They arrived in a brown paper package tied up with string, a cylinder with a handwritten label carefully wrapped around. When I opened one end of the tube, fuzzy colours tumbled out into a pile on the table in a lively tangle of yarn, and right behind them slid out a handful of sticks of various lengths and thicknesses, the kind you’d scoop up from a forest floor. It was such an unlikely, unusual but curiosity-inspiring collection of art materials, it felt a little bit magical.
The fairy godmother behind this gift was Pamela Schuller, a Toronto-based artist and community art facilitator. She shares her concept of story sticks as a mix of art and therapy, a tactile form of self-expression. I found her offering a Zoom workshop through Eventbrite, amid a pandemic-long fit of visual art-making. Though I wasn’t completely clear on what story sticks were, I did know that after months of painting, drawing, collaging, and doodling, I was longing for a new creative project to explore.
Online a few days later, Pamela explained the startlingly simple idea: wrap yarn around a stick in colours, patterns and textures that tell a story. It could draw on memories, or illustrate a folk tale, or just express emotions. But the order and symbolism of the yarn is completely personal.
It sounded too simple, and so juvenile I wondered whether I’d signed up for a children’s workshop by mistake. But when I looked at my jumble of coloured string, I was surprised to feel as excited and delighted as I remember being in kindergarten art class. There was so much to play with: thick red chenille and delicate metallic thread, multicoloured wools, sequinned pink ribbons, and several shades of blue. And yet as varied as it was, I was limited to this collection of kooky yarns I happened to receive, which was even more inviting. It’s like being given a box of crayons with a third of the colours missing—you suddenly have to render your vision within these parameters, and those confines spark creativity and solutions you might otherwise never come up with. Picking yarns out of the array, I realized, was much like finding words to write with: you have many to choose from, but only some will convey the right feeling.
I grabbed my white glue and the biggest, thickest stick, and decided that even if I didn’t know what story I wanted to tell, I wanted to have that fat red chenille at the beginning of it. Something about its plushness reminded me of cozy sweaters I loved, and made for a soft and welcoming place to grip. Wherever my story went, I wanted to begin from a safe and comforting place.
As I wound that first string, I decided my stick would be an intention stick representing my wishes for the year ahead. The collection of little skeins presented some obvious choices. There was a lively blend of red, yellow and orange that felt like the dynamic energy I wanted to bring forward with me. Thick dark brown could represent the volunteer work I do with youth in Scouts, because it reminds me of the dull earth-coloured uniforms we love to complain about. I knew I wanted blue, a deep serious shade to reflect my duty to be constant and do solid work in my job. And then a soft, inviting green cotton, echoing my wish to return to nature and hiking.
Those yarns were easy to choose because they stood out as clear colour-coded symbols for me. But then there were so many other strings that I wanted to play with just because they were so pretty, and looked like so much fun, that I started inventing new meanings to justify using them. I found a string of earth-toned pompoms that I decided enhanced my nature section, like tiny patches of moss and mushrooms. A coppery sequinned thread wrapped around the whole stick felt to me like an electric current or life force animating my goals. And I couldn’t resist a festive knot of long red fringe that dangled off the end like a little firework with its floppy joyous energy.
The winding motion wrapping each section was rhythmic and soothing, and gave me time to consider what colour should come next, how wide a section, how thick. I felt clear and confident every time I picked up the next strip of yarn, free of second guessing because I was connected to my intuition and my creativity. There were no stakes, just the stick. I felt completely certain that what I was doing was exactly right.
By the time I finished, I found myself waving my stick in the air to watch the fibres dance and the light bounce off the metallic sequins, and grinning with delight like a little kid. It wouldn’t look like anything more than a colourful stick to anyone but me, but I couldn’t stop turning it over and over in my hand, enjoying how the yarn muffled the hardness of the wood and invited my hand to squeeze into the soft covering as I marvelled in the depth of colours.
I’d never worked with textiles before, except for a few failed attempts at knitting. Using yarn as my crayons revealed to me the power of texture, and of creating a tactile, 3D craft. There is a heft, and a soothing comfort to holding something soft, solid and symbolic, and being able to turn it over to see and feel it from all angles. I love to think that now, all those random, abandoned lengths of yarn left over after a much more significant project can be lovingly gathered, recycled, and infused with new purpose into a meaningful piece of art that tells a story. Spinning a yarn, indeed.
All images by Marichka Melnyk.