Family & Education

Mindfulness, one stitch at a time

Susan Reuben's finding inner calm through embroidery


The other evening, I caught myself heading upstairs to fetch my slippers and embroidery. This may be the beginning of the end, I thought… and I’m only 44.

It all began a few months ago, when I started looking for a cross stitch kit as a present for an arty-crafty friend, thinking it was the sort of thing she might enjoy. The challenge was to buy her a design that wasn’t completely naff.

I waded through piles of cute kittens and quaint country cottages before finding something fresh and contemporary that she wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen working on. And it worked; after she completed it, she bought another, then another — producing ever more impressive and beautiful designs.

“I wish I could do that,” I thought, enviously. But my fine motor skills are sadly lacking and my track record in the world of needlework is woeful. At my Christian primary school, for example, we used to knit squares for Lent that would then be sown into blankets. My squares would come out all wobbly at the edges, defying the definition of the term.

I did have the occasional success, though. When I was about ten, we all made a felt needle-holder for our mothers. (Feminism hadn’t reached Newcastle in 1984.) My only-slightly-wonky needle holder lives in the sewing box in my mother’s bedroom to this very day.

Maybe, I thought, I’m not a completely lost cause. So a few weeks back, when my mother-in-law, Catherine inquired what I would like for Chanukah, I asked for a simple cross stitch kit.

I made the mistake of starting it after dinner one evening, in front of the whole family. They all watched me with glee, giving a running commentary on my progress. “Ooh, she’s done a stitch,” they cried, and, “Wow, look — she’s made a straight line!”

After that, I worked on it in the privacy of my bedroom and didn’t get it out in public again till I’d made some proper progress. And the thing is, I did make progress. I found I could do it!

It turns out that making two stitches in a cross shape is not very hard. I’ve now become a little bit obsessed and take it practically everywhere with me.

It’s difficult to do anything creative as an adult unless you’re properly good at it. When you’re a kid, you can knit a wobbly square, or do a random dance, or write an awful poem, and your mum will still say it’s brilliant. And that’s just how it should be.

Once you grow up, it takes a bit more courage to do any of those things unless you happen to be particularly skilled at them.

My cross stitch project hasn’t been without its personal challenges. Threading the needle, for example, took a full ten minutes the first time around, and continued to be a serious problem till my husband produced one of those little metal needle threaders from the depths of a cupboard. And more than once, I’ve sat in bed working on it and found I’ve sewed the canvas to the duvet cover.

But all in all, it has turned out to be a calming, pleasurable experience — a mindfulness exercise for someone too impatient to meditate. For a little while, sight and touch take over from stressful thought: the world becomes filled with the delicate colours of the thread and the zen-like repetitive movement of the needle moving in and out, the pattern materialising slowly, slowly, across the blank white canvas.

My mother-in-law is an intellectual type, more at home reading a novel in her spare time than wielding a needle. She has always assumed, correctly, that I am the same. So she falls about laughing every time she sees me sewing. “Never did I think I’d have a daughter-in-law who did this,” she keeps saying — and I narrow my eyes and pretend to be insulted.

My own parents are not much better; my father keeps asking, sarcastically, when I’m going to create a Victorian-style sampler that reads, “Home is where the heart is,” or a set of embroidered covers for the chairs. When your 84-year-old father implies that something you’re doing isn’t cool, you know it really isn’t cool.

Perhaps I need to find a different type of cross stitch project in order to subvert these stereotypes.

I could be like Dame Judi Dench, for example, who when she is filming, likes to spend her time between takes embroidering swear words on to cushions. She gives them to friends as presents. I can (genuinely) think of few things I’d like to own more than a sweary cushion made by Judi Dench.

I’m not sure, however, that the profanity route is the right one for me. Instead, I’ve just ordered a book of Jewish needlework designs and I suspect there’s a whole world of potential out there. In fact, there’s probably a Jewish Cross Stitch Beginners’ Facebook group. I think I’ll go and search for it now.



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