This week, in schools across England, the same scene will have been repeated. All the paperwork and equipment that has been so vital for so much of the year will suddenly be competing for space in bins and skips as everyone clears out and strips down, ready for the new school year. The school where I’ve been working this year was no exception, and during the clearing out of one cupboard, two boxes full of Sylko sewing threads were unearthed, in all their jewel-bright coloured glory. Luckily, my reputation as one of those types that make stuff is such that someone saw fit to save them from the skip and pass them on to me.
Obviously I was delighted with the unexpected windfall, but it also made me sad all over again that handcraft often has little or no place in most mainstream primary schools in England anymore. I don’t blame schools or teachers for this, but it’s inevitable that if the National Curriculum and the inspection system puts so much value on the core subjects of Maths, English and (to a lesser extent) Science and subsequently puts huge pressure on schools to dedicate the lion’s share of resources and timetabling into these areas, then creative arts will dwindle. Unless there are SATs in sewing or singing (heaven forbid!), or they stop using SATs results as the main measure of a school’s effectiveness, then there is very little motivation for schools to give their staff the training, time or resources to deliver other subjects.
I write this having just come home from my last morning of work in the school. I am making another attempt at leaving mainstream teaching. Those who know me know that I’m not very good at doing this as I have this tendency to forget the pain of marking workloads and targets, remember the love I have for teaching and go back. But this time it may stick, as I am leaving to begin training in a different system of schooling, where, as it happens, creative arts are valued much more. I therefore feel I have ideas, but not expertise, at the moment when it comes to being able to explain just why arts subjects in schools are academically or economically important. I am hoping in the future to find out more, before I write about it here. But what I instinctively believe, through my own experience, is that being able to make stuff helps those who can to be happier, more successful humans. Here (in no particular order) is my own list of things I have learned from being a maker:
- How to ‘enjoy the journey’
I’ve practised yoga, on and off, for years. I’ve tried meditation apps. Read about mindfulness. Still got ants in my pants. I find it really, really difficult to do the whole ‘live in the moment, enjoy the journey’ thing. My mind seems to constantly drift into what’s happened, why, how, what that might signify, then bounce into speculation about the future, with a whole other set of questions. When I’m making (in particular when I’m knitting) it still does this, but I think it’s the closest I come to living in the moment, as I enjoy the whole start to finish, relatively slow process: choosing colours and patterns; winding the yarn; casting on; gradually making the fabric grow, adding patterns in stitches or colours; casting off; blocking and finishing. I will often carry trains of thought through that whole process and they won’t always be mindful and ‘in the moment’ but I think the immediacy of the materials being worked by my hands is amazingly grounding and the closest I come to meditation.
- With humility, you can learn from every mistake
Earlier this year I stuffed up what was possibly one of the best opportunities I’ve ever had as a knitting designer. I had known for a little while that the opportunity might be coming, and had probably got too worried about how well I would perform when the time came. It came. My mind went blank. I panicked. I started ideas then immediately threw them out. The deadline loomed and I went against my usual ‘don’t send it unless you believe in it’ rule and sent a half-arsed dud of a submission. I received a very polite ‘no, thank you’ in which it was also gently pointed out that what I had produced was also (accidentally) derivative of other people’s designs. This from someone I admire hugely.
For at least a day I wanted to hide under my duvet and never pick up needles to knit or a pencil to design ever again (honestly? I still cringe even writing about this). But because I am a maker I knew what I had to do, really. The mistakes made were by my hand and no-one else’s, so what was needed was the life-equivalent of frogging and starting again. I made myself look carefully at where I had made gone wrong- and in doing so I realised that there were other, underlying reasons to do with how I was working which led to this disaster happening. I made new plans for moving forward, set up new rules for how to approach things in future and got on with it.
There may well be some superhumans out there who make every project perfectly, first time, every time. I suspect there are far more of us who sometimes hit the sweet spot but, more often than not, have to admit that, especially when we are trying something new or challenging, we make a pig’s ear of it at least once. The thing is, we don’t just try it once, then give up. We look at what went wrong, we learn, we maybe go and find out more or ask for help and then we persist. And through this persistence we learn and beautiful things are created.
- You can accept imperfection, sometimes.
Ask people to tell you something about Islamic art and you will often hear about how a mistake is always left, deliberately, in patterns because the belief is that only God can create perfection. Regardless of your beliefs or lack thereof, it’s hard to deny that part of what makes us human is our fallibility- another part is our creativity, and I don’t believe the two are unconnected. Sometimes this is easier to say than it is to live by, however. In a heavily edited, image-laden online world it is easy to be drawn into chasing some dream of perfection- the perfect body, the perfect home, the perfect diet, the perfect lifestyle. Even ‘imperfection’ can be a stage-setting of perfectly scattered seed-heads on perfect scrubbed oak floorboards (and yes, I’m as guilty of this kind of Instagram image as the next person).
Crafting helps me to accept imperfection. I have a colourwork hat (Sheepheid by Kate Davies) which I made some years ago, when I was just getting the hang of knitting stranded colour from charts. I must have tried to complete the three or four rounds for the sheep’s faces at least five times, and every time I looked back and found a problem. In the end I gave up trying to sort it and kept going. As a result, one of the sheep has a funny short nose. I could use Swiss darning to change it, but I’ve chosen to live with it. I accept it as part of my knitting journey and what I was learning when I made that hat. No-one notices it, unless I point it out. This is another thing I am gradually learning from being a maker- that it’s very easy to end up pointing out mistakes, instead of noticing that the reason someone is commenting on my work is usually out of admiration or interest. I am trying to learn to just say ‘thank you!’ and smile.
Of course, there are some mistakes that you can’t, or shouldn’t live with. That mis-twisted cable that will bug you every time you look at it. The dropped stitch which could lead to everything unravelling. The issue with fit that means you’ll never really wear the thing you’ve spent so long making, or if you do, you’ll feel uncomfortable or unhappy. Knowing when to accept that, despite the time and effort you might have put into it, you need to go back, sort out the problem or start again is surely a life-skill as well as a maker’s skill.
- We all have the power to change the world, even if only a tiny bit
One of the reasons I feel sad about children being less likely to be taught handcrafts these days is that it means they miss out on the tremendous joy of knowing they can take raw materials and skills and create something that simply didn’t exist before. When that something is of your own design or even just your own take on an existing design, then that joy is even deeper. I meet so many adults who say things like ‘I could never do that!’ with reference to making things and it’s such a shame, because clearly they could but it is confidence as much as skills that they lack. The confidence that you can make things begets confidence- you believe you can create something; believe you can learn the skills if you need to; believe you can understand the process; believe you can put your own spin on it or design it from the ground up- and that feeling of power can extend far beyond crafting skills.
Just over eleven years ago my first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. At the time I wasn’t doing very much of any craft, but as I recovered physically and mentally I found myself seized with the urge to make. I chose crochet. I found a hook and gathered all the odds and ends of yarn I had around the house- acrylic and wool, all colours, all textures, all weights- and started on a simple granny-square blanket, of the sort that just spirals outwards until you stop. This was not a thing of beauty, with its mismatched, unedited materials, but I didn’t really care. I wasn’t even sure if, whenever I decided it was finished, I would keep it or throw it away. It was the process that seemed to matter- the gentle repetition, the aesthetic stimulation of colours and textures and, most importantly, up against a big (for me) nasty thing I could do nothing about, I found something I had power over. I could make this ugly blanket exist where it hadn’t before.
I didn’t throw away that blanket. Several houses later, it’s slung over the back of the sofa, having been used by the two healthy children I went on to have, to crawl over, sleep under, make dens with, drag into the garden to sit on and so on. But its first job was to teach me that I still had power over some things in my life.
There are many things in the world that I don’t like and that I cannot change, or cannot make very much difference to. Making reminds me that I still have power to make small changes. I can bring things into existence that weren’t there before and if you believe that you can do that kind of magic, then it’s easier to believe that you can change other, bigger things. Express opinions, take up space, change minds, have agency over your life. I don’t think it’s any surprise that in recent weeks we have heard the voices of makers expressing protest (Louise Tilbrook wrote about this on her blog today), just as they always have- witness the satirical cartoons of 200 years ago; the generations of hand-stitched trade union banners; clothes and jewellery altered or created in white, green and purple to show support for the Suffragette movement; the first rainbow flags; pussy hats and so on. Many come to crafting for the relaxation and maybe to have some new stuff, but once it takes hold, it can show you that if we have the power to create beautiful, useful objects, then we must have to power to create other things: noise, movement, unity, change.
Teachers and schools are overloaded, under-resourced and under pressure. I don’t blame them at all if they aren’t able to offer much in the way of opportunities for learning handcrafts. However, those who do make it their business to pass on making skills, to adults or children, I salute you. And I would urge you, dear reader and maker, should you ever have the opportunity, to pass on your making skills to anyone who would like to learn. By teaching them how to make stuff you will give them more than you will ever know.