Learning from my students – again!

Do you remember that I wrote about painting on canvas a few weeks ago? Last week I ran the second class on that project where we got down to designing the embroidery and commencing stitching, and then yesterday we were together again to see how everyone was progressing. I am absolutely thrilled at the diversity of designs that are being worked and will make sure I take photos next week to show you some examples. But in the meantime I have learnt a really interesting and quite unexpected lesson….

Last week I prepared by making sure that I had a detailed chart of my design as well as a stitch guide to match it.

Chart and stitch guide for modern canvaswork journal cover.

Chart and stitch guide for modern canvaswork journal cover.

I gave these to my students as resources – to be used as inspiration rather than a pattern to be copied. At the beginning of the lesson, I also gave them a blank sheet of graph paper so that they could roughly sketch out their design before they started stitching. I made sure that the graph paper was designed to be 14 lines per inch so that it would correspond exactly with the 14-count canvas on which they were all stitching.

But most of them were slow to get started on this sketching/designing phase – they were almost reluctant to put pencil to paper. Until one of them said to me, “I think I might skip this step and just work my border directly onto the canvas and then see what I want to do next”. In my usual fashion I replied, “Of course! Go for it – whatever works best for you – this is all about play and creativity”. And pretty quickly most of them had skipped over doing any sketching and were busily working their outer border. A couple of students did continue with their planning and design phase, but most just went straight ahead and started stitching.

I didn’t think much more about this until this morning when I delved into one of my new favourite books, “Show Your Work!”, by Austin Kleon. Austin talks about how it is really important to share the “process” of your creativity and not just the “product”. And it suddenly struck me….

I almost never sketch out a design before I start stitching.

Sure, I have an idea of what colours I want to use, what form the final piece will take, and I will have done a bit of arithmetic to calculate how big I want my piece to be and thus how many threads wide and tall I will be stitching. But…..

….most of the design process happens on the canvas as I am stitching.

Somehow, in turning this project into a class, I had felt that I needed to make the process more structured for my students by introducing a sketching/designing phase. And yet I rarely do this myself….and most of my students were much more comfortable when they too started developing their designs straight onto the canvas.

So, why had I felt the need to impose a step on my students which I don’t normally do myself? Well, the truth is that I hadn’t examined my own creative processess very closely. The end of a project always looks so ordered and this is emphasised when the final design is recorded as some sort of chart, stitch guide and thread guide. I had fooled myself into thinking that the creative process was somehow much more ordered than it actually is, and thus I was teaching it that way! But in Austin Kleon’s words,

“Process is messy”.

Embroidery is a three-dimensional, textural, and colourful art and elements often play off each other in unexpected ways. I need to see each element on the canvas before I add the next one. Of course, sometimes this means that I work something that I do not like and then I need to unpick and try again. But that is a really important part of the design process, and my students clearly showed me that they were much more comfortable with this way of working too, especially in a class that was deliberately designed to get their creative juices flowing.

So once again, teaching turns out to be a learning process for both teacher and students. I have learnt so much about myself because my students have helped me to understand my own creative process better, and this will in turn helps me to be a more creative embroidery teacher. How cool is that?

If you have a story about how students helped you to understand yourself better, then please share it with me via the comments below – I would love to know that I am not on my own!

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