Embroidery in the Time of Covid by Esther Nelson

In her recent essay on this “Feminism and Religion” site, Ivy Helman wrote:  “Over the past few months, I’ve been struggling to write posts.  This month is no different.  I am currently sitting with four different half-drafts on three semi-related topics, none of which I seem to be able to complete…I write.  I erase.  I rewrite.  I copy bits of one into another to save for some other time.  I’m left with one sentence….”

I think all writers have this experience—writing, erasing, and then rewriting over and over again.  Writing during the current pandemic seems more difficult than ever.  Perhaps it’s because our dealings with the outside world have been drastically curtailed.  Writers need a variety of social interactions and experiences to sort out, reflect upon, and then create into a work of art that appeals and connects with an audience.  At least I find this to be so.

Ivy Helman’s recent post had a stream of consciousness flavor to it.  She looked for inspiration for her essay as she took us on a walk with her dog, visiting cows along the way.  The dog sniffed everywhere as dogs do and even ate a cow patty.  Other recent essays on FAR have also focused on describing, unraveling, and then creating meaning from the ordinary stuff that happens in our everyday world.  Molly Remer wrote about an autumn day in October as she interacted with all its colorful manifestations and transformations.  Mary Sharratt wrote about horse manure and its ecology in Portugal while Sara Wright always gives us glimpses into her astute observations of those things in her proximate surroundings—trees, bears, birds, and plants.

During this time when social intercourse has become potentially deadly and I feel “pent up,” I’ve resurrected my embroidery skills.  The craft seems particularly appropriate for pandemic living.  It requires one to focus on a small and often intricate space in order to discover meaning and beauty.  I find that two hours can pass in what seems to be a blink of an eye when I’m immersed in this work.  When I step away from it, I hear it calling me back.

Women have long been associated with needlework.  Needlework can be practical (sewing clothes), decorative (colorful designs on fabric or other material), and can also be used as a form of political resistance.

Krista McCracken wrote an excellent, concise article titled, “Embroidery as Record and Resistance,” showing us how embroidery has been perceived and used in cultures historically.

Ms. McCracken writes: “Embroidery can be seen as a double-edged needle. It was used both to reinforce ideas of femininity and domesticity and to challenge those same notions. In The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine, Rozika Parker argues that while ‘embroidery has been the means of educating women into the feminine …it has also provided a weapon of resistance to the constraints of femininity.’”

“The embroidered suffrage banners of the early 1900s have much in common with today’s protest embroidery. Both use embroidery to tell stories and change narratives…The work of modern embroiderers Hannah Hill, Shannon Downey, and others have been used in protests against Donald Trump, against racism, and against specific pieces of legislation….  And in a culture that deems the particulars of women’s lives unworthy of record and preservation, to stitch one’s life into linen, even in private, can be an act of resistance.”

  1. Tammy Kim wrote an interesting article for “The New York Times” (12/29/18) titled “The Feminist Power of Embroidery.”

Ms. Kim writes: “To take up the needle is to reclaim our histories of anonymous, poorly paid and unpaid female craft, garment labor and piece work.”

“The history of embroidery affords a glimpse of ‘the private inner world’ of women, as a chronicler of the Korean tradition puts it. Because it has tended to flourish in female and feminine spaces — namely, the home — it is a kind of secret. To embroider is to embellish: to create a fantasia and thus be momentarily free.”

Who knew?  I embroider because I like to be able to focus intently on something right here, right now, enabling me to be fully present in the moment.  Embroidery can be a meditative practice.  I find it has a calming effect in the strange, upside-down world we live in today.  Perhaps COVID has provided us a salutary side effect inasmuch as we have opportunity these days to go into ourselves in a deeper way and perhaps discover unmined wisdom.  As Vanessa Soriano reminded us in her recent essay:  “[I]n meditation, you open the doorway into the Divine of your understanding.”


This work of “love birds” is the first piece of embroidery I’ve done in over thirty years.  Since I’m no longer teaching and currently live in New Mexico away from the familiar world I’d created (stitched?) for myself in Virginia, I have time for other pursuits.  Initially, I found the art to be a refreshing break from reading (still a favorite activity), but soon discovered that I’m becoming more fond of and adept at doing this particular handicraft.  I gain experience with each project I undertake.

This is the first counted cross stich piece I’ve ever done.  There’s something satisfying about working counted cross stich on a fabric grid.  Precision is crucial to achieve a smooth finish.  There are mistakes in this piece as in all my forays into embroidery world.  I’ve camouflaged a couple of them on the cacti by placing a pink flower over the errors.

This is my current work—in progress.  Succulents thrive in New Mexico’s arid climate.  I recently planted several varieties in my yard.  Perhaps I can learn from them how to survive and bloom in New Mexico as well.  In the meantime, I engage with those things that are present and in front of me while simultaneously staying open to possibilities.


Esther Nelson is a registered nurse who worked for several years in Obstetrics and Psychiatry, but not simultaneously. She returned to school (Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia) when her children were in college and liked it well enough to stay on as an adjunct professor. For twenty-two years, she taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, Women in the Abrahamic Faiths, and Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of An Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry. She recently stepped away from teaching and now splits her time between New Mexico and Virginia.

Categories: Art, General, Women's Power, Women's Voices

Tags: , , , , , , ,

18 replies

  1. Some lovely pieces of embroidery there!

    I’m in the Embroiderer’s Guild in the UK and as well as the kind of stitching that you have shown us, I now do intuitive embroidery(!)

    I take a piece of paper and some crayons and ask my hand “What do you want to do today?” And let it swoop and curve on the paper with no thought of design. Then I reproduce this in stitch and I feel as though I get the benefits of embroidery along with expressing something from inside – try it!

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you! And yes, I’ve been holding the thought of “intuitive embroidery” in the back of my mind, thinking it would something lovely to pursue. Perhaps I’ll gain a little more experience first before attempting such since am not sure (at this point) whether I can translate a picture on paper to stitches on fabric in the right gauge. However, that probably requires one to experiment. Learn by doing, right?

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Beautiful embroidery! This reminds me of all the embroidery with Goddess symbolism done by women in the Balkans. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and handwork!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks, Carolyn. For some reason, I’ve caught the embroidery bug. Some finished pieces I’ve seen look as smooth as some paintings. Takes a lot of patience and practice!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. How beautiful your work and your words are Esther! I’ve taken to knitting during this time . . . making scarves and shawls and throws . . . loving the meditative and creative aspects of it as well. It’s so interesting. When I was growing up, I wanted nothing to do with needlecrafts (though I was taught to embroider and still have some of that early work) . . . and here I am, here we are, rediscovering our heritage.Best wishes in your new home!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Joyce. Like you, I remember doing embroidery and knitting while growing up. Don’t ever remember really liking the things I created. Think I didn’t have the patience for it all early on. We’ll see where it all takes us!


  5. love those pink birds!

    I think women have found solace in handwork through time. To create a thing of use and beauty when the world may be coming apart around you.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Wonderful! I used to do heaps of crewel embroidery. Some of them were canvas banners about a foot wide and two feet long that said SUM PULCHRA (“I am beautiful” in Latin), to which I added smiling suns and birds and cats. I did several of these using ordinary string instead of embroidery floss and used just about every stitch I could think of or find in my embroidery books. Gee, now you’ve inspired me. Maybe I should get out my hoops and floss and fabric and embroider again. How do you say “I’m bored” in Latin?

    Thanks for your inspiration and your beautiful work. Your pieces are so beautiful! Do you keep them or give them away to people who need cheering? Bright blessings for being so creative.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Just looked it up: ME TAEDET is “I’m bored” in Latin!

      Thank you for kind words. And since I’ve just gotten back into this hobby, not sure what will happen with the finished pieces. Am sure that they will find their way into the homes of friends and relatives.


      • You can also hang them on your walls. I have at least one of my pieces (they don’t all say Sum Pulchra, one says Gaudiamus) in every room. You can do that, too.

        Liked by 2 people

        • It would be nice if I could type. It’s GAUDEAMUS. I learned that from a song in The Student Prince. “Gaudeamus Igitur,” “Let Us All Rejoice.” Sung by that handsome male chorus, the students at Heidelberg University, to glorious music by Sigmund Romberg. I have the operetta on DVD.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh Esther I love this post! I had a grandmother who stitched her life together through thread…I love this idea of embroidery being a form of resistance; i think it is also a way to become visible – it is meditation and more. Oh i do applaud your beautiful work and am excited to see more… I read, I write, I spend time in nature – with winter coming I need to resurrect another art form or succumb to bird watching – I can lose hours this way! Thank you for this rich informative and beautiful post.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. I love this post, Esther, and your work. I appreciate your reflections on needlework as traditional and radical, part of women’s history and community. Made me remember a group called the Needlework Guild, it has its own sign and place down the street from the church where I grew up. I believe its members created altar cloths, rich, gorgeous and intricate work.

    I am not dexterous–maybe one of many reasons I write. I love color. Crocheting with a big hook is a forgiving fiber art, which I managed for a while. I am inspired by your post to consider finding some way to create with my hands.

    Meanwhile it gives me great pleasure to think of the beauty you are creating.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much, Elizabeth. There is more variety in arts and crafts today than what I remember as a kid and a young adult. I see people (mostly women) getting lost among the yarn, the embroidery floss, and the paints in the hobby stores nearby although am sure online catalogs (and the like) get a huge amount of business as well. Here’s to creative beauty!

      Liked by 2 people

Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: