STITCHING - OBSESSION - WELLNESS: Reclaiming the therapeutic value of stitch

  • Patchett, Merle M (Principal Investigator)
  • Connett, Jan (Co-Investigator)
  • Roguski, Amber (Co-Investigator)
  • Braboszcz, Claire (Co-Investigator)
  • Mann, Stella (Co-Investigator)
  • COOPER-WILLIS , ANWYL (Co-Investigator)

Project Details


1. to explore the therapeutic benefits of stitching
2. to contribute to a re-valuation of the C19th asylum as a therapeutic space, and
3. to add to our understanding of the relationship between women, creative work and wellness.

The project seeks to assess the emotional role of needlework in C19th ‘lunatic asylums’ and to more broadly highlight the act of stitching as both therapeutic and subversive. Scholarship has shown that needlework gave women in asylums the opportunity of accessing the labour market and practicing a skill (Long 2019). However, no work has been done on assessing the emotional benefits of such work. Equally, the subversive stitch in asylums cannot be ignored. In the case of Agnes Richter, Mary Heaton and “Myrllen” it is clear “non-productive” needlework (Heard 2015) offered these women a means of emotionally and creatively expressing themselves and sharing their stories through stitch (Roeske 2014). Textile historian Bridget Long (2006) has argued that the home was the place for "emotional sewing" and that both sociable and solitary sewing provided sources of emotional support. This project seeks to site the asylum as a place for “emotional sewing” and asks: is it possible to understand both the productive and subversive stitch as therapeutic in this, and the contemporary, context?

Neuroscience opens up to us the exciting possibility of exploring exactly that, as part of a series of stitch workshops we will run at Glenside Hospital Museum. Artists, researchers and volunteers will co-design and undertake experiments, using electroencephalography (EEG) to identify patterns of brain activity whilst people sew. These investigations will be highly novel given that there is limited research into EEG during repetitive behaviours, and no previous research looking at brain activity during sewing. We aim to test whether the rhythmic, repetitive action of stitching can calm and focus the anxious brain into a meditative state (Cavanagh and Shackamn 2015; Braboszcz 2017; Li et al 2018; Zhao et al 2018).
From its inception ‘Moral Treatment’, modelled in the Bicêtre Asylum, Paris (Pinel 1806) and York Retreat (Tuke, 1813), promoted the therapeutic effects of occupation. Thus at Glenside a consistent 65% of patients were usefully employed: the women mostly sewing and their occupation being used as a measure of recovery (asylum casenotes). Our neuroscience research
will test the veracity of both this institutional approach and the subversive, independent creativity of individuals.

Critical making: findings from the project’s investigations (narrative, contextual and neuroscientific) will inform the design and making of textile installations. We will work together to create material interpretations of our shared understanding of the purpose behind the original patient-made textiles (in their C19th asylum context) and the measured effect of stitch activity on emotion.

Why does it matter?

Mental illness is a leading cause of disability in the UK (Knapp, M et al 2011). There is misunderstanding, both of the C19th asylums and inpatient care today (Payne,C 2009) and whilst we understand the importance of paid employment (Schuring,M 2017) only 67% of people with mental illness have jobs. This project will promote discussion of these issues, the potential therapeutic value of stitch and its contribution to living well.
Effective start/end date8/01/2031/07/20


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