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Fabric, feelings and fidget stars! Reflections on the emotional use of textiles in social work

There is an emotionality associated with the making, the ownership, the giving and receiving, and the use of fabric objects. Across generations and cultures people (often women) have made textiles to use for function or decoration. Fabric and threads can have a much deeper significance. Throughout my personal life I have enjoyed creating things with textiles and I would consider sewing to be therapeutic, either because the familiar and repetitive movements have soothed me, or, because I have expressed my feelings using colour, form or texture. As a social worker and teacher, I have used fabrics and creating things as a tool to connect to others and to open up conversations. I had begun to feel that textile crafts were beginning to fade, skills were being lost, and the value of creating things from yarn and materials was diminishing.

However, there has been a renewal of interest in the UK of needlecraft as a hobby. I have been heartened to discover there are others who share my views about the emotional meanings of fabrics too. This blog was prompted by a tweet by @Harr_Ferguson (Professor of Social Work) who shared a link to an article in the Journal Textile, Cloth and Culture (Emotional textiles: an introduction by Alice Dolan and Sally Holloway). I was interested, and excited, to see ideas from a different discipline resonate with my views on the way textiles can be a conduit for feelings. This caused me to pause and reflect about the meaning fabrics, clothing, crafting has for me personally and professionally. I have used quilts and quilting as analogies for social work or life generally many times in my blogs. I shall share some reflections on the emotional meaning fabric has for me and include a couple of simple activities that anyone in the social care sector might find useful.

When I was a child most women sewed and knitted because factory made clothing and bedding was prohibitively expensive. One of my earliest memories is of sorting my grandmother’s button box. Over fifty years later, sorting buttons prompts feelings of wellbeing. Although I was taught sewing at school, it is my grandmothers who encouraged the creative use of fabric. Having had limited resources during the war years they were not constrained by the intended uses of things. I was taught to dye, piece, re-use and adapt. My great-grandmother patiently showed me how to crochet and I quickly learnt to do this by touch.

As I started to write this blog warm memories of quality time spent with my grandmothers come flooding back. I cannot remember what I made but I can remember what I felt. Some fabrics will provoke similar feelings. I only have to touch ‘crimplene’ and I feel the safety and love of my Nanny M. My grandmothers knitted and sewed outfits for me. It was one way they expressed their love and nurturance. They spent time creating things they thought I needed or would want.

Many years later, I made a lap quilt for my grandmother when she had dementia. I used fabric from all the decades of her life and she would fidget with them. The different fabrics would trigger anecdotes. Sewing connected us. When she no longer remembered my name she would say ‘I was thinking about you…did you make that top?’ and we would chat about the things she made and her teaching ‘little Caroline’ (me) to sew.

My mother hated sewing and knitting so when I showed a creative inclination she was puzzled (and delighted). One summer I made her a dress. I was rewarded with an electric sewing machine! My mother promptly gave up sewing and for the rest of her life I would make or mend the things she needed doing.

I still have a few of my mother's clothes that I cannot bear to part with (a nightie that’s faded and thin, a crocheted shawl I made her, a jumper she owned when I was a baby which is falling apart, and her scratchy college scarf). These items are multi-sensory and they hold emotional significance. They say something about what she valued, how she lived her life and how she died. Lots of us keep garments that remind us of people or special occasions. I think we do this because in some way fabrics can hold and reflect our emotions. Other objects can do this but maybe it is the tactile nature of materials that add a sensory element?

Capturing memories by creating something with fabrics can be very healing. When my eldest son died, I literally quilted my way through raw grief by making memory quilts for myself and for the family. It was both a painful and positive process. Bit by bit, over a period of time, I made sense of the pieces and created comforters. Sometimes I was joined in my sewing space by my closest network. They understood my agony and sat with me while I sewed. Then they got husband and youngest son both made splendid quilts. Even my daughter (who like my mother does not enjoy sewing) had a go. My friends had crafting 'playdates' with me and we talked about loss, life and sewing. We chatted, laughed and found peace. Re-purposing the belongings of a deceased loved one might be too emotionally loaded for some but there are other ways fabric can help process emotions.

If you want to use textiles to support someone with loss or grief, you don’t need the original fabrics to make memory items, nor do you need needlework skills. All you need is a variety of new and old fabrics to choose from. Charity shops are a great source. Fabrics are chosen that are associated with memories (eg. green because he took me to football or denim because she always wore jeans). A sewing machine is needed for big projects, such as a quilt, but small projects can be handsewn or joined using ‘Bondaweb’ and an iron. A memory quilt, where different family members each make a section, is a good way to bring people together. If you don’t have a sewing machine, or the skills, there are loads of quilters out there who are willing to make up quilts for the fun of it…trust me on this (I'm a middle-aged woman who quilts)…just ask about and I bet someone would be happy to help join squares together and put on a backing…

Or you could try a smaller project, such as a cushion cover made from fabric squares joined together. A shirt front can be used to made the back avoiding the need to creating fastenings. And cushions are very huggable! How about using fabrics to create a picture, collage or scrap book? Another idea is to tie strips of fabric around a bangle, hoop or twig. This can look very effective and make a ‘dream-catcher’. A friend of mine used her mother-in-law clothes to make some little memory rabbits for her grandchildren. Pinterest and YouTube are an endless source of inspiration and instructions. The key is to start small and simple. If you cannot sew use glue!

Fabrics (particularly clothing or bedding) can be powerful emotional triggers. Have you ever picked up a baby’s sleep suit and inhaled? The softness to the touch, coupled with the smell of baby products, takes my breath away. It is easy to overlook the significance of the feelings fabrics can provoke.

When I was working with foster carers and adopters I created a really simple sensory game that helped people to understand just how important fabric is for our well-being. This prompted conversations and a depth of understanding that went beyond my expectations.

I cut squares of fabric from as many things as I could. These included new and stiff cotton or polycotton fabrics like bedding, soft and worn sheeting, pieces from clothing such as t-shirting, wool, fleece, denim, fluffy towelling and a flannel that had gone hard from repeated laundering, baby blankets with satin ribbon edging…anything really that I did not mind cutting up! The participants would try (with their eyes shut) to identify by feel what fabric they were touching. I observed people rubbing the fabrics through their fingers or across their cheeks in the way babies do, sniffing the fabrics, stroking the materials or welling up with emotion.

These little scraps opened people’s minds and feelings…

‘It feels like my father’s tweed jacket…but it does not smell the same’

‘Oh, I had sheets just like this when I was little’

‘My mother used to wash my face roughly with a flannel like this’

‘This reminds me of wrapping my babies up after a bath’

‘It smells of the washing powder I use’

…and so on.

We would go on to discuss how children who experience living in different homes experience the fabric of their lives in a sensory way. I would invite ideas to help use this knowledge to help children feel emotionally safer. For example, using familiar bedding or washing powder. Little things that can make a big impact. Who would have thought that some random pieces of material could be so thought provoking?

Making something with textiles can be in itself therapeutic. It helps regulate feelings and self-soothe. Long before the concept of mindfulness became fashionable, the rhythmic actions of sewing or knitting have been used for relaxation. When I start making something my focus is on the present moment. Choosing colours, design, fabrics and thread, then stitching or creating preoccupies my brain. My stresses and worries recede as I concentrate on the task in hand. It does not matter if my intentions turn into a successful product or not. It is the process that matters. When I make things for other people I think about them, their likes/dislikes, what they might need or want, what meaning my gift might have for them.

Sewing connects me to others across time and space. I have made friends through crafting and sharing ideas. There is a long tradition of textiles being created by groups. For example, sewing bees where women got together and quilted. If only we had the time, and the inclination, as professionals to get alongside people and do creative activities with them. There could be so many benefits. Crafting can be a conduit for conversation in a non-threatening way. People might find shared interests and connect with others. They might discover skills and strengths that improve their self-esteem. They might enjoy the experience.

The image for this blog are some ‘fidget stars’. These are something I created when I was doing direct work with children. Made from two layers of fabric (the bottom being blanket/fleece) and with ribbons attached these were texturally similar to the ‘taggies’ or ‘blankies’ so many very young children use as comforters. The star shape was chosen for it’s positive connotations and as something suitable for all ages. I would use them in many ways to help children or young people manage their emotions in difficult situations. They could fidget with them while we talked and perhaps ‘feel’ comfort. Sometimes I would leave my star with them as a transition object to remind them I would return. Other times I would take away a star (chosen by the child) to remind me of them while I was not visible. At my next visit I could demonstrate how I held them in mind by saying things like – ‘I looked at your star when I was working at my computer and wondered how you were doing’. I also used them as a concrete reward/reminder of what a ‘star’ they were.

Last year I regularly went into busy front-line social work teams. I took along some of my stash of resources to share including my fidget stars. I invited practitioners to choose a star for themselves or someone they were working with. I observed thoughtful conversations about choosing colours or images or about how the stars might be used. Then I observed stressed social workers visibly relaxing while fiddling with their stars…we can all benefit from the soothing properties of fabric! I visited offices where the stars were pinned beside workstations or I was told how they had been used. Some social workers used them as ‘safety objects’ as part of Signs of Safety plans. So I spent some enjoyable Sunday afternoons making some more. I never seemed to have enough!! A lovely colleague of mine told me her mother liked sewing and they kindly made 80 for me. These were amazingly precise, unlike my liberated freestyle versions. Fidget stars could easily be hand sewn from scraps and I think there could be real value in making them with a parent/carer and/or child, so the instructions are below.

As I have meandered through some thoughts on how I use fabrics I recognise that not everyone will relate to my experiences or ideas. There’s no getting away from the gendered nature of textiles but it is not exclusive to women. In terms of skills and emotions, in my experience any gender difference is down to stereotyping and opportunities. I wonder what the impact would be if we social workers used material things to work with emotions? It’s not a new idea but perhaps one worth exploring?

As always I am just mooting some ideas and I welcome discussion or debate. You are welcome to use any of the activities I have shared. I would love to hear how you get on.


Twitter: @CarolineAldrid5

Instructions for fidget stars

1. Using the template, draw a five-pointed star and cut from top fabric. 2. Lay face up on the backing fabric (fleece, towelling or blanket).

3. Stitch (running stitch by hand will be fine) from one point to it’s opposite. Turn and stitch to the opposite and keep going from point to point until all the edges are complete.

4.Cut the fleece to the same size as the top fabric.

5. Sew on some ribbons!


Fidget to your hearts content…

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