CASE STUDY: Heather Schulte – Stitching the Situation

This case study, which explores a participatory textile making research project, is written bHeather Schulte. To see more case studies or find out how to contribute one yourself, click here.

hands holding a geometric cross-stitch embroidery

Title of case study project or workshop

Stitching the Situation

Name(s) of practitioner(s) and institution/organisation, if any

Heather Schulte, faciltator, and 90+ stitching collaborators and growing

Context for project

The COVID-19 pandemic restricted me to my home studio and materials, complicated by my 3 children now schooling from home. I pivoted to work with what was on hand, and my time and brain space would allow. Soon I, like far too many others, sought a way to mourn and memorialize a loved one’s life, while unable to gather with family for a funeral. The pandemic requires our communities to invent new ways of gathering, to hold, nurture and strengthen our relationships.

When did the project take place?

March 2020 – ongoing

StitchingtheSituation2

Disciplinary background(s) of the practitioner(s)

Heather Schulte is an interdisciplinary artist in Boulder, CO. Her work combines hand made textile materials and techniques with digital manufacturing and design processes, analyzing the intersection of personal and public forms of language and communication. She received her BFA from the University of NE-Lincoln in 2003.

Aims of project

This project provides space and time to contemplate, grieve and cope with the impacts of COVID-19. It connects individuals through making a collective material expression of this time, creating new communities and relationships in the process. The work is a memorial to those lost, and a complex record of diverse pandemic experiences held in careful tension with one another.

woman sitting at a table on the street, stitching a large cloth

Description of project

In March, the world hit a wall. Overwhelmed, I reached for my oldest companion—a needle and thread—in attempt to grasp what was happening. I started simply—making one embroidered cross stitch for each case and death recorded in the US. Within the span of a week, I could no longer keep up.

geometric shapes on embroidery fabric, with dates in March

So, I stitched the outline of the area containing the number of stitches for each day, to be filled in another time. Less than a month later, the virus steadily spreading, I reached the end of the fabric (ten feet), and realized this was far bigger than me, on so many levels.

Cross-stitched design: April 11: 28,447. 1,844. Today, my Uncle Joe tested positive. Stitched image of a smiling older man wearing a cap.

On April 13, my Uncle Joe died from COVID-19 (having tested positive only two days prior), and this project became part of mourning the sudden loss of my beloved family member, and our inability to gather together in shared grief. I now knew the ache of loneliness, mixed with loss and pain. This project was a balm for me, and potentially for others.

As the initial panel was large, I invited my neighbors to stitch with me, working within social distancing protocols. We sat outside while our children played, opening a safe space to connect, share our experiences, and think through ways to create new community safely within our neighborhood, schools, and city. I received a local grant to support the material costs of the project, and brought it to a local museum to stitch with more community members.

Two people sitting at on outdoor table, stitching on large cloths with geometric shapes.

In June, the case numbers grew again, and I had to adapt. When a friend in another state asked if she could participate, I started making individual kits which could be mailed, expanding the community and reach of the project. Each kit represents one day’s data (starting with June 26), and each stitcher designs the fill pattern of their block as they see fit. I received an additional grant from the Fiber Art Network, along with numerous individual donations, to cover material and shipping costs, making this project accessible to anyone. 

embroidery packs in plastic wallets, each with a different date in July.

This project is ongoing. Numbers have now skyrocketed, requiring another adaptation for project sustainability (TBD). I plan to bring the initial panels (representing the data through June 25) to public spaces when it is safer to do so. We can sit together, talk through what has happened, ponder and discuss how to bridge the divisions in our communities, to work together to heal.

nine stitched cloths, with varying designs

Why did you choose to work in this way?

Textiles are an integral part of my life— a great comfort and expressive outlet during difficult times. Textile groups have been a source of physical and social community and connection. This project offers a way to connect and cope now and after the crisis point, to record what has happened and make a memorial for the future, and holds space for active healing.

What did you learn from the project?

Artist pandemic toolkit:

Adaptability

Accessibility

Creativity

Caring connection

Comment

Square stitched with text: 'United in Sickness and Health'.

“Our health and well-beings are very much intertwined. I stand with my fellow citizens in good times and in bad, like a marriage of humanity. That being said, I am a health care worker, and wish with all my heart that people were taking this tremendously dangerous pandemic seriously. Each cross stitch is a person, a life affected.” – Sarah Frank, stitching collaborator. Her block represents the people impacted by COVID on July 15, 2020.

Influences

The AIDS memorial quilt project

Sara Trail and the Social Justice Sewing Academy

Shannon Downey’s many projects

The Craftivist Collective

Clare Hunter’s book, “Threads of Life”

Further information

Instagram: @stitchingthesituation

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