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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.

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