Women and fiber art in the history of psychiatry

Women and fiber art in the history of psychiatry

Sewing, weaving, knitting, crocheting, and sewing can all be soothing, expressive, and communal. How have patients in the history of psychiatry exploited the therapeutic and political potential of textile art? What can we learn from their work on life in a psychiatric institution?


(In honor of Women’s History Month, we invited our contributors to write about the women who inspire them.—Ed.)

There’s a quiet brotherhood in the archives of psychiatric history worth pondering this Women’s History Month: the institutionalized fiber artists. Mental hospital reports from the turn of the 20th century tell us that many of the women admitted at this time were seamstresses or seamstresses, and that many of these women continued to create textiles while in hospital. Because fiber art is often wearable and functional, it has always been considered a “craft” rather than an “art”. However, by contextualizing this work within the institutional history of psychiatry, we better understand how these artists used textiles to maintain their sanity, protest their isolation, and express their individuality in an environment where their aesthetic choices were limited.

For context, much of the sewing, knitting, and mending work done by patients in hospitals at this time was unpaid labor for the benefit of the institution. The 19th-century hospital reformer, physician, and architect Thomas Story Kirkbride, MD, lumped entertainment and work together in his 1854 treatise, Of the construction, organization and general fitting out of hospitals for the insane. From the point of view of doctors and administrators, work and entertainment were good for the “management” of patients and the economy of the hospital. Kirkbride wrote that “the provision of adequate and comfortable workshops [such as sewing rooms]in a convenient position and under the care of competent superintendents, may be a source of profit for an institution, and provide another means of work of an interesting kind to a large number of the insane.1 (We might note that Kirkbride’s writing here puts the profits of hospitals ahead of the interests of patients.)

Textile work was done in a supervised and highly regulated environment. Women worked on sewing machines arranged in even rows in the sewing room or behind designated equipment in an industrial textile room, as seen in photographs from Bryce Hospital in Alabama, 1916 (The figures 1 and 2).2.3

Hospitals that used steam sewing machines reported that their sewing rooms were noisy and hot and required fans and ventilation.4 Every piece produced by the patients was detailed and recorded, as in this chart from the 1897-1899 Annual Report of the Oregon State Insane Asylum (picture 3).5

If not for the abusive working conditions and unhealthy physical environment, Kirkbride would not have been wrong to include fiber art as a therapeutic practice in these hospitals. Today, studies have shown that knitting has significant therapeutic potential, with knitters reporting that the practice can improve cognitive functioning, reduce stress levels,6 and even aid in recovery from eating disorders.7 Researchers and practitioners have noted that textile art like quilting involves repetition, modulation, and sensory pleasure, all of which are mental health benefits for designers.8 These benefits are even greater when sewing, knitting, crocheting or needlework is part of the daily routine.9 This may therefore explain why women in psychiatric hospitals seem to have continued these practices outside the sewing rooms.

Beyond forced labor and personal benefits, patients also created fiber art to maintain community and protest their isolation. While many artistic mediums conjure up the image of a solitary genius painting or sculpting in isolation, knitting, sewing, and needlework have always been done communally with other women. Patient and barrister Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard related in her 1868 memoir, Modern Persecution, or, Insane Asylums Unveiled, an episode in which she realized that her letters home were being censored by doctors and administrators. In response, she penciled a letter to her daughter on the back of a garment she had embroidered. Although the doctor discovered her plot and had the clothes washed before sending her off, Packard’s plan shows that she viewed her fiber art as an important connection between her and the other women in her life, and that ‘she expected her male doctor to overlook the importance of this.ten

Packard’s attempt to use a communal and historically feminine mode of expression to reach outside the hospital walls and speak to her daughter places her in a long line of women in history and literature who have used fiber art as a way to communicate and connect with other women. One might think of the language of textiles spoken by women in Susan Glaspell’s 1917 short story, “A Jury of Her Peers,” which acknowledged the protagonist’s apparent distress over her increasingly messy quilt. One might think of Alabama’s intergenerational community of Gee’s Bend quilters, a group of black women artists who carried on the quilting methods of their slave ancestors and founded the Freedom Quilting Bee.11 One could also add to these groups of women other textile artists who have suffered violence from patriarchal systems. For example, the makers of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, many of whom were LGBTQ, honored those who lost the disease with an impressive 50,000 panels. Although textile art can have individual psychological benefits, it is also a radically communal and expressive art form.

In an asylum environment where patients were denied most aesthetic choices, women artists also used textiles to transform their environment and express their individuality. The pictures in digits 4 and 5 are from the Prinzhorn Collection, a collection of artwork by psychiatric patients from early 20th century Germany. The original Prinzhorn collection contained around 5,000 drawings by around 500 patient-artists; while the male painters in the collection have attracted critical interest over the past century, only 80 of these artists have been identified as women and their contributions have been largely ignored.12 Many of these women were seamstresses by trade, and their contributions were often made not with paint, but with textiles.

One such work is Agnes Richter’s jacket (Figure 4),13 which she sewed from hospital linen and – judging by the sweat stains – worn on the ward. Richter finished the jacket in 1895 and embroidered it with cryptic phrases that seem to refer to his life and memories; in this way, she told her story through the art of fiber and wore it in defiance of uniforms and homogeneous cells. It should also be noted that Richter stitched each letter multiple times.14 Although this was not necessary for word legibility, it does suggest that the very process of repetitive stitching may have been pleasurable or perhaps self-soothing.

Another textile artist from the Prinzhorn collection claimed her highly controlled environment through installation pieces. Figure 5 shows Maria Lieb’s cell in 1894, which she meticulously decorated with torn strips of hospital linen in the shape of flowers, pinwheels and writing.15 Just as Richter used embroidery to assert a certain bodily autonomy, Lieb asserted a certain control over his environment through his work with fabrics.

Women have used fiber art for millennia to build community, heal, express themselves, and protest against authority. We see this manifest today in the burgeoning studies of the mental health benefits of textile art, homemade “pussy hats” at the 2017 Women’s March, and freely available patterns and resources. for making masks shared by sewing groups on social media in the early days of the pandemic. These innovative, community-based artistic practices have a long history, and women in the psychiatric history archive are a crucial part of that lineage.

Dr. Glew studying English at Penn State University. She teaches writing and disability studies and writes about psychiatric history, narrative medicine and disability.

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The references

1. Kirkbride TS. Of the construction, organization and general fitting out of hospitals for the insane. Lindsay and Blakiston; 1854:62.

2. A sewing room. Alabama Department of Archives and History. Photograph. 1916. Accessed March 7, 2022.

3. Industrial art room. Alabama Department of Archives and History. Photograph. 1916. Accessed March 7, 2022.

4. Twenty-fourth annual report of the trustees of Willard State Hospital for the year 1892. James B. Lyon, State Printer; 1893.

5. Biennial Report of the Board of Trustees and Superintendent of the State of Oregon Insane Asylum for the Two Years Ending 1899. WH Leeds, State Printer; 1899.

6. Riley J, Corkhill B, Morris C. The benefits of knitting for personal and social well-being in adulthood: results of an international survey. Br J Occup Ther. 2013;76(2):50-57.

7. Clave-Brule M, Mazloum A, Park RJ, et al. Managing Anxiety in Eating Disorders with Knitting. Eating weight disorders. 2009;14(1):e1-e5.

8.Dickie V. Experiencing action therapy: making quilts. OTJR. 2011;31(4):209-215.

9. Conner TS, DeYoung CG, Silvia PJ. Daily creative activity as a path to fulfillment. J Posit Psychol. 2018;13(2):181-189.

10. Packard EPW. Modern persecution or insane asylums exposed. Pelletreau & Raynor. 1873;164-167.

11. Gee elbow. Souls cultivated in depth. Accessed March 7, 2022.

12. Busine L, Brand-Claussen B, Douglas C, et al. Beyond Reason: Art and Psychosis: Works from the Prinzhorn Collection. University of California Press; 1996.

13. Agnes Richter. Die Sammlung Prinzhorn ist eine Einrichtung des Universitätsklinikums Heidelberg. Accessed March 7, 2022.

14. Hornstein G. Agnes’s Jacket: A Psychologist’s Search for the Meanings of Madness, revised and updated with a new epilogue by the author. Routledge; 2017.

15. Maria Lieb. Die Sammlung Prinzhorn ist eine Einrichtung des Universitätsklinikums Heidelberg. Accessed March 7, 2022.