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.