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.
Around the same time, Mary discovered TextileArtist.org and was introduced to the work of textile artist Sue Stone.
“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 always rely upon the tissue-paper method for my figurative work. And I always use Sue’s preferred DMC 3021 thread for outlining figures. Both approaches are foolproof, and they make me feel connected to Sue and her wonderful courses.
I also rely heavily on Sue’s techniques for stitching hair. Sometimes I’ll use a base fabric on which I stitch. And other times I’ll tint the fabric with watercolor or gouache, and then stitch on that. I think I’m steadily improving at demonstrating movement and direction in hair.
Lastly, I focus on the course’s name ‘exploring’ to free myself from thoughts that every piece has to be perfect. I’ve been steadily stitching now for about four years, but I choose to continue to view myself as a student. Yes, I’m perfecting some of my techniques. But I still learn something new with every piece I make. And that’s so rewarding.
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.
Mary Carson: Joe’s Boy
What is your greatest take-away from Exploring Texture and Pattern?
My greatest take-away from the course was believing I was indeed a textile artist, and I had something to say. All of the techniques taught me how to say what I wanted to say, and then putting my own spin on those techniques taught me what I had to say. While I use all of the figurative and textural techniques learned in the course, I’ve also added my own ‘signature’ applique style to my work. I love to manipulate fabric and create pieces with dimension. So, I’ve been exploring those techniques on my own, while relying on the course’s techniques for the foundations of my pieces.
My second greatest take-away is the incredible network of fellow stitchers I’ve come to know through the Facebook platform. While I haven’t met even one of them in person, I feel as if I’m old friends with several. And their steadfast encouragement and inspiring works of their own have further fueled my confidence.
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.
Mary Carson: Schoolyard Summit
For more information visit www.marycarsontextileart.com
Does Mary’s story resonate with you? We’d love to hear your personal hand stitch stories in the comments section below.
34 comments on “Mary Carson: How hand stitch can heal”
Awesome article. Very inspiring. Beautiful work. All the best to Mary.
Thank you so much Seymone!
Working with the hand is healing. I resonate with that. I’ve also found textiles and thread work cathartic and over the years my art has evolved into a journey into the self – healing and empowering. Mary’s work is simple and straightforward. Her journey is what interests me the most as I hold the belief that the art we make is intrinsically linked to what’s going on, what’s happened in the past – to our lives. And the language we develop is also related to this.
Thank you so much for your kind feedback. So thoughtful…and true.
After a terrible loss that left me with deeply traumatic memories, I decided to make “the most beautiful bag in the world”(!) to keep my memories in. I felt I would never be at peace again, but as I slowly and carefully hand stitched what ever images came to mind, somehow I was healing without having any conscious idea that that process was happening. Hand stitching my happy memories and love into that bag calmed me and gave me a new way to be with her.
Thankyou so much for your sharing, Mary, and also the idea of using ones limitations.
I’m so sorry for your loss, Rachel, and grateful for your kind feedback. I’m also incredibly intrigued by your “most beautiful bag in the world.” Would love to see a picture of that marvelous response to grief. And grateful for a kindred stitcher out there. Best to you!
This article is excellent for so many reasons! First and foremost – thank you Mary for being brave and sharing your heartfelt story. I believe these stories of grief need to be shared since we never know who may be comforted by reading them.
Your work is beautiful and evolving. Thank you for the reminders to be confident working within limitations, and to ‘show up’ and ‘do the work’ on a daily basis.
Thank you SO much Joyce! I know you especially understand, and I’m holding you and yours in my heart this holiday season.
I really enjoyed this interview! Like Mary, meditative hand stitching has become a sanctuary in a full life with both difficulties and delights!
Thanks so much! Love your use of the word “sanctuary,” Perfect.
Your work is beautifully done Mary. Love the girl reading to the chickens and whew The Caregivers piece is really touching. Im really enjoying the course too but need to find the time to get the most out of it between working etc 😊 You have inspired me with your story and your work
From sunny South Africa !
Thanks so much for your kind feedback! Isn’t the course just so wonderful? I look forward to being inspired in return by your work through our Facebook group. Enjoy the sun! Very different here in the Midwest!
A very inspiring interview, and wonderful pieces. Thanks for sharing. I hope you have good news in the spring! Looking forward to seeing the progression in your work.
What lovely, inspiring work. I too am a carer of my older,blind husband and have just done some art courses at the local uni in the Highlands. Whilst I don’t have much daily time to practise and I struggled to complete the courses in drawing, textiles and printmaking, the work I did and the skills I gathered I feel are my way of ‘future proofing’ I too told a story – of a walled garden in fabrics dyed and eco printed with plants and stitched with free motion and hand embroidery. I feel the piece took on a life of its own and grew despite my limitations and lack of knowledge. Your story touches me and I was so interested in the way you talk about learning to express yourself as an artist, I struggle with this. Sometimes I dread what might be before me but also treasure this opportunity I’ve been given and the glimmer of joy it brings. Your ability to put your feelings and work into words resonated with me so much – thank you, your work
Is beautiful in so many ways.
Best to you. I appreciate reading your words.
Very inspiring interview. Thank you for sharing it.
Mary, from Portugal, and with me limited English… thank you sooooo much for inspiring interview… i’ve not enough words to express my my gratitude and admiration for people like you.
never fail to share your excellent and lovely work. A lot of people need these beautiful examples.
Loved everything about your art journey ❣️
My cousin designs fiber art creations, so I shared it with her, she responded that she also loved it.
Congratulations Mary! Your work is very emotional and I can relate very well with the slumped figure of your father after your mother’s sad death. You have had a very difficult few years but it is great that you are enjoying your textile practice now. Keep up the good work and best wishes for your continuing artistic career.
I am so glad you found your path and Sue Stone. I wondered why my hands have to be so busy or my brain would implode! Your article explains it all. I lost my 3 brothers and wonderful sister and was a caretaker. Thank god for art! I dabble, your work is wonderful. I too kove the girl reading to chickens. There was a picture of Jennifer Garner reading to chickens, she would love that image. Thanksb stitch away.
Your work and story are inspirational. I have always wanted to try textile art. I quilt, crochet, weave and just learned to knit. I learned very basic embroidery stiches as a child and plan to take a beginning embroidery class soon. I think that it’s safe to say that I have a textile artist hidden somewhere. I hope to find her. Thanks again for sharing something so intimate.
Embroidery takes so little and offers so much. To master a few stitches is plenty. Once you start it only becomes easier and more soothing. Embroidery is just another skill for your (already) talented hands.
I really enjoyed this interview and hearing how you have grown as a fabric artist such a short number of years Mary. It must have all just been brewing waiting to come out of you. Such beautiful and loving stories with fabric and thread.
I also loved the program you ran to kick off the DC textilecoperative.
Just reading this interview today and funny how the pieces fall into place. We were in Sue’s online class at the same time and I have loved seeing how you have taken lessons learned and created your own style and stitch practice. I happen to be doing the social media for Sacred Threads and will be posting your piece on their FB & IG page this week. Hoping that you will make the trip to see the exhibit and perhaps meet up.
Hi Christine. I’m so sorry I didn’t see this earlier and didn’t express my gratitude. I’m not only grateful for your support and encouragement, but also for the social media shares you’ve done on my behalf. Means so much. I was not able to go to the actual show, but for good reason: my first grand baby was on its way! But hopefully there will be another opportunity to connect. Apologies again for late response. Forever grateful…
how lovely and reassuring it is to read your story. You have been through hard times, but your grace is shining through.
I finally joined the members / graduates page today. I haven’t done a tap of stitching in the last few months. But, instead of beating myself up over it, I am looking forward to kick staring again.
Thanks so much for your kind words. And hurray for you picking up a needle again! Can’t wait to see your work in the future. It’s going to be a great journey.
Such tender and wonderful portraits Mary, your love shines through. Thank you for showing your work you have inspired me to take up my needle and threads again.
Thanks so much for encouragement and support. It is indeed a journey! And I’m thrilled to hear you’ll be stitching again. It’s going to be a grand adventure. Best!
A pleasure to view your work, and read your words! Worthwhile!
And good luck in having your submission accepted !
Warm regards, Bev White…Ontario, Canada.
Thank you so much Bev! So kind of you to take the time to extend good wishes. Returning the same to you, and hoping 2020 is a good year for us both!
I was diagnosed with Bipolar 1 in 2013 and found sewing in 2015 helped me become very stable and well. I realized that embroidery was very therapuetic and wanted to turn sewing into a business. I have made dolls of my own creation with an Australian theme and they are currently at saftey testing and I have drawn pictures of them in a scene related to the theme and am embroidering them. I have decided to hold a group at a local community centre for people diagnosed with mental illness and teach basic embroidery and share my story with sewing healing me. I also hope to encourage others of the value of art in healing. I am currently learning Sue Spargo and you have ignited a passion in me to learn more and connect with the textile and art community. I thought about it yesterday as a friend of mine and I am looking into starting a not for profit around this using my doll business and art to raise money for helping build more low cost housing for homeless. I am encouraged too that it is a great expression for grief. I have been with a close friend who lost her son to suicide and my sister too her husband. I was involved in a grief ministry years ago which taught journaling as an expression. I am glad to have read your story at a time I am about to do this group support work.
Mary Carson, I’m happy for I can know your fantastic textil art.
Congratulation and wish you a beatiful life and many additional success.
Have a nice week!
Mary…..I love your work and ideas. I love the slow stitch of hand embroidery, is so rewarding and takes my mind off of worries and problems. The results of this is great. I love it. Keep it up.