Mary Carson: How hand stitch can heal
2015 was very tough for Mary Carson. Early in the year, her beloved brother died from brain cancer and in December her mother passed away after suffering from Parkinson’s and dementia. Mary’s world was turned upside down and she struggled to escape her sad thoughts. That’s when she found sanctuary in stitching.
Mary had always been, in her own words, ‘a maker of sorts’ but hadn’t stitched in any dedicated fashion for nearly 40 years.
As a child, growing up in Milwaukee, Mary inherited a love of fabric from her seamstress grandmother. Then as a young woman in the 60s and 70s, Mary started sewing out of necessity; she is tall and at the time stores didn’t stock garments to fit her frame. But she started to resent having to make her own clothes and as soon as designs became available in her size, she walked away from sewing.
After a four-decade break, hand-stitching helped Mary find a sense of peace; the challenge of turning fabric and thread into visual stories provided a welcome distraction from her grief.
“Her subject matter and techniques looked so similar to what I had been trying to create. I’d zoom in on her images and try to figure out how she did what she did. Eventually, I worked up the gumption to email her and ask what type of fabric she used for her backgrounds. Of course, she replied immediately and not only answered my question, but she also encouraged me to keep at it. I’ve never forgotten that kindness.”
TextileArtist.org quickly became a second home for Mary. She longed to attend one of Sue Stone’s in-person workshops but living in the US and with the majority of Sue’s classes held in the UK it just wasn’t possible. But the moment Sue announced she would be hosting an online course, Mary leapt at the opportunity to sign up. “That registration was possibly the greatest gift I could have given myself in my healing journey.”
In this interview, we chat to Mary about her renewed passion for hand stitch, her experience of being a student on the Exploring Texture & Pattern course with Sue Stone and how she has developed as a textile artist.
Finding solace in hand stitch
TextileArtist.org: You’ve talked about creativity being somewhat therapeutic for you in recent years. Tell us a bit about your personal journey, why you were drawn to hand stitch and how it has affected your life.
Mary Carson: My experience of hand stitch was very limited, although I had done some traditional sewing. My grandmother was an expert in needlepoint, and my dad took up the art in his retirement. In my early 20s, I played with crewel and embroidery following patterns in kits.
I became a single mother in my mid-20s, so I had to work full-time. Then to be better able to support ourselves, I pursued a weekend college degree in communications that took me seven years to complete. I married in 1995 and then went after a Masters degree so I could teach at a university. That took another three years.
I landed a teaching post in 2001 and life continued to be busy with work and family. Then in 2013, my mom needed assistance. I stopped teaching to devote time to helping oversee her care and be at her side. Tragically, my brother was diagnosed with central nervous system cancer around the same time. So I tried to be there for him as well (he lived on the East Coast). I was juggling cancer and dementia at the same time. My brother did experience remission at one point, but I ultimately lost them both in 2015.
During my “dark time” after losing my brother and mother, I turned to slow stitching as a way to get out of my head and take a break from the sadness. Now that they’ve been gone for a few years, it still provides emotional support, but it’s also leading me to a new vocation as a textile artist.
What were your key takeaways from the Exploring Texture & Pattern course in terms of process?
My biggest “aha” was the notion of embracing limitations; that concept is woven into the course throughout.
I’ve discovered that you can truly tell a full story with a limited palette of materials and stitches.
I tend to be very literal in my art, and my focusing on details was overwhelming me. I was also choosing intricate images that did not suit my preference for working small (I rarely make pieces larger than 18 inches). Sue helped me understand that self-imposed limitations can be positive and reminded me how even the smallest stitch can make a big difference on a blank fabric canvas.
The process of “exploration” was also incredibly helpful. Sue’s sampling approach helped push me to really study how different stitches and threads tell different stories. I’m always so eager to jump right into a project. But I learned exploring stitches before creating a piece not only informs that particular piece but also creates a wonderful reference for future work.
Gaining hope as an artist and maker
What elements of making textile art were you struggling with and how has your approach changed?
When I started stitching, I knew I wanted to create pictures from fabric and thread, but I had no clue as to how to do so. I knew in my head how I wanted my work to look, but as I scoured the internet, I couldn’t find anything that looked similar to what I imagined. So I created my first work, an image of my father as a young boy, literally through trial and error.
I didn’t know how to get the image onto the fabric. I didn’t know what stitches to use. I had limited experience with appliqué. I truly stumbled about. It took me a good few weeks to create that little simple figure, and while I was pleased with the end result, I was also exhausted!
Then my daughter-in-law suggested I create a Facebook account to explore textile art, and that’s how I discovered Sue’s work. I nearly cried after finally finding someone making beautiful art that was similar to what I envisioned. It WAS possible! And Sue Stone’s course would show me the way.
Having taken Exploring Texture and Pattern, I now know the “mechanics” of how to create the work I envision. I’ve become accomplished at using her tissue transfer method to get images onto the fabric. I’ve learned how different stitches tell different stories…how different threads behave. I’ve learned compositional considerations. How colours work together. I could go on and on about all the techniques I’ve learned from both Sue and fellow cohort members.
But the number one thing I gained from the course was hope as an artist and maker. Sue’s ability to make stitching accessible has led to my new vocation.
I’ve created a studio for myself, and I practice what I’ve learned from Sue and other students almost every day. The course gave me the foundation I needed in both a technical, and dare I say, emotional way to find my own creative voice.
And how has your work developed? Has it changed in any way?
My work is slowly but surely evolving into my own artistic voice and signature style. I was worried at first that by taking the Exploring Texture and Pattern course, I’d be inclined to try to copy Sue’s work. But in fact, the course design led me to discover my own voice using the same techniques.
While my imagery is somewhat like Sue’s work, it’s also very different. I enjoy using appliqued fabrics to create dimension on the surface, especially clothing. I always loved paper dolls, and I so enjoy creating the clothing for my figures in addition to stitching them.
My subject choices have remained fairly constant. I like to create images from the 30s and 40s, especially rural areas and the infamous Dust Bowl era. But I’m now beginning to also explore creating mid-century design scenes. I love the furniture and overall style of that era here in the States, so that is a new endeavour.
I think the biggest change in my work since completing the course is my level of confidence. I’m in the third year of my textile art journey, and I’m steadily building a vocabulary for an understanding of my materials and techniques. There is still much to learn, but decisions I used to agonise over now come to life more quickly.
I can also thread a needle in no time!
A journey of exploration and discovery
What did you most enjoy about the Exploring Texture and Pattern course and what were the greatest challenges?
I thoroughly enjoyed the online format which allowed me to complete the course at my own pace. The syllabus and organisation of videos, workbooks, etc. are of the highest quality. Impeccable.
I also loved Sue’s webinars. The ability to pose questions and have an online conversation with her was so rewarding.
My greatest challenge was the strip-weaving class in Module 3. I think I did an okay job choosing fabrics, and the weaving part wasn’t difficult. But once woven together, I didn’t know how to embellish the sample! I’d just stare at it and think “now what?” As I said earlier, I tend to be quite literal in my work, and “abstract” is not something I do well.
I was so envious of other students’ ability to add shapes and stitches with seeming abandon that ended up looking so lovely. So when I whined about my own work online, my peers were very encouraging.
In fact, the Facebook learning community was the icing on the cake of the course. Gaining feedback and sharing tips among my peers was priceless. I truly felt like I belonged there, and while I have yet to meet any of my peers face-to-face, I still consider many to be dear friends. Will forever be grateful for that.
What has been your experience of making textile art since completing the course and which elements of the teaching do you revisit when creating your work if any?
I try to go to my studio every day and make something. Sometimes I draw, but mostly I stitch. I have created several pieces since the course ended, and most have been successful. Everything I learned in the course is poured into each and every piece I make.
But a key lesson I must highlight was the practice of keeping a journal. I record all of my successes and challenges for every piece I make. That little journal has become a treasure not only as a reference but also a reminder of how far I have come in my journey.
My favourite piece: Reading to the Chickens
Tell us about a piece of work you’ve made that you’re particularly proud of.
I think my favourite piece is “Reading to the Chickens.” First, I worked really hard to have the piece tell a story. Prior to this work, my images were fairly static; essentially portraits or other still photographic images. That was okay, and I liked my body of work, but I wanted my pieces to have more depth in terms of narrative.
So when I found this sweet little girl in a vintage classroom photo, I challenged myself to put her into a different setting to tell a different story. I think my new narrative is believable for that time and era, and I’m proud of how I pieced all the elements from my head to create a whole new storyline.
I’m also pleased with the materials I used. The background is a vintage sugar sack which, again, complements the era. And my stitches and colour palette are simple, which connects to Sue’s technique of “embracing limitations.”
Perhaps most of all I love how her dress turned out. As I mentioned earlier, I enjoy dressing my characters to create depth and dimension to my pieces. Her dress is fully pieced and hemmed.
Can you talk us through the creation of this piece from conception to creation?
After selecting the image as noted above, I drew a farm scene from my own imaginings. I then found images of chickens online to serve as models.
The vintage sugar sack that I used for the background actually has the words “sugar” and “10 lbs” printed on it, and at first, I felt compelled to somehow incorporate the words into the design. But it just wasn’t working. I then thought back to Sue’s notion of “limitations” and my need to pull back from being super literal. I was forced to realise while the words were of interest, in the long run, they competed with the overall image and storyline. That was a big lesson for me. Editing is your friend if you let it be.
The girl and chickens were stitched separately and then appliquéd onto the background. The fence was stitched directly on the background, and the barn was fused and then over stitched.
Watercolour tinting was used for the girl’s skin tone and dimensional elements in the background.
I choose to use watercolours because I’m not confident using acrylics. They’re just too stiff, and I have trouble moving them around on fabric. I also like more subdued colours in my work, so I like how using watercolours allows me to gradually build up colour.
Still, using watercolours can be a huge challenge in that they spread so easily. The fabric soaks up water, so controlling where the colour goes is a real challenge. So if I need to make sure watercolour stays put, I’ll put down some aloe vera gel in that area before applying watercolours that I’ve mixed myself.
Heading to the studio every day
Have you shown any of the work you’ve made and what has the response been?
Funny you should ask, as I literally just sent my first-ever exhibition submission. I discovered the “Sacred Threads” biennial exhibition that seemed perfect for me. I chose to create a piece for the “grief” category, and it’s called “The Caregiver’s Job has Ended.” It’s meant to illustrate the overwhelming emotions that wash over you when a loved one has literally just passed away.
The whole experience was a challenge, and I spent at least two months stitching and unstitching. Having to meet specific criteria and wonder what a jury would think was incredibly intimidating. Then having to present it as a quilt and have a minimum perimeter measurement of 80” also posed big challenges. Thank goodness for YouTube to teach me how to bind a quilt!
Overall, I think I was successful, and I’ve gotten wonderful encouragement from my cohort. I find out if my work is accepted in the spring. Fingers crossed!
I also recently created a Facebook page to chronicle my art journey. It’s called “Bucket of Stones” and I created it not only to share my work but to also help me practice talking about my work with others. I still struggle when people ask me “what do you do?” I’m trying to gain confidence in sharing and explaining my work.
How do you see your work developing in the future?
I just attended an incredible workshop taught by textile artist Wen Redmond on using digital design on fabric. I’ve always been interested in printing, especially monoprinting. And I enjoy working with technology. I’m now letting everything I learned percolate in my head to see how I might use it in future work.
In the meantime, I’ll happily keep heading to the studio each day to continue to experiment and practice the course techniques.
Does Mary’s story resonate with you? We’d love to hear your personal hand stitch stories in the comments section below.