If you had dementia, what would the textiles in your environment mean to you? Could they have a therapeutic value?
Such issues are addressed by The Napkin Project, a joint venture by artist Deirdre Nelson, care-home provider Brunelcare, and arts consultancy Willis Newson, supported by Arts Council England and Bristol City Council.
In planning Brunelcare’s newest dementia care home, Saffron Gardens, Deirdre was tasked with contributing to the well-being of residents through art installations. She set out to communicate how important creativity can be to those living with dementia. Here’s more from The Napkin Project’s website:
When is a napkin not a napkin? When it’s something to keep your hands busy. Or a bag. Or a hat. Or an aide-memoire. When she was involved with a project to create artwork for a new dementia care home, artist Deirdre Nelson noticed that residents in Brunelcare’s existing Saffron care home were often fascinated by the textured edges of items, playing with, handling and exploring objects such as the napkins they used at mealtimes. A member of staff told her that one resident would join napkins together to carry her possessions around with her or that another used hers as a vase to hold flowers; a napkin became more than just a napkin.
To that end, she recruited volunteers to embroider napkins with resonant images, and I put my hand up.
My father’s last years were spent in a succession of Bristol hospital wards and care homes, none as forward-thinking as this one sounds, sadly. He had many health problems, including dementia, so this concept really struck a chord with me. I wanted to contribute.
Part of the task was to write what “home” means to us on a parcel label. After much mulling, I settled on: “Watching the flowers grow in the garden” – partly to reflect a year in which I’ve taken on an allotment and realise that I’d probably feel at home anywhere with a small patch, plot or even pot of earth with something (almost anything) green, alive and growing.
My needlework contribution is very traditional, very cutesy, and not particularly imaginative. But I found it so relaxing to do. I hoped that the flowers, in crochet-like cast-on stitch, would be nice to handle.
I began by marking out by eye a flowing line of flower heads with a row of pins. I picked the thread colours as I went along. Making the flowers in this curious stitch which is midway between knitting and embroidery, I felt like a Borrower – casting on tiny stitches to my embroidery needle, slipping the needle through them and pulling them gently into their little petal loops. Finally, I added the stems and leaves.
True to form, I used up little scraps of embroidery thread, much of it vintage; an arm’s length was enough to complete each flower head, even less to create a split-stiched stem.
Although the official deadline to contribute is past (it’s actually today), it isn’t too late to contribute to this project; if you come along to the exhibition on 12th September, you can embroider a napkin there and then. Do go to the project’s Facebook page to view some of the contributions. And you can find the project on Twitter. And on Flickr. And Instagram.
If you fancy trying your hand at another joint embroidery project, you could take part in UK charity Plantlife ‘s Patchwork Meadow, a Bayeux tapestry of Britain’s plants. And I’m sure there must be many other joint embroidery projects out there. If you happen to know about one and would like to share details in the comments, that would be really welcome. Thanks.
PS Here’s a useful little film showing you how to do cast-on stitch. I didn’t use a milliner’s (or strawmaker’s or beading) needle with a narrow eye, but wish I had because it was tricky getting the needle through all the cast-on stitches.
PPS Delighted to see the napkin featured in situ at Saffron Gardens in The Guardian’s coverage (29th November 2013). Look out for image 11. Thanks so much to embroiderer Susi Bancroft for spotting it and giving me a nudge!