Amy Twigger Holroyd and Emma Shercliff, coordinators of the Stitching Together network, discuss the long history of participatory textile making projects and outline some of the benefits and challenges encountered when making textiles with others today.
The Bayeux Tapestry, an eleventh-century embroidery that recounts the Norman conquest of England across more than 70m of embroidered cloth, must be one of the most widely recognised examples of collective stitching effort. The American ‘quilting bee’, another well-known form of collaborative making which emerged in the early nineteenth century within colonial communities, brought people together to complete the making of patchwork bed quilts. Such archetypal examples of collective endeavour are referenced in later large-scale community-oriented textile initiatives, perhaps most notably the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, which was conceived in 1985 by American AIDS activist Cleve Jones and now consists of over 48,000 stitched panels commemorating the lives of the many who have died of the syndrome. The resonance can also be felt in undertakings such as the Great Tapestry of Scotland, a vast community project completed in 2013 that was initiated by artist Andrew Crummy, writer Alexander McCall Smith and historian Alistair Moffat, and involved more than 1000 volunteer stitchers, coordinated by Dorie Wilkie, from across Scotland.
Throughout these varied historical and cultural contexts, we can find people stitching together: such examples demonstrate that collective textile making is a well-established practice with a long history. The recruitment of many hands, brains and bodies to create a large textile spreads the load, enabling the creation of a complex, bulky or large-scale work that would be difficult, or even impossible, for an individual maker to manage alone.
Stitching with others in the twenty-first century therefore cannot help but connect with a legacy of traditional stitching groups and practices that privilege social encounter and exchange as a format for learning new skills, creating friendships and consolidating shared interests. Yet contemporary participatory textile activities are highly diverse in terms of context, format and intention, from drop-in workshops where participants spend a few minutes having a go at a specified stitching task to open-ended creative projects that might extend for months, or even years. Digital platforms present another dimension of textile making activity, which has rapidly expanded as the Covid-19 pandemic has restricted opportunities for stitching together in person.
Why is textile making so frequently chosen as a way to bring people together in participatory and community-based projects? The familiarity and flexibility of textile making processes such as knitting, sewing and weaving must be key factors. Stitch-crafts are familiar within many social and cultural contexts; even where such processes are not fully embedded in the day-to-day life of a community, their popularity means that participants are often strongly motivated to take part. Projects can often be set up in such a way that participants do not need to have specialist expertise in order to join in, and opportunities to learn can be offered on site. Readily available tools and materials, combined with easily transportable projects, mean the work can be flexibly slotted in around other tasks or events.
Another benefit is the quality of the experience afforded by textile making. The slow pace of hands-on making in the company of other people creates space for rich shared experiences such as the learning of new skills or new understandings of habitual experiences; a gentle exploration of difficult-to-raise topics; a ready opportunity to communicate with others, or even quiet contemplation. Sewing and knitting, for example, occupy the hands in a sufficiently detailed and precise task to require the focused attention for productive activity, but with short and repeatable bursts of activity which allow for moments of distraction.
Yet the everyday familiarity which gives textiles such a wide reach can have its downsides: in some spheres, textile-making activities are taken for granted or dismissed as a frivolity.
Furthermore, textiles have deep cultural and political associations, including stereotypical ideas of who should, and who should not, engage in textile crafts. If these activities are used without critical awareness, some participants may find that their individual interests and concerns are overlooked because of an assumption that textiles will naturally appeal to them, while those deemed to be unlikely textile practitioners – because of their race, disability, gender, sexuality or other factor – may be subject to microaggressions or outright hostility.
It was with these issues in mind, and the desire to share ideas and experiences between practitioners working in diverse settings, that we published the Stitching Together Good Practice Guidelines. The publication aims to highlight all the aspects of a participatory textile making project that need to be considered in order for it to work well from the point of view of the participants, the facilitator and any partner organisation or funder. Of course, there cannot be a single ‘right’ way to run a workshop/project given the diversity described above, and this is reflected in the flexible language and format of the guidelines.
Although we wrote the guidelines with the participatory textiles context in mind, we have a hunch that they may be of use beyond our immediate sphere! We’d love to hear feedback from anyone who has used the document, whether to support textile making or other kinds of creative participatory activities.
Elements of this post are edited from ‘Stitching Together: Participatory textile making as an emerging methodological approach to research’, Journal of Arts & Communities 10(1-2), pp.5–18.
Image credit: R&A Collaborations.