CASE STUDY: Catherine Howard – Breaking the chains (of poor mental health)

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

Title of case study project or workshop

Breaking the chains (of poor mental health)

Name(s) of researcher(s) and university affiliation, if any

Catherine Howard  (University of Huddersfield but transferring to University of Leeds, UK)

Context for research

PhD pilot study, carried out at Ark Victoria Academy, Birmingham, a ‘through school’ which caters for children aged 3 – 16.

When did the research take place?

May – July 2021.

Disciplinary background(s)

Education and textile art and design. 

Aims of research

To determine whether there is evidence to support the premise that young people at Key Stage 3 (aged 11 – 14) with existing social or emotional issues, identified by their school, can gain therapeutic benefits from textile processes such as hand stitch, as part of group projects.

Description of research method

Over a period of two months, visiting school weekly, I worked with a group of 8 participants who had been selected by staff and students to be Mental Health Ambassadors to lead some new initiatives planned for September 2021. They are aged 11 – 15, 4 boys and 4 girls, all from ethnic minority groups. The aim was to produce a piece of work, together, that would launch the school’s mental health awareness project in September 2021. The students had experienced poor mental health in a variety of ways. The approach was to work collaboratively on a group outcome using hand stitch and the first sessions were based on discussion and planning.    

Stitching sessions were about an hour long, based in a school meeting room (usually reserved for the Principal’s meetings and therefore quite prestigious). They ran over lunch time and sessions were devoted to Personal, Social and Health Education. This was partly in response to the constraints of the Covid-19 social distancing rules, which were in place at the time. Some students took work home to complete or share with a parent or grandparent. 

Students’ knowledge of stitch was minimal; the school does not offer textiles as a curriculum subject at Key Stage 3 or 4; some students may have had incidental experience of stitch in the primary phase. That said it was necessary to teach the most rudimentary elements of simple straight stitch and pre-empt as many difficulties as possible through good organisation (providing needles with large eyes and yarn on card bobbins rather than in skeins).           

Over the following weeks, students, who had been supplied with a little stitching kit and threads, produced individual pieces to be added to the final outcome which, they had determined, would take the shape of a ball and chain. The ball was seen as a visual metaphor for being held back by poor mental health and the challenge was to break that chain. Students led the decision-making process: the ball was to be black fabric with coloured stitch which reflected some aspect of mental health, the initial chain links were to be black too, the colour of depression and low mood. Once the chain was broken the new links were to be made of different coloured and patterned fabrics stitched in white. The outcome is fitted over a 75cm diameter exercise ball with 25 chain links attached. 

In one session, a bigger group of other students who are also involved in the work on mental health in the school, were invited at the request of the core members. The afternoon was extended to allow these 30 children to join in smaller groups for 45 minutes.  

The coloured pieces for the healthy links were made by 120 pupils in year 6 who will be moving up to the secondary phase of the school in September. Their involvement was strategic as part of their transition and had to be managed over one morning in school.  

To gain feedback on the process and product of the project a questionnaire was issued and completed on the last morning; comments and observations had been gathered throughout by the researcher who acted as participant observer. The plans for delivering the sessions had included two researchers and more 1 to 1 interviews for feedback. Covid regulations meant that both those options were limited.  

Why did you choose to use this method?

My research is focused on the potential impact of handstitched participatory projects on the wellbeing of young people. An opportunity arose as the Academy was looking to launch the 2021/22 mental health initiative and wanted an impetus for that. The project allowed me to explore students’ attitudes to both the process of making and the final product.

What did you learn from the research process?

The pilot has led me to look carefully at the way I intend to collect further data.  Although the project provided positive evidence of students gaining from both the process of making and their pride in the finished product, I am interested to consider the value of working over a more sustained period of time with a more focused and numerically limited group. I am interested to discover if I can evaluate the depth of impact of hand stitch in relation to mental health in such a group.  I wonder if, although these findings are encouraging, they may be seen as a little superficial.

Although I have worked in education for many years, I have learned how different that experience is when going into a school as a visitor. Obviously working during the various lockdowns and under the changing restrictions of the pandemic adds a level of complication.  

Planning and preparation are crucial but also a researcher must make a decision about how to cope with unexpected changes. It might be possible to insist on maintaining a planned work schedule, but it is likely that any school will face changes in routine that may impact on research.  

Maintaining students’ confidence in themselves and the outcome was very important.    Students shared the project with peers, staff and families, reporting that the work had given opportunities to learn from their mothers and grandmothers.


I enjoyed being involved in this as it really expressed my opinions on poor mental health AVP 2

I have really enjoyed being part of this project because everyone joined in and we all came up with many different, beautiful designs AVP7

It felt really calming and everyone participated so it made me feel safe AVP13

I have really engaged in it and I would love to try it in the future because it is relaxing AVP6

The stitching work was very relaxing and calming.  Seeing the final product was very cool.   AVP7 

I felt good as though it was calming and relaxing by taking my mind of (sic) everything AVP9 

In my opinion, I think this project was a success and I’m really proud of it.  The finish (sic) product looks incredible.  AVP3 

I feel proud of the finished product.  Also, because I was a part of it and that I can show my work to others.  AVP10


Lynn Setterington’s work and several other participatory projects working with community or disadvantaged groups. 

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