The Story Cloth (2011)

I thought it would be easy as I had all the words. I had worked on my Mothers’ stories (three generations of women on my mother’s side) in 2004. My mother has been telling me about these women since I was a young girl and I thought it important to collect the stories together. I was interested in making a story cloth because I’d intended to teach others how to go about it; first using creative arts to explore experience and then transposing those experiences/stories into a piece of textile art. Produce something beautiful as well as of meaning. In art therapy, the ‘product’ of an inquiry is not usually considered as art. Where I trained, the School even considers the product not the therapy but what you do with it – the explorations borne out of the art is the therapy. I think otherwise – that the exploration itself whether you call it therapy or not, can be therapeutic. Even if the intention is not there to do ‘therapy’, the work can have a healing effect.
The heart opening as a flower

In my own explorations, I’ve found that stories are a way to gaze upon the self and behold your geography – your country. As I’ve discovered too, the home of the body is the true belonging, particularly for someone like me, uprooted as a child, growing up without country.  Sometimes the customs of your adopted country can move you in unexpected ways – the emotions of the stranger can break upon your face. I have felt as the Australian Aborigine who needs to walk the Songlines – walking the ancestral paths and meaning routes, singing and narrating as I go along, towards understanding and right death.

Joan - Giver of geography/country, as I gaze upon my self through my stories. For the Australian Aborigine the land is not separate from the soul and spirit and so to gaze upon country is like beholding the self. This is spirituality.
Monique – ‘Giver of Stories and fears’. I have known them through my mother, in her conversations and stories through the years. Mama has also given a sense of my self even if it is to be contrary. She is a place (country, shelter, refuge) as well as a person and friend. My earliest memory of her is of fingers busy clacking knitting needles or embroidering.  Monique has a phobia of feathers, which seems a talisman for all her fears. She has passed some of her fears to me.

Madelle – ‘Giver of Vital tears’. She cried and nursed an invisible current of love for seven years when her beau fell in love with another. While she waited, she busied herself with her sewing, her embroideries and the making of paper flowers, which she would sell. When her beau returned, he impregnated her and beat the tenderness out of her.
There was a cowry shell too brought from the island and which I discovered has been in my family for four generations. This ocean in a shell like a music box with a lullaby entranced as a child. I felt as I had entered the shell’s dreams for an island in the sun, an island left behind. It gave a longing indescribably sad. Used by Great grandmother Fi and Madelle for darning socks; then used by me for the evocation of an island’s heart.
Identity is not individual and we are but a network. I carry the mothers like knapsacks on my back as I walk and sing these stories…

My story cloth has turned out not to be about the mothers but it is, as I am all the mothers and I feel their reverberations in my being. I held as the theme while working, the story of Skeleton Woman. Wounded by being in love, I forgot my name. Love can make you lose identity. At the bottom of the ocean with all my flesh eaten off and with my heart shriveled. A woman can’t rely on a man’s vital tears and his heart as drum to sing her flesh and heart back to life. Sometimes a man is not around and she needs other resources.
Mother’s stories and art have helped me know my name. I used to think too that I’d inherited the negative aspects, the fears, the tears, the servile ways they had towards their men but these women have also given me their creative abilities and their love of crafts. They were resourceful and indefatigable, not only in conversation and recounting stories but in the skills of sewing, embroideries, knitting and crochet – and of course cooking. We have all fed a love with food. They passed on that for the soul to be truly alive it must be creative.

The motifs that are important are– the heart bound up, with a carapace grown over it, thickening with a secret (in my mother’s case) but also with the capacity to form your roots to things, when it opens to embrace things. If you can belong in the home of your own body, you belong to all places that you travel and settle. One can’t grow without this capacity to open, embrace and love. I have dreamed of my heart opening as a flower and I have even experienced it for ‘real’. I did not have to go off to an ashram or follow a guru to have this mystical experience. I think it important to listen to the beat and murmurings of your own heart and then follow your meaning route. There are also many words (one can say too many) – one of my favourite activities involves tracing the roots of words (etymology) as if words form my roots to things. Indeed stories have formed my roots to things.

You may notice that I used a fragment of my mother's dressing gown to form the heart motifs, as well as the 'tracks' of country and other embellishments.  Going from looking at the garment as a precious relic, to using the pockets in my story cloth, to utilizing most of the skirt in the peasant dress I subsequently made. I only have the bodice of the dressing gown remaining now for which to find a use. 

Saving one’s tears as though precious as pearls
The finished cloth

Words have formed my roots to things

Island collage by Dominique Latour

The collage was printed on silk
and sewn on


  1. Oh, Joni, you’re such a beautiful writer, the way that you’re able to weave the stories of your ‘mothers’ and your life together ... you honor them through your moving words and images. The depths of your searching out meaning through their lives is such a beautiful tribute. They have given you such a gift, for you do ‘know your name’ and your soul is so very alive.

    So glad that I was able to see your touching story cloth in person.

  2. Thanks Dawn. You leave such lovely feedback ;-)

  3. You're welcome, Joni...You write such lovely posts;-)