A family physician for 25 years, Barbara Ramsey made a transformational career shift in 2011 and today calls her main practice quilting. “I’ve always sewn things. Sewing was always a very creative outlet, and something that was a big part of my life. Then when I went into medicine, I just didn’t have time to do it anymore, and I figured that was fine. I thought, now I’m grown up and I have a real job, a real calling and a profession, and this is important work. I really like being a physician, so letting go of sewing is okay.”
But as it turns out, it really wasn’t completely okay, Barbara recalls. There was still a longing to create that was not being satisfied. She’s not alone. According to industry suppliers, the number of people knitting, crocheting and quilting tops 60 million in the United States.
What’s more, this type of crafting has also become a social outlet for many in the form of guilds and clubs. There’s even Stitch ‘n Bitch groups which have sprung up around the county, inspired by best-selling author Debbie Stroller. She’s bringing millennials into the fold to “knit, stitch ‘n connect” with other women through creative expression.
A State of Flow
While there is an engaging social aspect to the craft, there’s a greater healthful benefit that is involved.
“When I’m making my own work, a couple things happen physically to me. One is, I get into that ‘flow’ state where many people interested in creativity find themselves. It’s a mental state that many artists, scientists, engineers—creators of all sorts—describe as a place where they lose track of time and the extraneous world.
“It’s this rewarding state where you are both participating in and manipulating your environment, but also excluding a bunch of things from your environment. You lose awareness of yourself and things like hunger, or thirst, or time… you are simply just making something,” says Ramsey. “That flow is a state that I get into, and many quilters report similar experiences to me, and it makes me feel fantastic!”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author and distinguished professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University, spoke about the concept of ‘flow’ in a 2004 Ted Talk as a direct correlation to happiness. Csikszentmihalyi looks at those who find pleasure and lasting satisfaction in activities that bring about a state of ‘flow.’
He and his team spoke with thousands of people from all types of backgrounds—musicians, poets, scientists, monks and nuns to name a few. Csikszentmihalyi outlined what it felt like to be in the state of flow:
- Completely involved in what we are doing – focused, concentrated.
- A sense of ecstasy – of being outside everyday reality.
- Great inner clarity – knowing what needs to be done, and how well we are doing.
- Knowing that the activity is doable – that our skills are adequate to the task.
- A sense of serenity – no worries about oneself, and a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego.
- Timelessness – thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes.
- Intrinsic motivation – whatever produces flow becomes its own reward.
Form, Function, and Art
Historically, while quilts have provided a unique blend of function, form and creative expression—providing warmth while becoming an important element of American Folk Art. Even today, crafters are using their creativity to bring awareness to issues such as AIDS, political oppression, and even sprouting organizations like Quilts of Valor to provide quilts to many returning veterans.
Traditional crafts and contemporary design merge to explore narratives of gender, strength and politics through the medium of cotton canvas, thread, digital printing in addition to hand and machine sewing at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York City.
An exhibit of work by Peruvian designer and activist Lucia Cuba at MAD explores the dynamics of class and race through the medium of clothing design. Female mannequins with masks covering their mouths stand outfitted in perfectly formed and fitted dresses. Upon closer inspection, the dresses, aprons and shoes document the “forced sterilizations implemented during the government of Alberto Fujimori in Peru between 1996 and 2000.” Names of victims are imprinted on the dresses.
Whether the work of crafters emphasizes political, historical or traditional design, creative expression is at its core.
“I think all of us have it in us. But for some of us, it’s not simply ‘having it,’ it’s something that also has us in its grip,” says Ramsey.
Re-membering: A Process of Pulling Together the Pieces
Crafting quite literally helps you “re-member” says Ramsey. You can incorporate those cast off pair of jeans, or a piece of material from a loved ones wardrobe. She cites a woman who made a quilt from several of her late husband’s Hawaiian shirts. “She quite literally re-membered him by creating the quilt. There’s something about the tangibility that humans crave and that it helps us externalize what we were only thinking or feeling. It gives us the ability to connect externally to other people.”
“For me using my eyes and hands together in this way – it’s like there’s this huge part of my brain that lights up when I do this work. I don’t think it lit up in such a way when I was a doctor.”
Don’t Let Perfectionism Prevent You from Making Something
Since most of Ramsey’s students are women, she makes it a feminist issue. She describes research that indicates women will sometimes hold back from doing something due to fear of making mistakes. “So, it’s the accidents, mistakes, and the unexpected things that open the door to the cool thing you haven’t thought of yet,” says Ramsey.
She added, “If you are having a hard time, if you are struggling with your creativity, if you are saying ‘this isn’t worth it,’ that’s great! Nobody wants to be a self-satisfied artist. You have to feel like there is some obstacle—something in your way. That’s when you get good. That’s when the juices start to flow.”
“I think a lot of people, when they feel injured in some way—physically or emotionally— look to find something that helps us reconnect with our ‘whole’ self. Sometimes when you lose a person, or you lose a limb, or you lose a state of mind – whatever it is – when you feel this sense of loss, you want to reconnect with something that reminds you that you are really a whole person, a whole being. The loss is only a part of you,” notes Ramsey.
“I think by making things and creating something that is tangible, there’s this feeling of connection, pride, originality, and accomplishment. It’s powerful to see, touch, and feel what comes from the creative process, and knowing that other people can also see, touch, and feel it to connect them with your experience.”
-By Amy Powers