The Needle as the Pen. Part 9: Visible Mending: Embroidering Love

A guest post by Andrea Liu

Mending Memories

Across cultures “women were frequently tasked with preserving family’s memories, with large-scale textile projects such as quilts conveying memories across generations” (Dolan and Holloway, 2016: 157). Textiles are “important vehicles for emotionally charged memories, and were often personalized and carefully preserved before being passed along by family members” (Ibid.: 157). Embroidered Mexican Pañuelos / Handkerchiefs are embroidered cotton handkerchiefs done in the 2010s (see in more detail this post by Danielle House).

Embroidered Mexican Pañuelos / Handkerchiefs, by Fuentes Rojas Collective, FUNDENL Bordamos por la Paz Nuevo León, and Bordados por la Paz Puebla, Mexico, 2010s. Photo: Danielle House.

According to Bacic:

“In 2006, former Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared a ‘War on Drugs’. In the intervening years, killings and disappearances, perpetrated by all parties in the conflict, have spiralled, with 150,000 people now dead and at least 26,000 disappeared. In August 2011, the group Fuentes Rojas (Red Fountains) started a collective public memorial “Bordando por la Paz y la Memoria: una víctima, un pañuelo,” making visible the scale of the conflict. Embroidering weekly in a square in the south of Mexico City, using red thread on white handkerchiefs, they stitch the names and details of people killed during the War on Drugs; one handkerchief for every victim.” (Bacic, 2010)

Stitching with green, pink and purple threads, each colour represents a different meaning (Bacic, 2010). Green represents hope for the return of their loved ones. Pink and purple “highlight the issue of femicide in Puebla, where there has recently been a spike in violence against women” (Bacic, 2010). By the physical act of stitching, these embroiderers are mending their memories of their loved ones and actively desire a more peaceful future.

A collection of hundreds and thousands of small pieces of fabric, all different shades of red, are stitched together to make four panels (see image below).

Common Loss
‘Peace Quilt – Common Loss’, by Irene MacWilliam, Northern Ireland, 1996. Irene MacWilliam collection; Photo: Martin Melaugh.

Peace Quilt – Common Loss is a four-panel quilt made by Belfast-born Irene MacWilliam in 1996 that “expresses her deep concern for the loss of lives during the Troubles which impacted on every county and community in her native Northern Ireland” (Bacic, 1996). Since the mid-1980s, she has been making quilts as a response to the events in Northern Ireland. For this piece, people from Northern Ireland, Japan, the USA and England “had been sending her pieces of red fabric to use” (Bacic, 1996). In 1994, when there was a ceasefire, she thought the time was right to make the quilt. Each of the 3,161 pieces represents someone killed in the Troubles between 1969 and 1994 (Bacic, 1996). The absence of names or details mean it is a largely symbolic representation of the death toll. According to Irene, she wanted it to be predominantly red but not solid red “because life is not black and white” and she wanted to reflect that ambiguity in the colour. One of the fabrics, with a print of little bears, “represented the children caught up or deeply affected by the Troubles,” another with a white paintbrush bird motif suggested “hope” for the future (Nickell, 2015: 7). MacWilliam was “very specific that there was a patch for every single person …the exact number according to the statistics” (Ibid.). She feels this is her most successful quilt as “it appeals to everyone, not just those involved in textiles” and people “open up” and talk when they see it (Ibid.). She explained that when making the quilt she had been “thinking about all the people who had been involved… thinking rather than personally involved,” feeling as she did “a bit like an outsider” belonging to neither “side.” (Ibid.) She had gotten the figure 3,161 from ringing the police hotline and pretended to be someone important since there was no other way of finding out (MacWilliam, cit. in Bacic, 2017).

A colourfully collaged peace dove is shooting down towards an olive branch that is growing from the rocks. Peace Dove is a wall hanging also made by Irene MacWilliam, but in 1987 (Bacic, 1987). This work is one of the early days of working with fabric. As Irene notes, this wall hanging was inspired by “the conflicts throughout the world which have been recurring” (Bacic, 1987). Yellow colour of the dove reflects a sense of hope. As it is hurtling towards rocks, flying over turbulent waters, with part of the olive branch missing from its beak, it mirrors the obstacles to be overcome in campaigning for a peaceful nonviolent world (Bacic, 1987). According to Bacic:

“Irene’s unorthodox depiction of the peace dove is very apt imagery for the conflict in Northern Ireland in 1987. In that year, the conflict claimed the lives of members of the security forces, paramilitary groups and civilians, with 11 civilians killed during the annual Remembrance Day ceremony in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, when a bomb planted by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) exploded at the War Memorial. With entrenched views in evidence among the main political parties, a peaceful solution seemed remote at this time.” (Bacic, 1987)

Peace Dove
‘Peace Dove’, by Irene MacWilliam, Northern Ireland, 1987. Conflict Textiles collection; Photo: Gustavo Neves.

Mending to be ‘OK’

Since “the very act of darning transforms character of cloth,” Liz Cooper recognises, the process of mending includes “a sub-text suggesting that perfection is not always possible, and that all too often, in so many of the situations that we encounter as human beings, ‘OK’ will have to suffice” (Williamson, 2004: 269; cf. Wilson, 2016: 45). Through textiles, mending can be a metaphor used to explore “the idea of restoration, of reconciliation, of holding things together in the face of fear of disintegration” (Newman, 2004: 2). According to Louise Bourgeois, she saw “restoration as a metaphor to her personal life” by stating: “Art is restoration: the idea is to repair the damages that are inflicted in life” (cit. in Wilson, 2016: 44). By “re-experiencing and re-storing damages inflicted in past lives” through textiles, a cathartic moment occurs (Hemmings, 2005: 48). For Carrie Reichardt, a core member of the Craftivist Collective, stitching “in the face of hugely frustrating and seemingly insurmountable obstacle can offer a form of catharsis for the sewer” (cit. in Denny, 2012: 3). This process of catharsis is evident in textiles that have been made during as well as after war and conflict. Arpilleristas in Chile, Argentina and other countries in South America certainly went through “figuratively and literally the process of catharsis” in their pouring forth of their stories and pain when stitching onto cloth (Bacic, 2013: 4). Bacic explains:

“The miniature figures, that protested, pronounced, screamed, danced or begged, moved from their fingers to the cloth and took with them their stories and pain.” (Bacic, 2013: 4)

One arpillerista beautifully describes this catharsis by explaining “how textile ‘received her tears,’ with the arpillera soaking them up” (Bacic, 2013: 4).

Hilvanando la busqueda / Stitching the search is a Chilean arpillera made by Nicole Drouilly in 2014 (Bacic, 2014).

06 photo by Roser Corbera
‘Hilvanando la busqueda / Stitching the search’, by Nicole Drouilly, Chile, 2014. Conflict Textiles collection; Photo: Roser Corbera.

On October 30th, 1974, Jacqueline Drouilly and her husband, Marcelo Salinas Eytel, were abducted from their home in Santiago by the security police (Bacic, 2014b). Bacic reveals that “despite embarking on a painstaking search process, Jacqueline’s family never saw her again, never recovered her remains and never knew the fate of her unborn baby” (Bacic, 2014).

In this geometric quilt, Nicole goes through a journey of healing. She memorialises her older sister by sharing memories from her life. She as well recounts the painful stages of the search for Jacqueline. Nicole begins with, “the search…for a living person” (Drouilly, cit. in Bacic, 2014). When her family realised that they would not find Jacqueline alive, they faced the reality of “never see[ing] her again” (Drouilly, cit. in Bacic, 2014). Nicole still persists to seek justice for Jacqueline and Marcelo. Nicole explains how “the geometrical designs…give order to chaos…a labyrinth ends in a wall, … mandalas … guide my actions and infinite journeys” (Drouilly, cit. in Bacic, 2014). Since this quilt allowed her to gain solace, Nicole acknowledges those who take a moment to view her quilt:

“…I thank them from now and forever the passing minutes they dedicate to observe the quilt and unite to me in thinking about Jacqueline.” (Drouilly, cit. in Bacic, 2014)

[For more on Stitching the Search, see also this post.]

Northern-Irish fibre artist Eileen Harrisson found textiles to be intimate and best equipped to speak of human experiences. In her stitching, she finds healing and explains:

“We are clothed daily in textiles and are wrapped on birth and in death, are clothed for burial…The rhythmic act of hand stitch…touches something in my soul…I also feel that stitch is a metaphor for damage and healing; the needle punctures the cloth in a violent act but the network of stitched threads heals the injured surface, making it whole again.” (Harrisson, cit. in Bacic, 2014a)

Continuum is a wall hanging made by Eileen in 2014 (see image below). Fragmented images of conflict and ghostly people are stitched together on linen. Among the appliquéd images, there is a repeated photo of child crying. According to Eileen Harrisson, the crying child “expresses the terror inflicted mercilessly on even the very young” (cit. in Bacic, 2014a). The images she stitches are all from her memories “of living and working in Belfast…during the Troubles in Northern Ireland from the mid-1970s to early 1980s” (Bacic, 2014a). In a way, she depicts a condensed version of her family history. She reflects on her “familial connections with the two World Wars and her sorrow at the continuing suffering” that plagues society (Bacic, 2014a).

“Continuum”, by Eileen Harrisson, Northern Ireland, 2014. Eileen Harrisson collection; photo: Eileen Harrisson.

For Eileen, the piece not only looks to the past and at the present, but also towards the future. She states:

“Though not perfect, Ulster has obtained a longed-for level of peace and reconciliation…but conflict has transferred elsewhere in a continuum; like a contagion, terrorism threatens peoples everywhere…in the face of hatred and lack of compassion, is [to] speak of love, in stitch, word and music.” (Harrisson, cit. in Bacic, 2014a)

[For guest posts by Eileen Harrisson, see part 1, part 2 and part 3 of “My Journey into Conflict the World of Arpilleras”.]

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. (1987). Peace Dove. Conflict Textiles. Available at: [Accessed 12 Apr. 2018].

Bacic, R. (1996). Peace Quilt – Common Loss. Conflict Textiles. Available at: [Accessed 4 Apr. 2018].

Bacic, R. (2010). Embroidered Mexican Pañuelos / Handkerchiefs. Conflict Textiles. Available at: [Accessed 4 Apr. 2018].

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

Bacic, R. (2014). Hilvanando la busqueda / Stitching the search. Conflict Textiles. Available at: [Accessed 8 Apr. 2018].

Bacic, R. (2014a). Continuum. Conflict Textiles. Available at: [Accessed 6 Apr. 2018].

Bacic, R. (2017). Textile Language of Conflicts. Presentation.

Denny, S. (2012). Craftivist Collective Threads of Change. Huck. Available at: [Accessed 5 Apr. 2018].

Dolan, A. and Holloway, S. (2016). Emotional Textiles: An Introduction. TEXTILE 14(2), pp. 152-159. DOI:

Hemmings, J. (2005). Tim Harding: The Fabric of Our Lives. Embroidery Magazine, pp. 32-34. Available at: [Accessed 15 Oct. 2017].

Newman, A. (2004). Louise Bourgeois Builds a Book From the Fabric of Life. The New York Times. Available at: [Accessed 11 Dec. 2017]

Nickell, K. (2015). “Troubles Textiles”: Textile Responses to the Conflict in Northern Ireland. TEXTILE 13(3), pp. 234-251. DOI:

Williamson, L. (2004). Darning: A Visible Thread. 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.

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