One conversation I remember vividly from what I used to refer to, with what now seems like some degree of optimism, as My Terrible Summer, is the idea that certain things tie you to the world. One of the main things I felt in the aftermath of my mum dying, and when I was struggling with homelessness, was untethered. Without a partner, siblings, children, a home or even what was recognisably a job, I felt like the thick ropes that tie some of us to life had been severed. In their place were lots of fragile threads and returning to the world took an effort to restitch them, every single day.
It might be a slightly pretentious image, but it’s a thought I returned to, over what has been Everyone’s Terrible Summer. In part because my life has changed so dramatically in the last few years – returning to my hometown, and close proximity to my family, has reminded me there were an awful lot of ropes after all, it’s just that I couldn’t see them. But also because, when my mental health did an extended Covid-inspired wobbly, it was literally sewing that saved me.
I’m not sure how I got into cross-stitch. A whim, maybe: something I could do when I felt incapable of doing anything else. The first Covid lockdown felt like it shut not just my external life but my interior as well. I struggled to read or watch anything new, my creativity felt stalled, and because most of my work fell off a cliff, I had little to exercise the long hours of isolation. So why not try something that, no matter how shit I proved to be, would at least fill up some time?
It turned out, however, that I wasn’t actually shit. To my own and everyone else’s surprise, I developed both a reasonable amount of skill in copying patterns and a flair for my own designs (I know some non-crafty people will feel I am being modest here, but I’m not: my stuff looks OK but there are some genuine artists out there, whose skills are simply stunning). The promised mental health benefits did emerge – it was good to do something that felt creative when my usual outlets had stalled, and it felt healthy to be doing an activity that wasn’t focused on a screen. But it also brought a benefit I couldn’t have imagined, but which turned out to be the one thing I desperately craved all through the pandemic: connection.
Connection has always been at the core of my writing. I’m as much a praise kitten as the next gal – do, do tell me how much you love my work – but more than that, what inspires me to keep going are those moments of connection. The messages that say, ‘I thought it was just me’. ‘You’ve said what I always wanted to’. ‘You’ve put my thoughts into words.’ That shit is what I live for – and it had vanished, along with, apparently, my ability to write more than a sentence.
But stitching brought its own kind of connection. I decided – against some well-meaning advice – that I wasn’t going to sell any of my stitches. In part this was in the beginning I didn’t think any were good enough, but it also stemmed from just the sheer exhaustion of having been a freelancer for a decade. Surely, if there was one time when we could be expected not to hustle, it was during a global pandemic? Wasn’t I allowed to do one creative thing without trying to monetise it?* So, I decided to give them away to anyone who asked. And that has turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made.
I’ve never been any kind of visual artist, so putting out work that people can respond to instantly – rather than something they have to take time out of their lives to read – gave a steady stream of instant gratification that was a major boost at a time when I felt like my creativity had evaporated. Lovin’ those likes, folks! It was also a useful learning exercise, showing I had zero idea of what people actually liked. Tiny stitches I rushed off in a few minutes went viral (by my very low standards); pieces I’d spent hours and days on went almost unremarked. (It also showed that I apparently have very different profiles on different social media platforms: some pieces were beloved on one site and ignored on another. Mary Oliver is very popular on Instagram; Beetlejuice on Tumblr; Dolly Parton, unsurprisingly, surpasses all boundaries).
But more than just sharing online, giving them away became a source of both connection and reward. There’s a particular honour in creating something that someone actually wants to display in their house, and I found I got an enormous buzz from seeing my pieces ‘out in the wild’, framed and displayed in homes not just around the country, but the world (there’s a few places in Japan, Germany and New Zealand where, when you are allowed inside, you can see my pieces on the walls). Although I decided early on that I wouldn’t do requests, I ended up bending that rule more than once just because it felt nice, among the helplessness of seemingly endless lockdowns, to actually be able to do something for someone.
Since Other People are always a writer’s raw material, my stitches also provided an insight into folk that surprised me. I found it fascinating what resonated with who. Friends I’d known for decades suddenly revealed a sentimental streak I’d never guessed at, or a dark sense of humour I’d only rarely glimpsed. On more than one occasion I discovered a passion – for a film, for a singer, for a TV show or fandom – that I had never realised they shared.
Strangers, too, opened their homes to my stitches, and that turned out to be more gratifying than I could have guessed. I’d found myself pulling away from social media, ground down by the endless bad news, but through posting my stitches online and offering them to any takers, I was able to engage with others on a fairly regular basis. I found a community of crafters that was, for the most part, lovely and supportive, and I found joy in using all my crafty purchases to support indie businesses – buying goods from women I could follow on Instagram and interact with rather than some faceless, tax-dodging corporation. If I haven’t exactly made new besties, I’ve made new contacts and acquaintances, and in doing so the internet feels a slightly friendlier place.
In a pandemic where loneliness has as much of an epidemic than the disease itself, this connection has been its own kind of vaccine, created one stitch at a time.
*I realise this comes from a place of relative privilege: while my work disappeared for most of the pandemic, I was eligible for the SEISS grants, and so managed to keep my head above water for most of the year without too many panic attacks and crises.
Also, for those wondering about the economics of it and wondering if this is all just a weird sales pitch, while I do accept Ko-fi donations for my stitches, I really haven’t made any money from the process at all. The average cost of a piece of printed fabric can range from £4 to much more; kits cost from £10-20 on average, and a piece can take from half an hour to a day to complete. So even when someone is generous with their Ko-fi, that rarely covers more than the basic costs (and in most cases, it’s far less than). I reckon of the 200 or so stitches I have given away, about half of those were totally free to the recipient (a handful because they were gifts, of course, for which I obviously didn’t expect anything!), and only about 20 or so made me money back above the materials and postage. And while I LOVE getting Ko-fis for the pieces I make – and I’d have struggled to keep doing this without some kind of money coming in for my outlay – I also am grateful that I have had the resources to be able to keep giving them away when asked. It’s not much when other people are out there doing essential services and the like, but it’s hopefully spreading a little joy. Sometimes you have to pay it back the only way you can, and this year, that is mine.
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