to teach or not to teach

Quite often, I am asked to teach how I make things. Requests for classes, tutorials, patterns and directions from groups and individuals who are eager to learn my methods regularly fill my email box. It’s perfectly reasonable to ask such questions and I’m happy that people are interested in learning new ways of working. But for me, these inquiries only remind me of how much I operate outside of the mainstream, in a different needle and thread universe. In this post, which is a rewrite of a story published 5 years ago, I will do my best to explain my approach to making art and my personal philosophy about sharing knowledge.

Stitching foliage in the S. America scene.

There’s a strong needlework tradition of teaching and learning through imitation, with instructions and patterns aplenty. It used to be that women passed down their knowledge to the next generation in the family. Today, a vast needle-craft industry is built around a technique driven culture of copying, with businesses supplying materials, equipment, tools, patterns and kits for embroiderers, knitters and quilters of all kinds. It’s a challenge to find my place within this culture because that’s not how I came to do what I do. I learned how to embroider from diagrams in a simple booklet I bought at the Needlewoman Shop in London in 1978. And I only use half a dozen basic stitches in my work. Everything else I taught myself through experimentation and lots and lots of practice.

I realize that people need a place to start and they derive great satisfaction from being guided through the process. That is why I used to make kits and wrote Felt Wee Folk., a how-to book about making dolls. My goal is to show the basic framework, with a variety of possibilities, so that the reader can gain the confidence to add more personal touches and create something that is uniquely their own. Through the book, I share my techniques for making the dolls, which I see as a much-needed opening for people to play and express themselves.

With needlework, the distinction between art and craft is particularly fuzzy (no pun intended). That subject will still be discussed and debated long after I’ve threaded my last needle. For me, it points to the question of when to tell how and when not to. I am not worried about individuals copying my techniques, I just don’t want to spend my time and energy telling how I do it — time and energy that would otherwise go toward artistic growth. I find reviewing and explaining in detail the process of making something I’ve lived and struggled with for months like sliding backward into the muck, hindering any movement forward.

But, where does the artist who creates original work with needle and thread fit into the imitation model ingrained in and perpetuated by the needle-craft industry? In order to explore new concepts and ideas, I have found it necessary to educate the public and protect myself from misconceptions about my work. For instance, people frequently ask if I have a pattern to make Birds of Beebe Woods. Others want directions for making the illustrations from Pocketful of Posies. The idea of providing patterns for my fabric relief pieces has me totally baffled. I think that artists working in other mediums would be equally taken aback if asked for patterns and instructions.

My children’s book illustrations and stand-alone pieces are much more involved and complicated than what I teach in Felt Wee Folk. Through 40 years of experimentation, I have devised methods of working that I consider proprietary knowledge. For instance, the way I make hands with little fingers is too linked to my personal artistic expression to show how in detail. I don’t want to upset the creative process by constantly organizing the steps in my mind and thinking in terms of explaining it to another. That would hold me back and limit the possibilities. I think the act of creating something new shouldn’t be overly dissected, else it lose its magic.

Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe from “Pocketful of Posies”

Even though conventional needlework businesses don’t completely mesh with what I do, I am a part of it because I’ve authored a how-to book which is marketed within this world. But other than that, I operate independently, outside of the mainstream. That is not surprising, since my work is generally an anomaly in any group I’m lumped into; embroidery, stumpwork, dolls, art quilts, miniatures, fiber art, children books, etc. The narrative and decorative style of my fabric relief pieces doesn’t really fit into the abstract, conceptual contemporary fiber art scene. I suppose that writing Felt Wee Folk opened me up to being categorized as a teacher of doll making techniques. And since delving into political satire with the Wee Folk Players, my work is proving to be even harder to classify!

Props and characters from “Liberty and Justice” animation

I identify myself as an artist first and foremost. To me, it doesn’t matter what medium or materials you use for your work to be considered art. Not today, in an art world that recognizes all manner of expressions. Not in this age of the internet, where individuals can build careers and gain followers, despite the hierarchy of the art establishment and opinions of curators and critics.  I don’t want to be the kind of “serious” artist who, in an effort to have their work recognized as legitimate, dissociates themselves from the world of hobby needlework. There is too much real humanity and power in stitched objects that are labored over so lovingly.

As an artist, I draw the line on what parts of my process to share and what parts I want to remain a mystery, even to myself. People wonder how I can give away “all of my secrets”, but I don’t look at it that way. In Felt Wee Folk, I’ve simplified some doll making techniques to a point where I can teach them step by step. Nonetheless, I won’t be writing any more how-to books or teaching classes. But, I will share projects in progress, thoughts, inspirations, travels, and give glimpses behind the scene. My sketchbook is brimming with ideas and I intend to devote as much time as I can to making new work.

This blog is full of photos that show the development of projects. What is shown and what is not usually depends on how engrossed I am and if I can remember to take pictures. Sometimes I take photos of different stages of making a piece, but that just skims the surface and may be perceived is a tease of sorts. I see it as documentation, not as a tutorial, which takes a different, more systematic approach

So, the simple explanation is that I show what I’m willing to share and don’t show what I’m not. I will continue to offer glimpses into my world through the wonders of social media and I hope you come along on the adventure!

To keep up with new posts, subscribe to this blog (top right column on the home page). Your contact info will not be shared. If you’d like to see more frequent photos tracking the projects in my studio, please follow me on Facebook and/or Instagram.

29 thoughts on “to teach or not to teach

  1. I would compare asking you for a pattern for one of your works the same as asking paint artists if their work can be bought as a “paint by number” kit. One of the things I love about your work is how you have collected bits and bobs and use them for new purpose.

  2. Great Post! I totally agree with you. I thank you for your sharing of all you already have…all artists start from pretty much the same point…and how they have evolved with their trial and error is how their art becomes what it is…I admire what you have done with your work…the framed pieces and the books are nothing short of inspiring.

  3. Hi Sally-Interesting post. As a needleworker who doesn’t create her own work, it’s enlightening to see the perspective of someone from the other side. I’m someone who has wished for (but not asked about) a pattern for Birds.

    Have you hear of the Society for Embroidered Work? It’s a UK based organization created around the idea that needlework is an art, not a craft, and is modeled after other similar arts societies in the UK. Your philosophy toward what you do would make you a natural member, I think.

    https://www.societyforembroideredwork.com/

  4. I agree with you completely Salley, and appreciate what you are willing to show. I find sufficient inspiration from your pictures to fuel my creative energy and go forward with my own experimentation. I like both pattern and free-range embroidery, and have no desire to question what you “should” be willing to share. I have too much respect for you as an artist to demand more than that.

  5. Brilliantly written article! I love your work – the storytelling for children (and adults!) and your political satire. Thank you for sharing all that you do.

  6. I have always felt that the amount of ‘behind the scenes’ photographs you share to be more than generous and a wonderful gift to those of us who love your work. It is marvelous to be able to have a peek inside of your process. That is plenty and I am truly grateful for it.

  7. Thank you for the well reasoned explanation of your reluctance to teach. I’ve faced the same issue many times. It’s true that making a technique teachable takes too much time away from making.

  8. Salley, your art is fantastic and your willingness to share is generous beyond measure. As an artist my self, in silver smithing and textile, I don’t know how many times someone has said “how do you do that?” I find it impossible to tell them because it comes from my soul, it is a gift, something I can not stop if I wanted to. You know what I mean! Keep on with the inspiring work.

  9. I second the notion of a another commenter, regarding asking for (basically) a “paint by number” kit. You have provided the basics with your Wee Folk book (which I have and love–thank you). It was your choice to introduce people to a doll-making craft that you created. But your artwork/artscapes are much more than “a craft.” To provide step-by-step instructions for your pieces (such as the bird picture), is entirely your choice and I don’t think you should feel pressured to even explain your position. Some people won’t get it, but that’s ok too. I will say that nearly everything (except abstract art maybe) is copying some “thing” that is already in existence. We are all copyists in that regard; however, how we imagine those “things” and recreate them in our choice of medium is artistic and generally unique. One of my favorite fiber artists is Moy MacKay, who has multiple “How-to” books on recreating her beautiful felt paintings. It’s her choice to do that, and I for one, am grateful because it’s my favorite type of art to create–felt paintings. Since she started publishing her work, I’ve seen lots of Moy-inspired creations on the internet (Etsy, fiber blogs, etc.). She’s ok with it, but that is her. You are not her! And I will say that I haven’t noticed any “new” techniques that she is sharing. It is mostly more of the same, which is beautiful indeed, but perhaps she is not evolving as an artist (and maybe she isn’t trying to!) I love your work, and I respect that teaching halts your creative process and the forward movement in your artistic evolution. Sorry I have been so long-winded. Thank you for this post.

  10. I think that one of the reasons for the class requests might involve the fun and commeraderie that they bring to people. We are such a lonely society with most interaction done over emails or social media and few opportunities for face to face meetings. Getting together to socialize and work on projects is fun. If there is anyone in Southeastern Pennsylvania who wants to meet and work on a project in Sally’s book, let me know!

  11. Salley, you do not owe anyone an explanation. You generously share photos of your works in progress, written two wonderful books, have provided kits of your most popular figures and exhibit your work continuously.
    The amount of inspiration you have provided the public has been very gracious.
    You are an artist, inspired by your surroundings, what is in your heart and years of knowledge.
    Obviously you are dedicated to continuing your path, thankfully and you are a very hard working person.
    What else are you expected to contribute? As I said, you owe no explanations.
    Thanks to your husband also. He must be a great help.

  12. Just a few lines from Lima, Peru to thank you for the magic May God bless you and your hands ands eyes for ever Love Martha

  13. Thank you for this post Salley. The more I create pieces that are original, the more friends ask me “what are you going to do with them?” Everyone has ideas about how I could sell them, simplify them, teach classes, etc. I just really want to create (!) and learn new techniques as needed to bring my ideas to life. What I will “do with them” is yet to be discovered. I appreciate your willingness to share your projects and reflections as much as you do and also your approach to keeping some of the magic tucked away behind the scenes. All the best.

  14. I found this post very interesting, and I thank you for writing it. (I also remember reading your original post on this subject) As a quilt artist, I deal with many of the same issues that you do. I feel like I have one foot in the art world and the other in the craft world; the boundary between them is hard to see sometimes. I have designed patterns for some of my contemporary quilt wall hangings, and I do speak at guilds, mostly presenting a trunk show. I have taught a little, but I find it exhausting and draining. Anyway, I appreciate your post.

    • I have argued for a number of years that much of the most interesting art is coming out of the world of traditional crafts. Perhaps there is a freedom that comes from starting out with an approach and techniques that seem common and unpretentious and then growing as you gain both skills ideas to be expressed.

  15. I really appreciate that you articulate all those thoughts about making, teaching, etc. I am a potter (also a life-long knitter, embroiderer, quilter, etc) and the ceramic world shares many of those same conundrums as to what is the art and what is the craft, as well as a very open community around techniques, glaze recipes, etc. I purchased the “Wee Folk…” book a few years ago and really appreciated your step by step instructions. Below are some of the things I made inspired by your book. Thank you for that. Love your recent, political work, and I hope I get to see it in person one day. Normandy

  16. I really appreciate your articulating these ideas – no easier than the work you have produced over the years, I would imagine. It was very thought provoking for me. I’ve sewed in many media for enjoyment over the years; dolls, baby clothes, embroidery kits, crewel work in kits or on my clothing, curtains, etc. Somehow I always seemed to think that my “kit” work was more substantial than my own work. Yet, today, when reading this post, I realized that the kits I’ve done over the years are not unlike the copying I’ve done of the masters when I dabble in pastels. It does help to learn the basics that way. However, I was quicker to branch out and try my own paintings with pastels than I was with thread after years of doing kits. And, so, today your writing has helped inspire me not to buy one more kit. I’m going to design and figure out my own pattern and do a little thread art of my own….for my own pleasure. Thank you.

  17. Salley, how refreshing to come across someone who has figured out her place in the world of needlework/art for herself and who has solved the to-teach-or-not debate. As someone who struggles with this, I’m going to be quoting you.
    I also wanted to tell you that whenever I think of you (which is often) it’s with admiration for all you have achieved, and grattitude for the glimpses of your process that you share. Not to speak of sheer joy and enjoyment at the sight of the end result of your efforts.
    I have the Wee Felt Folk book since it was published. I’ve not made any of the projects in there but I have paged through it till it’s dog eared just for the sheer pleasure of it. The book has set my mind thinking in a direction that led to the creation of projects and techniques of my own so I think it’s safe to say that you’ve made your contribution to the world of teaching and sharing needlework techniques.
    Go forth and be creative in the space you have created for yourself. I wish you many years of , fullfilment through art!

  18. Thank you. A few years back I wrote and asked if I could come and be mentored by you. You thought about it and said no – in very kind words. It was the best decision for both of us. I did have your book and I was using it and the rest I found inside of me. I’ve sent pictures of my little “Native, Indigenous, Indian, dolls that I put on my wall hangings. I learned partly from you and the rest from me. Thanks so much and I’m so grateful to you for all you do. h

    >

  19. I am enthralled by the images you create and enjoy searching all the surfaces for texture and pattern and color. It’s a pure joy to see your work. Thank for your sharing it and for your thoughts

  20. This is by far my favorite posting of the year! I’ve been thinking of it every day. I appreciate your thoughtful message about teaching others. As an artist, you are informational in explaining the work you do, the steps you take, and the inspirational creations you present to us. Your thoughtful posts have settled my own mind on the topic. There aren’t enough hours in the day to go the lengths to please everyone in regards to our own work. I love the shares you provide of your creation and consider that the most appropriate way to explain the work you do. It’s a fantastic way to share another aspect art by a real artist, that makes a real living, and brightening the world. By the way, I feel that Wee Folk Players doesn’t need classifying. It is another sequence of your body of work. Art. Thank you for sharing so much with us!

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