The Needle as the Pen. Part 5: The Unravelling: Breaking Bodies

A guest post by Andrea Liu

“[We] Mothers defended with [our] teeth.”

(Nora Cortiñas, in Cortiñas and Keene, 2017)

In times of inequality and injustice, of economic inflation and political oppression, the body floats to the forefront. Illness, weight loss, anxieties, depression are obvious indicators of a body violated and deprived. Clothes that are threadbare and patched are evidence of the body’s economic struggles. When society unravels to the point where words fail to speak truth and bodies are in pain, we find the needle and thread are most active. Women in particular have been behind the many embroidered cloths that scholars and researchers hold as historically significant. Their stitches have survived to still preserve and hold tightly to the truth of what they experienced first-hand. These women reflected on personal experiences and important events that oftentimes were censored from being accurately recorded on paper. With just the needle, thread and cloth, topics about human rights, torture, hunger and debts were expressed effectively and under the radar.

Eight arpilleras are specifically chosen to demonstrate, in this and the following posts, to what extreme society has to unravel for the needle to become a subversive tool. Arpilleras are “three-dimensional appliquéd tapestries of Latin America that originated in Chile” (Bacic, 2013a: 1). Chosen from Chile, Argentina and Peru that cover the 1970s to 1980s, the majority of Latin America were simultaneously under a militaristic regime where society has been tipped upside down to an extreme where facts are changed into lies and the people suffer in forced silence. Three symptoms of a society unravelling are reflected in these arpilleras – political violations, economic crisis and feminised protest. These three areas will be examined in detail through the arpilleras.

Not only did these Latin countries share a commonality in being under dictatorships, women across borders were the ones who fought back and carried families, and even societies, through political violence, economic crisis and conflict. With their needles, women witnessed their society torn by the abrasive actions of their leaders. They experienced their human rights desecrated. They suffocated in the deluge of debts their dictators forced onto them. They watched hunger haunt every corner of their home. They queued in lines for work, for food, for news. They searched for shadows of their husbands and their children. Grief plagued their homes and instigated them to pick up their needles and protest. Using the tools that they knew best, these women stitched truthful accounts about personal and collective experiences. Through their blanket stitch and cross stitch, the power of the needle shines forth their stories. Yet what pushed these women to the edge were not just poverty or conflict. It was the moment their children were taken away from them, from their very eyes, and not being able to save them. These mothers, as Nora Cortiñas, a Grandmother of the Plaza de Mayo, would say, “[We] Mothers defended with [our] teeth” (Cortiñas and Keene, 2017). They did just that through their cloth, scissors and needle. According to Bacic, the cloths that they used were all garments of their husbands, sons and daughters who had disappeared. Out of these garments, the women stitched scenes and made miniature figures “that protested, pronounced, screamed, danced or begged” (Bacic, 2013a: 4). At a time when they were denied to speak the truth of what happened to their children and their spouses, these arpilleras “contested the official state narrative and became a powerful indictment of the regime” (Bacic, 2013a: 4). Marjorie Agosín poignantly reflects that these arpilleras were “stories made of cloth and yarn narrated what was forbidden” (cited in Bacic, 2009: 2).

Political Violence: Falling Stars Falling Bodies, Sutured Mouths Twisted Bodies Argentina // Chile

A plane flies off in the distance. Eight figures are falling from the night sky. If not for the stabbing white stitches outlining each figure, they would have been lost in the sky, merging into darkness. A small red heart is stitched on each figure’s chest. Irish fibre artist Deborah Stockdale stitched these hearts to “represent the bodies, sometimes still alive, hurled from airplanes” (Bacic, 2013b: 3). They Fell like Stars from the Sky is an arpillera reflecting on the bodily violence inflicted during the seven-year military dictatorship led by Lieutenant General Videla (1976-1983) in Argentina (Bacic, 2013b: 3).

They fell like stars from the sky - front
‘They Fell like Stars from the Sky / Cayeron del cielo como estrellas’, Deborah Stockdale, Ireland, 2013. © Deborah Stockdale collection. Photo: Martin Melaugh.

In 2013, Stockdale stitched this arpillera in retrospection, wanting to depict “the devastating impact of the estimated 30,000 disappeared people in Argentina” (Bacic, 2013b: 3). Below the falling figures, a river is stitched in place. What looks to be plain fabric is in fact a stained tablecloth with a personal story. The stained tablecloth, along with a picture and some letters, were sent by Miguel Angel de Boer (Bacic, 2013b: 3). These artefacts were once owned by Miguel’s young wife, a medical student, María Haydée Rabuñal who was one of the 30,000 ‘disappeared’ in the 1970s (Bacic, 2013b: 3). According to the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP) in 1984, one third of the disappeared bodies were women (Sutton, 2010: 136). Female bodies “became a site of intense social control, torment and humiliation” (Sutton, 2010: 136). On the reverse side, Stockdale dedicated this piece to María by stitching in the rest of the tablecloth and a black-and-white photograph of her smiling. If not for this piece, María would have never been memorialised.

They fell like stars from the sky - back
‘They Fell like Stars from the Sky / Cayeron del cielo como estrellas’ (reverse side), Deborah Stockdale, Ireland, 2013. © Deborah Stockdale collection. Photo: Martin Melaugh.

The arpillera is finished with the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (the Grandmothers of the Plaza of Mayo) who are moving in a circle. The white headscarves of the abuelas are made from the tablecloth, symbolic of the nappies of their grandchildren that they had worn in real life. To this day, the abuelas keep vigil for their ‘disappeared’ loved ones (Bacic, 2013b: 3).

According to Barbara Sutton, a researcher in body politics, human rights, collective memory, globalisation and women’s activism particularly in Latin American contexts, a dictatorship’s legacy is the maintenance of power through “systems of oppression” that “often resort to repressive and coercive means of bodily control, such as physical-psychological torment and violent killings” (Sutton, 2007: 135). Military dictatorships in both Chile and Argentina fully understood “the power of injured, violated and tortured bodies” (Sutton, 2007: 145). Sutton notes:

“As long as people were disappeared, as long as their bodies were vanished, the atrocities committed could be more easily denied. Without the body as evidence, who would think that captive persons were being thrown out of planes into the water or buried in collective graves?” (Sutton, 2007: 148)

Sutton gives a powerful statement, “Bodies tell powerful stories about violence” (Sutton, 2007: 148). Although bodies were disappearing, women who were mothers, aunts, sisters, supporters, took up their needle and thread to record events that were being denied by the dictatorship.

Black envelops them. Faceless, naked, white figures are tied into unnatural positions. Hands tied behind their backs they sit crouched with legs pressed against their chest. They are trapped in a cage that could only be described to be for keeping dogs. A woman sits alone in her nakedness, tied to a chair. Her arms are pulled back behind, tied together. Her ankles too are tied to the front legs of the chair. A person with arms and legs outspread lies on a cage-like panel. Both wrists and ankles are tied down to the four corners of the panel. The body makes the shape of an X. Nearby, three are hung from the ceiling. The person on either end are hanging from their wrists, feet dangling. The one in the middle is hung from the ankles, head and arms hanging below.

Chile has an infamous history of torture. Unknown to the wider world, Violeta Morales decided to speak out and expose the Chilean government (Bacic, 2015: 2). In 1996, Morales made this visually startling arpillera called Salas de torturas / Torture chamber. The arpillera is simple, made with a black background with stark white figures, and is framed with a blanket stitch of red thread. Curator Roberta Bacic notes:

“It graphically shows people being tortured in various ways, portraying them in a dehumanised way with featureless faces, just as torture dehumanises individuals. The symbolic enclosure of the people held in captivity accurately describes life in Chile during those years.” (Bacic, 2015: 1)

Sala de torturas
‘Sala de torturas / Torture  Chamber’, by Violeta Morales, Chile, 1996. © Conflict Textiles collection. Provenance Marjorie Agosín. Photo: Colin Peck.

Echoing the arpillera, Sutton recognised how dictatorships dominated the body and monopolised “through the feminisation of all the people being subjugated” (Sutton, 2010: 136). Both men and women were ‘feminised’ in torture by being “forced into positions of submission” (Scarry, 1985: 165). According to Chile’s second National Truth Commission Report on Torture and Political Imprisonment (Valech II) published in August 2011, “the total number of people officially registered as torture victims, from the Pinochet era, is now 38,254” (cited in Bacic, 2015: 2). Unfortunately, Violeta Morales died in 2001, having never found her brother Newton who disappeared in 1974 (Bacic, 2015: 2).

Arpilleras such as Morales’ and Stockdale’s give a voice to those who are missing. To grasp how powerful a needle, thread and cloth can become, is to understand to what extent physical pain can cripple a human being. Elaine Scarry states simply, “Physical pain has no voice” (Scarry, 1985: 165). Scarry recognises the achievement of pain is in part through its inexpressibility and unsharability. This unsharability is ensured “through its resistance to language” (Scarry, 1985: 3). Scarry quotes Virginia Woolf to reiterate how pain is language-destroying:

“English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear has no words for the shiver of the headache…The merest schoolgirl when she falls in love has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her, but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.” (Woolf cited in Scarry, 1985: 5)

Scarry continues to make her case, moving from literature into the medical field. She notes how physicians believed “to have great pain is to have certainty; to hear that another person has pain is to have doubt” (Scarry, 1985: 5). Since physical pain is language-destroying, torture “inflicts bodily pain that is itself language-destroying” and “visibly deconstructs the prisoner’s voice” (Scarry, 1985: 28). To have arpilleras such as Morales’ exist today, shown in exhibitions and talked about, is a victory. Voices destroyed are found and shared.

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 arpillerasfrom 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.


Bacic, R. (2009). Threads of Life – Quilts & Arpilleras that speak out. Ulster: CAIN. Available at: [Accessed 7 Sept. 2017].

Bacic, R. (2013a) Arpilleras: Evolution and Revolution. Ulster: CAIN. Available at: [Accessed 7 Sept. 2017].

Bacic, R. (2013b). They Fell like Stars from the Sky. CONFLICT TEXTILES. Available at: [Accessed 8 Apr. 2018].

Bacic, R. (2015). Sala de torturas / Torture chamber. CONFLICT TEXTILES. Available at: [Accessed 5 Apr. 2018].

Cortiñas, N. and Keene, B. (2017). Nora Cortiñas UK Speaking Tour: Human rights, Disappearances, Debt and Free Trade: Struggles for Justice and Sovereignty in Argentina and Latin America.

Scarry, E. (1985). The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sutton, B. (2007). Gendered Bodily Scars of Neoliberal Globalization in Argentina. In: N. Gunewardena and A. Kingsolver, ed., The Gender of Globalization: Women Navigating Cultural and Economic Marginalities. Santa Fe: SAR Press, pp. 147-168. Available at: [Accessed 13 Dec. 2017].

Sutton, B. (2010). Bodies in Crisis: Culture, Violence, and Women’s Resistance in Neoliberal Argentina. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

One thought on “The Needle as the Pen. Part 5: The Unravelling: Breaking Bodies

  1. Thank you so much ¡ we are organizing an arpilleras workshop for women gathering to prepare 8M 2020. All these information and so valuable contents will be so helpfull. Thanks and greetings from Santiago de Chile

    Liked by 1 person

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