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Patchwork and quilting as problem solving – or why sewing is good for the brain

There was a piece on the news a couple of weeks ago about the negative impact of the over-fifties watching more than three and a half hours of television a day.  It seems that over these three and a half hours people became more forgetful.  I was never much of a social scientist, but even I had to ask myself about the sample size and make-up.  Who did they ask?  Did they do anything other than watch television, like crossword puzzles or mental arithmetic?  Were they watching game shows or subtitled black and white art films?  Was this a snapshot or a longitudinal study?  Those sorts of questions came to mind.

I am sure that I watch more television than I should, but I don’t just watch television.  I use it like an augmented radio and knit or sew while cocking half an ear to it.  I have sewn on a gazillion beads and put in a million seed stitches while watching the television.  I wondered if the study took this into account.

I get this industrious habit from my mother who was never keen on my sitting idly and passively consuming television.  She drilled me in making the most of my time.  She also introduced me to the concept of a good ironing film.  Sometimes when the stitching is particularly engrossing I really do just listen to the television as if it were the radio.  I recently sat down and started watching a film with the Medieval Historian and just had the feeling that I had seen it before.  I knew the entire plot but did not recognise any visuals.  Then I realised that I had heard it but not seen it.  Very strange.

This is all just a preamble to thinking about craft as therapy.  There is a lot around at the moment about how good sewing is for you, which is something I really do subscribe to, and I am increasingly interested in the way we link the felt and the seen together so closely.  Sewing can certainly slow you down and calm your thinking.  You have to get the posture right, though, as I find that if you are hunched over your work it can lead to diminished breathing which lowers rather than raises your mood.  If you can take care of that, however, then craft can be therapeutic.

This is fine, but I think that our passion for craft is much more than a mood booster.  When you become good at a craft to the point of having mastered it, perhaps, something else becomes important.  Beginners follow instructions, sit with their teachers or watch a YouTube video and learn the basics.  Once we become proficient, though, and want to produce particularly distinctive work, we have to start working things out for ourselves; we have to become problem solvers.  We have to use our accumulated skills to work out how to get the result we want.  Quite a lot of the time we fail, and many artists talk about falling short of what was in their imaginations, of the gap between the subject and the made object.  Some people hate this, but I like the voyage of discovery.  I love those times when you stand back and think, “I made this’ but have no idea where it came from, and I have blogged before about that feeling of turning up and providing the hands while the work almost gives birth to itself.

There was a phase a few years ago when we all got interested in management development in the notion of 10,000 hours producing mastery.  People have been lining up to take potshots at it as a theory for some time, but I still think it has some validity.  You do have to practise your craft.  I remember when I was still teaching at the university and was in a writing class.  One of my students produced a really moving account of why he worked in the NHS.  Someone asked him how long it had taken him to write it, and he was about to say three hours or whatever, when the guest tutor who was leading the session said, ‘40 years’.  All your life experience and all that practice goes into producing our very best work.

In my most recent work I have been rediscovering my childhood passion for making dolls clothes and drawing historical fashions.  This return to childhood with the benefit of a lifetime of experience and education has been therapeutic in the sense of helping me to recover a lost delight.  It has also made me work very hard to exercise my skill and do some immediate problem solving.  My brain has had to get involved to a surprising degree.  How am I going to represent hair?  How am I going to suggest shoes?  How will I get a 3D object to sit satisfactorily on a 2D substrate?  What shape do you actually have to cut to get a wraparound pinny?  What can I use as a blazingly glittering ring when I don’t have a spare diamond lying around?  I have solved all sorts of problems and even if some of them are not that brilliantly realised, at least I had the mental resources to think of something.

I was talking to the excessively talented English Paper Piecing guru, Naomi Clarke, about the therapeutic side of sewing.  We were talking about people wanting to claim it as a way of achieving mindfulness or as a self-soothing activity, but we haven’t seen anything on sewing strictly for the joy of doing it, or as a way of exercising really quite ‘left brain’ skills.  These are the logical, sequential, numerical skills that have been associated with men for so long and leading to high-paying jobs.  Sewing requires great accomplishment in these skills.  It requires planning, conceptualising in three dimensions, calculating quantities and proportions, prototyping and reworking.  These are the skills required in many of the new approaches to strategic management and project management.  I think I could almost argue for dressmaking and embroidery to be on the curriculum at all business schools.

Just to show you what I mean about problem solving though, here is some work in progress from a series of appliqué portrayals of women for my new talk on cozy crime novels.  I start with the basic body form:

 

This gets modified sometimes, as here, to give a profile:

I thought she looked a bit Egyptian at this point, but because of time constraints I had to go with the original plan.  Her face is deliberately just sketched in.  This is because she is an illustration rather than a portrait.

I knew that I wanted to give her expensive highlights and so I tried some glittery fabric:

This is not brilliantly successful and so I will continue to work on it – watch this space.

Then I wanted to make it more three dimensional so I stuffed it a bit, and I love the way that this gives a sort of crêpey neck.

The arm worked really well.  I wanted her to have a wrap dress so I found a scrap of jersey which I sort of draped over her body.  The size of the scrap meant that I had to drape the less stretchy size of the jersey over the form and this did not give such a good finish, but she is well on the way.

I will post more as the series continues.

 

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