Friday, September 23, 2016

The workshop you're glad you weren't in

Once upon a time I went to another city to teach a workshop.  The topic was improvisational strip piecing.  People were asked to bring three yards of Kona cotton solids in colors they thought would go well together: one light, one medium, one dark.  The agenda was to construct five or six strip-pieced panels, then cut them apart and arrange the pieces into a composition.

As people unpacked their stuff and set up their machines, I walked around the room to get acquainted and noticed that several of them didn't bring the Kona called for in the directions.  I commented on this.

One person said, "I have literally thousands of dollars worth of other fabrics in my house and I'll be damned if I was going to go buy three yards more for this workshop."

One person said, "I bought my fabric before the directions got changed."  I noted that the directions had been posted wrong, and the minute people noticed the mistake they fixed it.  The bad directions had only been online for five hours, and that was four months ago.  "Well, that's when I bought my fabric."  

One person announced, "I have a really bad attitude today."  Why is that?  "Because I absolutely hate Kona."  Why is that?  "It frays in the wash, it's flimsy, it comes apart, I have LIKE A WHOLE GARBAGE CAN FULL OF THESE NASTY THREADS -- I HATE IT!!!"  She made her feelings clear by picking up her fabric and slamming it down on the table.

We started to cut and sew on the panels.  The panels were to be 21 or 22 inches long (half the width of the fabric; we cut through the fold at the beginning of the workshop) and about 13 inches wide.  Each panel had its own "recipe," written on the direction sheet.

As I walked around the room an hour later I saw one panel that was about 10 inches long, not 21.  What's happening here? "Don't ask," she said.  I was supportive.  Not to worry, you'll just have a little less of this color combination when you make your composition.

A while later I came by again and noticed that her second panel was 21 inches long, but had a big horizontal seam through the center of one strip. What happened here?  "Don't ask," she said.  I was supportive.  I sliced it apart horizontally, got rid of the seam, and said it would be just fine, she was going to slice it anyway after lunch.

The next time I came by I noticed that her third panel was full of lumps.  I had previously announced that there was only one thing I was picky about and that was pressing; that if I taught them nothing else today it would be how to press their piecing as they worked.  I told her this panel wasn't pressed well enough; did she need another demo?  "Don't ask," she said.  I said, "I'm not asking; I'm telling you to press it again." She sulked.

The guild had appointed a classroom assistant for me, and I asked her to do two things: bring me a sandwich at lunchtime, and learn how I wanted things pressed so she could teach people if I wasn't available.  It became apparent that she had larger ambitions.  Instead of just showing people how to press their first panel, and watching to make sure they did their second one right, she was helpfully doing the pressing for them.

I kidded her for being an enabler, and told her people had to learn to do their own unless she was planning to move in with them and press all their work forever.  She promised to stop.  But that left her with time on her hands.  Hold that thought.

The fourth panel was supposed to have a neutral color in addition to the three colors people had brought.  They were to choose a neutral from the big pile of browns and grays I had brought.  Many people asked me for help in choosing the color, but some moved ahead without me.  As I discovered, some were "helped" by my assistant.

I came by one person's wall and saw that she had four finished panels but no neutral in sight.  What is your neutral color?  She thought about that for a while and finally said, "Green?"  Well, green isn't a neutral.  This was news.  My assistant had helped her choose it.  "We thought that green looked really nice," the assistant helpfully explained, hovering about.

As the afternoon wore on, I came by and saw that one person's "13 inch wide" panels looked awfully wide -- I measured one at 20 inches.  What happened here?  "Oh, I guess I didn't know they were supposed to be 13 inches."  It says so right here on the directions.  "Oh, I didn't look at that sheet, I guess I should have."

One person hadn't made a single slice into her panels or attempted to arrange them into a composition.  What's happening here?  "I never finish things I do in workshops," she explained.  Hmmm.  We still have an hour -- you've done all the hard work of sewing these panels together, and you haven't done any of the fun stuff yet!  Maybe you'd be pleasantly surprised.  Well, no. At the final walkabout, when each person talked a bit about her composition, she gave a user testimonial about the brand of fabric she had brought and why it was better than Kona.

As I drove home, I worried about this workshop.  I was sorry that the people who hadn't brought Kona couldn't contribute their strips to the community swap pile, and that if they took from the pile the fabrics wouldn't sew up well together.  I was glad that some of the people who were following directions, doing good work and having fun were in one corner together, so they could reinforce one another's positive attitude.  I was glad that Don't Ask had a table to herself.  I hoped that the people who had been "helped" by the volunteer hadn't been too confused, or lost too much time on wrong turns.  Most of all, I wondered whether I had been able to keep the people who seemed determined to have a bad time from passing their negativity to the others.

Fortunately, most workshops aren't anything like this one.  I'll be teaching the same subject -- Improvisational Strip Piecing -- at Quilting by the Lake next summer, except in a two-day format instead of a single day, so there will be lots more time to sew and lots more time to compose.  Maybe I'll have the pleasure of seeing some of my blog readers there!

For more info on the QBL workshops, click HERE.


  1. How can people be so unwilling?! If I should live nearby I 'd come to every workshop!!!
    I'am still happy I met you last year.

  2. How horrible! That kind of stuff sticks with you for a long time, even though there were so many happy participants! I taught a workshop yesterday where 100% of the participants were eager to learn improv...that's the kind of workshop that stays with you, too, so I hope your next ones are 100% positive, too!!!

  3. I just retired from teaching English to middle schoolers for Forty years. I feel your pain. That was what most days were like!

  4. Thank you for the Good Laugh. All I remember from teaching is saying NO! And then being happy when they actually made something they loved.

  5. I promise when you come to Calico Cutters they will follow directions. I will make sure they all read this....See you soon! we are looking forward to your workshop and lecture.

  6. I have to admit I haven't been a big fan of kona cotton myself...BUT, with that said, if you had said KONA as the fabric for this class I would have looked at it as an opportunity to see why and how I could use it better! It'a learning opportunity for us...that's why we take classes...Perhaps, those 'odd' students just wanted a day out and not to learn!!! Wish I traveled or lived closer...I would have taken this class in a heartbeat! Kudo's for you!!! And I'm sure you will see results that will make you and your 'good' students proud!

  7. boy, how wearying to teach some of those people. i agree with your comment on keep Ms Negative from contaminating the others.
    even after 28 years teaching, i still am satisfied with 85% of people on-task

  8. If you EVER teach this class near Louisville, please let me know. I am very curious about ironing technique - not to mention the strip piecing composition technique. I haven't found a satisfactory solution for what to do with several intersecting seams. Also, why is construction easier if you don't prewash? Is it because of the sizing? Since I hand-dye fabric, I have to prewash. Maybe I should starch it? Anyway, thanks for another interesting and hilarious post. I taught for 30 years, so I feel your pain. I love your refrain, "What happened here?"

  9. Ridiculous, why would someone pay to take a class from someone they must respect aND admire and then totally disregard everything they say? Makes no sense, sorry you had to wade thru that!

  10. I took this class from you (not in the actual class about which you wrote - at least I don't think so) and loved it and I like the finished piece quite a bit. Thanks for sharing you knowledge so generously.

  11. Art is very subjective and very personal. Often we are looking for insight and information on someone else's techniques in order to strengthen our tool boxes for our own individual work but NOT to learn to exactly copy an instructor's work. I think that inspiration should be a greater goal than a goal of having everyone follow the rules as closely as we had to walk in a straight line in the elementary school lunch lines. You have a great deal of experience, knowledge and technical skills to share, there may always be those who would rather sit, listen and absorb rather than work on a specific project. Even those who only listen are still receiving something positive from your workshop. Would I have purchased Kona fabric? Not on your life, but I would have brought fabric that spoke to me and that I would enjoy working with and having in a finished project. Do I think you should have been upset with me for my fabric choices? No. I hope you would have been pleased to have students who wanted to hear you and experience your creative process.

  12. I took this class from you and I still use the pressing skills I learned, but I learned much more too. It was a REALLY good day for me, thanks. P.S. I brought Kona, it's my fave.

  13. I so love this post. I think most people who teach have had this type of experience at least once. I didn't get to read your post sooner because I was teaching a dye workshop where, of course, there was one student who would read/listen to the instruction and then do just the opposite. I had to "improv" a bit, but her fabrics came out beautiful. Opened a new bottle of wine when I got home!
    ps-I took your fine line piecing workshop in Ft. Myers a few years ago & brought Kona (although, I admit I bitched about it when I got the supply list because I don't like it)--- I learned a lot during that workshop, including that when the teacher specifies a particular fabric there is probably a good reason. I love the technique & love the small wallhanging I completed, Kona and all.....

  14. I don't know whether to laugh or to cry. People take classes for any number of reasons, but one thing I do emphasize in my classes is that they are there to learn my way of doing things. This has nothing to do with how the artist/student will apply that technique to their own work in the future. I acknowledge that my way is usually not the only way, but that it works for me. I encourage them to try it my way first, and then they can do whatever they want on their own time. We need to know the rules first before we can break them effectively. As teachers we need to be able to spend time teaching our technique, not trying to solve problems that others have created by not following directions. Unfortunately those individuals require more of the teacher's attention and take away her time from others in the class. I'd take a class from you in an instant if you are ever nearby.