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Craft and Covid-19: Sewing in Solitude

Hannah Hilditch, Postgraduate Fellow, Academic Affairs at the Cleveland Museum of Art
April 3, 2020
Two people wearing orange vests in a warehouse and holding boxes.

Pictured: Cuyahoga County PPE donation workers at the donation point. Image courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art Objects Conservator Beth Edelstein and Collections Manager and Registrar Jennifer Cicero.

In the current public health battle against COVID-19, health care workers on the front lines need personal protective equipment (PPE). Last week, Cleveland Museum of Art Objects Conservator Beth Edelstein and Collections Manager and Registrar Jennifer Cicero organized a donation of 46 unopened boxes of nitrile gloves used by the museum’s conservators and art handlers. The people at the Cuyahoga County PPE donation point were happy to see them. For more information on how you can help, click here.

For Hannah Hilditch, a postgraduate fellow in the CMA’s Public and Academic Engagement Department, volunteer efforts to sew PPE masks also made some interesting connections to a CMA exhibition “On View Now.” Gold Needles: Embroidery Arts from Korea was co-organized with the Seoul Museum of Craft Art and features ceremonial robes, folding screens, gift wrapping cloth, and wedding fans. Hilditch’s essay follows:

Gold Needles: Embroidery Arts from Korea. Installation image courtesy David Brichford for the Cleveland Museum of Art.

As a millennial, of course I turned to Google to ruminate on how to use my time in these uncertain and homebound weeks. I came across a community initiative called the Million Masks Challenge. Crafters are sewing face masks for medical professionals to help hospitals cope with the increasing shortage in protective supplies due to COVID-19. The Pins and Needles sewing stores of Northeast Ohio began the initiative through their website, and the community conversation has thrived on their Facebook group page. Pins and Needles is sharing a mask pattern based on the guidelines of local medical facilities and is calling upon needle workers everywhere to use their housebound situations and makers’ skills to respond to the need for PPE resources.

Images courtesy Million Mask Challenge — Sewing Masks for Healthcare Workers & Caregivers Facebook page.

There are many parallels between this amazing effort today and Gold Needles: Embroidery Arts from Korea, an exhibition I was lucky to see before the CMA closed in mid-March. Gold Needles investigates the sociopolitical roles of Korean women in the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910) through the embroidered textiles they masterfully stitched at home. Due to the era’s prevailing misogynistic interpretation of Confucian ideology, these women had limited access to the public sphere of men; the women were limited to their homes. The majority of textiles in the exhibition — from elaborate embroidered folding screens to bojagi (wrapping cloths), sewn together in a number of gasp-worthy jewel-toned fabrics — were made by anonymous women who cultivated their craft and strengthened their bonds with one another while confined to gyubang, the inner quarters of the home.

Gold Needles: Embroidery Arts from Korea. Installation image courtesy David Brichford for the Cleveland Museum of Art.

It was the idea of gyubang that reminded me most of our present efforts at social distancing. As I thought about contributing to the Million Masks Challenge, my current circumstance gave me an unexpected jolt of empathy for the women artists whose work is featured in Gold Needles. When I saw the exhibition in person, I understood intellectually that social isolation was a normal part of these women’s lives. But now that I’m sitting at home thinking about what I can do with my time and idle hands, I can more clearly understand what motivated them. I have a greater feel for the impulse to make something of the great swaths of time I now have to myself.

Our unfortunately long bout of staying at home this spring has given many of us an unprecedented opportunity to develop our creativity, in a similar spirit to these Korean women for whom public life was forbidden. Of course these are completely different historical contexts. Our contemporary confinement is exceptional and temporary, whereas normalized social confinement was a daily reality for female embroiderers of the Joseon dynasty. Additionally, the creative output differs. The opulent, decorative objects the exhibition features are markedly different from the utilitarian, disposable masks that modern-day crafters are creating to supply a shortage. Nevertheless, both communities, separated by centuries, understand deeply the power of craft to transform a position of limitation and isolation into one of creativity. The engagement in craft is also an engagement with one’s community. There is a shared power in creating something in a communal effort that helps us feel a little less helpless.

Thimbles, early 1900s. Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). Silk and cotton; each: 1.5 x 2.5 x 2.8 cm. Seoul Museum of Craft Art, 2018-D-Huh-3025–56. Photo: Howard Agriesti, Cleveland Museum of Art

In these times we can better see the fundamental power of art to give us a window into another’s experience and time, creating a little thread connecting the two. Although it’s difficult to see art in person now, many of us are blessed with the ability to see art, to learn history, and to connect with one another digitally. We can also continue to trust that the act of making is worthwhile. Whether you’re sewing a mask to help protect someone who needs it or baking a dessert to make your family smile after another day stuck inside or drawing to find some inner peace, using one’s hands to make something is a powerful way to connect to the world around you. We may be physically isolated from one another, but art always has and always will help us to manifest what matters most.


Hannah Hilditch, Postgraduate Fellow, Academic Affairs at the Cleveland Museum of Art.


Want to know more history about the amazing embroidered textiles in Gold Needles: Embroidery Arts from Korea? See: