Today’s guest post is written by Kriota Willberg, New York Academy of Medicine’s Artist-in-Residence researching the history of sutures and ligatures. Through graphic narratives, teaching, and needlework, Kriota explores the intersection between body sciences and creative practice. Starting this week, Kriota will be teaching a four-week workshop entitled “Embroidering Medicine,” which explores relationships between medicine, needlework, and gender. There is still time to register for this workshop, which begins September 14.
As an artist working with textiles and comics (two media often considered domestic or for children), I am interested in the interplay of culturally common materials, tools, and language with those of professional specialty. From the research I have done on the history of sutures and ligature, it appears that the staples of domestic needlework: thread/sinew, cloth/hide, scissors, pins, and needles have been appropriated from domestic use since the time of their invention, to assist in the repair of the body. Similarly, the language of domestic and professional needlework has been re-purposed to describe closing wounds.
Many of the texts I am reading describe the characteristics and purposes of various surgical needles, the type of textiles used for bandaging (linen, wool, cotton), and the type of thread used for various types of sutures (linen, silk, cotton, catgut). I have also found descriptions of wool and flax production by Pliny the Elder in the first century AD, an account of French silk production in 1766 from John Locke, and a couple 20th-century books detailing the history of catgut.
Although I don’t know when a physician’s sewing kit diverged from those of a seamstress or leather worker’s sewing kit, John Stewart Milne writes in his book Surgical Instruments in Greek and Roman Times:
“Three-cornered surgical needles were in use from very early times. They are fully described in the Vedas of the Hindoos… A few three-cornered needles of Roman origin have been found, although they are rare.”
In addition to describing the specific uses of surgical needles, Milne also discusses the uses of domestic needles in stitching bandages by Roman physicians.
Galen reinforces this play between textiles, medicine, and the body by describing damage to the body through the metaphor of fabric:
“It is not the job of one art to replace one thread that has come loose, and of another to replace three or four, or for that matter five hundred… In quite general terms, the manner by which each existent object came about in the first place is also the manner in which it is to be restored when damaged.
The woof is woven into the warp to make a shirt. Now, is it possible for that shirt to sustain damage, or for that damage to be repaired, in some way which does not involve those two elements? If there is damage of any kind at all, it cannot but be damage to the warp, or to the woof, or to both together; and, similarly, there is only one method of repair, an inter-weaving of woof and warp which mimics the original process of creation.”
The tandem development of textile production and medicine becomes part of the domestic-to-medical interface of textiles and their tools manifested through the language used to describe materials, tools, and stitches.
In his Major Surgery (1363), in a chapter about “sewing” wounds, Guy de Chauliac describes wrapping thread around a needle in the same method that women use to keep threaded needles on their sleeves. He also describes using hooks to bind wounds. This closure technique is attributed to wool cutters or (wool) walkers. Later Ambrose Paré, paraphrasing Guy’s description of another type of suture says, “The second Suture is made just after the same manner as the Skinners sow their…furs.” Paré also uses the keeping a needle on one’s sleeve description when describing surgical repair of harelip (known today as cleft lip).
The language of needlework and textiles is used to educate and inform the student surgeon about the body, health, and suturing techniques. Woof and warp, wrapping needles, closing a wound as a wool walker would fasten wool, and suturing the body with the same stitch used by a Skinner, seem to be descriptions one is expected to understand and mimic. What is a wool walker? Thanks to Wikipedia I can tell you that “walking” is a step in cloth making, also called fulling, in which one pounds woolen cloth with one’s feet to thicken and clean it. I still haven’t figured out how they fasten the wool with hooks.
 Milne, John Stewart. Surgical Instruments in Greek and Roman Times. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907, p.75.
 Milne. p.75-76.
 Galen. Galen : selected works ; translated with an introduction and notes by P.N. Singer. Trans. Peter N. Singer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
 Guy, de Chauliac. The cyrurgie of Guy de Chauliac. Ed. Margaret S. Ogden. London, New York: Early English Text Society by the Oxford Univ. Press, 1971, p.192.
 Paré, Ambrose. The Workes of that famous Chirurgion Ambrose Parey Translated out of Latine and compared with the French. Trans. Th: Johnson. London: Th:Cotes and R. Young, 1634, p.327.
 Wikipedia. Fulling. 10 July 2017.