The Needle as the Pen. Part 1: The Coat Speaks!

A guest post by Andrea Liu

What ignited my interest in stories on cloth were the stories my father recited year after year. For some reason, he refused to write them down. Even this seemingly trivial act of defiance ties in to show how storytelling through textiles is significant. Curiously, his oral stories usually centred around some kind of textiles a family member had owned, from a tapestry embroidered with a white horse from the Qing Dynasty to monk’s clothing hidden in a secret box from the Ming Dynasty. Every year, although the same stories of family histories and memories, subtle new details are added as a quilter would stitch a new fabric patch to the inherited cloth at hand. His oral stories had just as much intensity of detail as the child-like appearance of Chilean arpilleras.

One story my father rehearsed shone like a beacon, which honed my interest in needlework and activism. This story is about “a coat with hundreds of patches sewn onto it” (Zhang, 2013: 3). Urgency infects my father’s voice whenever he speaks about the coat. His tongue would map its rough terrain. He would warn about the random patches that overlap, crash into one another like tectonic plates squeezed together by violent earthquakes. He charted the inexperienced white stitches that miraculously held the coat together, like vicious scars left behind by scraggly bite marks of winter wind. Layer upon layer this coat was desperately mended by his uncle, I imagine most likely with shaking hands. My ears were so familiar to the coat, but my eyes were not. Before seeing the coat and fully grasping its significance, there was already a sense that this piece of textile, albeit battered and coming apart, occupied a weighty position in history. Burdened with historical hindsight, this coat prompted questions about the complex relationships between the needle, the cloth, the body and activism. The coat highlighted the multifaceted nature of cloth and how cloth can shift into a medium for subversive messages.

The eroded patchwork coat was owned by my father’s eldest uncle, an accused counterrevolutionary who committed suicide in the 1950s while still imprisoned in a forced labour camp in China. I googled my father’s uncle’s name ‘Liu Zhuanghuan,’ curious but not expecting to find much or anything. To my awe, I found his coat, along with his threadbare shirt and pants. It was real. A silly thing to say, yet it was the shock ‘Here is the evidence, look at it!’

CLICK HERE to see a Getty stock image of Liu Zhuanghuan’s coat.

The coat was worse than what I had imagined. The longer I stared, the more wretched the pixelated representation of the coat grew on my laptop. Clothed on headless, armless mannequins, it appeared as if the coat and shirt had tragically kept its memory of Liu Zhuanghuan’s bodily dimensions. The patchworks and frays screamed injustice. It was just as Andrea M. Heckman explains in her book Woven Stories: Andean Textiles and Rituals,

“Cloth can be the drawing board, the visual shout of injustice. Cloth should not be overly romanticized as only having sweet statements of ‘the world as it is’.” (Heckman, 2003: 27)

Online newspaper articles, though meagre with information, spoke of how this coat was indeed “the visual shout of injustice” (Heckman, 2003: 27). An article in The Washington Post describes the coat as a representation of “human suffering” and “human rights abuses in China, particularly the Communist regime’s use of prisons to punish dissenters” (Roso, 2011: 1). The coat has become a witness to the persecuted, a keeper of memories that must not be forgotten.

When and how does this patchwork coat activate to become “the drawing board, a visual shout of injustice”? (Heckman, 2003: 27) From examining textiles that contain a political narrative similar to the coat, such as arpilleras from South America and Conflict Textiles from Northern Ireland, this activation seems to occur when political and economic decisions are unethical, thus, disturb the equilibrium within domestic domain. The public sphere’s invasion into the private sphere triggers a formulaic reaction. In domino effect, the body is silenced by fear-based tactics and the cloth becomes the only safe-zone from government-induced censorship for freedom of expression. Hence, this collision between private and public spheres enables the textile to transform its status from static to active, from existing as an intimate memory to a collective one. Textiles, such as Zhuanghuan’s coat, are valuable because they are time capsules that preserve real voices and have no expiration date. Raw emotions and stories stitched into fabric do not diminish over time. As human beings, we are inherently attracted to stories. Hence, how much more so are the clothes that we make and wear transmitters of information and stories. Jonathan Gottschall remarks, “even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories” (Gottschall in Prain, 2014: 13). I would go as far as to say, even when the body ceases to breathe, his/her clothes awaken, telling us stories. All the stains, creases, tears and frayed edges come alive humming with memories of the body that once lived inside it. Although Zhuanghuan failed to survive to tell and write his story, his coat survived as an epilogue to his tale. Every stitch made by him weighs heavier than words on paper.

Like white stabs of thread that swim in and out of the surface of the cloth, my father orally stitched together pieces of his uncle’s story. His speaking became the needle. It is no coincidence that my father’s stories are immersed with textiles. As well, my father’s inability or unwillingness to write his stories ties in with the influence of textiles. This brings to light Prain’s argument about textiles as a safe space while writing on paper tends to reminds us of “school for the terror of the marked-up page, bleeding red with the correction of a teacher’s pen” (Prain, 2014: 16). Here I identify dichotomies emerge – textiles and paper, the needle and the pen. Quite often we associate storytelling with the pen. Yet, what happens when the pen fails to tell our story? American feminist Elaine Hedges’ now-classic idea of “the needle or the pen” addresses this issue. Other scholars have debated with these discourses, such as Heather Pristash, Inez Schaechterle and Sue Wood who reject Hedge’s proposed dilemma and argue instead for the needle as the pen (Pristash, Schaechterle and Wood, 2016: 14). I agree with seeing the needle as the pen, recognising the overlooked contributions of needlework and textiles culturally, socially and politically.

Zhuanghuan’s coat speaks through the excessive layered patches and visible mending which testify its multiple failed attempts to perform bodily warmth and protection, triggering universal empathy. When informed of where and when Zhuanghuan mended his coat, his inexperienced needlework transforms into a type of rhetoric that indirectly protests against the abuse of human rights. As a by-product of the atrocities of China’s Cultural Revolution, the coat communicates a political narrative of “an accused counterrevolutionary” who was forcibly taken from his home to one of the many laogai or Chinese gulag (Roso, 2011: 1). It testifies a particular time frame in Chinese history that many politicians from both China and America refuse to publically acknowledge. Aligned with Prain’s thoughts on the power of textiles, we see how a threadbare jacket that “may appear powerless to the unobservant” becomes a profound vehicle “that can make a suppressed story heard” (Prain, 2014: 81).

Not only does the physicality of the coat offer a formidable presence, but the narrative accompanying it further intensifies the ‘legitimacy’ of Liu Zhuanghuan’s existence and experience. Journalist Larissa Roso from the Washington Post writes briefly about how Liu Zhuanghuan’s son obtained the coat:

“His son was confined to the same camp but never allowed to see his father. One exception was made: He was allowed to identify his father’s body and collect his belongings after Zhuanghuan committed suicide…” (Roso, 2011: 1)

Articles fail to reveal personal details of Zhuanghuan’s life that only a family member would know. According to my father, on the day Zhuanghuan committed suicide, he was ordered to write a ‘Check Three Generations’ (Cha San Dai / 查三代) report for Communist records. To be ordered to write this report was subtext for a death sentence for himself and his family. Since he and his brothers, along with his elderly father, were key military figures within the opposing Kuomingtang (KMT) party, if he wrote down his brothers’ names, he knew they would surely be found, tortured and killed. He obeyed to the extent of writing the biographies of his grandfather and father. When it came to writing his own, he simply wrote:


I, Liu Zhuanghuan

Full stop.

I imagine him wearing his faded patchwork coat and pants. I imagine him untying his makeshift belt of a torn piece of cotton fabric. I imagine him tying a noose. When his sons came to collect his body, the guards gave them a container of Zhuanghuan’s ashes along with his tattered clothes and holey shoes. My father tells me how his uncle’s eldest son examined his inheritance, the coat. Touching each patchwork, it was only by chance his fingers ventured towards a peculiar patch located at the breast area. The patch was hard to the touch. Something was sandwiched between the makeshift layers of fabric. He tore away the patch, anxious to see what clue or treasure his father had left behind. What he found was a black-and-white photograph of his grandmother, Zhuanghuan’s mother.

This tattered coat was more than just a cloth that sheltered Zhuanghuan’s body. How true is Prain’s statement:

“Clothing not only keeps us warm and protects our skin, it is how we interact with one another and our environment. The clothes we wear possess the means to conjure memories, incite personal transformation and express our aspirations.” (Prain, 2014: 37)

It testified his existence. It testified his last decade on earth, how he lived in the labour camp. It testified what was on his mind and what he missed – his mother, his family, his home. In a court room in the United States, it was a testimony to the human rights abuse in China. This coat became a type of document far more authentic and powerful than a written letter for his son to seek asylum in the United States. It won the hearts of American jurors, opening a door for his son to ultimately become an American citizen. Even without Zhuanghuan’s voice and his life line cut short by a noose, the coat speaks as evidence, an undeniable truth of untold horror, that summed up the abuses he had endured in silence. Now sitting within a museum space, its narrative and status has evolved. No longer just a personal memory, it has become an emotional and historical artefact for the public to experience. This spatial move somehow modifies cloth’s genetic makeup from being only utilitarian in nature to having the capacity to have an activist disposition. The fact that the coat is viewed in a public space and decades after the actual events also highlights its status of authenticity, having the capacity to authenticate the actions of a specific event in history. My initial reaction of ‘This is real’ confirms this idea that a piece of clothing, even remnants of it, is able to supersede the most eloquently spoken and written adjectives and metaphors. The coat is a document of proof of denied injustices that have happened in the past and enables people to experience instant acceptance. Since the cloth and the body exist in an intimate relationship, the coat easily becomes an emotional artefact, acting as a type of bridge and connector for humanity. As design historian Judy Attfield notes, “cloth – is proposed as one of the most intimate of things – types that materializes the connection between the body and the outer world” (Attfield in Goggin, 2016: 1).

CLICK HERE to see a Getty stock image of a shirt worn by Liu Zhuanghuan.

It is incredible to see how a piece of cloth, no matter how battered, can become more than an ‘official’ document to reveal truth/s in a human experience that is supressed by powerful figures and agendas. This coat prompted me to question how needlework and cloth can shift from a household activity or artefact to become public ambassadors for the politically oppressed and voiceless.

  • How can stitches on cloth outweigh ink on paper?
  • How can clothing chronicle the story of an absent body and be an authentic representation of the injustices of the body that no longer exists?
  • What enables an inanimate, voiceless artefact made up of woven fibres to develop an inspirational voice for the oppressed, both living and dead, and guaranteed to be heard?
  • What elevates a textile piece to become an ambassador of historical and/or political events?

With all these questions in mind, I embarked on my investigation into why and how needlework moved from the private sphere to public sphere in contexts of activism.

To be continued…

About Andrea Liu

Born in Orange County, California, Andrea Liu is a writer, researcher and designer.  Graduating from Central St. Martin’s in 2018, she specialises in woven textile design and has honed her skills in material research and off-loom woven construction.  She endeavours on making sustainable designs, approaching every project with the goal of turning waste into material of value.  Prior to Central St. Martin’s, she worked as an Executive Assistant and ghostwriter for a film producer.  As well, she attained a B.A. (Hons.) in Chinese Studies from The University of Manchester in 2011 and a M.phil in Creative Writing from Trinity College Dublin in 2012. Read more about Andrea and her projects on her website.

About “The Needle as the Pen” post series

The series of “The Needle as the Pen” blog post is based on Andrea Liu’s unpublished B.A. dissertation in Textile Design at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, in which she investigated–under the same title–why and how needlework moved from the private sphere to public sphere in context of activism. With Liu Zhuanghuan’s coat in mind, she examines why and how the needle, the cloth and the body actively work together. Blog posts will discuss the needle, the cloth and the body, and explore conflict, resolution and activism experienced by the needle, the cloth and the body when the private and public spheres collide and crash into one another. Examples of arpilleras from South America and Conflict textiles from Northern Ireland will be used to illustrate how textiles speak truths about the women’s experiences in pain and healing.

The featured image shows Andrea Liu’s artwork “Zero Waste” from her project “Mending Portraits“.


Heckman, A. (2003). Woven Stories: Andean Textiles & Rituals. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Goggin, M. (2016). Introduction: Threading Women. In: M. Goggin and B. Tobin, ed., Women and the Material Culture of Needlework and Textiles, 1750-1950, 2nd ed. London: Routledge, pp.1-10.

Prain, L. (2014). Strange Material: Storytelling Through Textiles. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press.

Pristash, H., Schaechterle, I. and Wood, S. (2016). The Needle as the Pen: Intentionality, Needlework, and the Production of Alternate Discourses of Power. In: M. Goggin and B. Tobin, ed., Women and the Material Culture of Needlework and Textiles, 1750-1950, 2nd ed. London: Routledge, pp.13-30.

Roso, L. (2011). Laogai Museum in D.C. focuses on human rights abuses in China. The Washington Post. [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 Nov. 2017].

Zhang (2013). Laogai Museum: A Window into China’s Human Rights Disaster. Washington D.C.: Laogai Research Foundation, pp. 1-4. Available at:,_130430,_Laogai_Museum_A_Window_into_China_s_Human_Rights_Disaster.pdf [Accessed 9 Nov. 2017].


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