Eons ago, my first job out of graduate school was in a mental health clinic in Brooklyn, NY. I worked with clients who had experienced severe trauma. My primary role was to help them build coping abilities. One goal was to help the clients learn to tolerate uncomfortable emotions through mindfulness techniques. I worked on grounding and breathing techniques, and I often created crafts with clients through an art therapy program occasionally offered at our clinic. It was beyond challenging, but we saw small breakthroughs here and there. I realized that craft work is inherently therapeutic and that I could benefit from incorporating mindfulness into my own life.
After eventually moving to Charlottesville, I expanded my repertoire of techniques, both personally and professionally. I increased my stitching education and expanded my stitching skills. Whether parenting my children, volunteering with immigrants, or researching how to open a small business, I have found stitching to be the perfect refuge from the stresses in my life.
Now, as we hit month 6 of the pandemic and try to cope with so many unknowns, I have some thoughts on the connection between needlepoint and mindfulness.
At its core, mindfulness is the process of slowing down and taking time to focus our full attention on where we are, and what we are thinking, feeling, and doing in the current moment. It’s the practice of being aware of and engaged with our emotions and actions as they occur, accepting them without judgement. When we are aware of our feelings at a given time, we create the opportunity to interact with others thoughtfully, as opposed to simply reacting or acting out reflexively. Mindfulness is an enormous piece of self-care and wellness, particularly given how negatively stress can affect our health.
How does crafting –stitching in particular-- relate to mindfulness? When we engage in a task with our hands it allows our minds some space to wander, or just be. The work itself has a meditative, rhythmic quality to it, and it allows our thoughts and feelings to percolate. We can stitch while a thorny issue simmers. Often, at the end of the time spent stitching, we have arrived at some resolution or are at least better able to tolerate the ambiguity of the situation. The kinetic aspect of stitching gives our brains a little space to pause, to reflect, and to observe our emotions without judgement.
The Covid 19 pandemic has filled our world with uncertainty, anxiety and grief. Questions abound regarding the health and safety of our loved ones, financial instability, how to educate our children safely, and how to navigate the constantly changing landscape. Our country is wrestling with generations of racial and cultural biases, leading to strife and civil unrest. As we try to find a way to be part of the solution, many are asking, “what is to become of us?” Stitching can help quiet the mind, can help us to sit with the discomfort of all that is whirling around us in our lives. It can be both a distraction and a way to help cope with the turmoil.
Another way mindfulness plays a role in stitching has to do with setting an intention. When I begin a project for someone, I am mindful of the purpose and the recipient. I try to make each item with gratitude toward that person for being in my life. I put good energy into my work and each item is truly a gift made with love. By putting positive thoughts toward others, I am reminded that there is something bigger than me out there, connecting us. Stitching has also been a therapeutic outlet for grief. It is a comforting ritual during difficult times. A client recently completed a beautiful personalized frame that will house a photo of a beloved pet who has passed away. It is a lovely way to honor her dog and to work through her loss. Several customers recently shopped for their grandchildren, from whom they have been separated due to the pandemic. They found lovely gifts for these family members - stockings, pillows, ornaments, even footstools. We may be separated by distance or quarantine, but we can share our positive energy and hopes through our work.
Between the brilliant colors and tactile senses that the wools, silks and cotton threads provide, there is exquisite beauty in needlepoint. There really isn’t anything like looking at a new project fully kitted and all the threads ready to be stitched. Watching the project evolve as stitches come together can provide great comfort and peace. And the sense of achievement as you finish the canvas is meaningful. Recently a fellow guild member stopped by the shop with some of her works - her stitching was breathtaking. And the ultimate compliment: with one of her pieces, I couldn’t see the difference between the front and back at first glance!
Stitching itself can be difficult and takes focus and persistence. Doing complex, embellished stitches like French knots, turkey work, or beading requires me to be present in the effort. Working on something difficult to achieve something beautiful can be a metaphor for life. Sometimes I take on a needlepoint project that ends up being a lot more complicated than I anticipated. I’ve learned to slow down and just plug away at it. I sit with my stitching and my thoughts and I work through both. Stitching calms me. Focusing on the challenge of the task at hand recenters me, and I make progress. In the end, both the process and the product of this art can bring joy. I sincerely hope you find the same through your own stitching.