EMBROIDERY ARTIST WINNIE HO THREADS TOGETHER CREATIVITY AND ACTIVISM

EMBROIDERY ARTIST AND FACE BEHIND @THEGRATEFUL_THREAD ON INSTAGRAM, WINNE HO, DISCUSSES HOW CULTURE AND HER PERSONAL EXPERIENCES HELPED HER FIND A COMMON THREAD BETWEEN CREATIVITY AND HER WORK IN PUBLIC HEALTH.
Credit: Winnie Ho| IG: @thegrateful_thread | Winne Ho, Embroidery Artist and the Founder of The Grateful Thread on Instagram
Affirm Noire| September 10, 2021
8 minutes

As a Chinese-American daughter in a close-knit immigrant family, art, handcrafts, and home-made goods were some of the primary ways I connected with the rest of my family – and in particular, the women in my family. Separated by cultural, generational, and linguistic barriers, the best way to communicate was by making things together. What couldn’t be translated through words could be shared with colored pencils and a guiding hand on how to draw different kinds of fruit. When I couldn’t necessarily understand the Chinese movies my grandma and great aunts would play in their living room, I could mimic with knitting needles by sitting next to them. I have deeply cherished memories of sitting in this circle of women coming into community with each other, the clacking sound of their knitting needles barely registering over their conversations about home and family.  

Credit: Winnie Ho| IG: @thegrateful_thread | Winnie Ho threading on an embroidery hoop

In a world and environment that already demands much of our physical and emotional labor, we deserve to be able to choose how, when, and how much to engage. However you choose to take care of yourself and your energy, do so with pride...

-Winnie Ho

Because of them, creating things was always my happy place. That passion has evolved over the years – starting first with crayons and markers, to paintbrushes and pastels, to graphite and knitting needles, and now, to embroidery hoops. I’ve always liked thinking about how my artistic journey has continued to grow with me. Even to this day, I find it amusing that my embroidery style is not dissimilar to how I used to paint. No matter what stage of life I was at, there was a form of art that I was always delighted and comforted by. I always had projects going. I was always bringing drawings and knitted things to my family members. From this young age, one of the things I remember most is my grandparents always complimenting that I had skilled hands. 手巧 (Shǒuqiǎo) is what they would call it. (Google translates this to ‘dexterity’, but there’s more layers to this that I can’t always put into English.) I always took pride in knowing this, knowing that I came from a family that could do just about anything they got their hands on.

However, as the years flew by and the pressures changed, I found myself slipping further and further away from creating. Not all of this loss was necessary bad – it also represented new things I became fascinated by. By the time I was in undergrad, I found my schedule bursting at its seams with a plethora of newfound passions and obligations, and slowly, the time I really needed to sit down and commit to creating slipped away. 

However, by the summer of 2018, as a rising senior at Cornell University, I was starting to truly reckon with my declining mental health and deep-set burnout. In college, I was learning about my capacity as an organizer and an advocate, growing in my understanding of social justice movements and learning about actively striving to make a difference in the world around me. I was frequently organizing across my campus and community, running everything from workshops and fundraisers. My energy was channeled into the logistics of keeping a well-oiled machine running day and night. I was simultaneously the most energized I had ever been, excited by being able to contribute to the greater good, but also, struggling with the anxiety and depression of a high-pressure, non-stop environment. Young and newly galvanized to take a stand, I hadn’t realized that it was primarily my anger, frustration, and pain that was driving my work and it was draining me entirely. In the midst of working for others, I knew I had to figure out how to also return to caring for myself. There had to be a balance.

I knew I had to turn back to making art, some way, somehow. In a crammed Collegetown apartment room, I had to be economical with space. I had somehow come into possession of a bag of random friendship bracelet strings, a basic sewing kit, and was able to get a small embroidery hoop for cheap at a second hand store downtown. For the time being, it was just something to do with my hands while I gave my brain time to rest from research and work. But slowly but surely, it rekindled something in me that had been dormant for many years – the desire to not just do, but create anew. I was drawn to how tactile the art of embroidering was, how it was methodical and meticulous, but also gave me freedom to create freeform and organic shapes. When the school year started again, I had to set down my needles and hoops and return to business as usual.

Credit: Winnie Ho| IG: @thegrateful_thread | Hand-embroidery on destroyed facemask. 
This was created early on in the COVID-19 pandemic as a reminder against the prevailing notion that “only the sick and elderly” would be affected by COVID-19.

But all through that final year, I kept dreaming up other projects. I carved out more time for myself to make more trips to the little craft store, I was sewing while studying for exams (to variable degrees of success), and thinking of how I could make this craft a bigger part of my life. Finally, in April 2019, just a week after handing in my senior thesis in neurobiology, I launched @thegrateful_thread in an effort to share my joy of creating widely. It started as an effort to get more practice with embroidering, with friends trusting me with old clothes as my canvas to learn upon. I was uncomfortable with charging for my work, still unsure of how to even begin integrating money into what I had always considered just an amateur hobby. 

However by the time I moved to Boston, MA after graduation, I was starting to grapple with post-college graduation doubt and depression. I was feeling restless and disconnected from community, lost in a bigger city with no clue how to give back. I had to start over again, this time, more determined to strike a better work-life balance, with emphasis on taking care of not just my physical health, but my mental wellbeing as well. 

One of the first things I had to make peace with was not seeing the various components of my life as competing priorities. In college, even when taking the time to embroider, I couldn’t help but feel guilty that I wasn’t “making better use of my time” with the mountain of tasks I had to do. Now,  I was struggling with the notion that time spent on my art, while good for my own soul, was perhaps standing in the way of me fulfilling a purpose of giving back to others. Going online with my art also led way to comparing my pieces to others, withering my confidence in whether or not my work could even stand up in comparison. Self-doubt led to worrying if this work was frivolous and trivial in the bigger picture of the things I was supposed to do. 

I learned that I had to see my creative work as not just the ‘opposite’ of the work I was doing professionally, but as an absolutely necessary and valuable complement. I realized I was struggling with something common to most people learning to take care of their mental wellbeing – the shadowy, unshakeable notion that self-care was somehow too self-centered and unforgivably selfish. At the same time, I started truly considering how to work a mission of social good into my embroidery, bringing together parts of me that had been pitted against each other in a false binary. It breathed new life into the art and crafting I was doing. 

Credit: Winnie Ho| IG: @thegrateful_thread | Thread-painted portrait of “Narby” the cat, done in single-strand cotton embroidery thread. 5 inch hoop. Over 60 different colors of thread were used for this portrait that took about 2 months to create.

Today, @thegrateful_thread is thriving, with a full slate of exciting commissions that might take me the next 2 (or more) years to fulfill. It has a more established social good mission, with 50% or more of proceeds from every sale donated to progressive social justice causes. To date, it’s donated almost $900 to variety of organizations, ranging from racial justice to food security and indigenous causes.

This work has allowed me to marry different parts of my life together in a cohesive and productive manner, where the tempo of my embroidery work is determined by me, my energy, and my capacity to give at any given time. The same community I was once intimidated by turned out to be a welcoming, loving world-wide network of artists who empowered me to keep going. The embroidery and creative community at large also tended to be extremely focused on social justice and advocacy, further cementing together two things I loved and deeply cared about. With the help of my loved ones, supporters, and the embroidery community, I began to build self-respect of my talent and my abilities as a threadpainting embroidery artist. 

It’s also given me a chance to learn more about this craft and expand my curiosity towards textile and fiber arts as a broader field. It’s given me time to reckon with the history of embroidery, and how its value as an artform had been diminished throughout the centuries as merely “women’s work”. (I highly recommend “Threads of Life” by Clare Hunter as a great way to explore this history and how needlework is deeply undervalued largely because of its association with women) Every day, I meet and find incredible Creatives of all backgrounds that push back against this designation. The work of creatives before me encourage me to also think harder about how this work represents myself, and the things I’m passionate about. 

Soon, I begin school again, this time as a Master of Public Health (MPH) student at Yale School of Public Health. In many ways, I’ve struggled recently to not let memories of burnout during my last experience as a student scare me away from taking the steps I need to do next to make the most out of this opportunity. I’m seeing this next step as an opportunity to further channel the things I’m passionate about into my art. I’m at a point where I am also considering how to balance commission work with work that I wish to create more for myself. Learning about the ways other creatives, and in particular, embroider artists, have used their medium and craft as a platform for social advocacy continues to inspire me. 

Credit: Winnie Ho| IG: @thegrateful_thread | Silk embroidery of stylized Chinese character 母 (mǔ) meaning mother. 5.5 inch hoop. This piece was created for Mother’s Day. Winnie used silk threads for the first time in an attempt to mimic traditional Chinese embroidery.

My hope for the next stage of my embroidery work is to further explore my Chinese-American identity and experiences and to continue to be a strong advocate for progressive drug policies and harm reduction. Furthermore, as COVID-19 has exacerbated a new and violent wave of xenophobic racism towards the Asian-American community, it’s drawn my lived experiences and my professional interest in public health together. I hope to explore this intersection further in my future art, grateful that I am heading into this next stage in life with my identity, professional passion, and creative energy in further alignment.

My final advice to all creatives, particularly BIPOC, femme, LGBTIA+ individuals is to remember that you can’t pour from an empty cup. In a world and environment that already demands much of our physical and emotional labor, we deserve to be able to choose how, when, and how much to engage. However, you choose to take care of yourself and your energy, do so with pride. The fight ahead is long, and the most important thing I’ve learned is that amidst the anger and sadness, joy and hope are critical in maintaining your advocacy and creativity. Self-care is not selfish, it’s necessary, crucial, and you deserve every last bit of it. 

Connect with Winnie: 

Affirm Noire

This article was edited by the Affirm Noire Staff.


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