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!