Needle, Laura Grace Simpkins

‘If anger pricks our skin, if it makes us shudder, sweat and tremble, then it might just shudder us into new ways of being; it might just enable us to inhabit a different kind of skin, even if that skin remains marked or scarred by that which we are against.’ 

Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004).

There’s an artwork by British textile artist Freddie Robins, called Craft Kills (2002). It’s a life-size self-portrait, knitted out of grey wool. The words ‘CRAFT KILLS’ are stitched onto its torso in bold teal capitals. The figure, after Saint Sebastians, is pierced with multicoloured knitting needles and encircled on the floor directly below by others, those which, presumably, have ‘missed’. Craft Kills was created out of Robins’ frustration with the disregard for textiles in general—and knitting in particular. In her literature, Robins notes that the dismissive attitudes towards knitting are almost entirely due to its historical associations with the domestic and the feminine: yet another by-product of societally entrenched gender inequality. The violent and uncomfortable subject matter of Craft Kills ironises this stereotype of knitting as women’s work (and therefore as safe and unthreatening) and is also Robins’ response to the reclassification of knitting needles as ‘weaponry’ and thus being banned (albeit temporarily), on all international long-haul flights, shortly after 9/11.

© Freddie Robbins. Photo: Jon Stokes

When I first saw Craft Kills, it was hanging by a wire I couldn’t see, in the front window of the contemporary art gallery I used to work at. This memory has clearly stuck with me. It surfaces on occasion, like when I eyed my curtain rail that especially despondent afternoon when I couldn’t get out of bed and pictured myself swinging from it, or, like now, when I’m sitting on a black faux-leather chair at the doctor’s, waiting for the blood test I need every few months to check my lithium levels. How many times have I been pricked and punctured, I wonder, shot through with arrows? I put on my headphones and then a song on loud. I close my eyes and start to breathe deeply in and out, counting the inhalations and exhalations. I usually get the doctor but today I have the nurse. She stabs me with the needle. I breathe in louder, making a thing of it. Once the needle is in, I can only feel the bite of the tourniquet around my arm and the pressure of the nurse’s hand on my fingers. To remove the needle, she pushes it in further slightly and then she takes it out. The nurse sticks a cotton bud under paper sticky-tape onto the back of my hand. 

When I open my eyes, there’s no evidence of the procedure to be found; I’d already asked her to hide the vials of blood from me so I wouldn’t have to see them. ‘How’re things?’ she says. She has to ask me that. 

‘Fine,’ I say. ‘I’m a bit stressed.’

‘You should take up a craft,’ she says. ‘Knitting, or sewing, or something.’ 

Maybe she’s right: everyone else I know seems to be. A friend’s been embroidering very trendy motifs (girls kissing girls—trendy apparently, where I’m from), onto face masks she’s been making, mum’s been learning to cross-stitch, mostly just for something to do, and a neighbour’s been cheerily yarn-bombing her front garden in order to brighten up our cul-de-sac. They all seem to be enjoying themselves. I assume they must feel some comfort in the knowledge that they’re not alone in their artistic endeavours; they share in a larger community (mostly of other straight, white, moneyed women), who are also reconnecting with a kind of British interwar feminism, a make-do-and-mend brand of nostalgia to see themselves through lockdown. I don’t feel like that. I feel angry, outraged, pissed-off. I don’t even know what about exactly. Something; everything. I tried my hand at knitting a few weeks ago. Fortunately, I overcame the urge to jab the needles into my stomach. It’s the same with a knife, or any pointed object at the moment. I never imagine the aftermath—the blood, the guts, the stuffing—just the stabbing, jabbing motion. Perhaps I should take up a craft: impale myself on a knitting needle, sew up my eyelids so I can no longer see, smother myself in wibbly-wobbly crochet so I can’t breathe, pull out all my stitches until I’m grey, hollowed-out remains. Is that what this nurse has in mind?

‘Maybe,’ I reply and leave the surgery. 

I appreciate the well-documented benefits of craft for mental health (as evidenced by the practices of my friends, family, and acquaintances). Sometimes though, I feel like craft is all we’ve got—those who are woman, of colour, queer, have disabilities, are working-class—we embroider and cross-stitch and yarn-bomb really to repair ourselves: patch our holes and mend our fraying edges. We aestheticise our emotions to abstraction, internalising our anger under neat networks of cotton and wool. Keeping calm and carrying on, I think, is a misogynistic prerogative. I want more artworks like Craft Kills, craft that externalises my feelings. Robins’ self-portrait is nearly twenty years old, but in this climate of fear, anxiety, and uncertainty it meets, rather than mitigates, my levels of anger, outrage, and pissed-off-ness. Craft Kills’ face has got this stupid, dozy sort of smile on it. Its eyes and nose are sewn shut; it has gaping holes for ears and mouth. Although nothing was meant to fill it, it looks deflated, as if all the padding, all the life, has been scooped out of it. A patient—calm, though heavily medicated. On lithium perhaps. Anything’s better than angry. 
Every time I express even a thread of emotion I’m told to ‘take up a craft’ by a nurse or prescribed antipsychotics or other medications by a doctor. Why am I not allowed to be angry? This question, when I’ve articulated it, is rejected by such professionals as pointless needling. Being one of them, the make-do-and-menders, the keep-calm-and-carry-oners, must feel how it would to undo the five glass buttons along the spine of Craft Kills, and crawl into it like a onesie. I imagine simply staying there, where it’s nice and warm and dark and safe. It would be like wearing the flayed skin of a corpse. I want to feel things. I want to be angry. Anger has, in the words of Sara Ahmed, ‘pricked my skin’. I need it now to shudder me ‘into new ways of being’, to inhabit a ‘different kind of skin’: a skin stabbed and jabbed into action. Embroidering and cross-stitching and yarn-bombing are all very well but they must remain in tension with anger. The finest silk cannot be sewn into unless stretched taught underneath the needle, after all.

Words: Laura Grace Simpkins

Biography: Laura Grace Simpkins writes, performs, and philosophises—mostly to cope with her fear of death. Her essays, articles, and reviews have been published (or are forthcoming) by the Wellcome Collection, the British Medical Journal’s Medical Humanities,and The Polyphony, amongst others, and broadcast by BBC Radio. She’s currently working on funding applications for her Creative and Critical Writing PhD, which she hopes to commence later this year. Her website is at