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Untangling the threads: Using a stitched reflective journal to make sense of things.

Creativity is a higher order thinking skill, textile crafts are great ways of processing feelings, and reflective journals are a useful tool for students, practitioners and researchers. In this blog, I shall explore how I combine these ideas, using mini textile and mixed-media collages in a stitched reflective journal, to document my reflexive journey. This has the added bonus of also being a calming and sensory soothing activity which helps me a achieve work/study/leisure balance. So, if you are a bit ‘arty’, maybe a little stressed, and you want to keep a reflective journal, why not give this a go?

Those of you who follow my blogs, will already know that I enjoy sewing and all things creative. It is a major weapon in my self-care armoury. I find that the processes of creating things, coupled with keeping my hands busy, enables me to reflect and process complex information and emotions. As I become absorbed in colour, texture, cutting, sewing, I enter a ‘calm alert’ state. An optimal state for deep critical thinking. I have been using sewing, often through quilting, as a way of communicating information for several years.

In 2018, I had head injury which has left me with some cognitive, balance, and fatigue issues. This limits my ability to work on a computer for long periods. My brain needs me to pace myself and vary my activities. I love to write, and I wrote my book, He Died Waiting, as part of my rehabilitation, but I can only write for short periods.

When I enrolled on a Professional Doctorate in Health and Social Care, my disability (because I have come to accept my limitations are disabling) posed some additional challenges. One of these was finding enough energy to do all the reading and writing, which included keeping a reflective journal. I also needed to find a way of tracking the decisions I made in chronological order. Since I banged my head, numbers do not mean very much to me and recalling dates can be particularly tricky. So, I started looking at different ways of doing recording my reflections.

I was inspired by the work of Clare Danek (@c_i_d on Twitter), a doctoral student who produced a massive cloth made up of little squares that captured her doctoral journey. She produced one tiny square for each day which showed a discipline I could never hope to achieve. I’m more of a bursts of activity, interspersed with periods of rest, kind of person.

I settled on creating 5 inch textile squares which are stuck into a book. I use a variety of methods on these – depending on what I am trying to capture. When I need words, I applique paper on, embroider, or write with a permanent marker. I enjoy making my squares and they provide a useful record. There is an added bonus - copyright-free images to use in presentations. But the important part is the reflexivity and critical analysis involved in selecting and designing each square. I have to think hard about what it is that is important to capture. What are the key points from my reading? Which were the pivotal decision-making moments?

I have had some of my ‘lightbulb’ moments while stitching away. For example, I was cutting up a key paper to use as the ‘papers’ in some hexagon patches, when I noticed the ages and gender of the research participants. This led me to re-look at the research I had found and I realised nearly all the studies had recruited mostly middle-aged women. I was left wondering, ‘where are the men?’. I am not sure I would have spotted this pattern just from reading.

Once I was underway with my journal, I needed to explore the academic literature that justifies using a creative method of reflection. There is no shortage out there. I went down some wonderful reading detours looking at the use of textiles, quilts, and collage as a means of expressing emotive and complex information. Ultimately, this led me to choosing research methods using mixed media textiles to capture and disseminate my data. But that is another story.

Every few weeks, I spend an afternoon making my squares. There’s something disciplined and orderly about this. I reflect on all the different things I have read, discussed, decided, or done, and select the most important. It’s a classic ‘ranking’ activity which educators will recognise as being important for critical thinking. My stitched journal tells a powerful story. It helps me locate what I was thinking within timeframes. It is getting rather large now so I expect by the end of my research there will be multiple volumes.

If you are interested in using textiles as a way of recording your reflections, there are some inspirational people you can look at. Here are a few of my favourites:

-Lorina Bulwer (1838-1912) made the most incredible (and long) sampler where she chronicles her indignation and thoughts while an ‘inmate’ in Great Yarmouth Asylum. I just love her colourful rants.

-Clare Danek has finished her squares and is now stitching mini-samplers to record each day of her doctorate. Her stitch journal is in the latest edition of Helen Kara’s Creative Research Methods book.

-Dr Karen McAulay (@karenmca on Twitter) has created a stitched journal through lockdown using cross stitch and applique.

-Rebecca Jackson ( @RJaks4 on Twitter) is a seriously inspirational and creative person. Her evocative free machine embroidery images document her experiences as a bereaved mother. They powerfully convey a depth of meaning that words alone could not.

If you fancy starting a stitched reflective journal, there are no rules. You decide what works for you. Journals don’t have to be recorded in books. You might want to photograph your creations or put them onto large cloths or strips of fabric. You might want to be structured about the format or how regularly you work on it. You might want to be liberated and let your imagination run wild.

I would love to see what other people are doing so do 'chat' to me on Twitter about your creative reflections (@CarolineAldrid5). Let’s join the conversations already taking place on Twitter using #StitchedJournal and #stitchedjournal and share our work.

In a future blog, I will explore how I (and others) use textiles for activism.


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