Where It All Began

I started stitching the above sampler when I was about twelve - I was a Girl Guide, going for my badge in embroidery. I remember buying the kit mail order through a little ad in the back pages of one of my mom's magazines. It was a stamped piece of linen (off grain as I see now) and I somehow taught myself how to do the cross stitch, the lazy daisy, the buttonhole, and French knots! I don't remember anyone showing me, I may have learned from a book, although there is a vague memory of a printed instruction sheet that came with the kit.

Like most twelve-year-olds, follow-through was not my strong suit. I got about half done, then the cloth ended up a drawer of other misbegotten projects. I quit Guides and moved on to other things as I entered junior high. I was a good student, "a pleaser", cautioned by my father who taught in the senior school that I was not to be an embarrassment to him. I was a teenager now, and eager to fit in, be accepted. I made what were, in retrospect, some serious errors in judgement, to put it mildly.

Long story short, I ended up one Friday night going to a dance in town with my best friend, Diane, and she had a mickey of rum that she had someone older buy for her. We proceeded to get drunk in very short order, got separated, and I ended up in the back of a van in the Safeway parking lot where a number of older boys proceeded to have their way with me. They didn't even know my name, just that I was "Mr. Cameron's daughter". What they did had little to do with desire, it was more about power, getting one over on an authority figure. The cops arrived, chased off the boys, and took me in to the police station. They called my father to come pick me up, taking the opportunity while waiting for him to arrive to show me some photos of what could happen to "girls like me".

Yeah, I know, crap story, but it happens all the time, and worse. Thank god there weren't cell phones and the internet back then, but the news got around the small, conservative town I lived in pretty darn quick. I arrived at school Monday morning to whispers in the hallway, knowing glances, people I didn't even know asking me if it was true. I felt such shame, but oddly triumphant that I was no longer the boring good girl. My pleasure in my new notoriety was short-lived, as soon my friend was transferred to a different school and nobody else was interested in hanging out with me. I was, of course, permanently grounded.

And so it was on one of those endless lonely weekends that I found that forgotten sampler in my drawer. I took it up again, and completed it. You might notice that the light green block of cross stitch at the bottom has two different shades in it. The skein that came with the kit had disappeared somewhere and I remember going to Stedman's to get another and being boggled with all the choices. I think that was the first time I realized how many shades of green there were.

Looking at the sampler now, all I see are the flaws, but at the time I finished it, it received great approval. My mom framed it and hug it in the upstairs hallway. I started getting more into art, and found it was something I was good at. In Grade 11, I took Applied Design in Textiles, and started designing and stitching my own wall hangings. Embroidery had shifted from being a means to show how quiet, diligent and obedient I could be to a means of expression.

Ever the dilettante, I took up other media, studied photography and graphic design, worked in advertising and publishing, and eventually went back to art school where I majored in sculpture and video, and encountered feminism. Always, somewhere in the background, was sewing, which was considered a bit quaint by my cool Toronto friends. But the pleasure and solace of stitching endured, and nurtured my soul, and grew to become something where I could lose myself and find myself again.

So here am, finally recounting my secret, shameful story in this, my 700th blog post. I woke up early this morning with the feeling that I should tell it. Why now? Who cares what happened 40 years ago? I have cried over the recent stories of Amanda Todd and Rehteah Parsons, so sad that the same shit keeps happening to young women, only now on a much more public and tragic scale.

I might say that stitching saved me, and maybe it has, many times over. But really, it was the kindness and caring of multitudes of people over the years: professionals, friends, and family. At the time, stitching was just a way of showing that I was a good person. In the long term, it has brought me redemption and atonement and possibly the positive regard of others. A psychologist might say it is evidence of my neurosis, as is this blog. Ultimately, being able to share and connect with others, with all of you, is what keeps me writing and making art. Thank you, 700 times over.

I know my stitches.

P.S. I was going to disallow comments on this one, because I am fine, this has all been dredged up for years, and I'm not needing comfort - (no more than usual anyway!) But then I thought if feelings were aroused in people because of anything I've said, this could be a space to share those feelings so feel free.


  1. Anonymous8:56 AM

    Dear Heather,
    Thanks for being strong and sharing your story here.
    ~warmest regards~

  2. thank you for the story.

  3. Anonymous10:34 AM

    dear Heather - hugs! what else can one say.

  4. Stitching definitely saved me. :) Through both the people it's brought into my life and what it's allowed me to channel through my two hands. x

  5. Oh My God Heather.
    Very powerful that you have shared this story here and that you say that stitching has saved you. I truly believe that might be the case.

    Thank you.

  6. you are brave to share, not all of us are

  7. Anonymous9:45 PM

    Very few artists have the self-awareness to do an autobiographical dig, going deeper and deeper through layers of personal history and find the transformative moment/incident when it all started. Thanks for sharing your origin story with us.


  8. All I can say is Yes. yes yes yes...

    Thank you so much for sharing this story.

  9. You were the victim there! Those boys should have been arrested not chased off. Why is that boys will be boys (wink! wink!) but girls are just sluts? Argh... I think you were very brave to walk back into school with all the rumours and innuendos flying.

    Pretty much all kids get into trouble somewhere along the path to growing up. (Um, that would be me too!) It's whether or not you can survive, learn from your mistakes and grow from the experience. Big hugs for sharing your story!

  10. Selfish thing that I am, this is what got my attention...
    "But the pleasure and solace of stitching endured, and nurtured my soul, and grew to become something where I could lose myself and find myself again"

    ...not to trivialize what happened in any way, but this outcome, so very significant.

  11. Chris8:47 AM

    Yes. . . You know your stitches, and your stitches are, indeed, true.

    Thank you for all your generosity and inspiration, Heather.

  12. Agree with Louisa....the lads should've felt shame, not you. Sad that things don't seem to have changed much. Thank you for telling us about this. We all have embarrassing things in our lives. I think of the times I might have found myself in a similar situation as you did; I was lucky, no more, no less. Young women can be very vulnerable. Good to see the stitching worked out so well for you! X

  13. one in four female children in
    the United States.

    so if there's four of us in a
    room, one of us.

  14. dear Heather, thank you for sharing your story; you're not a victim anymore....
    love and hugs Saskia

  15. Thank you for sharing, it is important for women to share what happened to them and how they worked through it, I was abused by a bunch of boys in high school, nothing happened to them either, my art was my solace

  16. Thank you for your bravery....art through stitching was my solace living in a broken home and dealing with dsylexia at school....there is healing power in it, I have no doubt

  17. Anonymous6:36 AM

    I had a baby and gave it up when I was 15, stitching is what helped me through. Diane

  18. Ah Heather I have quietly enjoyed watching the progress of your Codex Canadensis over the last couple of years (discovered your work via Jude Hill and her circle of cloth conjurors) Your beautifully stitched work has a great sense of line, space and dedication to process. Your long ago story is helping me understand why I have returned to the solace of stitching and the comfort of cloth at this stage of the game.


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