My philosophy of teaching

If you're contemplating asking somebody to teach you or your group, you should try to figure out if their approach to teaching will fit with yours.  Here are some blog posts that I wrote about teaching; see if we're on the same wavelength!

Finding the right teacher -- a user's guide

Much discussion recently on the SAQA email list about teaching and how the marketplace for workshops and classes is changing.  As I read the many posts, two words kept flashing in front of my eyes -- caveat emptor.

If you're trying to find a teacher for yourself or for your guild, I suggest you do your research.  Start with the potential teacher's website.  Read the bio and see how experienced she is.  There are apparently a lot of "teachers" out there who just started making art last year.  See if you can tell whether she has studied at a reputable institution or with reputable teachers.

Then look at the galleries.  How much work is posted?  Is it good work?  Is the whole body of work substantive and impressive?  Avoid teachers who have only a handful of pieces posted, especially if the pieces are small and disparate.  People who have made a bit of this and a bit of that probably don't have the experience or work ethic or mindset that you want in a teacher.  Especially look for work that demonstrates the subject or technique in the workshop you're checking out.  If somebody is teaching A, you probably want her to have made enough A to have mastered it.

Read the workshop descriptions.  Do they have detail about what is covered and what kind of product students will produce?  Especially if you're contemplating a workshop at a big quilt show, the brochure may have only vague information or meaningless drivel -- "Come fly to tropical climes in this exciting workshop!"  If you're looking at the teacher's own site, does it show actual student work?  Does it include testimonials from former students?

Check out the teacher's blog, if one exists.  I know it's fashionable today to say that blogging is so last decade, that facebook and tweets and instagram and pinterest have supplanted that dull, boring practice of writing entire paragraphs about a single idea.  But if you're trying to see if you would benefit from spending hours or days with somebody, you probably should make that judgment on more than 140 characters.

You can tell a lot about a person's character from reading a blog.  Does she write with confidence and expertise or is she forever apologizing or complaining?  Does it sound as though she knows more than you do about the subject you're thinking of studying?  Does she organize her thoughts and explain clearly, or is her writing disjointed and careless?  Is she generous about sharing tips and advice or is every photo prominently watermarked, every post studded with warnings about how you dare not copy?  Does every blog post end with the same long commercial for her book, her services, her workshops?  Most important, does this sound like the kind of person you would like to hang out with?

Get some other opinions.  Ask for references.  Although this doesn't seem to be standard practice in the quilt/art world, I wouldn't hesitate to ask a potential teacher for the names of three or four individuals or program chairs who have taken workshops.  A teacher who refuses or gets offended at such a request might not be the kind of teacher you want to learn from.  Then write or call and ask how it went.  Even if the reference won't say anything bad, you can probably detect the difference in tone between the dutiful nicey-nice compliment and the sincerely positive endorsement.

Finally, write the teacher and ask questions.  If you get a perfunctory or dismissive response, that's a pretty good hint that you might want to keep looking.  If the response is eager, see if you can gauge whether the eagerness is for you to have a valuable learning experience or for her to get a paying gig.

Doing your homework won't guarantee the perfect learning experience, but it should greatly decrease the likelihood that you will be disappointed.

Liberation from other people's patterns

If you are at all accomplished in your craft, there probably comes a time when you have the opportunity to teach, and that means you have to choose a niche.  Some teachers are excellent at helping students with design and composition and other high-art considerations.  Some specialize in basic sewing and quilting skills.  Some teach about specific techniques, equipment or products.  Others teach projects, even to the point where you have to buy their pattern and/or kit.  There seem to be plenty of potential students out there for everybody.

But the niche I have chosen for myself is to liberate quilters from the tyranny of other people's patterns.

When I talk to traditional quilters I note that making quilts has two parts: design and execution.  Most if not all of them have spent years trying to perfect their execution, and yet most of them are perfectly willing to buy the design part from other people.  I ask them: Why outsource half your craft -- and the most exciting half at that?

For people who have always bought their designs, the idea of taking that step in-house can be scary.  I know this -- I used to be there myself.  Although I never used patterns, I did get ideas from books and magazines and often made quilts where I simply tweaked those borrowed concepts.  It took me a long time to get past that point and develop my own totally original ideas.

So I try to help my students move slowly toward totally original design rather than jumping into the deep end.  I often teach what I think of as "recipes" -- processes that will lead them toward a moment where they can put some stuff up on a design wall, step back and look at it, and then decide how to move toward a finished composition.  And I always try to preach the gospel of organic growth -- after you've finished one quilt, evaluate it and develop your next quilt on the shoulders of the first one, rather than starting from scratch.

I don't expect accomplished fiber artists to show up at my workshops; they're already swimming in the deep end of the pool.  But I think there's a market out there for people who wish they could swim well enough to venture deeper.  Heck, I know there's a vast market out there for quilters who are willing to outsource their design phase, because I see the number of patterns being sold.  If only a tiny fraction of them would like to be liberated from the tyranny of other people's patterns, I could teach every day for the rest of my life.

Teaching beginners

A while ago, the Quiltart email 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.

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