I have completed my liver embroidery. It’s another large piece, H 15″ x W 21″ (38 × 53 cm). I stitched it from 20 June 2022 to 5 June 2023. I’ve titled it tethered by fluid and ligaments.
Unlike some of my previous symptomatology pieces, my liver issues haven’t been resolved during the stitching of this piece. . . .
In fact, I don’t even have a clear diagnosis, just a suspicion that it may be early stage primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC) which can occur with ulcerative colitis. I am less symptomatic than I was when I started this piece though. Through a low fat diet plus some medication and carefully chosen supplements I am mostly symptom-free aside from mild twinges throughout the day. I was also only hospitalized once with liver issues this past winter which is a big improvement compared to the three to four times the previous two winters.
My main liver issue is the strictures in my biliary ducts in the small lobe of my liver.
The strictures present as “beading” of the ducts, so of course I used beads in that section. I found some yellow agate beads that were an excellent match for the greenish-yellow thread I used for the biliary system.
The white glass beads on the top red layer of the organza represent the small recurring liver abscesses that often result in septicaemia (bacteria in the blood). Sometimes I get pain in the strictures as a warning that I’m about to get abscesses and end up hospitalized and on I.V. antibiotics for a week. The strictures spasm and push bile into instead of out of my liver, creating the abscesses. The rest of my liver seems to be healthy as far as the imaging I’ve had can tell, though my gallbladder is enlarged and very pear-shaped. I was able to see my gall bladder imagery when a nuclear medicine tracing was done, so the shape here is based on that.
I haven’t had any gallstones as far as they can tell, but I do have “biliary sludge” so I tried to represent the thickness of that in the texture inside the gallbladder. I stitched it free hand in single-strand floss in a sort of long and short stitch and continued the texture through the entire biliary system. There’s been some talk of removing my gallbladder but the hepatobiliary surgeon I consulted with wasn’t convinced it would help my symptoms. He was quite taken with the embroidery when he saw it so I may send him a print eventually.
Most of the base images for my anatomy pieces are traced from old anatomical drawings, but I couldn’t find an image that was quite the angle I was envisioning so I drew one myself, printed it out on sulky dissolvable material, and stitched from that.
Instead of stitching the liver itself I decided to do it in two appliqué layers of silk organza.
The bottom layer is red and the top layer deep purple. On top of each other the colour matches the photos of a gallbladder removal surgery a friend sent me of her own surgery. I carefully stitched over the edges of both layers of the organza to reduce the chance of fraying. I used two layers for a few reasons. The liver itself has four lobes: right (top large), quadrate (bottom large), left (top small), and caudate (bottom small). The two layers of organza help demarcate the top and bottom lobes. I also wanted to have the biliary system sitting within the liver as it does anatomically. The large and small lobes of the liver are separated by the ligamentum teres hepatis, which also holds it in place below the diaphragm. Instead of stitching a thin, weblike ligament, I used thick threads freehand crossing over one another to represent the pulling, tightness, and pain I feel during a flare. Though most of my pain is in the smaller lobe, there is a strong pulling sensation as well, which I assume is the spasms of my biliary ducts pulling my liver and tugging on the ligament itself.
The poetic text in this piece is less labels and more about how I relate to my liver. Even though my liver has given me a lot of trouble, I still offer it compassionate curiosity in order to live well. There’s a good dose of the Stoic practice of Amor Fati (loving fate) in my daily personal and creative practices. In Stoicism, health is something we would prefer to have, but it is ultimately outside our control, our bodies being nothing more than “cleverly moulded clay.”
The text was the result of a few different forms of writing. I started by writing a homophonic translation of the liver chapter in Gray’s Anatomy, rewriting the words as similar-sounding ones. I then went through and underlined my favourite lines from the many pages of poetry. After that, I looked up the etymologies of some of the key medical terms and wrote a short poem for each. I then combined these things and edited them down to what is on the embroidery.
Here is the full text:
I used sulky dissolvable material for the text which is by far the best technique I’ve found yet for stitching tiny text on dark fabrics. I worked on the top sections of text while in hospital in January, so they are less than straight, but straight enough that I’m willing to live with them.
I wrote a Twitter thread of the making of the entire piece—from looking for source imagery all the way through to the last stitch. Though Twitter has become a less ideal place to share work, people seem to enjoy the making-of threads, so I’ll likely continue posting there for my next piece: a vagus nerve.
My pieces keep getting bigger, and the vagus nerve embroidery is currently in a very large hoop.
The hoop is much too large to bring to appointments so my current waiting room stitching is signing my older work in preparation for stretching and eventually selling pieces. It’s a slow process because of my disability, but it’s time to start disseminating my growing pile of embroideries.