April 19 2018

Senior Jill Kuhlman smiled as she looked down at the white fabric squares stacked in her hand. Delicate stitches held together the small “leaves” of a fabric book, which was bordered in blue. She gently turned the cover over to reveal a myriad of small, embroidered pages. While colorful abstract shapes stitched into the book’s pages give the book aesthetic appeal, they hold a deeper meaning — they depict universal emotions. Fear, shame, worry — just to name a few.  One participant in the project, junior McKenna Biedebach, used embroidery to represent the feeling of being overwhelmed. “I just want to cuddle up with the book. It just feels like a companion — just the book itself,” Biedebach said. “Like something you can cry into or rest your head on. It’s just so beautiful!”

How does a simple book made of fabric squares and thread transform into “a companion”? Kuhlman set out to uncover the power of embroidery for both healing and community building for her senior community art capstone project, which is now on display in Buswell Library. She organized a group of 16 women, chosen from her friends, roommates and classmates. Most of the women had not had personal relationships with each other before this workshop, but as they continued to meet during “Stitching Sundays” they became a sisterhood. She emphasized the importance of her previous relationships with these women in initiating her project, explaining that she wanted to share her love of beauty with “a community that I knew.”

The women gathered together for an hour and a half every Sunday for five weeks to learn several simple embroidery stitches under the instruction of Kuhlman. Kuhlman was previously acquainted with the art of embroidery. “I’m not that great at making the best art,” she explained, laughing. “But I like to make art with people, so embroidery was the kind of thing that I could take ownership of … And I felt like I could make pretty things without being the most skilled artist.”

The women would begin each Sunday by participating in a story circle, each telling a story about an emotional experience in five sentences. Then, Kuhlman would play a song by quilter Cathy Miller for the women called “One Stitch at a Time.” This song embodies what she set out to accomplish through the embroidery circle. She sang the chorus to me: “We can heal this world, one stitch at a time.” The connection between emotional health and stitching was not lost on Kuhlman; she set out to show women that when they understand “embroidery and stitching as a metaphor for healing,” they can better understand how to process emotion. The anonymity of embroidery especially helped the group to foster the development of this process. “By designing and stitching my page in the book, I was able to express something that I hadn’t really talked about before and it didn’t need to make sense to anyone but me,” junior Emma Brummand said.  “My specific page was about anger. I have always thought of anger as a scary thing and I think embroidery helped me show in a visual way what anger looks like to me and why it scares me.”

Kuhlman’s goal going into the project was to allow the women to build community and realize that emotions are not weaknesses. “I notice that women in particular … often will feel like being perceived as emotional or having a lot of emotions will sort of prohibit them from being a capable leader or capable for a lot of the work that a lot of Wheaton students would like to do in the future,” she said. Kuhlman shared that embroidery had helped her cope with her journey to understanding emotions in a healthy way, and she wanted to share this method of therapy with other women.

Junior Jackie Westeren said that this project especially helped her “explore how emotions, specifically worry, can cloud my daily life…. This was embodied on the page by a colorful background being clouded by ugly, black, disheveled lines covering up the beauty. This defines worry for me because my excessive worrying about [what] could happen often keeps me from enjoying and focusing on the present.” Junior Emma Brummand agreed with Westeren, saying that the way that Kuhlman taught the group to see emotions as akin to data stuck with her: “The idea that we can use our emotions as a way to learn more about ourselves and our relationships gives them a validity that they did not really have for me in the past.”

Yet Kuhlman still found herself surprised by the results of the project. Some who had never before had any interest in art now incorporate embroidery into their daily routines. “[One participant in particular] never would have thought of doing something like this before, and she told me that she was surprised to find that she really enjoyed it,” Kuhlman said. “I would come home, and she would be stitching for fun — It’s sort of unlike her to be making [something artistic, but] she said that it was healing in a way that she was able to just sit and do something with her hands.” Biedebach, who never had the opportunity to embroider before, now carries her embroidery hoop with her into classes and chapel. “I get to be an artist, I get to treat myself while I’m in class and do something and make something potentially beautiful,” she said.

Often, too, embroidery helped the participants manage their health conditions. For instance, Biedebach has ADD, and embroidery allows her to keep focused during long lectures. “I’m not thinking about how much I want to move around, because I’m doing something,” she told me. “And it kind of opens the doorway into a potentially life-long work of having something to do.” This appears to be the predominant attitude of the participants of Kuhlman’s workshop: Many women in the group feel as if they now have a useful and accessible way to process their emotions.

Kuhlman did not expect her group to continue with embroidery after the five weeks of working on the “emotion book,” but she has found that a majority of the women are now inspired to continue designing and sewing. “They’re coming up and showing me a new project with a new design and a new idea, and they’re continuing to embroider, because it seems like they feel empowered and they feel like they can make something beautiful!”

The women in the group grew into a sisterhood and community, according to Kuhlman and Biedebach. Art has the potential to bring people together in community, especially an art as accessible as embroidery that is both cheap, transportable, and has an attainable skill level for a variety of people. One participant in particular “just didn’t know that other people also struggle and also fall into the same sort of sin, or just festering in anxiety, or festering in worry,” Kuhlman told me. “She didn’t know that that was so common … she felt really understood by the other people in the circle.”

Kuhlman’s own journey through the making of this “emotions book” was one of healing alongside the women that she introduced to embroidery. She felt surprised at the support and love that she received from the women in the group, and insisted that the group members helped her process emotions even though the project was for their benefit. This was perhaps the biggest takeaway for Kuhlman. “It’s easy to think that with community art and ministry in general, you’re gonna set out [to] give them the tools to make their lives better,” she said soberly. Yet she realized that even as her mission was to allow women to realize their emotions were not manifestations of weakness, she herself had fallen prey to this same mentality. She told me that she discovered that she “wanted to do this project because I see my own emotions as weakness. And the community really supported me…. [When] you try to do something like community art, healing and missions, you’re going to learn from [the people you set out to help.]”

Biedebach also talked about her own experience in being vulnerable with other women — she related that this was perhaps the most healing part of the book-making process for her. “It was just really nice to be able to sit in this room of all women who all have stories of struggling,” she stated. “I feel like in Wheaton, it’s so common to just put on the face of ‘Everything’s fine, I got it all together.’” Ultimately, the act of sharing about and then stitching negative emotions as a group allowed the women to take their pain and transform it into something tangible. Westeren agreed: “There were a couple occasions when women were extremely vulnerable with one another, and that was a great depiction of what Stitch Club had become — a safe space for conversation and community.”

This healing power is innate in art, Kuhlman told me. “I believe that art is not and should not be considered just decoration, or some excess thing for upper class people who can afford to go to museums and afford to buy expensive art,” she said. She ascribes to the mentality that art is something that every person can engage in and with, “because they need to, because it’s just part of their living and breathing.” The mending power of creating something physically beautiful reflects a spiritual reality to Kuhlman. “We need [to make] beauty,” Kuhlman said, in order to engage in “expressing, and releasing, and processing through feelings … and it’s a way to have your voice heard, and it’s a way to protest despair and de-creation, and [to] contribute to beauty-making that the Holy Spirit does every day.”

Kuhlman has watched her senior art project become a ministry of emotional and physical healing. This journey to healthy ways of processing feelings and experiences is not simply contained in one simple, bound cloth book, but carries into a variety of lives with those who learned the value of community as they mastered simple embroidery stitches. Biedebach and Westeren both marveled at the diversity among the women’s depictions of many of the same emotions. Westeren called it “a community and vulnerability formed between an unlikely group of participants.” This diversity reinforces the solidarity among this group of women, who now understand that negative emotions do not make them any less worthy, and are equipped with a tangible embodiment of the power of community. Biedebach said it best — as the women learned to “one stitch at a time, heal the world … [we] heal ourselves.”