Mah Rana at Beyond the Toolkit

At the Arts for Health “Beyond the Toolkit” symposium today I did a workshop with Mah Rana.  More will come about the symposium, which had very many points of contact with the Co-creating Care project, but for now I want to write about this workshop while it’s fresh in my mind.

trad caseMah had decided to give an hour-long workshop informed by her current work at Headway with “It’s Nice To Make”, based on the premise “that it is fun to sew/embroider/make”.  It is a workshop in which Mah provides materials based on a needlecase from the 1930s, and participants begin their own version. 

The shapes for the needlecase, like a small shell, scalloped edges and in jewel and pastel colours, had been cut out and paired, a smaller inner in slightly thinner felt.  These are chosen by the participants, without a great deal of discussion.  People eye the selection and choose politely. 

There are two of us there to help Mah demonstrate the stitches, but virtually as soon as the participants have the cases and the thread, those who know how to do french knots andcut out bullion stitches begin to teach those next to them. Demonstrations are a combination of “like that, then that, use your thumb, wind it round the needle” and some technical terms.  Some instructions verbal, some visual, some voiced and some gestured encouragement.  Sometimes experienced needleworkers helped others, sometimes they chatted about other stitches and projects.

A couple of confident people begin to blanket stitch around the edges.  They do not complete this but, once that needle has run out of the length of floss they began with, they move on to other, more challenging, embroidery techniques.  Mah has provided instruction and two helpers, but people in the main choose to learn from the person next to them.  Where there is a cluster of people sitting together who do not know the stitches, a tutorial begins.  In the majority of cases, people do not start with “easier” stitches but launch straight into the bullion roses.  These form the centrepiece of many of the templates Mah has provided.  A few people choose to use these as templates, pinning and then sewing over the top of them; a few more use them to look at and recreate the pattern without sewing on the actual template.  Some of the more experienced needleworkers get straight to sewing without looking at the patterns.

One does not confine herself to sewing but begins to cut slashes out of the fabric, like Tudor fabric treatment.  Her movements are quick and decisive; she chats with those near her but looks at her work in a concentrated manner.  She has taken three pieces rather than the two, inner and outer, and is examining how the shapes can be manipulated.  She shows no interest in the traditional patterns or function of the originary object but is following what feels like a strong inner energy or compulsion. She may or may not have worked with these materials before, but it seems clear that she is dropping immediately into a way of interacting with material that is well-practiced, fearless, desired and a bit fierce.  

There is an atmosphere of easy concentration amongst the experienced embroiderers.  They take their time over choosing the colours of floss, looking at the designs, examining the materials, and they begin, seemingly without hurry or commitment to outcome, as if their attention is strolling amongst materials, experience, space and time, without having to be anywhere any time soon.  They have an alert but loose quality to their attention:  it can move from place to place.  When they are pulling the floss through the six or so loops round the needle, the most difficult part of the process, they focus more on the action; when they are looking at the effect, or pushing the needle through for a simpler part of the stitch, they seem to open their attention more to the group.  They don’t look up in the middle of the more challenging actions.


Those who are new to embroidery have an open, excited (perhaps slightly nervous) energy.  They show various levels of willingness to divulge their beginnerhood.  Some sit together, smiling shyly, and some are louder in their exclamations – “I’ve never stitched in my life!  No! Never!” Both of these groups make good use of the demonstrators.  Mah quickly assesses that it might be best to start with a single rose than an entire pattern, and her group of beginners start by pinning rose templates onto their felt.  The stitching begins.  It is a compilation of demonstrating stitches, encouraging and correcting both with words and voiced sounds (“mmmm, yes, like that”).  Concentration quality is different here, perhaps because it is moving from concentrating on the demonstrator to the work and back again.  Feels more like bursts of intense concentration, and does not have the smoother feel of the more experienced needleworkers. When one “circle” of a bullion rose is completed, and can be seen to be the beginning of a recognisable likeness of the demonstration roses, one participant lets out a whoop of delight. “Look!  I’ve done it!”  The sense of achievement is palpable.

 Later in the session I spoke to another woman about my childhood experience of needlework – she told me she had worked really hard on a piece of embroidery at school, only to find she’d sewn it to her clothes, and had to cut the whole thing off.  The colours of the cases had reminded me that my teacher (I was 7, or 8) told me I could not pair pink case and toolsand yellow for my coat hanger cover.  I was incensed.  It is the thing I remember most from that year of schooling, one of the things I remember most about my primary school years.  Mah was using a pattern that incorporated “legislated nostalgia” – Svetlana Boym’s term for the nostalgia we get for cultural items of events that we have no personal memory of, but that we as a culture know and memorialise – but it seemed that many people were having personal memories triggered as well.  One participant remembered being taught stitches by a grandmother.  Stories of learning to stitch began to emerge, quietly. 

When the time is almost up Mah asks the participants to reflect on the workshop – what did they think of it?  The only real audible answer is to ask whether they really had to stop, and whether they can keep sewing during the later sessions.  Apart from this, they are reluctant to finish.  This is really all the feedback we receive.

The project takes longer than 45 minutes, so each person will leave with a ‘goody’ bag with the piece that they have started, a needle and some threads so that they can continue in their own time. It feels like a gift – the whole workshop feels like a gift.  Some people continue to stitch while they listen into the afternoon.



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