Sewing for Mindfulness

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I love my sewing machine. It's one of my most prized possessions and I know I'm not alone sharing that sentiment. You really can't beat its speed and efficiency; whizzing up blocks, or a quick project for a satisfying finish or last-minute gift. But I also love hand sewing, hand quilting, and in particular English Paper Piecing. There really is something to be said about having the freedom to carry your stitching about with you and taking it out whenever you get the chance. It's my constant companion at my children's games practice, in front of the television, or when I feel the need just to slow down, sit quietly, and enjoy the rhythm of forming the stitches. It got me to thinking about this process; that it really is mindful and meditative, as well as being productive and purposeful.   

So, for this final instalment in my series about English Paper Piecing, I'm taking a look at the relationship between the needle and thread in our hands and the impact it's having on our minds, our health, and wellbeing. The term mindfulness has become rather fashionable in recent years and I want to investigate how EPP can help with this. I also want to explore positive effects of hand sewing; how it can bring people together, create a sense of connectedness, and achievement. People often joke that sewing is their 'therapy' and actually they are not far wrong; sewing and EPP can help people get through even the darkest of times of their lives.  

 

Definition of Mindfulness

So, what do we mean by mindfulness? According the meditation app Headspace which promotes mindfulness, it is described as; the quality of being present and fully engaged with whatever we’re doing at the moment — free from distraction or judgment, and aware of our thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in them.

 
English Paper Pieced rosette made by Leisa Morris-White.

Stitching Mediation

It's certainly true to say that when I'm stitching alone, it is as if nothing else matters. I get into the 'zone' of sewing and forming those stitches becomes the most important thing, with my soul purpose being to stitch and create. Being in this creative mindset and doing something with my hands gives me such pleasure. On many occasions it's been getting very late into the evening and I should be going to bed, but I just can't seem to stop sewing. It becomes all-encompassing and I get totally absorbed in what I'm creating. Stitching by hand forces you to slow down and take your time. It's a physical, repetitive, and tactile experience in an intimate way. Hand stitching could be described as a form of meditation, and it just so happens that my friend and fellow EPP lover Leisa Morris-White from Morris Textiles is setting up a Stitching Meditation class at weekend retreat. I chatted to Leisa about her plans;  

"I have two wonderful friends Kelly and Melinda who run meditation classes and retreats. I attended a class and we discussed the different ways you can meditate. I told them that hand stitching is a form of mediation for me as it really calms me and gives me something to focus my mind and hands on if I’m feeling anxious for any reason. We talked more about English Paper Piecing and they asked me to teach a class in Texas Hill Country. They both got copies of Florence Knapp’s book -Flossie Teacakes Guide to English Paper Piecing to find out more! The idea was that everyone on the retreat would make a Hexie flower and enjoy the relaxing and meditative motion of hand sewing. The flowers would then be added together at the end of the retreat to make one quilt panel.”

 
 

Unfortunately, the retreat had to be postponed due to the pandemic, but I know Leisa is looking forward to a time when it is safe to gather again and share her love of EPP. She hopes that after the retreat some of the attendees will want to continue and for it to become a regular stitching meditation bee.

This idea of collaborative mindfulness and meditation is a wonderful way of bringing people together, and sharing in the learning, skills, and ultimately the relaxation and enjoyment together. I so hope that we can get back to in-person sewing sessions soon, as it really is so good for our mental health and wellbeing.  

 
Jo Avery stitching in her garden.

Stitching in Nature

Being mindful is also about being aware of our surroundings; noticing the ticking of the clock, the hum of the cars outside, and the tweeting of the birds. It's already been proven that being outside and in nature is good for our mental health; how many times have we been told going for a walk is good for us?! My friend Jo Avery, who lives on a farm in Scotland, takes every opportunity to head outdoors, and often with her stitching in hand too. When I get the chance to go and visit her, usually a couple of times a year, there's nothing I love more than sitting outside with Jo, a cup of tea, and our EPP, listening to the sounds of the stream and the trees gently swaying in the wind. I chatted to Jo about her love of the outdoors;

"Living in Scotland we don't get a lot of warm sunny days even in summer, but as soon as the sun comes, I head straight outside with my hand sewing. This is usually needle-turn appliqué, EPP, embroidery, or even some hand quilting on a small project. I actually find it quite stressful to sit down without any hand sewing to work on, I get really fidgety if I don't have something to sew. The repetitive nature of stitching is very calming and allows space for my mind to wander freely.  I make time to hand sew every day, either in the garden if it's warm or beside the fire through the winter evenings; it's really essential to my mental health."

 So, if you get the chance, why not take your sewing outside too and reap the benefits of the fresh air and the chance to stitch mindfully. It will do you the world of good.  

 
 

Stitching Through Hardship

Sewing has often been a literal and metaphorical thread to hang on to during times of hardship. There are so many examples throughout history, but I wanted to share the story of the Changi quilt. This quilt was created by women prisoners of Changi Prison in Singapore in 1942. The women had been separated from their husbands, many of whom were at a nearby military camp, and there was no way of contacting them to let them know they were alive. But then a woman called Ethel Mulvany had a brilliant idea; to stitch a set of patchwork quilts for the hospital at the military camp, containing secret messages and symbols, so that when the men saw the quilts, they would know their families were alive. Each woman set to work on a patchwork square, embroidering her name and 'something of herself' onto it, so that the men could identify them. They made 3 quilts in total, with 66 squares on each quilt. An interactive version of this quilt has been created at the Red Cross and I urge you to click on the different squares, see a close up of the embroideries, and read more about its stitchers. Some of the blocks contain patriotic symbols such as the Welsh flag and daffodils or a harp and a shamrock. Stitching these emblems was no doubt a mindful process, reinforcing feelings of identity, pride, and connection with the outside world. It must have been very cathartic, offering calm, distraction, and respite from the horror of their incarceration.  Ultimately, it offered hope, as it was a way of letting their loved ones know they were alive.     

 
 

Stitching through Grief

There is no doubt that stitching can offer comfort during difficult times. I know from personal experience that when I've felt stressed or anxious, stitching can calm me, and force me to slow down and regroup. But it can also be a lifeline during times of grief and great sadness. British quilter and EPP lover Lucy Brennan, a good friend of mine, went through a very difficult time when her nan passed away. Lucy was generous enough to share her experience with me about how hand sewing helped her.  

“My Nan did a lot of embroidery and crochet. I would go and spend the occasional weekend with her, and she always asked me to bring my work along. We would watch crime dramas together while sewing and she enjoyed seeing me stitch even when she was no longer able to see well enough to do her own. When she passed away, I was devastated. She taught me so much and we had a very special bond. Picking up a needle and doing my work connects me to her and it allows a pause in my day. Hand sewing is so restful, it calms my mind and concentrates on that small action of needle pulling thread. Oftentimes I now stitch in silence despite feeling overwhelming sadness; the focus allows me a break from the busyness of life. One stitch at a time, it's a connection with my past while sitting soundly in the present. Growing a project, even very slowly, is rewarding and with each bit of work I would like to think my Nan would be proud.”

 I'm so glad that Lucy was able to find comfort in her stitching to help her through her grief. Isn't it amazing that stitching can provide comfort and be so restorative? It facilitates connections to people, places and moments in time and so often the goal isn't to get something finished as fast as possible, but to enjoy the journey and the process.  


"A Piece of Me Pouches" by Lucy Brennan

An Exception to the Rule and Word of Caution

There are a few exceptional circumstances where slow stitching does not bring calm or relaxation and I feel compelled to tell you of what I think is the rather funny, if unfortunate tale of fictional character Honor Bright in the novel The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier. On her voyage to America from England in the 1850s, Honor tried to baste some hexagons as respite from the nausea and seasickness that was the constant companion on her journey. Let me share an extract with you.

“As a gift for the journey her mother had cut out hundreds of yellow and cream cloth hexagons and paper templates for Honor to sew into rosettes.  She had hoped she might complete a whole grandmother's garden quilt during the voyage, but the swaying of the deck make it impossible for her to establish a steady rhythm in which to make the neat, tiny stitches that were her trademark.  Even the simplest task of tacking the hexagons onto the templates required more concentration than the movement of the ocean allowed......Honor waited until no one was about, then dropped the hexagons overboard – they would make her sick if she ever saw that fabric again.”

Poor Honor! Perhaps then, EPP and hand stitching should come with a message of caution – do not attempt on choppy sea crossings! I do know though that many quilters today take their EPP with them when they travel, either in the car, on a train, or plane for example, as it is a welcome distraction from the monotony of a long journey, a good opportunity to make progress on a project, and it's wonderfully portable. But perhaps it really is best avoided if you're already feeling travel sick!

 

 A Conclusion

My three-part series has sadly come to an end, and what a pleasure it's been. I for one have learnt so much about the history of English Paper piecing through my research and it's been an honour to pass that knowledge on and inspire you to find out more. I am ever grateful that we live in the era of modern technology, where we can use pre-cut papers, templates, and even pre-cut fabrics. I truly admire those women who had to work out the mathematical calculations to draw hexagons from scratch!  All the hard work is now done for us, allowing us to concentrate on the joy of stitching. And as we've discovered today, it's as much about the process as it is the finished piece. It's good for our mental health and wellbeing and a faithful, reassuring companion when times are tough. I hope you now feel inspired to pick up some English Paper Piecing of your own and savour every moment of your stitching journey.  

 

References:

Changi Quilt – https://changi.redcross.org.uk

 Flossie Teacakes Guide to English Paper Piecing by Florence Knapp –http://flossieteacakes.blogspot.com

 Jo Avery – www.joavery.co.uk

 Lucy Brennan – https://www.charmaboutyou.com

 Meditation Classes – https://www.thankyouforshowingup.com

 Morris Textiles – www.morristextiles.com

 Sarah Ashford Studio Shop – www.sarahashfordstudio.com/shop

 Tracey Chevalier – https://www.tchevalier.com