Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Stitches as mending, stitches as healing

Kelley Swain
Oxfordshire, England

Plague Dress” by Anna Dumitriu, installation view at 6th Guangzhou Triennial at Guangdong Museum of Art. Published with permission.

Knitwear designer and disability-access advocate Kate Davies writes of discovering her love of knitting at university: “The movement of your hands helped you to find a different kind of mind space. You lost yourself in the rhythm of your own industry. You made a thing.”1 There is something extraordinary about taking one long, single thread—say, a ball of yarn—and, by enacting a rhythm of loops, transforming it into a complete, multi-dimensional object: a sock, hat, or jumper. The act is rich with metaphor, reminding us of the Norns of Norse myth, spinning the fates of people: each thread the story, long or short, of someone’s life. Ins and outs, ups and downs. Weaving, stitching, or sewing a life. Mending, darning, repairing. Making whole, from pieces.

Davies, on stress-related leave as a lecturer, suffered a stroke at age thirty-six. In the neuro-rehabilitation unit, she began to knit a jumper. Using a pattern of tortoises and hares to represent the slow recovery of her left side, trying to catch up with her speedy right, Davies made a metaphor for the difficult emotions and physical blocks she experienced. “My left hand was a tortoise, trying to knit a tortoise!”2 As she slowly recovered, she writes: “this sensation of natural, balanced movement between my two hands felt extraordinarily joyous.”3 The stitches Davies makes embody the repair of her self—her identity and wellbeing—as well as the rehabilitation of her post-stroke body.

In Davies’ career as a knitwear designer, she champions other artists who work at the intersection of medicine and sewing-based craft. Nurse and textile artist Celia Pym’s exploration of darning and mending reaches into the fields of therapy and social science. Pym was part of a collaborative project in 2014 with Richard Wingate, head of anatomy at Kings College London. “Pym set up a ‘mending desk’ at one end of the dissection room,” writes Davies in Wheesht: creative making in uncertain times, “and invited staff and students to bring in their beloved worn and damaged textiles for her to repair.” Pym not only mends garments, but uses the technique of visible mending, which celebrates and makes artwork out of a damaged area: a wordless and tender embracing of damages or tears, again, ripe for metaphor, subtly healing. In time, Pym’s “conversations with students enabled reflections on skin as a very particular kind of worn-out textile,” writes Davies. When medical students, working their way into and around cadavers, encountered bodies with scars or tattoos, “visible marks of human preference or intent,” the marks heightened the individuality of the body the students were handling, making dissection more challenging and emotionally confronting. All the while, Davies explains, in the same room “Pym quietly mended the possessions which spoke similarly of their own intentions and desires.”

Anna Dumitriu, an artist working on a larger, public scale, combines something unexpected with textiles—pathogens. As a BioArtist, Dumitriu blends stitches and science, literally working bacteria into cloth, such as with her beautiful Plague Dress. The levels of meaning physically worked into the dress are many: its style is from the plague-struck year 1665; the raw silk, Dumitriu describes on her website, is hand-dyed with walnut husks, referencing seventeenth-century herbalist Nicholas Culpepper’s recommendation of walnuts as a medicine for plague. Furthermore, she writes, “The dress is appliquéd with original 17th-century embroideries which the artist has impregnated with Yersinia pestis bacteria.”4 It is stuffed with lavender, traditionally used as a posy to ward off miasmas, foul air on which the illness was believed to waft. Looking at the Plague Dress, one is reminded of Edgar Allen Poe’s story, The Masque of the Red Death, in which wealthy revelers retreat to a country estate to flee a plague-ridden city. Behind glamorous gowns and party masks lurks an unchecked pestilence. The stitches in Plague Dress, instead of sewing a story of repair, are perfectly inverted, presenting a rich, many-layered history of illness.

Embroiderer and lacemaker Fleur Oakes’s work rubs shoulders with Dumitriu’s and Pym’s: her stitches represent or depict medical topics and historical surgical techniques. Since 2016, Oakes has been artist-in-residence at Imperial College London’s vascular surgery unit, working “to observe surgery and look at the parallel techniques and challenges between lacemaking and textile arts in general.”5 Her piece Textile Body illustrates “material parallels and challenges of surgery,” while Vein Charm is a silk version of a vascular stent. These representations help us think of the body as textile-in-need-of-mending, employing soft, beautiful—and vulnerable—materials. The body, we know, is more a textile in need of sewing up than a statue made of plaster or a mechanism made of steel.

Art based on stitching is a reminder of the necessary physicality and imperfection of our embodiment. Stitches are an object as well as an action. Historically, male-dominated medical suturing was learned from fine needleworkers, who were often female. As Paul Craddock explains in a promotional video for Spare Parts, his history of transplant surgery, Alexis Carrel practiced surgical techniques by stitching cigarette papers, “cramming 500 stitches onto it, side-by-side.”6 Thanks to his family’s textile business, Carrel had taken sewing lessons from the famous embroiderer Marie Anne Leroudier. Craddock explains that Leroudier would have shown Carrel how to work with “minuscule, delicate, and easily-tearable materials like cigarette papers. Or like arteries, which the cigarette paper is supposed to simulate.”7 Craddock worked with Fleur Oakes when writing Spare Parts: Oakes re-created some of Leroudier’s embroidery techniques and investigated their application toward suturing arteries.

Stitches as mending, stitches as healing: Oakes’s investigative techniques reveal the long history of sewing and needle work in relation to the body. Meaning shifts, from literal to metaphorical. Dumitriu’s work may be described as “high-concept”: embedding pathogens into textiles is both impressive and requires explanation, as one cannot see them. However, it is also intensely relevant to our everyday lives, especially in a present-day pandemic. To cough or sneeze sends hundreds of thousands of germs into the air, onto our clothes, hair, and skin. Davies and Pym may work in metaphor, but the psychological application of their work is measurable. One must only look at Davies’ own story of rehabilitation, diligently knitting her slow tortoises and fast hares until the race evened out. Or at Pym’s engagement with mending objects and their attendant emotions, as medical students across the room unravel and re-stitch cadavers, each thread the story, long or short, of someone’s life.

End notes

  1. Kate Davies, Wheesht: creative making in uncertain times (Makadu, 2019).
  2. Davies, ibid.
  3. Davies, ibid.
  4. https://annadumitriu.co.uk/portfolio/plague-dress/
  5. https://fleuroakes.com/sciencemedicine.htm
  6. Paul Craddock, Spare Parts (Fig Tree, 2021). Video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qxL1ns7JOj4
  7. Craddock, ibid.

KELLEY SWAIN is a writer specializing in subjects from the history of science and medicine. She is a critic on medically-related art for The Lancet, writing regularly for The Lancet, The Lancet Psychiatry, and The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health. Swain has taught Humanities in Global Health at Imperial College London, and was a guest artist at Duke University’s Health Humanities Laboratory. She holds a BA in Creative Writing from Randolph College and an MSc in Medical Humanities from King’s College London. Swain is the author of two historical novels, Ophelia Swam and Double the Stars, several books of poetry, including Darwin’s Microscope, Opera di Cera, and Atlantic, and a memoir, The Naked Muse.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 13, Special Issue– Fall 2021

Fall 2023




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