Tuesday, November 8, 2016

More thoughts on teaching

A while ago, the Quiltart list was discussing teaching.  Reading what others have to say makes me so glad that I have gone on a different path toward teaching relative beginners.

Somebody wrote in and said she had a chance to teach beginning quilting at her local shop, and asked for advice.  Here's one response:

"We spend time analyzing each block to work out how it is made -- I want them to able to identify a 4 patch, 9 patch, etc. and break it down into the smallest units they need to cut. This means they need to learn the formulas for 1/2 square triangles etc. I teach them how to calculate how much fabric they need for the block and later on for the sashing."

When I read this, I shuddered.  I know that thousands of quilters have been taught in exactly this manner, and most of them have indeed learned the formulas and how to calculate how much fabric they need, and (I'm sure) how to sew seams that are exactly 1/4 inch, and match the points.  But I wonder how many of them along the way have lost some of the joy and wonder they brought with them to that first lesson.

If I were asked to teach people how to make a 4-patch block, I would go at it another way.  I would say "A 4-patch block looks like this.  The way you sew it is to cut four squares, sew them into two 2-square panels, and sew the two panels together."

People might say "how big should I cut the squares?" and I would say "however big you want to.  If you cut big squares you'll have big, bold blocks and you won't need to many to make your quilt.  If you cut smaller squares it will look more dainty and you'll need a lot more of them, and it will take you longer."

I would tell them to figure out how many blocks they need and think about how they plan to sew it all together.  If they plan to set the 4-patch blocks with larger plain blocks, I would tell them to make all the 4-patch blocks first, then measure them, and cut the larger plain blocks to whatever measurement they need.

I would show them how to match the seams at the center of the 4-patch block if they want to, but I would also tell them that it doesn't really matter if they match or not.  I would say "if the seams match perfectly your quilt will look very precise and well-engineered, and it will take more time and trouble.  If they don't, your quilt will look more jaunty and informal."

I don't understand the concept of "formulas for half-square triangles."  If you want to make half-square triangles, then make some (I would teach a couple of different ways to do so more or less efficiently).  Trim them to be perfect squares (or not) and then cut pieces that size to sew them to.  Or even easier, cut pieces a little bigger, sew them to the half-square blocks, and then trim everything to size.

I would tell people not to bother calculating how much fabric they need, but to do a back-of-the-envelope estimate and then buy more.  It's easier to deal with leftover fabric than to run out before the quilt is finished.  But I would also tell them that if you do run out, find a similar -- or dissimilar -- fabric to finish out with, and it will probably be a more interesting quilt than if you had done everything exactly as predicted.

The reason I teach is that I want to give people the permission and the power to do what they want, to make quilts that reflect their own personality and creativity rather than simply follow the patterns and the rules set by other people.  I believe that traditional quilts are beautiful in their strict geometry and perfect execution, but I have also noticed that a whole lot of traditional quilts do not have perfect execution, and we love them just the same.

Do you think your grandmother "knew the formulas for half-square triangles"?  Or that she calculated exactly how much fabric she was going to need for a new quilt?  I bet she didn't.  I bet she used what she had on hand and made it come out right by hook or by crook.  Why should 21st century quilters have to learn all kinds of quilt-police rules when they could be shown how to do whatever they want?

That's my belief and my mantra.  If you think you'd like to learn to quilt this way, or if you think you might like to forget some of those QP rules and lighten up, maybe you'd like to sign up for my classes at Quilting By the Lake next summer.


  1. i whole-heartedly concur. I left traditional quilting because i couldn't be bothered with making sure i didn't cut of the points of a triangle.

  2. You are the voice of a true art quilter. I agree with your method and love reading your posts.

  3. I think that would be a nice beginner intro. Then, if people are the traditional exactitude sort, then they could do an 'intermediate' class that moves in that direction. If people are more improvisational, then take an intermediate class for that. For beginners it's nice to just get them going with the fabric and making seams and pressing and then cut to size.

    Now I think I maybe should take a class as I don't know how to calculate a half square triangle, and if my most recent exercise in expanding a pattern from throw to king size is any indication, I have no concept of fabric estimating as I ended up going back twice. LOL

  4. It sounds like you're teaching people to start an adventure rather than a list of rules. I bet there are lots of students who are grateful that they started with you!

  5. Bravo! Quilters need to know the joy of creating, not the stress of "perfection" unless so inclined.

  6. I believe that every teacher, no matter what the content, needs to provide students (sho have paid dearly to attend) with an evaluation form at the end of a teaching session. I have been shocked at some of the world renown teachers who leave this out.

    In my opinion it benefits all if the teacher reads and analyzes the results.

  7. I would be much happier in your class! All of the other info you may need at some point for a particular project you can find in books or online.... the joy of putting pieces together to make something new and "you" can only be experienced first hand!