mull things over in my mind; to ponder everything from the intellectual to the banal. Aside from that, the shared roots of textiles and written text offer an endless source for scholarly research and a rich artistic practice. What I will allow is that it is a calming past-time; one does get into somewhat of a meditative state, and this brings me to my favourite needlework-related quotation of all time, from the granddaddy of psychoanalysis, Mr Sigmund Freud:


"(Hypnoid states) it would seem, grow out of the day-dreams which are so common even in healthy people and to which needlework and similar occupations render women especially prone".





Women are also more prone to these "hypnoid states" because they are the weaker sex (disallowing, of course, the fact that many of them pull off the superhuman equivalent of shoving a watermelon up their nose during labour). For all his sexual liberation, Freud was no feminist, as his theory that women longed for a totemic penis of their very own (thus implying that they were deficient men) indicates. However, it is interesting to me that Freud views embroidery as dangerous; perhaps he's investing a little too much symbolic power in that needle? It reminds me of another quotation I came across once, from the French novelist Colette, concerning her daughter; "she is silent when she sews, silent for hours... she is silent, and she - why not write it down the word that frightens me - she is thinking."


God, forbid, a thinking woman. Dangerous. A woman thinking under cover of an innocent womanly pursuit; doubly so.


Now that I'm studying at the Royal School of Needlework, sewing doesn't often occasion daydreaming for me any more; but when I first picked up a needle, my mind was in turmoil, and the repetitive process both afforded me an occupation (much like the "woman's work" of the 19th Century) and soothed me. In many ways, it was my salvation. It has since become my career path, but it's much more personal than that; I have embroidery to thank, at least partially, for pulling me out of the darkest period of my life.

Despite Freud's misgivings, needlework has since been recognised as an effective form of occupational therapy; following the second world war, shell-shocked soldiers were encouraged to complete embroidery kits as part of their convalescence. More recent studies suggest that the act of embroidery has a physiological effect, regulating heart beat and breathing, triggering "the relaxation response". I myself feel much more relaxed reclining on the sofa with the telly on if I have a bit of stitching in my hands (although that may have more to do with being hooked on needlework than with its calming effect).

An up and coming designer and girl after my own heart, Hannah Hill, recently put into words (and pictures) my own feelings about the salvation of embroidery, summing them up in one of her typically apt and succinct phrases, "Stitch For Survival".




She's surrounded the phrase with tattoo-style illustrations, including a self portrait and her trademark Ghoul Guides badges that she sells in her Etsy shop, and my favourite touch, which one might miss in a quick glance; a tear falling from the eye socket of the skull and crossbones. A reminder that surviving isn't always easy, but that stitching helps.



Frayed: Textiles on the Edge at the Time and Tide Museum




An excerpt from Lorina Bulwer's stitched letters

Every now and then, you go to an exhibition that speaks to you on such a personal level it seems tailor made for you. It was that way for me with an exhibition of feminist art at the Ben Uri Gallery in 2012, and it was that way with the Frayed exhibition I went to see at the Time and Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth last Saturday.

The exhibition centred around how stitched artworks could act as personal testament, salvation, or therapy. Large swathes of the text accompanying the exhibition could have been lifted directly from my dissertation.

Stitching began as therapy for me; a way of busying my hands so my mind could work things out, and heal. Consequently, many of the art works in the exhibition were very relatable, a couple almost painfully so.

Elizabeth Parker's sampler

I got to see one of my favourite pieces of stitch ever (which I'd studied during my degree) up close, and read every word of it. This huge sampler of blood red text sewn on to minuscule canvas was stitched by Elizabeth Parker, a young woman who lived in the 19th Century. Elizabeth begins her stitched text with the paradoxical phrase "As I cannot write"; she hoped that she would learn to write with a pen, but for the time being she could only stitch her story. And what a story; born into an impoverished family who gave her everything allowed by their limited means, abused (and even thrown down the stairs) by her former employers, Elizabeth wrangled with suicidal urges and their impact on her immortal soul. As the part-confession, part-testament continues, it moves from autobiography to prayer to desperate, uncertain plea to God, to anybody who can save her from herself and her "sins". Hauntingly, Elizabeth's sampler ends with the words "What will become of my soul?"

 Elizabeth's story ends happily, however; the blurb that accompanied the sampler told us that she lived to the grand old age of 76, and presumably accomplished her dream of learning to write, as she became a teacher in a village school. I found it heartening that Elizabeth's story reaffirms that people who struggle with mental health issues can live full, long, productive lives; that there is redemption, and that the meditative, contemplative, suturing act of embroidery can help lead to this; we can stitch ourselves back together again.


Quilts created by prisoners, in the 1800s and now
A section from one of Lorina Bulwer's stitched letters

The exhibition included examples of textiles created by individuals who had suffered many different forms of psychic blows; from kits worked by soldiers convalescing in the wake of the Second World War, to a quilt created by female prisoners under the guidance of Elizabeth Fry, to pieces created as part of a mourning process, to perhaps the most startling items in the exhibition, a series of embroidered letters painstakingly pieced together out of scraps and rags by a resident of a lunatic ward (as it was then known) of Great Yarmouth Workhouse at the turn of the 20th century. It is not clear whether this woman, Lorina Bulwer, came to the workhouse because of her mental health problems, or developed mental health problems through coming to the workhouse. Either way, I doubt her environment could have helped, and she was certainly not a well woman; in one of her extraordinary, cathartic, stream of consciousness, unsettling letters, she announces that she is the illegitimate daughter of Queen Victoria; in another she is obsessively preoccupied with hermaphrodites and Socialists, and the "ills" they have supposedly brought her.


Further excerpts from Lorina Bulwer's densely stitched letters
Her letters and her story make me glad to be alive now, when mental health issues are so much better understood and sympathised with. However, despite the hardships Lorina endured, whether at the hands of the state or her own mind turning against her, her letters have survived, and once seen, cannot be forgotten. However fragile and irrational Lorina was, I wager she was quite a tough woman, and disturbing as her stitched letters may be, they are a testament to her irrepressible spirit.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fascinating blog which can be read here.

Secrets Are The Things We Grow: An interview with artist Lily Cuyler

That line from Some Velvet Morning pops into my head unbidden whenever I look at Lily's work. As Lily rather modestly writes herself, "i'm lily and i draw flowers" (how serendipitous that her name is that of one of the most beautiful flowers!) Of course, Lily doesn't just draw flowers; she makes heartbreakingly honest confessional drawings, lino cut patches of famous artists' and writers' quotations, motivational fortune tellers, altered and embroidered photographs, typewritten poetry, and more. And she's still in high school. Once again, I've stumbled across the work of a young but staggeringly talented artist, and it's reminded me to pull my finger out! Her art is definitely a big inspiration for Treasures For Your Troubles, with its themes of self care and the daily struggles of life.

Thank you Lily for taking the time to answer my questions so thoughtfully. I can't wait to see how your next project unfolds.

How long have you been making art, and how did you get into it?

I started really realizing that I liked to make art two summers ago. I was more into collaging than anything else then. My mom is an artist, so there's always been creative energy around me. That's probably how I got into it, just thinking that it was a natural way of expressing yourself and spending hours away from everyone else just to finish this one project you're working on is completely normal. 


In your “Other People’s Secrets” project, you juxtapose (or compliment) presumably anonymous confessions with delicate floral-based illustrations. How did you make the call for submissions for this project? Was it difficult going through with it at points on an emotional and empathetic level? (I’m thinking in particular of the confessions about suicidal thoughts and self harm). Is your use of “twee”, delicate imagery an attempt to soften the sometimes shocking confessions, to prettify them? A sort of metaphorical bandaid? It seems to me that the imagery itself, with its muted colours and natural themes “whispers”, just as secrets themselves are told. How did you decide on the imagery for each piece? Did you select a number of confessions to illustrate, or illustrate all the secrets you were told?


I actually started asking people to send me anonymous confessions one day because I had drawn all these pictures, and they needed words on them, and I thought this would be kind of a nice and therapeutic way for people to get something off their chests. It was definitely difficult going through some of the secrets because they really touched me emotionally, especially the ones about contemplating suicide and self harm. My imagery definitely softens the blow of these intense human emotions. You can feel this way but have a pretty outside, the flowers can still be blooming. Some of my pieces have dead flowers, which to me represents being defeated, the beautiful colors have faded and died. I didn't illustrate all of the secrets I was given, some of them were very difficult to put into drawing-form. Some were too personal, some not secrets at all.



Are the photographs you use as backgrounds for embroidery your own? Are they picked at random, or do they have significance for each piece? How did you come to embroidery, and what do you like about it as a medium?

2 months on Flickr.

Most of the photographs for my embroidery are my own. I will actually take pictures on my roll of film imagining what kind of things I could embroider onto them. My photo embroideries are a chance for me to put more bluntly the things I need to get out of my system. Things that I feel are too intense or too long or too complicated to put on my simple drawings. The last photo embroidery I did, none of the pictures I took to use in this project developed, so I ended up using old film photos of my boyfriend's. Ones that didn't turn out quite right and just had a beautiful yellow color in them. I really like embroidering photos because whatever I do, even if I mess up significantly, it still looks okay. That fox, on one of my photos, did not start out as a fox. 
anti anxiety on Flickr.

Is there an element of art therapy to your practice? Is this something you have ever considered pursuing professionally? I say this ecause of the confessional, cathartic quality of your work, both in divulging other people’s secrets and your own, your use of inspirational and motivational quotations, and your gorgeous little hand drawn fortune tellers that come with sound and reassuring advice such as “Tell them you love them” and “Don’t be anxious”.



There is so much art therapy in what I do. It's therapy for me, specifically, and I am just coming to realize that it's also affecting other people in a therapeutic way. I get messages on Tumblr like "your art touched me tonight and helped me not self-harm." That makes me feel so good, both in the ways of knowing something I made helped someone, and knowing that someone else out there feels the same way I do. I definitely am committed to pursuing art professionally. I am almost done with my junior year of high school and I am looking at many art institutes to attend, it's the only thing that makes me happy and the only thing I feel like I'm really good at. If that ends up in an art therapy practice, then I'm happy with that. 


Sylvia Plath patch 
Own your own!

You touch gently on themes of mental illness in your work (and indeed, gentleness is what I think of when I look at your work, even when you use the word “fucking”). Is this something that particularly concerns you?




Mental illness concerns me to no end. About a year ago I was suffering from pretty severe depression, and I still get bouts of it from time to time. I have so many friends with mental illnesses that really affect their lives, and I think it's important to put these topics out in the open. I think it's important to connect with people on that level if they're needing help getting through something, anything. Flowers are the disguise to these pretty shitty feelings. 
The fear of suffering on Flickr.

Do you have many creative projects on the go at the moment, or plans of creating more in the future? Would you be willing to share a few of those with us?

There is always a project I'm working on. Right now I'm focusing on making a book of famous poets and their houses, which should be up on Etsy and Tumblr in a day or two. I'm really excited about it. When I get an idea for a project that I'm really excited about, sometimes I can't sleep until I at least start it. 



Interview with Lindsay Joy on her "Anxiety Series"

I did this interview with incredible fibre artist Lindsay Joy for a side project many months back, and since I've been chatting to Lindsay quite a lot on Tumblr recently, and following her work more closely, I thought I would share it here.

Lindsay is currently undertaking her Master of Fine Art at the University of Manitoba in Canada, and describes her practice as "scrambling attempts to feel better", which I'm sure all artists can relate to at one point or another!

Thank you so much for doing this honest, insightful interview, Lindsay, and thank you for letting me share it here.





What prompted the Anxiety Series? On your website you write that you realised “the most helpful therapy was the act of sharing”. Was your hope that your Anxiety Series would offer comfort and a sense of empathy to others suffering with anxiety and social phobia?

I have always been an anxious person, but two years ago I started realizing how much it was affecting my life. I started seeing a psychologist during the summer before my fourth year of college.  One of her suggestions was to make contemplative art as a way to calm down. At first, I tried the usual stuff - journal entries, a painting, earnest assignments that were embarrassing to show anyone but her. I didn’t feel like they were helping; I was just making what I thought I was supposed to. Traditional “contemplative art” also suggests wacky new age stuff which, as a skeptic, I am completely uninterested in.  I picked up embroidery again after my grandmother passed away, which happened right about the time my anxiety was at its worst. We found some antique hoops in her apartment, and I was antsy, away from home, dealing with grief and needing something to do with my hands. I made a small piece called Matriarch, reteaching myself how to stitch after not doing it for a long time. Once school started up again and it came time to really develop my art practice in my final year, I decided to use embroidery to explore my struggle with anxiety.

When I first realized I had a problem with my anxiety, finding out that Social Anxiety Disorder is a real thing in the world (at least according to Wikipedia), I tried to tell a few people. It was a terrifying revelation, and for some reason sharing was helpful, because it meant it wasn’t my fault. THIS is what’s wrong with me, guys! THIS! I got some strange responses, though, probably because I didn’t tell the right people. I have a hard time negotiating personal relationships in that way. When I started making the anxiety pieces, it was like they were a surrogate for my own confession, and though I didn’t necessarily know the recipient and they didn’t know me, but I still got to tell someone how I felt. At first, I was actually surprised that other people could relate, especially people I knew.

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Is there something about the juxtaposition or conflict between the cutesy or twee aesthetic of embroidery and the darker elements of your subject matter that you find appealing?

I’ve always found that juxtaposition intriguing. It makes my work feel less of a teen-angst expression and more self-aware. It’s also the fight in my own head, knowing that my thoughts are ridiculous but not being able to stop them. Reframing them with cutesy imagery, stitching and colours might create a sort of trap, drawing the person in from afar to view my detailed handwork, maybe expecting a laugh, but confronting them with the subject matter.

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Why and when did you begin to embroider? What sparked your interest in embroidery?

I’ve always made things with my hands. My mother  knits, crochets, embroiders and quilts, to name a few. I was an only child, so she showed me a few things when I was bored growing up. I used it a few more times during my first and second year of art school, where I majored in fibre and tried a lot of techniques. I was drawn in by the way you could combine colour, texture and line, and the ease of image appropriation with the technique. With embroidery, it is easy to be direct. With a lot of other textile techniques, you are waiting for dyes or to thread your loom, and I can just start stitching something right away. I am impatient, although that’s probably an ironic statement. I love the history of hand stitching, which also has a history with mental health, often as a past-time in institutions. 

Has making the Anxiety Series been a way of reaching out to others in the community? Have you been contacted by other sufferers?

I haven’t really been contacted by severe sufferers, but more from people who could relate to some aspects of the work, not necessarily having full-blown anxiety.  

Was it difficult to put such an intimate and painful aspect of your personality on display? What was the public reaction to the Series?

It wasn’t difficult at first, because I began the series during school, and the fibre group was so small and intimate, that I didn’t feel afraid to do it. Once it started to reach a larger audience, I became a little nervous about it. During the graduating exhibition, I was too afraid to be near-enough to my grad piece for anyone to identify me as the maker. With the work, I sometimes have had better responses from strangers than people I was close to. I’ve received a lot of concerned, “But you shouldn’t feel that way,” comments from friends I had known for years, and bad advice for quick fixes. I incorporate some of that into my work, too. The hardest thing, now, is to explain when I meet new people who are interested in finding out what I do as an artist. I think they have some degree of skepticism, like, “How can you be anxious?  You are talking to me now!” or something. The funniest thing was a classmate called me up to ask about an assignment, right after she had seen me working on the phone piece. Halfway through the call, she said, “Oh no!  You hate talking on the phone!  I’m so sorry!” It’s a little weird having people know those things, sometimes.

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Was the act of confession, together with what Joetta Maue calls the “quiet, meditative act” of embroidery, therapeutic?

It started out as the intention, although the anxiety is always there. A few people have assumed that since I’ve made the work, I’m anxiety-free, which is kind of weird. The work is definitely a temporary fix.  Thinking about what thread to use next and where to put the stitches sometimes helps when I’m thinking too much about useless things.  It keeps my mind occupied.