A guest post by Andrea Liu
How do you find a voice when society censors you? How do you find a voice when as a woman, you are not able to feel empowered by a very, very patriarchal society? How do you find a voice when you have been victimised? And yet, they found a voice.
Marjorie Agosín (in Facing History and Ourselves, n.d.)
The 1970s and 1980s were a difficult time for both South America and Northern Ireland. While dictatorships were sprouting all over South America, bombings were shaking Northern Ireland. In both places, it was a time of silence, fear, curfews and bombs. Nothing was safe. Instead of living around people who looked out for each other, it became a society of vigilantes. In South America, activists who fought for a dream of social justice became targets of the regime. These idealistic young people were treated as terrorists and were murdered in a most clandestine way, tortured. In Belfast, the city was split between the east and the west, Protestant and Catholic, Unionists and Nationalists. Violence spilled from both sides, and 52% of those deaths were civilians (BBC, n.d.: 2). To this day, the Protestants and Catholics are separated by 10-foot high ‘peace walls.’ In South America, the women learned the best way of mending pain and trauma was through craft. From Chile, the practice of making arpilleras spread to neighbouring Latin American countries who were also experiencing violent regimes. Soon enough, the women in Northern Ireland learned about the arpilleras, and began to use textiles as their means of coming to terms with the Troubles. Through arpilleras and conflict textiles we see how the process of mending is achieved and how these women are able to forgive the atrocities that have happened in their lives.
Since needlework and cloth are able to tackle complex issues, mending is a tool that “arouses emotions, identifies problems and proposes solutions to those problems” (Deacon and Calvin, 2014: 7). Mending is more than renewing the usefulness of an object. On the surface, mending preserves and prolongs the lifeline of the cloth. The word ‘mend’ evolved from old French word ‘amender,’ which means to alter, remedy, cure and revise (Souza, 2016: 460). On a deeper level, the process of mending is therapeutic and homeopathic, meaning whatever is done to the cloth can be seen as a metaphor or expression to whatever the maker is experiencing. In some cultures, such as in India, a mender is a healer, having the capacity to breathe “new life into forgotten objects” (Deccan Herald, 2013: 1). Mending as a healing process identifies textiles’ potentiality in expressing intangible and inexpressible issues such as grief, pain and loss. In mending, it is literally and figuratively the acknowledgement that there is damage and “an awareness that change is necessary” (Wilson, 2016: 45). Once damage is identified, the repair process begins. Damage and repair go hand-in-hand; together they become “deeper examinations of feelings and thoughts” (Liz Cooper, in Tiernan, 2015).
The way cloth is restored, patched, darned and re-used shows the level of care and emotion involved (Williamson, 2004: 269). As Hemmings notes:
“If something is going to take a long time to make, it is unlikely that the ideas it contains are flippant or accidental. If something is produced swiftly, intention may or may not be present. This is not to say that labour in and of itself creates meaning, but it is harder to dismiss meaning from an object that has considerable time invested in its creation.” (Hemmings, 2011: 30)
For Pym, the “evidence of darning bestows not only the sense of ‘seeing the making,’ but also bestows a weightiness and heft on a garment” (cit. in Wilson, 2017: 47). Mending not only transforms but can also reveal ‘madeness’ in the object. American essayist Elaine Scarry explains:
“The moment when an object needs repair, revision or reinforcement – a moment when its ongoing reality has slipped a little, and thus its fictionality or madeness comes into view.” (Scarry, 1985: 312)
‘Madeness’ in an object also identifies the level of human compassion built into hand-made objects:
“Anonymous, mass-produced objects contain a collective and equally extraordinary message: whoever you are, and whether or not I personally like or even know you, in at least this small way, be well.” (Scarry, 1985: 292)
How much more intimate this compassion is felt with cloth! Since the tactile nature of handcrafted items reaches audiences in a way that oral messages cannot, we are allowed to touch emotion (Denny, 2012: 3).
The act of stitching is a repetitive and calming practice. Sarah Corbett, founder of Craftivist Collective, recognised how “it would really calm [her] down and help [her] think deeply about injustice issues” (cit. in Bateman, 2017: 3). Through stitching, there is time for reflection, which allows for mending the mind from haste thoughts and actions. It also allows for the maker to reflect upon forgiveness. Not only is needlework slow and gentle, therapeutic in mending the mind and emotions, it also helps build relationships. Hence, stitch by stitch, bridges are built, not war. According to Deacon and Calvin, textiles serves as a bridge “between the internal and personal and the external and public spheres of the war,” allowing those who view them to come to terms with the past, to move forward and to forge a new future (Deacon and Calvin, 2014: 11). Making textiles “allows women to address their anxiety about warfare and express their opinions in a safe, non-threatening manner” (Deacon and Calvin, 2014: 11). The maker’s active inward searching is provoking; thus, “craft is a good catalyst” to get conversations started (Corbett, cit. in Orenstein, 2015: 2).
Mending not only occurs in just stitching, but also in being a part of a community. As Corbett notes:
“When you’re doing it with people you feel a part of some community. You feel you’re all in it together. And I really love that it’s a safe space for people from all different backgrounds. We have some really interesting discussions and debates. You don’t solve them, but it gets people having politics as part of their lifestyle.” (Cit. in Denny, 2012: 3)
Taylor from The Yarn Mission, an organisation formed after the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson that knits for black liberation, echoes Corbett about being part of a community and how “being able to share those stories is comforting” (Taylor, cit. in Bateman, 2017: 7). For the arpilleristas, clandestine workshops were set up in homes or in basements of the Vicariate of Solidarity, an organisation established to defend against the violation of human rights. According to Caldwell, “here they were free to not only translate their experiences onto cloth but also find comfort in relating to the group of women” (Caldwell, 2012: 2). Apillerista Violeta Morales discusses the significance of the group meetings in Marjorie Agosín’s text Tapestries of Hope, Threads of Love: The Arpillera Movement in Chile: “There I found other people who were suffering from the same thing and trying to help them sometimes helped me with my own tragedy” (cit. in Caldwell, 2012: 2).
The women are happy and busy making their arpilleras together in the Taller Mujeres Creativas (see image below). Colourful pieces of fabrics and yarn are all over the floor. Nuestro Taller de Arpilleras / Our Arpilleras Workshop was made in by women in the Mujeres Creativas Workshop in Lima, Peru (Bacic, 2015). The untidy industriousness depicted here is a world of creativity that provides a refuge from the chaos of war for the women involved. Inhabiting such a tumultuous place and time, their camaraderie shows their sense of ownership of the workshop. According to Bacic:
“At present, many of the women who participated in this workshop over the years are elderly and cannot make a living from their work. As the state has not provided reparations and minimal health care for their war affected and poor people, it is through Movimiento Manuela Ramos and the generosity of German Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and churches that they get their basic needs met.” (Bacic, 2015)
In 2006, Roberta Bacic was invited to Ireland and Northern Ireland to introduce the process of making arpilleras to a group of women participating in a women’s crossborder/cross-community project (Bacic, 2015). Bacic noted how the workshop “allowed the women to learn about trauma and conflict in other cultures, whilst tentatively exploring its connection to their own experience living in a post conflict society – all through cutting, stitching and conversing” (Bacic, 2015).
Shared Visions is a unique quilt made by a group of women in Northern Ireland in 2008 (Bacic, 2008: 1). The quilt is handcrafted by Loyalist, Nationalist, Republican and Unionist women who demonstrate “a tentative coming together to express a vision for a new inclusive society in Northern Ireland” (Bacic, 2008).
Women from four Belfast-based women’s group came together to stitch, and at times unstitch the pieces. They created a space for peace-weaving and stitching. The women shared spaces together, meals together and conversations as each one explored their own vision for a shared future. Donated to Quaker House Belfast, who also funded and coordinated the making of the quilt, it urges viewers to absorb messages of the quilt through our senses:
“It has been said; Listen till ye hear. As you stand before this quilt today let me suggest to you that You look till ye see.” (Bacic, 2008)
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.
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Bacic, R. (2015) Nuestro Taller de Arpilleras / Our Arpilleras Workshop. Conflict Textiles. Available at: http://cain.ulster.ac.uk/conflicttextiles/searchquilts/fulltextiles/?id=60 [Accessed 4 Apr. 2018].
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