I have been preoccupied with words for as long as I can remember. At boarding school, letter-writing was the sole form of communication I had with my family.
While writing for the Press, I tried my hand at various literary forms. Questioning the value in producing so many words, I began to prune them severely, realising my goal was to move from the word to the object. Was that not what an emblem, logo or a flag was all about? And the saying, ‘one picture is worth a thousand words’ became particularly significant for me.
When I read Martin Heidegger’s, ‘Poetically Man Dwells’ “Meanwhile, there rages round the earth an unbridled yet clever talking, writing and broadcasting of spoken words. Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man,” I saw how I had tried to ‘shape and master’ language when all that was needed was for it to find me!
From the beginning of the last century, artists questioned painting as an end in itself. Magritte became interested in the ascendancy of poetry over painting and poet, Charles Simic lamented the gap between language and object when he wrote, “Wanted; a needle swift enough to sew this poem into a blanket.” So, a merging or over-lapping of boundaries in the arts took place. My cousin, Sue’s husband, Ian Hamilton Finlay, whose journey from word to object, coincided with the growth of conceptualism in art during the 1960s, understood my desire for a change in how I related to and used words.
To achieve this end, I chose to work with a needle and thread on cloth. Needlework was familiar to me. I could sew a straight seam, hem a jacket, attach a button to a coat and even darn the heel of a sock. But I had never learned embroidery. My feminist mother steered me away from this traditional occupation, associating it with subjugation. Long before it became fashionable her mother, born in 1879, had parodied this pursuit by taking thick, woollen thread in bold, masculine colours and stitching geometric shapes in a gigantic cross stitch on to coarse canvas, the finished article nailed to the seat of a set of dining room chairs. That was my grandmother’s concession to the genteel world of needlework!
There’s an irony, then, that I have taken it up, employing this inexpensive, portable activity into a means of artistic expression. With needle and thread, from paper or computer screen, I transfer recipes, poetry, philosophical reflections, quotations and sermons on to different fabrics: cotton, hessian, linen, silk, lawn, wool and crêpe. I choose personal and household articles as a platform: aprons, bandages, handkerchiefs (which symbolise loss or sorrow), blankets and gloves.
Forgetting its association with a feminine stereotype and a domesticated female art-form, needlework offers psychological benefits. Many an isolated woman has drawn comfort from her needle. Surrounded by her enemies, Mary Queen of Scots, at Fotheringay, stitched the story of her oppression, her statement made with an object and not words on a page. During WWII, women imprisoned in Singapore’s Changi jail, whiled away the hot, fetid hours with needle, thread and scraps of cloth; their efforts are exhibited today by the Red Cross.
By taking a piece of fabric and imposing a word on it, I have achieved a sense of equilibrium and calm and a feeling of belonging in an otherwise alienating world. Sewing helps me find self-containment and autonomy within a difficult, often lonely, challenging life. It is a form of meditation and a means of slowing down and savouring the beauty and value of each word sewn.