Making Hearts Visible

A hand holding a wooden embroidery hoop with a detailed hand-sewn embroidery of an anatomical heart, approximately life size.
Embroidered heart – Laura Donald

I finished sewing my embroidered anatomical heart a couple of weeks ago…but somehow forgot to share that news here. Well, better late than never, so here it is. I dread to think how many hours I spent on this (I’m glad I didn’t count!) but I think it was worth it – hand sewing is an ideal lockdown task, keeping the hands busy and the mind ticking over rather than screaming internally!

I found myself thinking a lot about hearts as my hands were busy stitching, like how bizarre this vital organ looks and how strange it is that most creatures have something like it. The heart’s design is so intricate and complex, yet it’s quite a sturdy beast too – big and meaty. Very meaty. I was also surprised, upon finishing the embroidery, to notice just how heart-shaped a heart can look.

My main thoughts, though, were about how often we relate a heart’s supposed appearance to a person’s nature or moral worth. There’s expressions like hard-hearted/soft-hearted and we might talk about someone having a big heart or a black heart or a faint heart. There are many stories of anatomised hearts revealing their owners’ true natures postmortem – saints whose hearts, when dissected, contained written affirmations of their faith or even religious artefacts, as well as a 17th-century sinner, John Pennant, whose heart contained a large worm that required to be subdued within a magic circle of garlic upon its removal! As someone whose own heart probably looks like a made-for-TV-movie token bad guy (scars, pacing wires, etc.) I’m obviously personally interested in this topic!

I’m not sure what I’ll do with this heart embroidery now, but I’m very glad to have made it and doing so certainly fulfilled my goals of learning more about the heart’s anatomy and construction. I’ve still got a way to go but my cardiological vocabulary has increased and I think I have a slightly more accurate understanding of the heart’s function and the hows of circulation. I’m hoping to do some more visual art about hearts and might even try to incorporate some element of handicrafts into my overall PhD…? I feel like making this with my hands made me think just as much about hearts as my creative writing did.

Have you ever doodled or painted or stitched or crocheted a response to your heart? I’d love to hear about it in the comments if so!

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