Evelyna Liang Yi-woo is unfurling a jumble of vibrantly coloured quilts at her Wong Chuk Hang studio. Each handicraft shows a tableau of daily life: a child playing, a woman tending a field, a family at dinner. The needlework is a trip down memory lane, says Liang, who for two decades has been using fabric art to build confidence and community spirit among women's groups. 'I always keep the first piece the women make,' she says, fingering a blue square showing a mother and child gazing up at the stars. 'They think it's not their best work but that's where all the original ideas come from.' For Liang, a stitch in time saves more than nine. As the women use embroidery and applique to voice their joys and suffering, a sisterhood is born. 'Stitching together pieces of discarded cloth into something beautiful is very symbolic,' she says. Chinese grandmothers traditionally used cloth from neighbours to sew patchwork 'quilts of a hundred families' for newborn babies, handicrafts experts say. Such traditional crafts would become treasured family heirlooms, but Liang has long known how a needle and thread can mend modern lives. Born in Hong Kong and holding a masters degree in fine art from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology she first used fabric art in 1988 in detention camps for Vietnamese boatpeople. 'I wanted my students at the Chinese University, where I was teaching, to use art to help other people,' she says. While the students painted murals on the camp walls and conducted workshops for children, Liang began making a quilt with a young woman who then enlisted the help of her family and friends. 'It became an opportunity for the older generation to pass on their cultural knowledge,' says Liang. 'And the girl became proactive and smiled a lot. It was fantastic!' Originally a painter, Liang admits she is clumsy with a needle. 'But the women teach me, so they're not intimidated,' she says. After working with the boatpeople, Liang became involved in community art, running art camps for deprived children, brightening up hospitals and working with survivors of natural disasters such as child victims of the Sichuan earthquake through her charities, Art in Hospital and Art For All. In 2002, she started the Quilt Project, which helps groups of abused and depressed women and single mothers to sew what they can't express in words. And when Liang worked with asylum seekers at the Christian Action centre at Chungking Mansions, the women stitched images of the children they had left behind and their hopes for the future. 'Once a Sri Lankan man came in wanting to sew as well,' she says. 'He was thrilled, as he had just been granted refugee status.' He stitched two boats sailing toward the sunset, symbolising his long journey towards freedom, Liang says. Stitching things together 'is part of women's speciality in the home - whether it's sewing and knitting or strengthening family ties', she says. 'Moreover, many of the women I serve are from battered communities. Scarves and quilts offer warmth and protection.' For the past three years, Liang has worked with mothers of children with special needs at the Shek Wai Kok Parents' Resource Centre. 'Many of them were depressed and ashamed,' she says. 'Some didn't even want to reveal their real names.' But now they're rejuvenated, Liang says. Every Tuesday, the centre resounds with peals of laughter as the women catch up and discuss each other's creations. The culmination of the group's work was a 100-patch quilt in which their children were asked to draw themselves and the mothers then created its patchwork squares. Their needlework was exhibited at Olympic City in November, where Cecelia Chen Tsao-shin of Taiwan-based Aid to Mother's Arts Foundation displayed her creations. 'The influence of these mothers' art on children is not just the sense of beauty and colour and the meaningful patterns for every occasion as they grow up but also the love and wishes inherent in the work,' Chen says. 'This impact on children is enormous and irreplaceable.' May Cheng Hong-mei, a mother who attends the centre, says her hyperactive son has now started doing patchwork himself. 'It has brought us closer,' she says. Under the encouragement of the other group members, Cheng has emerged from her shell and is more open. 'I'm not afraid any more. I used to be very insecure,' she says. The group's Tuesday meetings are a refuge, says Phoebe Kwok Choi-yin, whose son has cerebral palsy. 'Caring for my child, I've become superwoman, but if I can make it here it's paradise,' she says. She has made a quilt from her son's diapers and blanket, which shows the rigours of life with a child who depends on her almost entirely. 'I can do this because it comes from my heart,' Kwok says. And fellow seamstresses become good friends, she says, adding how she cherishes a quilt embroidered with encouraging messages from fellow seamstresses who knew she was going through a hard period. Kwok was withdrawn at first but has since blossomed in the group and now shares the skills she learned as a textile factory seamstress to help other women with their designs, Liang says. Sewing also bonds Liang's mainland group, she says. Last year, she was invited by World Vision to build confidence among women from Yunnan province who run a shop selling handicraft items. She got them to sew scenes from their daily lives before broaching sensitive subjects ranging from the pain of childbirth to being denied education. In Henan province, she enthused another group criticised by fellow villagers for opting to sew for a living rather than seek work in the city. As there is a high rate of HIV in the province, part of her mandate from the local NGO was to carry out sex education. She used a rag doll, skits and dance, she says. 'They performed their dance and I showed them mine, which was a set of pelvic exercises,' Liang says. 'There was a lot of giggling, but they did it.' As the women sewed dolls, she initiated discussions on issues of sex, childbearing and domestic violence. 'Many of them knew nothing about menstruation,' Liang says. 'They had to be told that it's natural and not dirty.' Liang says creativity is the key to her discussions. Although she is not a certified counsellor, Liang says teaching has helped her hone her skills in using art to communicate over the past 20 years. 'It's easier because I'm a woman and I'm open,' she says. She says she has learned the importance of research. 'When I worked with the abused women, I kept asking questions and didn't really understand their pain,' she recalls. Now she tries to 'speak less and care more'. Liang says she is enriched by her workshops. 'I've learned to be more human, flexible, open-minded and to follow my instincts,' she says. 'And I've learned to use a needle better and how to cook.' She says the tragic stories in her workshops sometimes get her down, and that she has less time for her own art. 'I just try to do the best I can,' Liang says. 'When you're a teacher, you're already sacrificing your own time, so I'm used to it. When I had my first child, I didn't paint for three years. But as an artist, you're always in art; you don't need to have a brush in hand. 'I look at these women, their smiles and their attitude to life as my art,' she says.