The Needle as the Pen. Part 4: Cloth and Body, the Love Affair (2)

A guest post by Andrea Liu

Cloth relates to humanity in its mortality and transience – both cloth and our body can be cut, stitched, age, decay. Healy recognises the shared experiences of ephemerality between cloth and body. Healy explains, the moment a cloth is woven into existence, “it starts to disintegrate, to age, to change colour” (Healy, 2008: 261). Similarly, the moment the body is borne into existence, death is instantly within reach. The body battles illnesses, injuries and ageing. The cloth is there to witness and sustain these bodily experiences and changes. Healy references the relationship between cloth and death with Walter Benjamin’s statement about the nature of fashion:

“For fashion has never anything other than the parody of the motley cadaver, provocation of death through the woman, and bitter colloquy with decay whispered between shrill bursts of mechanical laughter. That is fashion. And that is why she changes so quickly; she titillates death is already something different, something new, as he casts about to crush her.” (Benjamin in Healy, 2008: 256)

Death’s association with cloth introduces another aspect to the relationship between cloth and body. Death highlights the absence of the body to the cloth. Once the body is no longer connected with the cloth, the cloth becomes a “haunting device”, meaning it only bears the marks of the once-present body (Healy, 2008: 262). Robyn Healy, Thomas Carlyle and Elizabeth Wilson list haunting metaphors that describe the absence of a body in clothing. Healy describes such clothing as “cast-off clothing,” “empty dress” and “ghosts of life” (Healy, 2008: 262). Carlyle portrays them as “an ornament,” “an architectural idea,” “shells,” “the outer husks of bodies,” “cast clothes,” “past witnesses,” “instruments of Woe and Joy,” “the hollow cloth garment,” “empty clothes” or “ghosts of life” (Carlyle in Healy, 2008: 260). For Wilson, the use of mannequins triggers her to interrogate into the binaries of living and dead, movement and stillness. Wilson observes that since clothes were once part of the living and moving, when clothes are “frozen on display in the mausoleums of culture, they hint at something only half understood, sinister, evanescence of life… Clothes without a wearer, whether on a second-hand stall, in a glass case, or merely a lover’s garment strewn on the floor can affect us unpleasantly as if a snake had shed its skin” (Wilson in Healy, 2008: 259). Since cloth is so intimately attached to the body, a discarded garment without the body is capable to “cause apprehension” (Healy, 2008: 259). Healy believes that this feeling of apprehension is only experienced with cloth and “is not experienced through the viewing of other artefacts” (Healy, 2008: 259). Hemmings claims apprehension is triggered because “the absent body looms large in our discarded garments, despair directed at the aging garment is often connected to uncomfortable reminders about the state of our own ever-changing bodies” (Hemmings, 2012: 2).

Instead of focusing on the body’s ephemeral condition and how the body affects the cloth, the cloth can also literally carry death to the body. Since the space between cloth and body is so intimate, in that logic, the cloth and the body are vulnerable to each other. On the one hand, cloth is vulnerable to the activities of the body; thus, shown by the markings and the wearing away on the surface of the cloth. On the other, the body is vulnerable to the condition of the cloth. A threadbare, dirty, damp or wet cloth can affect the wellbeing of the body. Instead of keeping the body’s warmth and protecting the body from dirt and germs, the cloth can cause illness to beset the body. Hence, the cloth and the body can affect each other’s life expectancy either prolonging it or curtailing it. American visual artist Elaine Reichek portrays this in her Tierra del Fuegians series (1986-87). The series “are made of knitted costumes based on photographs of Indians from the islands off the southern tip of Southern America where the population died out by the 1940s” (Hemmings, 2011: 28).

[For a photo of Reichek’s work, click here.]

Reichek explains how “the textile plays an unfortunate role in the island’s history as a carrier of ill-health” (in Hemmings, 2011: 28):

“Christian missionaries there gave them clothing and blankets. They hadn’t worn any clothes before that – they’d just oiled and painted their bodies. … It’s a horrible climate, very harsh, very rainy… In any case, the clothing had germs in it to which they had no resistance. Also, it got wet. They’d survived for centuries without clothes; with clothes, they were cold. They died of upper respiratory diseases, measles, pneumonia.” (Reichek in Hemmings, 2011: 28)

From Reichek’s example, cloth worn and lived outdoors seems incapable of providing full comfort or protection for the body. When cloth becomes damp, it becomes the harvest ground for illness and encourages the body to atrophy and ultimately disappear. Although the body and the cloth mirror one another and share incredibly similar characteristics, however unlike the body, cloth has the capacity to stay behind to tell the story of the absent body. The preservation of cloth then becomes an important matter.

The issue of preservation is brought on by cloth’s disintegration (Healy, 2008: 258). Preservation comes in the form of mending and darning. Liz Williamson, a researcher on textiles and darning, defines darning as an act that “transforms the cloth and impacts the surface of the cloth” (Williamson, 2004: 269). The way cloth disintegrates, frays and deteriorates gives clues to certain habits and changes that occurred throughout its existence with the body, just as a scar forms form a cut or scrape on the skin (Williamson, 2004: 269). Hence, the act of restoration on cloth indelibly ties in with restoring traces of the body.

In this sense, restoration in cloth is also a metaphor to life. Many textile artists have found this to be the case in their practice. Curator Liz Cooper, during her group exhibition of What Do I Need to Do to Make It OK?, identified mending and repairing to “possess a myriad of potent possibilities and interpretations, ranging from the economic to the therapeutic” (Wilson, 2016: 45). This is expressed in her intentions “to explore damage and repair, disease and medicine, healing and restoration of bodies, minds, and landscapes” (Wilson, 2016: 45). Textile artist Dorothy Caldwell exemplify this fascination:

“I am drawn to cloth that has been repaired and reconstructed, and in that ongoing process encodes time and richness of lives lived.” (Wilson, 2016: 47)

Celia Pym is another whose work is devoted to resuscitating old and inherited clothes. It is no coincidence that Pym had done a project with the Dissecting Room of King’s College London. The DR Project allowed her to set up a mending table in the Dissecting Room where she would mend garments medical students brought her.

[For more on Celia Pym’s work, click here.]

Pym believed it was “important that students witness devotion and ‘respect’ with which [she] fulfilled her task – qualities so relevant to these future medical practitioners” (Wilson, 2017: 48). Pym equated her act of tenderly mending clothes to a medical practitioner’s act of caring for patients. Echoing this idea that darners and physicians share similar jobs, Delhi-based textile artist, designer and researcher Priya Ravish Mehra explains that the darner in India, known as a rafoogar, “is a healer of cloth” (Mehra in Deccan Herald, 2013: 1). Not only do rafoogars preserve old cloths, they also give them new life (Shankar, 2017: 1). Mehra personifies the cloth, reiterating a constant parallel between cloth and body:

Rafoogari is more than mere restoring a cloth. It happens because of some historical or emotional association with the cloth. It is akin to mending relationships, to connecting the past with the present.” (Deccan Herald, 2013: 1)

Mehra and Pym are textile artists who intentionally bring the repair process to the forefront. Making darning apparent on cloth brings to attention not just the technique but also “the fact that the cloth is torn, is ‘flawed’, is no longer perfect” (Shankar, 2017: 2). For Mehra, imperfection is “where the beauty lies, where the character comes.” Her observation is largely a result of her 12-year battle with cancer which greatly influenced her appreciation for rafoogari (Shankar, 2017: 2). Mehra’s imperfect, ephemeral body brought her to a far more personal, philosophical understanding of mending:

“It was not intentional, but it became a metaphor for my own life. You start acknowledging there is damage in the cloth, and that it needs repair. [You let go of] the illusion of a perfect cloth.” (Shankar, 2017: 2-3)

It is interesting to see how these metaphors in cloth are all in parallel to the state of the body, whether physical, psychological or emotional.

Beyond the individual body, cloth communicates cultural values and reflect historical and cultural change (Deacon and Calvin, 2014: 7). Professors Deborah Deacon and Paula Calvin recognise how textiles communicates in many layers and in coded form:

“[Textiles] can relay information about identity – social relationships, age, class, social status and religion. They can be necessities and luxuries, symbols of friendship and love, a non-verbal form of communication. They are also a form of rhetorical discourse, a coded communication which can be used as a political weapon in support of or in protest of a given event, such as war. They can document the atrocities of war and tell the stories of the participants in and victims of war, commemorating cultural heroes and their victories.” (Deacon and Calvin, 2014: 7)

In times of conflict, contemporary artists and activists, particularly women, used “the soft nature of textiles, as opposed to the “hard” subject matter of war, creates an unexpected juxtaposition that can surprise and intrigue the viewer” (Deacon and Calvin, 2014: 7). Artist, social activist and self-described radical knitter Lisa Ann Auerbach’s known work Body Count Mittens uses knitted mittens to literally represent a body. Highlighting the fallen soldiers in the Middle East, “the patterned mittens feature the day, month and year, the number of dead, and an automatic weapon on the mitten’s top” (Deacon, 2012: 7). What makes these mittens heart-breaking is how “the numbers on a pair of mitten differ, [show] the result of the additional deaths that occurred as she knitted the pair” (Deacon, 2012: 7).

Lisa Anne Auerbach, Body Count Mittens, photo taken from this website.

Similarly, Belfast-born Canadian artist Lycia Trouton uses the linen handkerchief in the context of the Northern Irish Conflict as a physical representation of each life lost in her work the Irish Linen Memorial (Hemmings, 2007: 45). Trouton highlights the historical use of linen, how it was “used as material for bandages needed to staunch flow of blood as well as dry tears” (Hemmings, 2007: 45). Before the Troubles the regional identity of Northern Ireland was bound up in linen; and the region’s political, cultural and personal identity is still bound up in cloth (Nickell, 2015: 2). Trouton explains:

“Textiles metaphorically illustrate violence and trauma inflicted upon the body, loss of life and the rupture of the fabric of social order that violent sectarianism or civil strife involves. Cloth can be used as a reminder of displaced persons, the migrant identity and, in a fabric fragility, the plea for global stability.” (Trouton in Hemmings, 2007: 45)

As Nickell notes: “Cloth is a highly symbolic and gendered material” (Nickell, 2015: 22). There is a power within fabric “to communicate universal themes across time” (Whiles, 2008: 2).

[For more information and images of Lycia Trouton’s Irish Linen Memorial, click here.]

In the context of activism, headscarves, blankets and handkerchiefs are examples of how cloth are symbolic. Headscarves are commonly used by women in protest, especially identifiers of their maternal status. Since the 1980s in Argentina, mothers wore white headscarves to protest against the dictatorship for their ‘disappeared’ children. These white headscarves were made from their children’s diapers as physical proof of their existence. Even today, the mothers, who are now grandmothers, wear the white headscarf have become a symbol of justice.

[For the website of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, click here; the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo can be found here.]

In Hull, England, when the Triple Trawler Tragedy occurred in 1968, women known as the Headscarf Heroes of Hull appeared in the streets wearing headscarves battling for their husband’s safety at sea.

[For a photo depicting the Headscarf Heroes, click here.]

The blanket, a universal symbol of comfort and care, tucked up and mothered. In Northern Ireland, it has a different symbolism, the ‘protest’ blanket, that swaddles or shrouds the vulnerable body. Nickell explains:

“In protest against the removal of Special Category Status (1976), prisoners convicted of terrorist offences refused to wear prison clothes and wrapped themselves in blankets. This ‘Blanket Protest’ culminated in the hunger strikes of 1981 when ten Republican prisoners died. The ‘protest’ blanket became a powerful, symbolic visual image.” (Nickell, 2015: 2)

[For a photo of mothers of Republican prisoners “on the blanket” in a protest march against jail conditions, click here.]

The handkerchief is symbolised for wiping tears, staunching blood. In Northern Ireland, it is associated with “Father Daly’s truce flag on Bloody Sunday – the blood-stained white handkerchief he waved as he escorted a mortally wounded youth” (Nickell, 2015: 2).

[For a photo depicting this scene, click here.]

As Nickell notes: “Colour is also symbolically charged; the whiteness of pristine linen suggests the absorption of tears, forgiveness, cleansing; red, ripped cloth is angry, visceral, bloodied” (Nickell, 2015: 22). Hence, Hemmings insightfully observes:

“The textile may be understood to act as something of a Trojan horse smuggling across these difficult complex stories. The innocent façade is part of the plan. But so, too, is an enormous investment in the physical act of making.” (Hemmings, 2011: 30) This unexpected location of power in textiles is in “the beauty of textile,” which “is often deployed as visual seduction used to package challenging narratives.” (Hemmings, 2011: 42)

Along with the needle and thread, cloth serves as a subversive tool of communicating complex and difficult topics. Throughout history, fabric has “served as tool of political communication … and at times it has been as a medium of communication in places where it was illegal, or even deadly to speak or write” (Prain, 2014: 81). Echoing Hemmings observation that the innocent façade of textiles is exactly where the power of textiles exists, Prain writes:

“Textiles can be used as subversive way to tell stories because fibre arts may appear powerless to the unobservant. Textiles as power tools that can make a suppressed story heard. Even in societies where free speech is encouraged. Textiles provide a space for people to express strong emotions, emotions, memories and opinions. Textiles can allow us to speak and tell our different truths.” (Prain, 2014: 81)

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, I examine 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, sourced from the Conflict Textiles Collection in Northern Ireland, will be used to illustrate how textiles speak truths about the women’s experiences in pain and healing.


Deacon, D.A. (2012) Textiles of War: Women’s Commentaries on Conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. In: Textiles and Politics: Textile Society of America 13th Biennial Symposium Proceedings, University of Nebraska – Lincoln, DigitalCommons@University of Nebraska – Lincoln, 1-8. Available at: [Accessed 15 Oct. 2017]

Deacon, D. and Calvin, P. (2014). War Imagery in Women’s Textiles: An International Study of Weaving, Knitting, Sewing, Quilting, Rug Making and Other Fabric Arts. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.

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Healy, R. (2008). The Parody of the Motley Cadaver: Displaying the Funeral of Fashion. The Design Journal, 11(3), pp.255-268. Available at:[Accessed 12 Dec. 2017].

Hemmings, J. (2007). Lycia Trouton: Irish Linen Memorial. FiberArts Magazine, pp.44-45. Available at: [Accessed 15 Oct. 2017].

Hemmings, J. (2011). Postcolonial Textiles: Negotiating Dialogue. In: J. Gohrisch and E. Grünkemeier, eds., Postcolonial Studies Across the Disciplines. Amsterdam: Rodopi Publishers, pp.23-50. Available at: [Accessed 17 Oct. 2017].

Hemmings, J. (2012). Priya Ravish Mehra: Witness to the Invisible. Jessica Hemmings. Available at: [Accessed 20 Dec. 2017].

Nickell, K. (2015). “Troubles Textiles”: Textile Responses to the Conflict in Northern Ireland. TEXTILE, 13(3), pp.234-251. Available at: [Accessed 13 Sep. 2017].

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

Shankar, A. (2017). Making the invisible visible: the art of rafoogari. Architectural Digest. Available at: [Accessed 20 Dec. 2017].

Whiles, A. (2008). The Fabric of Myth. [ebook] Warwickshire: Compton Verney. Available at: [Accessed 25 Dec. 2017].

Williamson, L. (2004). Darning: A Visible Thread. In: Textile Society of America 9th Biennial Symposium. Lincoln: DigitalCommons@University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Available at: [Accessed 19 Dec. 2017].

Wilson, I. (2016). Making it OK. Surface Design Journal, pp.44-49.

Wilson, I. (2017). Darning a yarn. Embroidery, pp.47-49. Available at: [Accessed 25 Dec. 2017].

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