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Stories are the bedrock of human nature. Before we could speak, we sang. Before we could write our stories down, we painted them on walls. When many of us could

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Stories are the bedrock of human nature. Before we could speak, we sang. Before we could write our stories down, we painted them on walls. When many of us could

How Caitlin Cary Sews Our State’s Stories

Caitlin Cary arranges needleprint pieces into a piece of art.

Stories are the bedrock of human nature. Before we could speak, we sang. Before we could write our stories down, we painted them on walls. When many of us could not read our tales, we sewed them into quilts to tuck around our beloveds, to fold and to pass down to people who might be born long after we’re gone.

Caitlin Cary is a storyteller in the truest sense. Before she crafted her tales for walls, she sang them to crowds. At places like the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, and on The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson, she pulled her bow over violin strings and sang. She sang alone during an acclaimed solo career, and she sang in bands like Whiskeytown, Tres Chicas, and The Small Ponds. She told stories in her songs, of her friends and loves, of heartache and discovery. She sang the stories of people she knew, of ourselves, of secrets and ideas we’d want to tell the world.

Caitlin Cary sits in front of needle prints of iconic buildings around downtown Raleigh.

At Rebus Works ­— part grocery, part cafe, part gallery that’s celebrating its 20th anniversary in downtown Raleigh — Needleprints created by Caitlin Cary share wall space with other local artists’ work. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

Between shows, Cary piled into vans with her bandmates and instruments. Her voice was quiet, but her hands still moved, her fingers curled and lifted. Instead of pulling a bow over violin strings, she pulled thread through cloth. “I used to draw things and embroider them in the van,” Cary says. “My hands always have to be busy.”

Over time, her work became larger. Her storytelling began to change. Instead of the accounts that she tells in song, Cary began to capture the complicated tales that are woven within the places we love.

Caitlin Cary's needleprint of Krispy Kreme Doughnuts.

Cary’s art captures distinct Raleigh landmarks that make the ever-changing city feel like home.

“I was thinking about what made my home of Raleigh feel like Raleigh to me, and to other people, too,” she says. She took photographs of places she loves, like Cup A Joe on Hillsborough Street, Dorton Arena, the Krispy Kreme on Person Street, Char-Grill, the round Holiday Inn.

With bits of material gleaned from castoffs and gifted from friends and strangers, Cary wove those iconic Raleigh images into quilt-adjacent fabric collages, or “Needleprints,” as she calls them. Just as early quilts were first made of fabric scraps — a swatch of a grandmother’s apron, a square of a brother’s old pants — Cary’s creations tell their own stories.

“A lot of us have histories of either making fabric or seeing people make it. It’s a legacy for our state,” she says. “Sewing these buildings into these fabrics is a way of adding to the story of these places.”

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Each of Cary’s stitches is deliberate, each texture, pattern, and juxtaposition selected, signifiers of existence. Of course, the real windows in downtown storefronts aren’t formed from swatches of upholstery woven from colored threads, and ribbons of fabric don’t line its train tracks, nor do whisps of filament clouds puff across a robin’s-egg sky. Of course, cloth children don’t cut with yarn scissors, cloth people don’t buy textile movie tickets or drink coffee from woven cups. Of course, the underpinnings of our water towers aren’t spangles of tie silk. Cary gets to choose the parts of our shared memories to document. She chooses their textures.

She and her husband, musician and silk-screen artist Skillet Gilmore, often travel around the state to find subjects for her Needleprints. When Gilmore takes the wheel, he has learned to prepare to brake quickly.


“Skillet and I get in the car and drive around, and I’ll say, ‘Stop! No, I mean now! Stop!’” Cary says. “I’ll jump out and take some pictures of a rad building. He’s getting much better about it. It used to drive him crazy.”

The places revealed in her collection of Needleprints work as a chronicle of our own sense of place, our own memories across the state. The Atlantis Lodge in Atlantic Beach, Oxford High School, a shoe store in Wilkesboro, a millworks in Wilson — some humble, others regal, but all part of North Carolina’s rich and complicated fabric.

Char-Grill photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

Who do we trust to keep our stories? Who do we trust to tell them? Our witnesses, those people who were there when it happened. Since she began crafting her Needleprints more than 10 years ago, many of the places that Cary has preserved across the state have been knocked down in the name of “progress.” Others are slated for removal. Once something is gone, it can be hard to remember what it was like. Eventually, we can forget it was ever there.

Cary bears witness to these spaces we love; her Needleprints of them will last longer than the places will. Her stitches suture our memories of them to the time that runs beyond them. They will tell stories of our places to a time that runs beyond us.

For more information about Caitlin Cary’s work, visit caitlincary.com.

This story was published on Dec 19, 2023

Eleanor Spicer Rice

Eleanor Spicer Rice earned her Ph.D. in entomology at North Carolina State University. She is the author of Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants of New York City.