The Role Of Textiles In The Process Of Recollection

“Nothing is ever really lost to us as long as we remember it.”

― L.M. Montgomery, The Story Girl

Can textiles and fabrics stimulate memories? It’s a question I have been asking myself and in doing so, I have been thinking about events in my past. In 2003 my grandmother suffered from a stroke at the age of 81, and was moved into a home shortly after recovering in hospital. Being quite young at the time, I found the concept of memory loss quite confusing and I struggled to understand why my grandmother could not remember us, and why large elements of her memory were gone. 

Having seen her be so self-sufficient growing up and living independently up until this point, it was hard to then watch this decline. Over the next couple of years, I remember my family working hard to help my grandmother recollect some memories by going through old family albums, playing music, and watching old home videos. Unfortunately, a few years later, she was also diagnosed with the beginnings of dementia.

Memories – what are they made of?

Throughout our life our brains are triggered by events, songs, places, that bring old memories and experiences to the forefront of our minds. For my dissertation at university, I considered textiles and its effect on our memory, specifically, the ability textiles have on retaining and communicating these memories. I argued that textiles can be regarded as a form of memory stimulant and as a carrier of knowledge by reflecting on my own experience.

Our memories represent who we are; our habits, our ideologies, our hopes and fears are all influenced by what we remember of our past. Everything the human body experiences is observed and stored by the brain, and the memories can stay in our minds for life. But, what happens when our minds do not work as they once did, and issues such as Alzheimer’s and Dementia start to arise? After the diagnosis of dementia, I began to look for new ideas to help stimulate my grandmother’s memory.

Textiles – sensory experiences

“Nothing is ever really lost to us as long as we remember it.”

― L.M. Montgomery, The Story Girl

There is currently no cure for dementia, therefore recent treatment and care focus on prolonging a sense of wellbeing and promoting/stimulating the patient’s minds. Although there is an increasing loss of cognitive brain function in a person with dementia, the sensory and emotional areas of the brain remain relatively untouched. Hence sensory experiences in everyday life can provide ongoing pleasure and cues for active responses contributing to the individual’s wellbeing (Bowlby 1993)

Our memories can be so powerful because they are formed through associations. For example, when we experience an event, our brains tie the sights, textures, smells, and sounds together into a relationship which we will use as a reference point in the future. These associations are often formed in relation to those characteristics that make a place special or unique, as well as to those that raise a sense of genuine human attachment and belonging. But what happens when we begin to lose our touch with reality, and those attachments begin to disappear?

Art therapy  – stimulation through lines and colours

In art therapy, through stimulating cognition with lines and colours, the patients are provided with a non-verbal channel of communication and are able to overcome inadequacies of self-expression due to impaired language ability and can vent negative emotions, thereby making significant achievements in improving attention and reducing behavioural and psychological symptoms; patient quality of life and social skills are also improved. (B. Chancellor, A. Duncan, A. Chatterjee, 2014). The mediums of choice are quite simple: paint, coloured pencils, chalks etc, but most importantly, the materials are soft and easy to hold. This is believed to help improve the flexibility of fingers and hand-eye coordination, which to some extent could also improve communication between caregivers and patients.

Colour, lines, shapes…

After speaking to one of the nurses, we discussed the psychology behind colour and what this means in their artwork. It has been interesting learning to decipher my grandmother’s drawings.  Dementia patients have impaired language abilities and are unable to verbalise thinking to express their feelings, and this has been our primary struggle with my grandmother. However, she retains basic visual and motor skills, which allows her to express emotions and gain comfort through lines, shapes and colours in creative activities.

Throughout my research I discovered that art therapy can be divided into two forms: structural and non-structural. According to Qiu-Yue Wang and Dong-Mei Li who wrote an article on “Advances in art therapy for patients with dementia”, it can be explained as:

“In structural art therapy, the nurse or programme leader determines the theme and artistic tools, while the patients create using the tools according to the theme; this method, in which it is easier for the intervener to manage the intervention process, is good for beginners and those with severe dementia. In non-structural art therapy, the patients take the initiative to choose the theme and artistic tools to create spontaneously, which strengthens the feeling of self-control in the patients in choosing the painting materials based on different colours, shapes, etc. and stimulates creativity”

– (Q Wang, D Li, 2016).

Find out more about how New Harmony Ldn uses eclectic inspiration for our fabrics and textiles here