Sewing the Body Whole

Rachel May

When you’re working with this intimate process, sewing, quilting—any of those repetitive processes that are very meditative very easily become natural outlets for whatever is going on in your life. So, no matter what you make, you view it with this energy to sort of take it out of yourself and put it somewhere else—whether it’s something to get rid of or something to preserve.
Line Bruntse, visual artist

We are moved by things. And in being moved, we make things.
Sara Ahmed, “Happy Objects”


image JIll presenting photo by Ariella Ruth

I convened this panel on sewing and writing in order to explore connections between text-iles. I come to this work as a quilter, fiber artist, writer, and scholar of material culture theory and historic quilts—including the history of quilt-making and textile production in the US and abroad. Here, I’m working at the intersection of gender & women’s studies, thing theory, new media theory, and cognitive theory. Each writer and artist on this panel is engaged in the work that sewing and writing, together, make possible—performance of the body, meditative repetition, the integration of images, text, and iconography in and with thread. We explore how we use our bodies to make, how we engage and subvert associations of domesticity and fiber work, and why a tactile process like sewing can work to balance and serve as a counterpoint to writing.

While passing out fabric and thread so that participants can sew while listening: “Part of what’s so important about sewing to me is the sensuous quality and the sounds—you heard Jill talking about the sound of the thread coming up through the hoop—and the sound of the fabric ripping when I’m quilting and rip fabric up quickly. I hope that you’ll put the fabric up to your ear and hear the thread come through…I’m also going to pass around this embroidery so you can feel the different textures.” I also noted that the evidence of my emotions comes through in the stitches; I can tell how I felt when looking back at a stitched work, just by the quality of the stitches. Thus, a different form of voice emerges, much like the voice evidenced in a written work.

In her seminal book, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine, Roszika Parker explains how embroidery has both “constrained” women and offered them “a weapon of resistance” from the Middle Ages to the present:

‘Has the pen or pencil dipped so deep in the blood of the human race as the needle?’ asked the writer Olive Schreiner. The answer is, quite simply, no. The art of embroidery has been the means of educating women into the feminine ideal, and of proving that they have attained it, but it has also provided a weapon of resistance to the constraints of femininity. (Parker, ix)

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a material culture theorist whose seminal work focuses on women’s diaries and sewn, woven, and handmade objects, argues for closer consideration of historic textiles made by women. Here, like Parker, she establishes connections “of pens and needles” in her essay of the same title:

We might begin with Anne Bradstreet’s famous line: ‘I am obnoxious to each carping tongue/ Who says my hand a needle better fits.’ That sentence establishes a creative tension between pens and needles, hands and tongues, written and non-written forms of female expression, inviting us not only to take oral traditions and material sources more seriously….but also to examine the roots of the written documents we take so much for granted. (Ulrich 202)

Thus, we read textiles for their stories, and women’s diaries, letters, and other forms of writing, as well as oral histories, for the knowledge they hold. Ulrich analyzes a midwife’s diary to tell the story of Martha Ballard and her era, and woven baskets to tell the story of Native Americans—and the relationships between Native Americans and European colonists—in New England.[1]

Despite centuries of associations of domesticity with sewing, reinforced in particular by the Victorians, Parker sees hope, because “definitions of sexual difference, and the definitions of art and artist so weighted against women, are not fixed” (215). Just as they have “shifted” in the past, so will they “be transformed in the future” (215). This work of transformation is being undertaken by contemporary sewer-writers, like the women on the panel, who incorporate sewing into their writing, or place their sewing as writing or fine art in lit journals, presses, and galleries, which “carrie[s it] across the borders into masculine territory,” as Parker writes, and forces a new consideration of the role of stitching and writing in women’s lives.

One of the questions I’ve sought to answer in convening this panel and working on contemporary text-iles is why women—and some men—engage with sewing and writing today. Why, when women have access to the pen, if not—yet—equal recognition in publications and awards[2]—have some of us chosen to return to the needle?

stitched piece during presentation, Danielle Pafunda

Part of the allure of sewing is—and has always been—its tactility and sensuousness, which, today, might be a salve for our lives spent staring at screens. Like the early twentieth-century response to the typewriter with an emphasis on handwriting and using the body, as seen in Twombly’s autographic gestures and automatic writing, perhaps sewing is an attempt to draw the body back into writing.

This connection between body and writing is evident in the work of Emily Dickinson, whose language may have been influenced by her lifelong training as a sewer. Susan Howe and others have theorized about the influence of attending church and the rhythms of the hymns and preachers’ language on Dickinson’s writing, and we might consider how other habits in Dickinson’s life influenced her as well. Daneen Wardrop writes about Dickinson’s sewing in her 2009 book, Emily Dickinson and the Labor of Clothing, noting that Dickinson lived near textile mills and a hat factory. Wardrop quotes Dickinson’s letters in which she talks about how she’s moving between sewing “for Vinnie,” her nephew, and writing a letter:

In this instance, Dickinson sews alone, but interpolates the act of writing into the act of sewing so that the two exist almost as oscillating activities of stitching and inking…She…switches from needlework to a fantasy about writing in easy glides of mental activity brought on like the hypnotic repetition of stitching” (52).

Here, again, lies the connection between needle and thread, to which Bradtsreet, Ulrich, and Parker spoke.

Dickinson fly buzz

Further linking the two acts, Dickinson sewed her fascicles together with thread, and the packets of poems are still marked with the “pierced” hole of the sewing pin that held the pages together. She often used pins on the envelope fragments that Jen Bervin recently presented in The Gorgeous Nothings and that curator Claire Gilman displayed at the Drawing Center in NYC, along with Walser’s “microscripts.” The evidence of Dickinson’s needle might be seen in the handwriting of the fascicles, which look so different from the typeset texts of her poems (which may be part of why she didn’t want to publish her work). These poems must be read as material objects, whose language looks more like stitching, with long lines across the “t’s” and dashes and x’s marking pauses, mid-points, and connections. Her writing is an echo of her sewing, creating not just a different sound but also a different appearance—so that we can consider these visual poems—on the page.

Bervin also created a sewn version of Dickinson’s handwritten marks on the fascicles.

Bervin Fasicles


In the statement accompanying this work, Bervin writes that editors have denied Dickinson’s poems the integrity of being printed in the form and order in which she composed them. Thus, Bervin’s attempt to stress the importance of the marks in the fascicles:

I have never doubted Dickinson’s profound precision, however private, nor that the energetic relation of these marks and variants is anything but integral to her poetics. I have come to feel that specificity of the + and – marks in relation to Dickinson’s work are aligned with a larger gesture that her poems make as they exit and exceed the known world. They go vast with her poems. They risk, double, displace, fragment, unfix, and gesture to the furthest beyond—to loss, to the infinite, to “exstasy,” to extremity.[3]

As a woman poet and sewer, Bervin is one of Dickinson’s kin, as are the women on this panel. They work with needle and thread, incorporating the sewn marks to speak to cultural intersections and divides, environmental hazards, and family history traced and sewn together on maps or in iconographic images. Each writer uses sewing and language to different ends, but all are engaged with this long tradition of a domestic art subverted for new meaning-making, a meaning derived from repetitive physical labor.

I’d like to say more about this history of labor, the fiber mills in Lowell where Jan Johnson now lives, where, as material cultural theorist Laurel Thatcher Ulrich reminds us, the industrial revolution was born. And, too, the long history of the Victorian “cult of domesticity” that women subvert, as Parker argues, in order to undermine patriarchal power and speak their own stories. In addition, there’s a connection between quilt-making and community, and how women’s quilts are read AS texts, not just in conjunction with texts (as Ulrich and quilt historian Pat Ferrero argue we ought to do), along with their diaries and the stories of their lives. For so long, women were given the needle and only the needle; this is why Emily Dickinson’s work is so fascinating when read in this context of sewer-writers, as she wielded both pen and needle. These are ideas I’ve explored in other essays and don’t have the space to explore in full here. For now, I’d like to return to Line Bruntse’s remarks at the start of this piece, in which she highlights the ways that the meditative, repetitive act of sewing can reveal one’s story and history in the fiber. It is, as she says, an intimate process.


What makes the process so intimate is the mind-body connection that’s evident in sewing and writing. New media theory and cognitive science offer inroads into this exploration of sewing and the body, sewing and writing. N. Katherine Hayles describes the repetitive process by which we remember, creating new pathways in our brains; if we lose a part of our memory, that memory can be jogged, so to speak, by developing new pathways nearby: “New circuits take over where the old fail;” this is called neural plasticity (64).

Hayles speaks to the power of reading and re-reading a text in print, versus reading online, explaining that reading online puts a greater “cognitive load” on our brains, as we shift from link to link or see an ad flash up on the page. With a hard copy, we can linger on the page and spend more time with the text, which means that “the transfer to long-term memory happens more efficiently, especially when readers reread passages to pause and reflect on them as they go along” (64). She compares this to Mr. Miyagi training the Karate Kid by giving him the same motions to do over and over again (“wax on, wax off”), “retraining his neural circuits so that he can master the essentials of karate movement”(65)[5]. In the same way, cognitive behavioral therapy uses repetitive action to break old habits and create new behaviors, which physically changes the brain, creating new pathways.

human sewing machine (Danielle Pafunda photo credit)Recent research on the effects of knitting on the brain have been published in scholarly and popular journals, perhaps in response to the DIY movement. Here, in an article for CNN, Jacque Wilson describes the neurological effects of knitting and sewing:

Crafting can help those who suffer from anxiety, depression or chronic pain, experts say. It may also ease stress, increase happiness and protect the brain from damage caused by aging. ‘There’s promising evidence coming out to support what a lot of crafters have known anecdotally for quite some time,’ says Catherine Carey Levisay, a clinical neuropsychologist and wife of CEO John Levisay. ‘And that’s that creating—whether it be through art, music, cooking, quilting, sewing, drawing, photography (or) cake decorating—is beneficial to us in a number of important ways.’ (Wilson)

She goes on to explain that crafting’s effects are “similar to meditation” and invoke a “state of flow” (Wilson).[4] Wilson cites Csikszentmihalyi, who notes that when we are in flow, the “body disappears.” Eve Sedgwick writes about a similar state when she was making with cloth after her cancer had moved into her spine and she experienced a lot of pain: “My fingers were very hungry to be handling a reality, a beauty, that wasn’t myself, wasn’t any self, and didn’t want to be” (75). She gave up the “pre-text of self-ornamentation to which my love of textiles had always clung before,” and found solace in the “notion of a visual or tactile beauty that might be impersonal, dislinked from the need to present a first-person self to the world” (71). She speaks to the state of flow and how it helped her to connect—or dissolve barriers between—the body and mind: “…I loved the way these Buddhist mantras had of not merely challenging but undoing a whole series of dualisms that normally seem inextricable to language itself: signifier versus signified, the presumed divorce of language versus reality, between linguistic and material worlds.” The gap between language and the tangible world (signifier and signified) was gone, and she lost her need to “present a first-person self to the world;” she was in a state of flow.

This breakdown of the disconnect between signifier and signified, and of finding a state of flow by working with cloth and yarn, is connected to the notion of the thing theorists and material culture theorists, as well as Sarah Ahmed (quoted at the start of this essay), whose work is in affect theory, who turn to objects to understand culture. Thing and new media theorists Bill Brown and WJT Mitchell note that objects are “always already” encoded in our discourse, while “things” are just things. In other words, we associate meaning with an object; it’s connected, in our minds, to a word, while things are not connected to any culturally-held meaning or association. Things are nameless, so to speak, not signified. Mitchell explains that we can “sound” or press against/explore objects in order to understand culture. Here, we are again at the intersection of material and language, the materiality of language, and the connections between the body and writing—automatic writing, the autographic gesture—and the word on the page and the sewn word on cloth.

Finally, weaver Lia Cook’s work with a neuroscientist helps to establish the “evidence” for these connections between making, touch, cloth, and the brain. She says, “We are a very visual culture…The whole tactile physical response is as important, I think, as the visual.” As Wilson writes: “The repetitive motions of knitting, for example, activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which quiets that ‘fight or flight’ response. The source of the “fight or flight” response is in the amygdala, where, as Lia Cook points out, our sense of touch also lives.

The scientist’s note that it’s the amygdala that’s affected in the observation of textile work, because the amygdala is associated with ‘touch,’ is especially interesting to me because the amygdala and hypothalamus are also the source of our fight-flight response.

Cook explains her interest in making woven pieces from photographs, and how the medium changes the effect of the image:

What the weaving does for the…photography is that it adds this tactile dimension that you maybe don’t have with a…flat print….I’ve always been interested in… neuroaesthetics, how the brain works…and I had this idea about my work…this emotionality of the tactile quality and how that relates to our emotional experience. And then, as it goes to the brain, what’s going on in the brain? I’m very interested in the touch part of the brain…So, when people are responding to my work, are they somehow connecting in to our sense of touch and our memories of touch?

Thus began her work with Greg Siegle, who “runs a depression lab” that occasionally hosts visual artists in order to consider connections between art and the brain.

We study emotional disorders, we study emotion, and yet as psychologists and psychiatrists, we’re given very little training in how to generate emotion. Artists have that training, so we bring them in and they teach us about what it means to create something that generates emotion. What we give back is we help artists to understand something about their own creation process or how people perceive their art. (“Episode IX, Crossroads,” Craft in America)

Siegle and Cook set out to understand how Cook makes her work, using brain sensors that allowed Siegle to analyze the data as Cook wove.[5] Siegle explains that these sensors, “EEG regs,” could “solve a lot of problems that would have prevented us from studying people [who] do craft in the past.” He goes on to note that art therapy may help people by replicating the effect that Cook experienced when she made a mistake in her weaving: The “front part of her brain,” or frontal lobe, shut down momentarily, until she fixed the mistake and moved on; then, her brain functioned ‘normally’ again. Siegle notes “this is what happens in people when they get clinically depressed—they sit tonically with that front part of their brain shut down.” He explains that “perhaps, if we can replicate this in a number of artists,” it could be helpful for developing art therapy modes for depressed patients, moving past the frontal lobe block (depression) into functionality.

Then, researcher Luca Pollinini, used similar technology to track observers’ responses to Cook’s work in a gallery. “The fact that they’re hand-woven rather than machine-made wovens creates a very interesting challenge, because a person would be attracted by the instinct of touching to see how it was created—and that is probably going to cause a very strong [sic] response, due to the fact that the person is grabbing for touching the art, but they cannot do it.” This theory, and Cook’s sense of how the “touch center” was involved in her work, was corroborated by another of Siegle’s studies:

When we measured someone in the brain scanner perceiving weavings, we had a lot of activity in brain areas that are associated with touch and feeling. And what we saw was more activity for the weaving in an area of the brain called the amygdala. It’s a deep-buried brain structure that processes emotion at a low level. So the thing where you see a snake and you jump back because you’re scared? That’s the amygdala network—low-level emotions and the inroception body-awareness feeling were both more active for the weaving than the picture.

This final note by Cook and Siegle is especially resonant for me, and offers some insight into my own experience with textiles and the brain. Years ago, my coping mechanism when I was diagnosed with severe lifelong obsessive-compulsive disorder—having had no idea, before that diagnostic moment, that I had any such thing—was to sew. What’s fascinating is that OCD is believed to be a disorder in the amygdala, a sort of haywire response to that “fight or flight” mode to which Siegle refers when he talks about reacting to the snake. When I was diagnosed, I was told that “my lizard brain” (the old brain center, that doesn’t process ideas but generates reactions based on sensory input—the amygdala) was always reacting to a sabre-toothed tiger when, in fact, there was no danger present. So, our touch center, which alights when observing a tactile object, is the same place that becomes disordered in OCD.

Along with severe OCD usually comes severe depression. At that time, the only thing that I could focus on was making sewn pictures and functional quilts as gifts—my tether to those I loved. I sewed these images, one after another, for hours each day, and it was the touch of the fabric, the meditative qualities of sewing on a machine and by hand, and the colors that helped to save me.


Long Straight

Sewing became precision of expression.

Before I lost words, I wrote a series of things in Johnson, Vermont: the words were stranger shorter pieces than what I’d written before, and later, after I made the images, the words wanted to be paired with the images. So they became The Experiments. I was with visual artists during the residency in Vermont, and they talked about their work and could do things in their work that I loved—they were raucous and brave, louder than the writers in every way—smoking and drinking all night, slugging to their studios to get their hands into colors, to collage and paint and draw….”

Perhaps, when sewing these images, I was experiencing the sort of art therapy that Siegle describes during Cook’s weaving, when she moved past her mistake and unblocked her frontal lobe. I pushed myself through by sewing, emerging from this time into happiness. I also then came back into words, language, and writing.

It was also the sense of community that helped me during this time. I found modern quilters, joined a modern quilt guild, and eventually wrote a book about the modern quilting community, interviewing more than 75 people to talk about their process and aesthetics. And it’s what brought me to the women on this panel today.

It’s this community sewing—thinking about the collaborative work of the old quilting bees, when a dozen women would sit around a quilt frame and work on a project together—and thousands of years ago, women wove together on looms that could only be managed by two people[6]—as well as the sense of touch and rhythm that I’ve asked you to enact with me today, by sewing through your squares of fabric, which I’m going to collect and sew together into a quilted document of this moment, of your voices in the stitches.


[1] Here, I refer to Ulrich’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on her Diary, 1785-1812, and The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Making of American Myth, the latter of which unpacks the “myth” of a nostalgic era of the handmade that perpetuated during and after the industrial revolution.

[2] The VIDA counts have helped to create change in the publication and acknowledgment of women and writers of color.

[3] (

[4] Wilson writes: “Even today, years after Huerta first learned to knit, she finds she can lose herself for hours in a tricky pattern. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first described this phenomenon as flow: a few moments in time when you are so completely absorbed by an activity that nothing else seems to matter. Flow, Csikszentmihalyi says, is the secret to happiness—a statement he supports with decades of research” (Wilson

[5] For those watching the video, this discussion begins at 43:40. Greg Siegle starts at 44:46. Luca Pollonini starts at 48:02.

[6] This comes from Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber.



Works Cited

Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years—Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995.

Bervin, Jen. “Dickinson Fascicles.” Retrieved 30 January 2014.

Bervin, Jen. The Gorgeous Nothings. New York: New Directions, 2013.

Blake, William. The Complete Illuminated Books. New York: The William Blake Trust and The Tate Gallery Text, 2000.

Cameron, Sharon. Choosing Not Choosing: Dickinson’s Fascicles. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Drucker, Joanna. The Alphabetic Labrynth: The Letters in History and Imagination. London: Thames and Hudson, 1995.

 Franklin, R. W.. The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson: Volume I. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1981.

Gilman, Claire. Dickinson/Walser: Pencil Sketches. The Drawing Center, New York, NY, Nov. 15, 2013-Jan. 12, 2014.

Hayles, N. Katherine. The Way We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2012.

 Higgins, Dick. Pattern Poetry: Guide to an Unknown Literature. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

Howe, Susan. My Emily Dickinson. New York: New Directions Books, 1985.

Johnson, Thomas H., ed. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Back Bay Books, 1961.

McElheny, Josiah. Dickinson/Walser: Pencil Sketches. New York: The Drawing Center, retrieved 29 January 2014.

Morley, Simon. Writing on the Wall: Word and Image in Modern Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

 “Episode IX: Crossroads.” Craft in America. Executive Dir. Carol Sauvion. PBS. Nov. 16, 2012. Television. Web. Retrieved 21 March 2016.

Parker, Rozsika. The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine. London: I.B. Tauris, 2011.

Sedgwick, Eve. The Weather in Proust. Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2011.

Selby, Aimee. Art and Text. London: Black Dog Publishing, 2009.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. “Of Pens and Needles: Sources in Early American Women’s History,” The Journal of American History. 77.1 (1990): 200–207.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth. New York: Vintage, 2002.

Wardrop, Daneen. Emily Dickinson and the Labor of Clothing. Lebanon: University Press of New England, 2009.

Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics presents “Sewing is Writing is Body is Sewing” as part of the inaugural [DIS]EMBODIED POETICS Conference, occurring in conjunction with the Kerouac School’s 40th anniversary. The panel was given in October 2014.