When I was growing up, there were always hand-stitched reminders of my mother in the house. The most prominently displayed were three large, framed hand-embroidered samplers. One of my most prized possessions is a cross-stitched depiction of a cat rubbing up against an “A” (my initial). It is especially important to me because it was made by my mother before she died of cancer when I was just 4 years old.
I had always assumed my mother had embroidered the picture for me to treasure as I grew up without her. I never considered how sewing might have helped her cope with what she was facing, until I was diagnosed with the same cancer.
I found a lump in my breast and, because of my mother’s illness, I got an appointment that day and was referred straight away for tests. The weeks waiting for appointments and test results were excruciating. I couldn’t concentrate. Desperate for something to do, I grabbed an embroidery hoop, fabric, and a skein of thread, and I started embroidering.
I sewed a patch of French knots, then a triangle of chain stitch. I marked a series of triangles with a pencil and continued stitching, placing satin stitches in this triangle, blanket stitches in this one. I was totally engaged in the task, following the rhythmic pattern of the stitches. I took my embroidery hoop with me to appointments, so any time in a waiting room became an opportunity for more sewing.
Once I had sewn all the stitches I knew, I picked up an embroidery book from our house and searched for new patterns to continue filling the hoop. When the first hoop was full, I got another, larger hoop. During my chemotherapy, there were days when I was unable to get out of bed, but on those days I could embroider and feel that I had achieved something, however small.
As I looked through the vintage embroidery stitch dictionary, I recognized some stitches from the samplers my mum had sewn, and I realized this book must have been hers. She had carefully sewn dates underneath each sampler: 1989, the year of her final cancer treatments before passing away. I wondered if, just as I did, she had felt the need to create something while surrounded by the chaos of treatment.
Maybe we shared the same inability to sit still and rest. Perhaps she also got a feeling of calm as she focused on each stitch. I am currently cancer-free and still trying to process what I have been through over the past few years, but I know one good thing to come out of my illness: discovering this connection to my mother. Experiencing the difficulty of treatment for myself, I held a deeper understanding of the effort that went into every stitch of the cross-stitched cat with my initial. I realized how much energy she spent to finish it so I would have something to hold onto. I feel closer to her than ever, knowing that we both turned to embroidery to help us cope with the roller coaster of treatment, as if we were going through it together. I still embroider; I find it meditative and calming. Through embroidery, I feel that I know her better, and it is special because it is my own connection, not a story told to me by someone else.
Alison Backhouse sews in London, England.