Embroidery No Longer Taught In Schools. A Pity?
At the Beating Around The Bush Embroidery Convention held during April 2012, the entries for a worldwide competition were displayed and judged. The last, and most coveted, award went to the piece of embroidery that had received the most votes in the Viewers’ Choice section. It was a beautiful wool embroidered quilt, each block a separate Beatrix Potter scene, stitched by Claire Edwards.
When Claire came up to the podium to receive her award, she told us an interesting story. When she was about 6 or 7 years old and being taught how to embroider at school, the teacher would inspect her pupils work from time to time. The little girls in the class were made to line up, clutching in their hands the work that they were doing, and a ruler. Need I go on? If their stitching wasn’t up to scratch their hands were smacked with the ruler. Claire received this treatment and, more to the point, has never forgotten it. As she said, this experience made it all the more incredible that she continued to embroider up to a level where her work is now good enough to win such an award.
I’ve been involved in embroidery for about 25 years and I cannot tell you how many people I have come across who were put off embroidery whilst at school, because of similar treatment from teachers and, so often, nuns at convent schools. What a pity that is. Eventually all girls become women who can no longer dash around hockey fields chasing balls, and they will be looking for a more sedentary hobby. Unless other inspiring influences were present in childhood, many of them will not consider any form of needlework because their school experience put them off for life.
But, you might say, that would have been in the 60s and 70s and things have progressed since then. Nobody gets smacked anymore. It’s true that a ruler on the hands has been “ruled out”, but I was unhappy to discover a few years ago that, in essence, things haven’t really changed that much.
My daughter went to a chi-chi girls' private school, the kind that puts out full-colour brochures claiming to nurture, recognise the individual for what she is...... You know what I’m talking about, all private schools employ similar window dressing tactics. By and large that was true of the school that she went to, but no school is ever perfect. In grades 8 and 9 all of the girls were required to do a semester or two of all the subjects that were on offer, after which they chose the 6 or 7 subjects that they would focus on during the last 3 years until they matriculated.
During the six months that she was doing home economics she was required to embroider a gingham embroidery table cloth. Sadly, the fabric that was provided was a nasty piece of polyester gingham, not even the real thing. But I digress. She was required to finish the project during the Michaelmas holidays and spent many enjoyable and relaxing hours stitching. She’d always been a little scornful of what she called my ‘embroidery effort’ but found herself enjoying what she was doing. A day or two before the end of the school holidays she said, “actually Mum, I’m beginning to see why you enjoy embroidery”.
On the day school started she hadn’t quite finished. She had, probably, an hour’s work left to do. She took it to school and asked the teacher if she could have one more day to complete it. She did want to complete it. The teacher told her “no, you hand it in right now and you will lose marks because it wasn’t finished”. Well, that was it. The project was never finished, will never be finished and one more person was lost to embroidery. Teachers don’t seem to realise how one nasty remark or action can put a child off something for life.
I failed needlework at school. Dismally. But my highest marks were for Art. And that’s where I’m going with this.
In the same way that children aren’t, but should be, taught how to fill in a tax return or apply for a mortgage bond in order to equip them for adult life, they should learn how to sew on a button and put up a hem. Further than that, embroidery should be taught in the art class. It is not a “domestic” science, it is an art and one of the finest there is. I can “paint” far more effectively with a needle and thread than I ever could with a paint brush and in the context of school, art teachers are likely to be far more inspiring than home economics teachers ever would be. There are, of course, some exceptions.
Making young girls do something that they don’t enjoy and find difficult at that stage in their lives is guaranteed to put them off forever, particularly if the teacher is herself unartistic and uninspiring. Like many other things, it is better to let them try it when they want to. If the adults in their life are stitching, and enjoying it, they may eventually be inspired. Then, when they are looking for a hobby they may try it and probably enjoy it for what it is. Relaxing, therapeutic, creative and for many people, addictive. It is up to us to design and do projects that are attractive to younger women.
Nothing is ever black and white and one should always consider all the aspects before forming an opinion. So, is it a pity that embroidery is no longer taught in schools?
On balance, I think not.