Sanity in the Seams: The Power of Sewing to Reaffirm a Sense of Self During Tumultuous Times, as Told Through the Needle of Nineteenth Century Seamstress, Agnes Richter.

When confined to our homes, our minds begin to wonder and our hands twitch. The walls surrounding us, though providing sanctuary from the insidious threat outside, become stale. The knick-knacks collected over a lifetime, lovingly picked and placed, have lost their luster. Together, we collect dust. This is how we live now. 

The mind looks for a way out, scanning the sentences of well-thumbed books, savoring their evocations of far off scenes, sand-worn toes, blazing sunsets, bustling streets, late-night dancing – adventure, action, and that now potentially deadly deed: love. The hands, holding the vessel to these sights, remain still. They are trapped in the physical sphere and cannot follow the mind to these places.

However, it may be argued that the hands possess their own potent power: the power to make, to craft, to touch, to mold, to feel. This tangible form of imagining also offers us an escape, as the physical manifestations of our thoughts appear from our hands, the clicking of needles revealing a pool of feeling for our minds to dive headlong into. 

Echoing this sentiment, recent studies exploring the use of the needlework to combat psychological and physical anguish have discovered its ‘efficacy to regulate mood, enhance self-esteem and encourage a rhythm of calmness’ [1]. The effectivity of needlework to combat such challenges is partly because of its dual nature; whilst it may be understood as a confined art – it requires only the space of one’s own body to undertake – this limited space can be infinite, a threshold to alternative worlds and ‘a channel for knowledge, imagination and passion’ [2].

As this article will demonstrate, the capacity of the needle in the hands of one both psychologically and physically confined can provide purpose, escape, identity, and most vitally in this case, a canvas for emotion. This ability is exemplified in the plight of nineteenth century German seamstress Agnes Richter (1844-1918), who, during her incarceration in a psychiatric unit, sewed her distress into the seams of a tailored jacket. 

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This jacket, covered with a largely indecipherable stitched narrative of suffering, sits within the tradition of women sewing text onto garments, ‘turning to thread and fabric in place of ink and paper’ [3] as the means of communication most readily available to them. However, such creations, traditionally regarded as the aesthetically-superficial play-things of bored women, have habitually been ‘overlooked and consigned to the realms of the domestic’ [4]. The reconsideration of such textiles, integral to the feminist turn in material culture, reveals a rich and compelling revision of clichéd narratives, so that a dusty stitch-stabbed jacket unexpectedly ‘requires thought about mental health, erasure of voice, and the history of incarcerating women,’ [5]. Though this is a relatively modern perspective, it is evident through the jacket’s survival that during Richter’s life somebody must have perceived its significance, and preserved it. 

This conservation was the work of Hans Prinzhorn, art historian and director of a psychiatric unit in Heidleberg. After Richter’s death in 1918, Prinzhorn secured the jacket for his collection. He was not interested in the individuals behind the objects he collected; he ‘treated the works in his collection as artefacts, not as symptoms’ [6]. This article challenges this conception, which blinds us to the true meaning and significance of pieces such as this jacket. We need to understand both the context in which it was made and the relationship of the maker to her creation. Richter’s jacket should be regarded as a self-portrait, reflecting the woman who made it. Considering her jacket in this way enables us to demonstrate the full range of female expression realisable through the needle. 

Despite living a seemingly quiet life as a seamstress, Richter was admitted to the Dresden City Lunatic Asylum in 1888, at the age of forty-nine. She was sectioned and considered to be suffering from a persecution complex [7]. Despite her declarations that the police had ‘treated [her] unjustly…[and] dragged her off with trickery’ [8]. Richter was detained and relocated to Hubertusberg Psychiatric Institution in 1895 [9]. To exorcise the supposed injustice of her imprisonment, and navigate the trauma of her environment, Richter turned to needle and thread. Sewing materials were often provided for female patients ‘to foster femininity during hospitalization’ [10].

Agnes used her hospital gown to create a cropped linen jacket, with fitted bodice, peplum hem, flared cuffs, and neat buttonholes. Technically, it is evident that this is the work of a proficient seamstress. The apparent femininity of such a silhouette, which would have contrasted with the regulation gowns and straitjackets that surrounded Agnes, must have been intentional. ‘The garments of the other women restricted, humiliated, and overwhelmed them; hers opened her up, made her proud, emboldened her’ [11]. Inhabiting such a garment, Agnes defied the stereotype of the ‘mad woman’ as barbarous, stained and ragged, utilising her subversive stitches to reflect upon and perform her own individuality.

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The jacket is light grey, with sections of brown felt on the collar and back. Upon this, Agnes embroidered textual statements in varying shades of blue, yellow, white, black and red. Despite the profusion of text on the outside of the jacket, the majority is hidden on the inside, as is the definitive evidence that Agnes wore the jacket: on examining the armpits of the garment, ‘a pinkish discolouration is clearly evident’ [12] indicating remnants of her sweat. Additionally, the jacket itself still holds of the shape of her torso, so that ‘encountering her jacket feels more like seeing a ghost than inspecting a work of art,’ [13]. Through the sewing and wearing of her creation, Agnes immortalised both her physical and emotional self, ensuring that she would be neither ignored nor forgotten as she was in life. 

Agnes’ existential declaration is also evident within the text upon the jacket. Her self-expression is inherent both in the performativity of the stitches, and in the meaning of the words themselves. In comparison to the intricate design of the jacket which showcases her skill as a needlewoman, the textual embroidery is aggressive, chaotic and illegible. This juxtaposition leads one to believe that this contrast was deliberate, as the antithesis of the careful feminine stitching she would have been taught as a child. It appears that through these violent stitches Agnes was visually conveying her psychological state, creating an fury-fuelled statement to express the injustices she believed herself to have suffered. The text upon her jacket is extremely difficult to decipher. The language is believed to be a version of Deutsche Schrift, a nineteenth century cursive script now widely incomprehensible [14]. The most discernible and repeated word is ich, I in English, and through its recurring presence Agnes places herself at the centre of the work. However, what this I is proclaiming remains a mystery. The other phrases which have been successfully translated are statements such as: my jacket is; my white stockings; the body; I am his; I will not go; I wish to read; my money is; brother freedom, and most enigmatically, I plunge headlong into disaster [15]. From these extracts, it is impossible to form a holistic understanding of Agnes’ narrative, though her psychological anguish is palpable. 

However, if one regards Agnes’ account as an example of feminist critic Rachel Blau Duplessis’ theory of ‘pure women’s writing’ [16], textual comprehension becomes redundant. Duplessis imagines a strictly female language where meaning is expressed through form and appearance rather than comprehensible language to create ‘a hieroglyphic… for those women who are skilled in its [use],’ [17]. Perhaps Agnes’ jacket presents a dialect of this language we cannot decipher. Considering her supposed maltreatment at the hands of the patriarchal medical establishment, it would be unsurprising if she turned to an exclusively feminine language, mediated through the exclusively female implement of the needle, to express herself. 

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This possibility presents yet another subversion of traditional attitudes towards needlework, and demonstrates ‘how women who understand the sewing conventions of their age can purposefully subvert its form to evoke and exorcise powerful emotions’. This was a medium intended to feminize and pacify, but it was subverted to allow ranting, raging and the eternalisation of a version of femininity quite different from the one that needlework was believed to encourage. Despite being silenced, ignored and maltreated throughout her adult life, this woman found a voice through needlework that allowed her ownership over her own narrative, escape from her surroundings, and a sense of identity within an establishment shrouded in anonymity.

Agnes’ tale implores us to turn to our hands when all else seems lost; when the daily distractions which fill our lives have come to a standstill. When we wake and sleep to the same news, death and despair the unwelcome soundtrack to our every thought. When the carefully crafted words of others no longer soothes us; sunsets turn to ash, laughter quails, love a forgotten commodity. Then, we must turn to our hands, and with our thread slip through the eye of the needle into a world within which we are free. And in building this world, we might find the one which we physically inhabit becomes more bearable. So, as we sit in our homes, our minds jangling, our hands used only to bring yet another chocolate digestive to our lips, let us pick up our hands, shake the dust from them, and create.


Words: Natasha Huges

About: Natasha Hughes is a London-based curator and researcher who has recently graduated from MA Culture, Criticism and Curation at Central Saint Martins. Her work focusses on female creatives traditionally excluded from the canon, which she explores through a combination of research, curatorial practice and writing. She is the co-founder of Kleió, an all-female collective which uncovers marginalised narratives through contemporary feminist curatorial practice. Kleió’s current project, Feather Dusting/ Future Lusting (a digital response to the COVID-19 crisis) is now live at

@tashyhughes
@kleio.collective
www.kleiocollective.co.uk


References

[1], [2] Hunter, C. (2019) Threads of Life. (p. 34)Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.
[3], [4], [5] Jana, R. (2016) Mark My Words: The Subversive History of Women Using Thread as Ink. Vice.
[6] Hornstein, G. (2012) Agnes’s Jacket. A psychologists search for the meaning of madness. (p. 5) PCCS BOOKS Ltd.
[7]  Hunter, Ibid
[8] Hornstein, Ibid
[9] Hunter, Ibid
[10 – 15]  Hornstein, Ibid
[16], [17] DuPlessis in Showalter, G. (1986) “Piecing and Writing’, in the poetics of gender. Columbia University Press