Stitch in Mental Health & Mindfulness
Embroidery as mindfulness dates back to the first World War, where it was used to keep the hands and minds of soldiers busy who were suffering from PTSD. An example of what is called diversional therapy which, “is a client centered practice [that] recognizes that leisure and recreational experiences are the right of all individuals.” (Diversional therapy, n.d.)
This helped to establish The Disabled Soldier’s Embroidery Industry. Ran from 1918-1955 this industry acted as skills-development, helping those ex-servicemen to raise their self-confidence. In addition stitching textiles with others helped to form bonds with those who had shared experiences, as well as make a bit of money. All through the power of embroidering items for industry and for themselves!
Soldier’s practicing embroidery as therapy.
In today’s contemporary society, one in four people suffer from mental illness in their lifetime. As someone who has dealt with mental illness for over six years, I know the struggles and how debilitating it can be. It’s why practicing mindfulness is so consistently drilled into us, to help us find a way to cope.
Madge Gill is an artist who lived a very unstable life, and experienced many traumas. Therefore, it is thought to be that the embroidery she completed was done as a form of art therapy for her. She suffered from a rare form of eye cancer causing her to have a glass eye put in place, and was later a patient in Lady Chichester Hospital in Hove due to Dr. Boyle in order to help her deteriorating mental health from being blind. This was a more supportive hospital in helping it’s female patients recover, which helped Madge Gill to further progress in her art. Her textiles have are an explosion of colour, with all threads at the back hanging loose, and different tensions of the thread throughout the fabric alluding to her not using an embroidery hoop. Although her struggles, she created 30 textile pieces by 1930, and her work is still exhibiting to this day.
Madge Gill and her textiles samples + an untitled piece she completed with cotton embroidery.
Initially with my stitch journey, I was drawn to Lorina Bulwer’s stitch work where at the time, who was imprisoned in Great Yarmouth Workhouse which was called a ‘lunatic asylum’ at the time. Bulwer was extremely angry and upset as you could expect someone incarcerated against their will to be, so stitching into patchworked rags her stream of consciousness was her form of coping. It helped her “shut up” in the sense that her rants were turned into physical artwork, 12 foot long tapestries. I explored her work and life story in further on my blog.
Lorina Bulwer’s stitch work.
Had the year not been disrupted by COVID-19 and carried out as normal, my inspiration from Lorina Bulwer would have taken the shape in using my own vents from when I was 15 and wrote an email to Samaritans every day, for a month in order to create my own tapestry/scroll. My daily diary is one that I would have used sublimation printing, a form of digital printing to transfer my own stream of consciousness onto fabric, so I could then embroider back over top. Using colours from Lorina Bulwer’s own stitch work, I would colour block out the bits of information that felt too personal to include, and satin stitch over these blocks to fill them in. Not only would this process be extremely cathartic to me, as that was a very dark time in my life, but it was also help to shed light on what it is like to suffer from mental health problems, and hopefully help to destigmatize them further.
The first email I sent to Samaritans which I would have embroidered as a part of my personal project and own art therapy.
Stitch as mindfulness for those incarcerated, like Lorina Bulwer, is something which interested me further. The British charity Fine Cell Work supports those in prisons by training them thoroughly in the hand craft of embroidery. All embroidery work is completed by those incarcerated in their cells (hence the name of the social enterprise!) and not only provides them with finances and work skills, but also helps to rehabilitate them by developing their confidence and self-esteem. You can purchase their bespoke work in their gift shop, and they even go as far to collaborate with designers such as Cath Kidston.
A look at prisoners at work with their embroidery for Fine Cell Work.
Our current global situation has left many to be left in “house arrest” in order to protect the health of ourselves and others, as well as to slow the spread of the contagious coronavirus. During this time where we can’t work, go to school, see our friends, or even grocery shop as normal, many people have been turning to domestic activities such gardening and craft as therapy during this stressful time. I myself have been throwing myself into my garden, and tending to my little family of plants. My dad has done the same, spending every second in our backyard tidying it up on a sunny day. With coming into warmer, beautiful weather while a lack of routine and motivation low, doing practical craft such as embroidery can feel like you’re accomplishing something while participating in mindfulness. My fellow classmate and friend Jasmine has been doing a lot of stitch in her garden lately saying,
“I love how relaxing embroidery is as I lose myself in it. Doing it in the garden is so lovely, I especially love doing it with a glass of wine!”
She has even involved her sister in stitching, reinforcing the earlier research post World War One when embroidery helped to form bonds between soldiers. Her sister has stated,
“It’s fun, something to do. I like sending my friends and family pieces of embroidery. My Grandma cried with happiness when she received my embroidery piece that I sent her as it reminds her of me as she can’t see me at the moment.”
A look at two of my own embroidery hoops I’ve completed.
This shows the peace practicing an art like needlework and stitch can bring. It helps people feel connected during this surreal time, with nothing more lovely receiving a hand-made gift when so many people are isolated in their homes. You can bring joy to others, while bringing it to yourself, thus improving your mental health and the health of those around you.
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Figure 1: TeAra. 2014. Soldiers Embroidering. [online.] Available at https://teara.govt.nz/en/photograph/45275/soldiers-embroidering-1918 [Accessed 2, May 2020]
Figure 2: Google.co.uk 2020. Looking for Madge Gill | Spitalfields Life – Google. [online.] Available athttps://contacts.google.com/?hl=en&tab=iC&authuser=0 [Accessed 2, May 2020]
Figure 3: Museum Crush. 2019. The Art Of Madge Gill And Myrninerest, The Spirit Who Possessed Her. [online.] Available at < https://museumcrush.org/the-art-of-madge-gill-and-myrninerest-the-spirit-who-possessed-her/> [Accessed 2, May 2020)
Figure 4: Stitching & Bitching. 2020. LORINA BULWER. [online.] Available at https://blogs.ed.ac.uk/s1830028_stitch-embroidering-our-heritage-into-contemporary-practice-2019-2020sem2/2020/02/25/lorina-bulwer/ [Accessed 2, May 2020]
Figure 5: Stitching & Bitching. 2020. LORINA BULWER. [online.] Available at https://blogs.ed.ac.uk/s1830028_stitch-embroidering-our-heritage-into-contemporary-practice-2019-2020sem2/2020/02/25/lorina-bulwer/ [Accessed 2, May 2020]
Figure 6: Stitching & Bitching. 2020. LORINA BULWER. [online.] Available at https://blogs.ed.ac.uk/s1830028_stitch-embroidering-our-heritage-into-contemporary-practice-2019-2020sem2/2020/02/25/lorina-bulwer/ [Accessed 2, May 2020]
Figure 7: Chloe Grieve (2020) Personal Emails to Samaritans
Figure 8: Big Issue Shop. 2020. Vendor Spotlight: Fine Cell Work. [online] Available at: http://blog.bigissueshop.com/category/vendor/fine-cell-work/ [Accessed 2, May 2020]
Figure 9: iNews. 2017. Meet The Women Training Violent Prisoners How To Stitch. [online] Available at: https://inews.co.uk/news/long-reads/fine-cell-work-embroidery-prisoners-jail-516014 [Accessed 2, May 2020]
Figure 10: Google.co.uk 2020. Fine Cell Work MICHELLE OGUNDEHIN – Google. [online.] Available at https://play.google.com/?hl=en&tab=i8&authuser=0 [Accessed 2, May 2020]
Figure 11: Chloe Grieve (2020) An Anxious Time To Be Alive
Figure 12: Chloe Grieve (2020) Big Scream