Hanging by a thread
When anxiety, or trauma, make you feel like you have been thrown overboard, the repetitive motion and focus of needlework can offer a sense of control
I can tell you this. It is mighty hard to thread a needle with tears welling in your eyes. The eye of the needle swims in your near vision, and soon starts resembling a wave you might try to pin down with a toe in the sand. But once that is done, you’re over the hump. The gentle “pop” as the needle breaks through the fabric and the “swoosh” as the thread rushes out, repeated a thousand times, each time lowering my cardiac BPM a wee bit. And I start to see clearly, and slowly uncurl my toes.
To me, needlework has been that opioid stashed in the bottom drawer, taken out on darkening days that start to spin and froth into heightening anxiety, turning reason to mush. The first time I reached for a standard Anchor cross-stitch kit (often the gateway to a lifetime of joy) was after a bad break-up. I don’t even remember what the kit design was, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the repetitive piercing of cloth over weeks led to a break in centripetal thoughts, all of which led to visions of annihilation, and allowed me to approach the future without bursting into tears.
Since infancy, I think, my anxiety-prone self was evident. I developed a habit of twirling my hair as a six-month-old. When my mother, frustrated by my newly found distraction, shaved off my hair, I simply turned my drool-face and started twirling my father’s hair.
I will explain my indulgent detour into my childhood. Embroidery has what I think are the inherent traits of anxiety-relieving therapy. Repetitive actions—compulsively pulling hair, cleaning, rolling paper into small balls, tapping legs—abate anxiety. The point about needlework is that it is not a distraction; it is an immersion. The repetitive action of pulling thread has a rhythm, which, when done long enough, is akin to a beating heart, and, with enough single-mindedness, is like meditation. It is the same for runners or knitters. One fellow embroiderer says, “It forces me to change my focus—I don’t ignore problems, they just don’t stay centred in my thoughts.”
I am the sort of person whose day can be utterly derailed by closely timed disruptions. Bad weather, no milk for tea, a delayed bus, can easily incinerate the next 4 hours. The problem is of easily feeling overwhelmed if things don’t go according to plan; the lack of control.
Needlework offers a window of help, quite literally. For instance, even if a design is large, I divide it into small 4-inch hoops and that’s it. That is my task—focus on a small patch, one after the other, paced in a grid. My therapist had recommended I do the same with my day’s tasks, whenever I felt I had been thrown overboard. Needlework can offer a sense of control, as many women echoed on an online needlework community. I spoke to women in stressful jobs, women doing PhDs, women who are dealing with a wide range of anxiety-inducing situations, from moves to new countries to coping with long spells of poor health or the death of a loved one. Sheila Meyerowitz, a Johannesburg-based psychiatric nurse (now retired), used counted threadwork to “think in my head” to cope with the grief of her mom’s death in 1975. “When I sew, especially when I count stitches or threads, my mind does its own thing. I have used embroidery ever since as my solace and my joy,” says Meyerowitz, who runs creative groups for brain-injured adults.
For this story, I asked several women about their relationship with needlework, and the stories were astonishing and heartening—thousands of us have quietly worked our fears, pain, anxiety and even trauma into millions of small pieces of cloth. The Needle ‘N Thread Community on Facebook is a bottomless source for these stories. Kim Weight, who has a paralysed arm from an accident in 1979, has neuropathic pain in the arm. “The arm can be pinging off the wall but if I start embroidery the pain stops. It’s all about distraction therapy. Also, I am now going to use embroidery to ease myself back into the real world, after having chemo for four months,” says Weight.
The curative effect of needlework is not new. It was used as occupational therapy for shell-shocked survivors of combat in 1917, and it was later reported to “thwart melancholy”. Wounded soldiers were introduced to this craft as a way of rediscovering one’s worth as well as a way to earn.
Though needlework is not an official therapy for stress in the military, I found an American combat medic posted in Djibouti, Eli Browning, who has discovered its ameliorative effects. She says, “Haha, no, the military doesn’t officially condone embroidery, although my chain of command and peers react very positively to it. A lot of them have even asked me to embroider their names inside their T-shirts and stuff.”
For the longest time, I resisted embroidery. It is considered “women’s work”, after all. And how could I, Rebel Ultimate, ever accept the patriarchal ball and chain known as embroidery?
Quite literally though, it may be women’s work. Because I have found very few men on this turf. A close friend, Labanya, who grew up watching her mother and grandmother embroider, started needlework as a child but soon gave it up to make way for cooler hobbies such as films and reading. But diagnosed depression made her take it up again. She says: “It gave me a sense of purpose, and completion would give me a feeling of achievement. It also made me realize anything is cool as long as you think it is. Above all, I made embroidery cool again.”
And this is what makes it powerful for me and many others—that no one can tell me what is women’s work. In the end, embroidery is my rebellion.
The world of embroidery is profoundly feminist. And it is not so because of the absence of men. Because that is not what feminism is. It is because it is a universe of goodness, of purity and quietude, run soundlessly by the women in this community. It is the comfort of the tight squeeze of a friend’s hand at the gynaecologist’s office, or the squealing joy of a childish push into a swimming pool.
Browning, who is of Native American descent—a community that has a long history of needlework—also initially resisted it. She says, “I never learnt a “feminine” craft because internalized misogyny led me to see women’s art as frivolous or not valuable. But over the years I have met many incredible women who have taught me to see the true value in the art that women have traditionally made, and to understand the oppressive reasons why it’s considered less valuable by society.” Today, she says that she sees “women’s stuff”, such as crocheted lace doilies and painted china, very differently, “It’s deeply valuable, highly skilled, handcrafted art.”
The last piece I embroidered was a single tulip on an old, faded blue jacket. It is the first time I will wear something I conjured up and commanded. And I know that every time I run my fingers on the gentle ripples and rolls of the thread, it will feel of me—uneven, and broken in parts, yet held together by a single, momentary flight of imagination.
The celebrity cross-stitchers
Taylor Swift, considered a DIY goddess, made Ed Sheeran a Drake-inspired needlepoint.
Dame Judi Dench does needlework embroidery—of swear words!—during movie shoots.
Jamie Dornan apparently loves to unwind and relax with a little sewing after a long day on set.
Padmaparna Ghosh is a freelance writer and you can follow her needle on Instagram at Girl_On_A_Hill
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