Textile Therapy


Unraveling children’s pain with the touch of textiles

Canadian resident Wendy Golden-Levitt found HAND/EYE in print and online this fall.  She wrote a beautiful email complimenting us on our good work, and described very briefly her work as a child therapist, where she uses textiles much as others might use toys in a play therapy context – although her intuitive and sensitive approach resists simple categories.  We asked her to share her work with us, inspired by the notion that the infinite variation possible in textiles, infused with culture and history and myth and hope and utility and experience, might remind all of us of the connections we share. We hope that you will find the notion of healing through textiles as poetic as we do.  Here is Wendy in her own words.

Healing often begins when a child surrenders his pain to a chosen textile.

Lonely and depressed children rarely exist in native cultures where traditions depend on the cycles of the moon, the sun, and the changing seasons.  Right from the start, newborn babies are welcomed and receive the gift of a story printed on cloth, a song, or even a meaningful dance. For these societies, each year of a baby’s life is considered precious, and the use of cloth takes on a vital role in the well-being of the child and in numerous rituals.

These children are fortunate to receive mirroring when their mothers smile and pass on gentle gestures. It is in these cultures the shaman’s drum and rattle bound by cloth and sewn with thread is seen as a source of healing. Cultures that lack sufficient food or water, housing or dignity often reach for safety in their stitched cloth, and it’s here where my own heart rests. I combine Jungian-oriented psychology, healing modalities that contain ancient wisdom, and textiles, to help children heal.

My feelings over the years with regard to the subject of healing have softened and widened. For me the subject now includes sound psychological and physiological tenets and respect for the ineffable.  When a child is experiencing the healing process, he carries with him a numinosity–a calling towards wholeness that easily connects him to the story within a cloth. Over time the child becomes united with the material he is working with, he eventually overcomes his difficulties; he discovers a new life and new ways of relating to situations and people. The goal of my work is a familiar one — in the context of therapy.

The textiles I use in my practice are personally selected, they come from all parts of the world, and they are handmade. They are not chosen for their superiority in weave, texture, or softness, but for their potential to assist a child to surrender his pain. During the quiet and sometimes the active moments of healing, the child has the opportunity to meet the fabric’s artist and recognize the sincerity of the textile’s characteristics—its intricate stitches, patchwork, appliqué, or quilting. These are all seen and sometimes unseen; they’re equal to the beat of a Siberian shaman’s drum or the strength an aboriginal child may draw from his grandmother’s mark on stone half way around the world.  What we see is that the child is moved by each textile whether it’s used in play or dancing, or when the fabric is closely held. It’s in these moments that healing occurs through touch.

By encouraging children to play with fabric, we add the unspeakable feeling of wabi sabi to the most complicated notions of science and mathematics–two opposites, and different sides of the same energy. Play therapy allows for the unseen, the unknown corners of a child’s life to be expressed. Everything has meaning and the child engaged in play knows this because she feels it. Upon touching a textile, moving with it, telling stories with it, there is a chance for the very thing that will make her both unique and ordinary.

Many of the children participate in healing moments much like ancient and indigenous cultures. Playing with textiles is often the first step for these children to have felt the experience of an inner life—one that has stronger roots than any dismissive remark or gesture from the outside world. Play therapy and textiles come from the same good mud and the same bright moon that each child knows from whatever part of the world they live–reliable, quietly reassuring and holding the wisdom of transformation.

Most often with the textiles we use, the moment of finding the stillpoint or the stitch that transcends the textile artist’s inner wrestling is evident. The child’s choice of textile and how she works with it is important. The relationship can occur in seconds, and it is often within that same moment of choice that change arrives–the instance the child feels a holy “yes ” from the good cloth in front of him, and then the next part of play begins when the child moves into a play-like waking dream. He plays with the cloth, studies it, vocalizes, moves it along his body, plays with it in a dry sand tray, and so forth. It is through these actions that each child makes contact with feelings of worthiness simply from the feeling he gets from playing with this piece of cloth.

According to the children I’ve treated, no matter what part of the world they are from, they say the textiles tell them stories, that they offer new ways of seeing the world, and provide a sense of safety. For instance, a blind child smells a lavender-infused pillow and feels the stitches with her fingers. She is excited because a little piece of cloth called a “what if” gives her the feeling of color and what a star might look or feel like. Children rolling cloth or putting their fingers through holes open up the rigid walls of cracking perfection, and discover the beauty of wholeness.

Each stitch is described as a bridge to hop from one state of being to the other, leaps of trust and soft landings on the next direction of the thread. Some children speak or move for the first time in their lives from trusting the integrity of the cloth. We’ve seen fear or pain dissolve as the child rolls and sways inside of an Inuit sewn wall hanging or when fabric is draped over parts of the body that ache.

What we often see is that these kids are tired of working hard to be loved. With cloth that’s transparent or indigo dyed ribbons that swing and sway, they are offered the chance to see how many names beauty holds, including their own. Rigid and patriarchal ideals bend and break as they learn the difference between power and love.

Children do not need a lot of words.  Use too many and they drop on the floor, land heavy, become concretized. It is the action of the cloth, the vibration of nature, the struggle and the joy of the artist that solidifies trust on a core level of the child. It’s the roots of the cloth that matter.

The way the artist chooses to fold corners, turn the thread, add a color, all make a difference to the child who is suffering. Their work in therapy is to create consciousness from this suffering, and to help create a meaningful life. Children always ask me, “Who made this?”  They are given the first name of the artist, and most often, at the end of a session after time spent in the colors and corners of their own unconscious, they speak quietly and with some peace; they speak of understanding something about themselves and the maker of the textile they worked with that day.

Children who work with the textiles become inspired. They become connected to themselves and whatever is the larger mystery of this life – of their life.  They develop a profound sense of belonging. They learn respect for the art and its maker through tender experience and humble new insights. They grow to understand the value of textiles and how intricately they play a part in our culture. They all move on into a more well-lived life and take with them the value and purpose of textiles. The children arriving at the studio who are blessed with tender hearts and open minds, leave with the sounding of their own callings and the echo of the elders who made their cloth.

It seems, in my experience, the artists and the child walk a similar path.  There is a natural longing to be at one with the process of creating and allowing the signs and symbols of the unconscious to surface as an inner guide.  The questions remain, and the answers come through as faith in what is not heard and what is waited for. This is the new standpoint of the child and the solid footing of the cloth.  I keep my own knees bent and head bowed in gratitude. There is a knock at the door, and another child stands at the threshold. I bend down and sweep before their feet with my small broom. They automatically take off their shoes, look up at me and are handed a cloth. I step out of the way.