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.


Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Knitting, resting

Let me tell you a long story, short: I'm tired.  Tired like a week signed off work and finally, with some relief, giving in to the fatigue that's been chasing me for the last 6 weeks or so. Tired like going to bed early, getting up late, giving the children a long rein while I watch as inanimately as possible - while waiting for blood test results to tell me what it's all about.

Craft mojo killer, of course. But also, I'm just fed up with it and, when I'm not sleeping, bored.  So I'm therefore very glad that when this really hit, I was in the middle of a big, simple and repetitive knitting project. I haven't been able to face much screen time, any sewing, hardly even book reading, or anything else much, but sitting still and knitting this is still do-able.

It's a completely brainless, 9-skein long scarf, knit in seed/moss stitch and nothing else - just knit one, purl one with an empty mind. Exactly what I need right now, those times that I need to have myself occupied with something. It's short bursts, a row or two at a time, but the feeling of being productive in even this small way is, I think, preventing me from becoming depressed on top of it all.

All kind of serendipitous, because when I cast on and realised the huge expanse of repetition ahead of me, I was filled with dread. But 6 skeins in, it's exactly what the doctor ordered.  By now there's enough of it to drape over myself while carrying on, and it's the softest, warmest merino I've yet come across. Which all helps.

As you can see on the labels, it's from Purl Soho - the worsted twist seed stitch wrap, to be precise. Now I kind of feel I have a post in itself to write about the need (real or imagined) to make excuses and give explanations for the cost of things like this. In fact I often feel that way about fabric and craft supplies in general, especially in 'real life'. That unspoken question about the stashes we have and the splurges we make - is sewing just a hobby for the moneyed middle class? Like I said, a whole post in itself, and to be very honest I feel awkward even mentioning it (one of my, yes, middle class taboos!). My brain isn't in the right place to go there right now, I'm afraid - for now, all I really mean to say is: I feel the need to present my excuse for an expensive knitting kit from New York, which is that it was a congratulatory present to myself for finally paying off my student loans. And it cost less than the monthly payment had been, so after months of humming and hawing I rationaled that all out to myself, shut my eyes and ordered it. When my head's back where it should be, I'll see if I can do some better thinking about the bigger issues... and if you know of any good blog posts already out there on the matter, let me know!

So anwyay, moving on. Of course, knitting being joyously portable but this wrap being MASSIVE, I needed a bigger knitting bag. So a few weeks ago, this got sewn:

Like my previous knitting bag, it's a Noodlehead open wide pouch. I sized up the largest version by about 1.5 and added some straps. The wooden plank fabric is from Ikea - I got way too much because I love it, and now can't think what to do with the leftovers, but never mind.

And that's about all for now, folks. After a couple of days off and resting intensively, I woke up today feeling a bit better - but rested is not equal to re-energised, and this is more than enough time in front of a screen for now. Whatever the outcome of this week's tests and rest, I suspect I will also need to do some proper thinking about the sleep habits and time management techniques that have served me well thus far. Perhaps they're just beginning to fail me, for whatever reason, and I don't want my sewing to be the main long-term casualty. So if nothing else comes of this whole enforced down-time, there might at least be some mindful decisions about how to best use and conserve my energy.

Plus, a luxurious new knitted scarf :-)