What Have I Got In My Hand?

Our storytelling group are planning to offer a workshop this Spring on “Story-telling And Sewing”. We have in the past programmed workshops on “Storytelling and Movement” and “Storytelling And Voice” so linking story with another expressive medium is nothing new, but maybe sewing is a less obvious choice for connection. I was inspired to propose it when I was asked by my old friend Clare Higney to read a draft of a book she has been writing, about sewing and embroidery and their place in our wider culture. Clare is a genius in this area and has so much experience of working in the medium in community settings, but the aspect of the subject which caught my attention was her description of how story can be captured and preserved by sewing, not just in the past and in far-flung parts of the globe, but here in these islands now.

I was interested in how a craft medium which produces objects and static images not actions can have a narrative dimension, and last week on a visit to the British Museum I found myself drawn to an exhibit – “Krishna in the garden of Assam – the cultural context of an Indian textile” – and there it was, the Vrindavani Vastra (literally ‘the cloth of Vrindavan’), made of woven silk and figured with scenes from the life of the Hindu god Krishna during the time he lived in the forest of Vrindavan. It’s a narrative cloth, and the exhibit is dedicated to assisting in our understanding of the story.

The Vrindavani Vastra will be on show until August and I recommend that you see it if you can. What then pre-occupied me was how we might include any products of our sewing-and-story workshop in our tellings. This seemed to me to be the same challenge that we set ourselves whenever we use objects with story, so I decided to run a workshop last weekend about using objects and what they allow and insist on in the telling.

Most of what we did was to handle, consider and use as stimulus a number of objects I’d brought in for the session. I already had had some thoughts about the different ways an object can have presence in a spoken narrative, but this was a time to test them out.

I suggested that an object can, for example, be used as exactly itself – “this very thing” – and its history can be told, sometimes the history of how it came to be and sometimes how it came to be in the possession of the teller, and indeed in this space now. I had brought with me a mug which commemorated Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. It was produced in Leicester to mark that city’s celebration of this nationally significant date, and to either side of the Queen’s image are pictures of Leicester’s Lord Mayor and his wife. We had a few stories which might be told here, of varying levels of interest – how the mug came to be produced, the story of the Jubilee, or how the mug had been passed down the years to end up at the back of a shelf in my kitchen. The mug was the story, but also contained a story or two. Each would take some investigation (and ingenuity) to constitute a story worth the telling, but there was no doubt that the presence of the mug in the storyteller’s hand would lend a certain weight to that telling.

I was also ready to point out that the mug might be presented as a representative, a stand-in, for the mug about which a story might be told, and then Mary offered an entirely fictional, or at least suppositional, tale of how the pictures on the mug may have been mixed up, which gave the object another life, and made us want to look again at it. I also pointed out that the object as held by the teller might be presented, fictionally, as having a relationship with the one in the story being told, as one of a pair, or a replacement for one broken, or as a copy, and so conferring life on the story-object by association. There was also the much looser use of the mug as a pretext for telling a story about mugs, or a mug, and we did not fail to note the use of an object, any object, as a way of distracting the audience’s gaze away from the face of a nervous or shy storyteller, by shifting the focus of the telling.

Each object raised new questions about the use of objects in story. A cheap plastic “Winner” medal on a tricolor string and bought in a supermarket – did we use that as representing a winning medal or draw attention to its cheap manufacture? Was it the medal in a story or just a medal? We can determine how much attention is paid to the close details of an object but how what determines that “how much”?

There was a beautiful flower-shaped candle, unlit (and bought, if you paid attention to the label on the bottom, from Habitat). Was the fact that it had never been lit part of the story? (Was Habitat?) Decima came up with a story which accounted for both. There was a harmonica in a perfume container – the piquancy of that conjunction suggested (almost demanded) a story which was not so much about the objects so much as about their coming together. It might be researched or made up. A sea-shell – it has its own geological story, but can also, courtesy of John and Colin hold the focus of a fiction about how it was found, or lost. The torch, the magnifying glass, – all of the objects stimulated consideration of the ways in which an object can be essential to a telling. And then we noticed how we held them as we talked and that denoted or demonstrated a relationship with the teller. It all became very fascinating and in the process we came up with a lot of developable stories.

All this will bear fruit when we come to the sewing. At the end of that session, if all goes according to plan, we shall each have a sewn something to provide a focus for a future telling. We may end up making it first and then finding out how to use it, or we may design it in our head for a planned storytelling. It will have substance, a pattern or an image, it will be a masterpiece or an avowedly imperfect go at sewing, it may represent something for us, or we may discover something about ourselves and what we need to say in the very physical, manual act of making it. We do not know, but it will be interesting to find out. When we all put down our needles and thread at the end of the session, or after what we have produced has accompanied us into a story-sharing, we may have something to report.

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I write a lot in many media on many subjects

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