Thursday, 20 March 2014

The soft option: my high school textiles project

Hi guys :-)  And first of all, thank you for such kind comments on my post last week (and on twitter/instagram), along with apologies that I haven't been very good at replying. I've been doing my best to cut down on screen time, as believe it or not writing that post pretty much knocked me out for the rest of the day! But in my tired and emotional state I - of course - appreciate it greatly, especially as many of you know the frustrations of being long-term fatigued far, far worse than I do. What's really great is to know that you lovely sewing people actually understand the not being able to make. Gah! I've been so bored!

But, a week of rest has gone a long way, and I'm now back on my feet and sucking up vitamin D supplements with enthusiasm (not the full story, apparently, but certainly helping). Sewing is happening, little bits at a time, and I'm slowly on my way to my first proper shirt ever! (An Archer, inevitably). 

Of course, you doesn't need to be at full strength to think about sewing. One of the most interesting twitter conversations I had last week was sparked by this call to Give the Needle and Thread a Chance in schools, by Lisa of Sew Over It.  It prompted a whole discussion on the undervaluing of creative and practical subjects in education, even when they are actually on offer.  Textiles, art, woodwork: these things are rarely encouraged as leading to fulfilling career options (or even fulfilling hobbies, actually). They're the 'soft subjects', in contrast with the hard academic work of maths, science, and 'core' subjects such as English and humanities.

And this talk of 'soft options' particularly pushed my buttons. Not only because I agree on the importance of teaching young people that creating is a valuable use of their time and talents (obviously, I do). Mostly, it was because I know first hand that, however it might be perceived in terms of long-term career planning, GSCE Textiles is not a soft option*.  Just ask my mum, who sat up through several all-nighters and then wrote me sick notes off school so I could get the projects done. As it happens, she recently found one of the three coursework pieces I submitted aged 16. I had already photographed it, thinking I'd share it here one day, as personally I find it rather fascinating.  Not only was it clearly a lot of hard work (which I can hardly even remember doing in such great detail), it's also a total throwback to the world of pre-internet sewing. Remember that??

So, would you like a look? Be warned - it's photo heavy. Also, it's likely I'm not done with talking yet, either :-)

* GCSE = General Certificate of Secondary Education, usually taken in 9-10 subjects at age 16.

So this was project two out of three - I have no idea what happened to the others. It's very likely we lost them in a deliberate act of sabotage, after the trauma of actually making them. The brief, chosen from about 5 options, was to: "Design and make an educational toy for a toddler, using a variety of yarns, fabrics and decorative techniques." 

Outing myself, if there's anyone reading who cares which school I went to :-)

First, there's an analysis of factors to take into account. It should be  durable, washable, attractive, age-appropriate, safe, lightweight, appropriate size, fun, and educational. Aiming high!

Next, research. This was pre-internet, remember. My research consisted of closely looking at my younger siblings' toys, then cutting up an Argos catalogue (now sadly defunct, taking with it a little piece of the British collective consciousness). Anyway, I narrowed it down to making a cloth book because duh easiest way to try and fill that brief.

Some painstaking drawing of pictures to include, and then down to the business of colour charts, fabric types, and notions.

This is where it gets really involved: from what materials could I use, to what materials should I use? Yes - it's sample time!  I just can't believe I actually did all this. Quilting options for realistic fish scales and everything!

Pages and pages on researching & explaining the various techniques under consideration - plus a bonus essay on child development.

(Aside: oddly, this in no way resembles my current handwriting).  Then, with research done and decisions made, we have the "investigating" into how to execute it all with the techniques identified. I.e., more samples.

Painting, drawing and screen printing on various types of fabrics, quilting options for the pages...

... different ways to bind the spine...

... and here, drawing it all together, is my grand Plan of Action. In today's world, this would probably look like a tutorial - but back then, there was no template for this stuff. I was going to put the pictures in a collage, but in the end decided to let you marvel at the complexity of my explanations in full detail :-)

I have no clue what that middle picture is all about:

Calculations and costs:

The making of each page...

... and binding them all together:

Several more pages of 'conclusions', and that's it. Now, I bet you want to see the finished thing, don't you? Unfortunately, so would I - but I can't, because I gave it away, just as soon as it got back from marking, to a real life toddler.  Can you sense how much I wanted to be rid of the whole thing? As I said, I have no idea what happened to my other two projects (an embroidered wallet that I actually used for years, and a severely uncool nautical-themed jumpsuit. Don't judge me for that one - it was the early '90s, ok?).  And the more I think about this, the most it strikes me as being a bit off somehow. I mean, both the making and the writing up of all three projects were HUGE.  Why wasn't I proud of them?

Sewing under exam pressure is never going to be relaxing, I suppose. But I know the real reason I minded so much. It's because all this work seemed so disproportionate. It was 'just' textiles. It wasn't one of the important subjects. I was aiming for good grades (and it still rankles that I never got higher than a B, for all the effort I put in), but that wasn't the point. This was not a subject in which good grades were really needed - because it wasn't going to take me anywhere useful, anyway. All this work simply sucked time and energy away from the academic stuff that mattered.

It's a strange balance. When I look at this project - a mere third of the coursework I produced! - what I've described above is overwhelmingly what I feel. But once I put the folder away, I overridingly remember my textiles class as a haven of peace and creativity. There were six of us plus the teacher, and I have truly fond memories of quietly chatting while we experimented with painting, drawing and printing on fabric, with quilting and applique and finishing seams. I am incredibly grateful, too, that for part of my school career I was at a place with both the resources and inclination to offer me a really thorough grounding in practical sewing skills.

There may have been a gap of almost 15 years before I started to sew again, and I may have (definitely) forgotten immense amounts of what I'd learned.  But now when I sew, I retreat into that same space. There are windows and light, the sounds of scissors through fabric, whirring machines and concentration. It's a space where I know that if I apply myself a little, my head and my hands will put themselves together and create stuff, and that's actually amazing. All of it alongside friends who know what I'm talking about, pins in my mouth and all - whether right at the next desk, or in the computer and all over the world.

So yes, I'd sign a petition, launched on the back of the Great British Sewing Bee's popularity, to put sewing back on the UK's national curriculum. I'll wholeheartedly support any campaign for widespread teaching of practical creative skills. But when it really comes down to it, I actually think that valuing creativity is, most importantly, about valuing yourself.

That's not a soft option.

It is something we can all help teach, school curriculum or not.


  1. Sew Little TimeMarch 20, 2014 1:21 pm

    wow - that's so much work! looks really interesting. textiles wasn't even on offer at my school (in scotland) it was fabric and fashion. and you are from my current neck of the woods! 2 of my daughters friends from nursery got to the abbey school now!

  2. Oh wow, I'm baffled by how much work you put into that! I really was a bad student.

    I studied Latin in school and clearly remember the teacher's reactions when they heard I was going to pursue drawing as a profession. One teacher even told me that I was 'smart enough to do something serious', if only I'd work a little harder. They just didn't understand that I'm not an academic type, even if I'm smart enough for it.

  3. I'm in team Anneke. I also did latin in the first 4 years of highschool and it was horrible. The moment I said I'd go and study arts, teachers went crazy.
    I also feel that a lot of people feel like "maths and science is way more important". I'm not saying it isn't (cause sewing is maths, people!) but culture, social skills, art and beauty are important as well. They bring balance in life, and that's what it's all about!
    Also, I too remember a lot of all nighters and lack of sleep or social life during my college years. And not because I was drinking with my friends but because I was sewing, drawing, designing...
    Great post here Jo!

  4. Thank you for sharing Jo - I still have a folder of my textile samples, but they were never as detailed as your three projects! I did 'an interesting' selection of final year subjects (Computer Science before Windows anyone?) and remember that Biology was 'important' (but still the soft science option), yet Phys Ed was 'just sport' even though I learnt more abut human biology in it (and a lot of psychology as well).

  5. That's the thing isn't it? Doing what you want to do, and will suit you well, is at least as important as doing the 'smart' things, and "because you can" isn't enough of a good reason by itself. A lot of that sort of advice is well-meaning, it's just difficult to break out of that traditional thinking about what a "good job" is.

    Also, I'm totally baffled by all that work myself! I remembered it being a lot, but now I really can't believe I did three of these! That school was pretty demanding and they put a lot of pressure on so I don't think I ever felt like I had much of a choice. Again, well-intentioned - it was an all-girls school basically trying to give us the best possible chance to go out and being world-conquering women - but what comes across when I look back at it is a feeling that women can be each other's own worst enemies. There was no need to push us for that level of academic success!

  6. Yes, computers!! I actually did all of my undergrad studies without a computer as well, which when you're doing a History degree with essays and in-depth research must be radically different now. For my final year dissertation I travelled the country going to different local libraries for the stuff I needed, and spent days in them photocopying. How the world has changed!

    Totally agree about balance - and maybe there needs to be more emphasis on skills rather than knowledge. Because of sewing I now wish my maths was better (I spent the whole time refusing to take it in), but there's all sorts of information I took in at school that I never use now - and could have learnt from books (or the internet) if I ever needed it. Although I did really like learning about & knowing stuff just for the hell of it, that's how I ended up with a history degree. Hmm...

  7. Yes yes to all of those! Computer Science before Windows - it all seemed so futuristic and techy! And then quickly became pointless (although I guess the programming stuff remained useful, for those who were so inclined). And I'm sure learning things like biology and psychology in an applied way, like PE, is a far more efficient way of learning. I don't think I ever matched anything from my biology class to actual bodies and stuff! Apart from when we did 'smoking' with test tubes to show how much crap it puts in your lungs - I still remember vividly sitting and watching that (and also how expert our rather glamorous teacher was with lighting it up, which more than balanced out the negative message she was supposed to be sending!)

  8. Are they still wearing that awful bottle green uniform? Actually, exactly the same colour as the cutting mat if I remember correctly :-) I still shudder to think of it!

    Funnily enough now I would much rather do something like "fabric and fashion" than textiles - it'd be good to make that leap from materials to shapes, patterns & designs. Well actually doing all of those subjects would be great! Were I a school leaver again now, things would probably go in a very different direction!

  9. It must have been way more diffucult! However, my brother is now getting a history degree and he still needs to go the the library very often, because they only have the documents in print! I think, that when you need to go somewhere, you might put in more focus? Nowadays computers are both blessing and distraction... (or is it just me?)
    I agree on the learning about and knowing stuff just for the hell of it. I had a really hard time chosing between art history and costume design, so I get this urge to know things :-)

  10. I cannot understand why you wouldn't have liked that nautical jumpsuit - I'd probably wear it now :)!
    Seriously though, thanks for the very thought provoking piece and an insight into the enormous amount of work you put into that assignment. I remember doing 'home economics' but only in the early highschool years. Aaah, the days of the hand written and library researched assignments. Hanging out at the library was where we'd go to meet up!

  11. Yes, the library was a highly sociable place to be! We didn't have the distraction of the internet, but there was definitely the risk of popping outside for "a quick break" and only coming back the next day after that turned into "a quick drink" (and then some...!) And I wish I had a picture of that jumpsuit. It was just awful - there's no possible way I'd be able to 'dress it up' as some kind of retro chic. It was just pure DIY Laura Ashley for kids... !

  12. This is such an interesting post & there's so many issues to think about. I hadn't heard of the Guve the needle & thread a chance' campaign so thanks for the info. I've found there's often a distinction between art & craft at study level too. At my school art was quite a prestigious subject to take in a way, with the school being proud of the high numbers who got straight into Glasgow art school. However 'craft' as in sewing or anything to do with textiles, embroidery, etc was not held in the same regard. This distinction and classing of 'high' art and 'craft' is something that really disturbs me as it seems so gendered.
    Thanks for sharing your project - what an amount of work you put into it!

  13. Hi! I've nominated you for the Liebster Award!


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