Thursday, March 16, 2017

Is sewing a sport?

I have posted before about how making is much more than just a hobby for me, it's something that is important to help me find balance, focus and maintain my resilience in life.  It has taken me many years to really unpick what I get from making and I've learned that teaching beginners always gives me new insight into that process.

I've recently been thinking about it more and more, and my train of thought for this post has come from one of the most earnest (and peculiar) questions I've ever been asking in a workshop: 'Is sewing a sport?'

Last year I delivered a series of workshops in the Wellcome Collection Reading Room, which focused on visitors sharing their experience of sleep and literally stitching them into a 'Sleep Quilt' - this was a wonderful opportunity for me, and an exciting proposition that married my earliest experience of museum work at the Museum of Healthcare at Kingston with my life-long love of craft and quilting. Following on from this experience I wanted to do more work in the Reading Room, so I pitched a new series of workshops called 'Heart on My Sleeve' where visitors were encouraged to take inspiration from anatomical drawings and the books in the Reading Room and create carefully stitches brooches. The results were a range of beautifully hand made accessories, alongside some very interesting discussion about our relationships with our bodies.

A heart brooch inspired by the drawings in Gray's Anatomy
I planned this quite consciously as a slow craft activity, suited to the Reading Room which feels like a welcoming haven for thoughtfulness in the busy heart of central London. I was a bit nervous about asking visitors to embellish their work sequin by sequin, but despite being asked for glue or a stapler a few times I won the participants over by engaging them in slow and thoughtful stitching one stitch at a time.

People who have never sewn anything by hand tend to be quite nervous and easily frustrated – for many people the idea of picking up a needle and thread is anxiety-inducing. Although the first few stitches can feel a bit clumsy I always try to draw people’s attention to their process and progress. The beauty of the relationship between the mind and body, is that by the time you have completed ten to fifteen stitches, the sewing process quickly shifts from conscious movement to automatic muscle memory. I find it particularly effective to explore this with people in the Reading Room, which actively explores the mind and body across a range of themes.

You might think the design process would be the most interesting part for visitors, but when the making happens and muscle memory is doing most of the work is when the best discussions emerge. Once you get your head around what your hands are doing, your mind moves into this wonderful place where it is just occupied enough, but not overly focused. This is a space where the mind can wander without distraction – the act of sewing anchors you enough to a task, and the bustling physical and online worlds that constantly pull our attention nicely fade away.
Sewing excercises the connections between mind and body
It was in one of these moments of focus and discussion that a young boy turned and asked me “Is sewing a sport?” – he had joined the session excitedly but was quite reluctant when it came to the sewing, like many young children he initially felt limited (and frustrated) by his hand-eye coordination, but he quickly got a handle on his project and then ask to make a second, and then third brooch.  I’m sure that he was in this mindful making space when he asked this question – which really made me stop and think.    

Aside from competitive aspects (which many sewists and quilters would argue are the ways sewing is MOST like sport), it occurred to me that from the mind and body perspective, sewing is just like a sport in many ways. Many people sew in groups or gather in guilds to challenge themselves and experience a sort of camaraderie from fellow makers - just like in sport. Makers practice and train their bodies and minds to work together to achieve quite precise processes - just like in sport - it may not be as athletic but the process is very much the same. 
Sewing is like a sport, perhaps with less impact on the respiratory system
For many, playing sports, swimming, running and active exercise provides stress-relief and relieves tension. Sport balances a satisfying mix of repetitive motions that are driven by muscle memory and reactive movements and problem solving on the go. So with that in mind, could craft be considered a slow sport?

For some it may be a stretch, but for me what they have in common is that wonderful headspace I described earlier. Whether you are dancing, running, stretching or sewing, your mind moves into a place of focus, with just enough room to wander without distraction. It's no wonder that the most interesting conversations and philosophical questions came as participants were finishing their work - the process of slowing down, making and thinking allowed us to think about our bodies in a different way.

The mind-body process of stitching led that young curious mind to ask if sewing was a sport, is the same thing that keeps me picking up a needle day after day after so many years. The basic movements might seem repetitive, but the creative process and the journey of the mind is unique every time. 

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The Wellcome Reading Room  is an innovative hybrid of gallery, library and events space, the Reading Room is designed to encourage you to indulge your curiosity and explore more than ever before.