Studying, One Stitch at a Time

citizenship stitching

from the website of Aram Han Sifuentes

It’s a tried and true method of studying for the big test—write the important facts and ideas out, in longhand.

In an age of laptops and smart phones, writing by hand is decidedly “old school,” but good students will tell you that they spend hours before exams, re-writing their class notes, notes they took by writing them out by hand during class.

When we write something out, we study the words. Writing is relatively slow and it gives us time to think about the content. The effort involved in forming the letters creates a memory of what the words symbolize.

I believed this as a student and, later, as a college prof, I urged struggling students to try it.

Now, I never need to study for a big exam. But I still love powerful words, pondering them, and remembering their meaning.

I’ve told you about my inclination to preserve some of my favorite words by embroidering them on fabric. I’ll tell you more, soon, as this project is nearing completion.

If writing ideas out by hand helps one remember, the added effort of stitching them out really transforms the experience!

This idea is old school, too. We know that it was used in Colonial America when young girls made embroidered samplers, to combine learning the alphabet, numbers, a positive adage or Biblical verse, as well as sewing skills.

As the stitches form letters and the letters form words, the stitcher grows with the words.

You can only imagine how much I loved a story I came across recently, from the website Crosscut, that told of immigrants studying for the U.S. citizenship exam by . . . YES! Embroidering the kinds of questions and answers that might be asked on the test!

The project was created by artist Aram Han Sifuentes. Sifuentes, from South Korea, prepared for her own US citizenship test by embroidering a sampler of 100 questions and answers typical of the test questions, questions like, “What did Susan B. Anthony do?” “Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?” “What is the capital of your state?”

Having proved to herself that the process was effective, Sifuentes has since taught art workshops for immigrants that combine embroidery skills and civics. The students are mostly adults—one sampler on Sifuentes’s web page was done by a 77-year-old man—and, in addition to the embroidered words, many stitchers embellish their panels with other designs like the Great Seal of the United States or an image of Rosie the Riveter.

Beyond creating the means by which to help immigrants study, Sifuentes offers the finished samplers for sale on her website and, if they sell, she gives the money back to the stitcher, to pay for their application for citizenship. To me, this is an inspired and inspiring artistic project, one that makes a tangible difference in peoples’ lives.

It’s funny. I had begun to think of my own embroidering of quotations, about women’s rights, as a little frivolous, a little pointless. In the face of a reality that grows increasingly scary and a world increasingly unstable, my stitching felt quaint, tame, lame.

But now I’m seeing it a bit differently. Maybe, as I stitch these powerful words and absorb them and ponder their meaning, I am preparing for a big test, after all. A test of what it means to be an American woman in 2017.


I didn’t want to use a bunch of photos from other peoples’ websites but, really, go look at the links!

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76 thoughts on “Studying, One Stitch at a Time

  1. So correct. Longhand and stitching=learning! Enter the sampler alphabet stitcheries done years ago by the young ones in order to teach important life building blocks. Technology has an important place but, I’m afraid, it’s been allowed to become way too powerful and dominant in many lives thereby robbing society of the richness of human interaction and caring on a very personal level. Neighbors have been reduced to “action figures” in some type of video game and have been stripped of their value/respect as fellow human beings.

      • I do….LOL! In fact, I have some concerns about the early introduction of ‘puters to our children in academic setting which seems to have removed handwritten ‘anything’ resulting in a lost skill that is evident in today’s society (“signing”/signature needed/required situation ends up being a printed name, as cursive was either not taught or mastered in the early years). IMHO only. Technology is awesome (use it a lot!) but has become the “ruling” device/method these days.

  2. As you know, stitching’s not my thing, but this is an utterly inspired idea. Creating something new whilst committing something old to memory is such a creative thing to do. Heavens, it might even get me to find a needle and some thread!

  3. Interesting post. I always hand wrote notes when studying and then typed them up so I had something to study from but also because it helped me retain the info. A while back, I read an article about a college educated young woman who was fired from her job at a museum because she couldn’t correctly read anything that was written in cursive. 🙂 Can’t wait to see your finished project. I always hand wrote notes when studying and then typed them up so I had something to study from but also because it helped me retain the info.

  4. What a wonderful idea. The power of stitches. Although it’s only tangentially related, this reminds me of an article I read recently on how spies in WWII used used knitting and sewing stitches to encode and transmit secret information. There is a wonderful book and Netflix series related to this called, “The Time in Between” (originally “El Tiempo Entre Costuras”). Fascinating.

  5. You’re right, the photos of their pieces are wonderful. I love that Sifuentes is giving proceeds to the immigrants to fund their applications.

    I’m looking forward to seeing your finished piece. Will it be in your own guild’s show soon?

    • When I said that project was approaching completion, I was stretching the truth–the *top* is approaching completion but it’ll take me some unpredictable amount of time to quilt it so, no, it won’t be in this guild show. I have two others that should be . . . if I get my act together and finish them!

  6. How interesting! Though I often stitch while watching tv, I also do it in silence, thinking my thoughts. That’s a great idea to stitch your thoughts and study.
    I’m on the road to Vavstuga! Through a Series of Unfortunate Events, Peter couldn’t come….all sorts of things have gone wrong at the house this last week. And I am driving the truck instead of my Mini Cooper because something went wrong at the dealership. I’m quite disappointed in the turn of events and will be happy to arrive this afternoon and get going tomorrow. I’m a bit nervous!
    It’s been a gorgeous drive through so many states at such a lovely time of year.
    I’m staying in your room at the DB.

    • VAVSTUGA! I’m so sorry Peter couldn’t go with you! But I am confident they are keeping you very busy–if I recall, Tuesday was “hell day” and we were limp at the end of the day. I will want to hear all about your experience!

  7. What a great observation about handwork! My girls always wrote things out and used précis in their studies, and it was so obvious that their retention was often much deeper than their “spoon fed” public school trained friends, even the very smart ones. It really showed up during the AP literature and history days, when both camps would get together to study/discuss. And such a simple thing….write your own notes from your own thoughts, in long hand, and then organize them for later, again, in long hand. You nailed it Kerry! I am going to start encouraging young parents to do a smaller with their kiddos, for an important life lessons. Frankly, it would be good for some of the parents, too, to put down the phone!….now I’m ranting!

    • You weren’t this only one who ranted in response to this post! It brought out some strong feelings. I do think a sampler, for young or older stitchers, is a compelling project. First, pick a quotation that is worth the time and energy–that in itself would be a valuable exercise!

  8. Aram’s sampler of 100 questions and answers is amazing! The “A Mend” post was very interesting and the sampler of denim scraps donated by seamstresses and tailors is truly beautiful.

    I’m a believer in writing things down to remember. Nothing like good old paper and pencil…

    • Thanks, Cathy–at this point, I’m just finishing the top of the quilt so I will still be faced with the quilting of it, but I’ll take some photos of the top and some close-ups of the stitched quotations.

  9. Very interesting! Whilst I don’t consider myself to be terribly ‘old’, I do truly believe that hand writing is something that should be encouraged. I always found that writing by hand, rather than typing on a computer, led to my brain remembering more details. And even simple to do lists at work I hand write, as if I keep them electronically I don’t remember anything that is on them! Embroidering the notes is definitely something I’ve not considered, but when put into this light, makes perfect sense!

  10. This is quite an interesting post! I so agree. Writing things out longhand is the way to get it to stick in the brain the way nothing else will. My very best teacher ever had us take notes during class, (we were not issued books) then we had to rewrite those notes into a notebook with fountain pen. Mind you we were sixth graders. By the time they were written the second time, we had that stuff firmly planted in our little minds. I always tell people that if there is something they deeply desire, they should write it out longhand several times. I think it helps it become the biology of our belief system and makes it real. Has worked for me every time. I have never related it to stitching though. I’m certain it will work as well. I’ve not stitched out words before so I’m going to have to give it a go in the future.

  11. I remember, just, when I had to study for exams, that I would take reams and reams of notes that I would never read again but, just by writing that stuff down, I would remember it. Well, some of it anyway 😉 I imagine that if I’d stitched it, I’d have remembered even more.

    • That was my experience with studying, too–write it down and never need to look at it again. The stitching slows me down that much more and gives me time to really absorb the words.

  12. This project is a powerful reminder of the core principles of our nation. Those wanting to become citizens know those principles far better than natural born ones, I suspect. Regarding writing things out, I will hand write directions to a location as a way to engrave them on my mind. Yes, my friends consider me a luddite.

  13. I love the idea of stitching to learn. My recent foray into craftivism has highlighted to me the value of embroidering words – something I hadn’t done for a very long time until a couple of months ago. I think I’m inspired to do more.

    • I’ve been loving embroidering words, just for myself. First, it takes time to choose which words I think are important enough to justify my time and even that step is interesting!

  14. Wonderful needlework,I enjoyed each one!! I had a teacher that if you failed a spelling test you wrote each word 20 times, that made those words stick in a brain. 😊

  15. The ancient craft of teaching always handed out lessons via head and hand – the two together providing valuable stimulus for the memory. My goodness Kerry I just loved the look of the sampler that Ms Sifuentes made – what a piece of art that is! I ooked at several other samplers and am truly impressed with the work – and I suspect that immigrants into the US know more about the country’s geography and history than many natives 🙂 I think whenever our art is made to satisfy a deep need in ourselves it cannot be fatuous or pointless – it is our way of expressing something that matters, something we may find difficult to put into words and when it resonates with others – then those are our kindred souls. Fabulous post as ever Kerry, thank you! ❤

    • You do write great comments, Pauline! And, yes, I am sure newly-minted Americans know more about what the country stands for than most of us who were born here! I thought Sifuentes’s project was one of the most moving I’d ever heard of.

  16. I think that sketching plays a similar role in fixing the item firmly in the brain. Often, when I look back through old sketchbooks, I can remember so much about the thing I was drawing, often even to the weather and what was happening around me. Stitching would focus the mind even more.

    • I’m not sure stitching would focus the mind more than sketching! Although it is better suited when we start talking about putting words down, I guess. It’s interesting to me that your sketches carry so many memories for you!

  17. I read an article not long ago that said that if you take hand written notes at a meeting, you remember better what happened than if you quickly type most of what’s said. The reason, of course, is the thought process you go through as you decide how to write something. This is fascinating, Kerry. I love the look of that piece.

    • I love the look of all the little samplers the immigrants did–the stitching is halting and inexpert but I feel like I can see determination and striving in it . . . .

  18. I spend a fair amount of time wondering if my 23- and 25-year-old daughters will have the gratitude and passion to keep raising awareness of how precious and tender women’s rights are. In my life, it was fresh. My mother did not have the right to vote when she was born. My great aunt debated whether women should have the right to vote. I am ecstatic about your art and love learning how sewing can communicate and connect.

    • It’s so good to hear from you! Your family history is fascinating–and I, too, hope your daughters appreciate what their foremothers fought for. I would think that young women would be seeing things anew these days, given some of the directions our leadership is taking . . . hard-won rights could be in danger it seems.

    • Thanks, Cynthia–that last paragraph caught me kind of unawares–and I realize I really do feel tested by all we are going thru in the US right now. Oy. I know how important writing is to you–we share that!

  19. Wonderful! More parts of the brain and more nerves and muscles are used when writing than when typing or reading so, I would assume, more ways of remembering facts. Stitching words would presumably have the same results.

  20. This is really interesting! I’m totally inspired to try this. I always studied by writing, and feel like I don’t retain information until I work with it in my hands. This wound be amazing to try. Great post.

    • Try it–I think it’s right up your alley! You clearly do a lot of deep thinking and the slow stitching provides lots of time for that, as the stitched words inspire.

  21. What an inspiring and thought-provoking post, Kerry, thank you so much. You are right that those links are fabulous. And I completely agree about the value of capturing thoughts/sayings/wisdom creatively – it is a meditative way to process how we are feeling and reacting to the passing days and years.

  22. How great it that? I still write things out longhand at times to help me remember. Hmmm, what a great lawyer I might be if I just got out the needle and thread!

  23. We are being tested, aren’t we? It’s a tough one, too. I’ve lost so much of my resolve since the women’s march and find myself floundering: what to do, what to do. That’s a delightful piece of embroidery and a lovely tale to go with it. I remember studying for my citizenship test in 2000. I was sworn in when my second son was just a week old. He turns 17 tomorrow. My first presidential election had me voting for Al Gore (sigh). Two Obama terms were exciting and now, well you know. Kerry, perhaps I’m projecting, but it feels like so much more under the surface of this post. Lots to think about, too.

    • I just hope he keeps tweeting and brings himself down. I am paying way too much attention to the news and all these big drama moments that get my hopes up but then I remember that Congress is just going to keep supporting him. I was thinking about the phrase “weapons on mass creation” the other day and just keep making stuff. It steadies me, if nothing else.

      • I’m with you. It’s all so disheartening. I had to spend a lot of time in the car today, and by the time I’d heard the fifth iteration of the healthcare/ACA debate, I wanted to pull my hair out. If nothing else, lets hope the pendulum will now swing significantly in the direction of good for all, not just a few. Oh wait, is this still a democracy? It’s getting harder and harder to tell. Create on, dear Kerry.

  24. I always found writing and rewriting my notes a good way to study. Embroidery I have only dreamed about doing. Such a beautiful form of expression! There is not enough of me to do all the things I would like to do in this lifetime. What a wonderful post, and I do especially love that last paragraph. 🙂

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