the emperor in his beautifully handknitted socks


I went to a knitting workshop this weekend with a well-known teacher. My schedule is quite full so I haven’t taken a craft class of any sort in five years. As a result this was a huge deal to me. I spent the equivalent of about a quarter of our mortgage on the fee and the cost of the materials. I couldn’t care less about an instructor’s celebrity status, I just want to learn something new and to be inspired.

I read reviews of the workshop that others had taken on various knitting blogs so I thought I knew what I was getting into. The workshop started at 9am. By 9:15 those around me were commenting about how “grumpy” and “tired of teaching” the instructor appeared. Having spent three years full-time in graduate school in design, I was accustomed to abrasive instructors. I was willing to tolerate the instructor’s moodiness if I was going to learn what I went there to learn.

I do admit, however, to having no patience for what a professor once referred to as “hand waving.” “Hand waving” was the term he gave to people who couldn’t, either through words or drawings, articulate their approach in a meaningful way but just waved their hands around in the air while talking. In short, “hand waving” refers to people who haven’t done their homework and are being sloppy with their pedagogy. I don’t do well with an Emperor who has no clothes and this one had on, at most, a pair of beautifully handknitted socks.

I had read that this instructor worked intuitively, meaning that there wouldn’t be a lot of explanation about design choices, but I was astonished to hear directions such as, “Grab two colors that look nice together.” That’s a bit general for a color workshop. How about “two colors of the same value” or “one saturated color and one that is less saturated” or “two yarns in analogous colors?”

There were a lot of comments such as, “I can’t explain it. You just have to figure it out.” “You need to turn off your brain,” we were advised. If I had wanted to “figure it out” on my own, I wouldn’t be paying all of this money to take a class. As someone who has read and written books on color theory, it was painful to hear the concepts of hundreds of years of color theory thrown out the window. While I don’t believe in formulas for successful color work, students in a class really deserve an explanation of how colors interact and how the brain perceives differences in them. It’s a shame (or perhaps a sham?) to be teaching a class on color and not have the vocabulary or understanding of color theory to be able to explain the basics to those without formal design training.

I was, however, there for the technique. I did what I was instructed to do and didn’t realize until about 2:30 or so that the instructor had assumed that everyone knew the necessary technique and hadn’t bothered to teach anyone at our table. So several of the people around me and I had been knitting with the wrong technique for five hours. “The technique doesn’t matter,” the instructor later told me.

Some of the other students were frustrated, others were fine, some were drinking the “design is all intuitive” Kool-Aid and others were just star-struck. Still others, with perhaps more time and money than I, were happy to knit with their friends and listen to the instructor’s humorous anecdotes. I thought about the manuscript that I should have been reviewing and how else I could have spent that money.

When I quietly whispered to the owner of the knitting shop who was sponsoring the workshop that I hadn’t learned the technique I had come there to learn, she had someone from the shop come help me, which I appreciated. Then she told me that there were classes I could take where they taught this technique. “Am I in a Catch-22 novel?” I thought. This IS one of those classes in which this technique is supposed to be taught.

I left disappointed at having wasted my precious time and hard-earned money. I did learn a few things from the helpful woman from the shop but I felt frustrated that people were duped into thinking that design can’t be explained, that it’s all intuitive and that technique doesn’t matter. If that were true, design schools and art schools would not exist.

In the car home I recalled a conversation I had in the mid-90s with my late mother-in-law, a self-taught weaver who was well versed in design theory. I was expressing my amazement at a rag weaving made in an “intuitive” workshop. The technique, I had been told, was to just pull the fabrics to be woven out of a bag provided by the instructor in no particular order. There was no planning so the person who had woven the piece was convinced that the secret to good design was all intuitive. You basically didn’t need to know anything, or think about anything. Just loosen up and pull things out of bags. “But who selected the fabric that went into the bag?” my mother-in-law shrewdly asked. “It’s not the pulling out of the bag, “she said, “but rather teaching people the thinking behind what went into the bag and why. That’s the real class.”  It’ll be awhile before I can pick up that basket of yarn again.

So, kind reader, do tell. What makes a workshop great? Is it enough to be entertained or do you need to actually learn something? What makes you feel as though you’ve wasted your time and money?

19 thoughts on “the emperor in his beautifully handknitted socks

  1. I think that different people take different classes for different reasons.
    1. I have taken a class that used a commercially available (very easy) pattern – just to have the appointment with my machine.
    2. I have taken several classes for the technique – without worrying at all about the final product. (Some will never be completed & I am o.k. with the fact that other find this wasteful of my resources – fabric &/or time.)
    3. I have taken a class or two because my friend was taking the same class.
    4. I have taken a class 3 times so that I would/could finish the project.
    5. I know someone who has gone to a class just to “be in the aura” of the teacher.
    6. I know someone else who lives to take classes with “famous” teachers.
    7. I have not taken a class in YEARS – I have enough patterns/fabric/kits/UFOs to last a lifetime without adding to my problem. & Ringle & Kerr are about to publish a new book that will surely entice me into starting/planning even more projects.
    8. I refuse to take up a yarn art – I don’t need another stash/addiction.

  2. The past two Januarys, I’ve driven 1000 miles to a mountain mystery quilt retreat where I’ve spent a lot of money, logged 16 hours of driving, and ended up with a quilt I wasn’t crazy about. I have to remind myself that my main goal was spending time with my friend and retreat roommate and also with the lovely woman who taught me how to quilt. But twice is enough; I won’t be going back.

    What you described seems more of a retreat than a workshop. To me, the term ‘workshop’ translates to hands-on instruction. Teach me how, teach me why, teach me why not. Show me a little how to, step me back out into the bigger picture, and then encourage me to keep pressing into the often frustrating aspects of a learning curve. Entertaining me isn’t mandatory but respecting my choice to invest my time and money into the teacher and the workshop most certainly is.

    That said, I believe this experience will make you a better teacher. Negative examples are powerful forces in the future actions of positive people.

  3. What makes a workshop great? Big question. The answer would be based on my expectations going in. I have always enjoyed when instructors ask at the beginning of class why are you there. Some of them even write them down on a flip board and come back to them to see if the class is meeting the student’s expectations. Then the instructor tailors the class to the student’s expectations.

    I’m not one of the students that likes to be just entertained, but like to learn something. Whether its a technique, theory, approach, whatever I try to choose classes the build on the direction I want to take my hobby/craft. I try and budget accordingly and haven’t splurged on a week retreat. I have been thinking that I should but haven’t quite found the “fit” for me (time, topic, price).

    I think I have only 1 class that I sorda felt I wasted time and money. It was a class to spend time quilting with a friend and she chose the class. My expectations were low going in. So it met those expectations.

    Good topic. Do you think you will approach teaching differently because of your experience?

  4. I totally agree with all of your comments. Leslie, I always ask them not only what they hope to learn but also how much they want to be pushed to experiment. I acknowledge when I teach that quilting is a social past-time for some and that’s fine. Others have sometimes flown in from other countries and I want them to feel that they got their money’s worth. For some people our workshops are a really big turning point in their lives. I try to have my radar up for who in the class might need extra attention. If you pay attention you can see who is really hungry for more challenge and who wants to just do their own thing. I’ll be extra vigilant about that from now on.

    As to your question about will my approach change, yes and no would be the answer. I have always thought it was a real priority to understand everyone’s expectations (we go around one by one and specifically ask) and to be cheerful so that won’t change. We typically start each workshop with a one-hour lecture with images and diagrams explaining the reason behind the design concept we’ll be studying that day. I will take more pride in knowing that we’re giving them the tools to understand what makes some designs or colors work and others flop. It never occurred to me that people wouldn’t actually teach what is in the workshop description.

    What will change is that I will probably be more vigilant about checking in on each person, not waiting for them to call me over. We’re already in the process of developing new lectures and workshops and going to this bad workshop has put some fire under my feet to get even more substantive workshops out there.

    I taught five one-hour classes in Wisconsin in March and started each one handing out an outline of the class and then asking if there were any topics that weren’t on the outline that anyone would like covered. I’ll probably make that part of my standard introduction.

    Thanks for your comments.

  5. Oh, how frustrating. I work in education (specifically disseminating education statistics and research on what works in public school education in the US), and there is no shortage of misinformed, ill-trained teachers–it’s a heartbreaking failing of our own university system. I’ve also been fortunate enough to take classes from and have face to face conversations about teaching with a number of influential knitting designers and teachers, and the differences in their teaching, learning, and design styles are vast. Few of them are ever taught how to teach. One who comes to mind is an ill-mannered prima donna who thinks she walks on water and refuses to listen to criticism.

    When it comes right down to it, education works best when you tell the students what you’ll be teaching them and what they’re expected to do to learn what you have to teach, and then check over and over to make sure all of the incremental steps are sinking in. Teacher and student need to be straight with each other about progress, confusion, expectations, etc. And teachers must be prepared to teach people with a variety of learning styles. In the class you describe, that teacher should have combined a number of teaching styles to suit the material and the needs of her students. Most knitting stitch techniques are generally taught kinesthetically, which is pretty successful. Color theory is of course often taught using a very visual style, but I’d argue it’s only going to sink in with regular review using excellent written and visual sources.

  6. I don’t go to very many workshops, as they are expensive and I find that I can usually teach myself things from books much more cheaply. I went to a stenciling workshop many years ago because I love the techniques of a certain artist and wanted to learn how to do them. It turned out that it was incredibly easy! I thought it was hard, so I didn’t want to take the time to teach myself, and I enjoyed the workshop (although the take-away lesson was probably about two sentences and, had I known, I most certainly could have taught myself). Of course, though, I learned what I thought I was going to learn.

    Not knowing the workshop title, but if it was something like color design in knitting, I’m absolutely positive that you knew backwards and forwards the two-sentence-take-away lesson of this workshop (especially given your description). I’m also guessing it was geared towards people who are terrified of color, who make things just the way they look in the magazine or book, and who do not trust their own color judgment. This was to “free them up” and realize that it’s not that hard.

    Do you know the work of Kristin Nicholas? I love her blog gettingstitchedonthefarm and I think you might really like her approach to color and knitting.

    How frustrating, though, to spend so much money on something that wasn’t at all what it pretended to be.

    I have, by the way, sometimes thought about taking a quilting workshop simply to give myself some time to work on a quilt (it would have to the right workshop to make the right quilt, of course). I think for a lot of people workshops are a way to carve out some time to devote to their craft in a way that’s hard to do in every day life.

  7. I once took a class that I wasn’t happy about. There was a pattern that the instructor had created. She had made one item from it. She then taught us how to make it, which isn’t bad, but she hadn’t thought through how to improve it, or what it would mean for us. We cut the fabric in strips, and sewed as she told us to. She had us use the same measurements she did, which meant that half of the fabric we used was extra. If I am going to take a class that teaches me how to make a pattern, the class better teach me how to make it better, or more efficiently, or something more than just buying the pattern would have taught.

    It sounds like your workshop was more about freeing yourself and allowing yourself to work intuitively, instead of trying to follow the rules, which doesn’t sound like a bad thing, as long as that is what to expect.

  8. Shasta,
    Working intuitively is not a bad thing but my point is that people never learn anything doing the same thing they did when they walked in the room at 9am. It’s a fallacy. I teach that first you understand the concepts so your intuition has something to work with. Suggesting that you never need to learn anything is pandering I think. It’s not a matter of following rules, it’s a matter of understanding how things work and then you can figure out how to make those principles work for you. Also if you work intuitively and you aren’t happy with the outcome, then what? You don’t know how to improve your work if you never learn the basics.

  9. I like what your mother-in-law had to say about thinking about what went into that bag to allow the improvisation to happen. It would have been helpful for your instructor, if instead of just saying “pick two colors that look good”, had then explained why someone’s choices worked well in terms of color theory. Or led to a discussion of how that person could challenge themselves to think differently of color scheme.

    Thanks for posting thoughtfully about your experience so that we can all think and learn from it.

  10. Personally, I do want to learn a precise technique if I take a workshop, even if the class is free; time is precious. It’s not so much wanting to be “right” vs. “wrong” as much as, if there are 2 ways to do something, I want to understand the difference between them. Then, I’ve been empowered.

    It sounds like the technique you were doing, even if incorrect, was “working” on some level so that you didn’t realize you were doing something differently than intended. But surely you are better off knowing both ways of doing it, and knowing which of the two is considered the primary, or “right” and most accepted way.

    For example, I’ve only very recently learned to knit, and after a few weeks I started twisting my stitches. I was still knitting–I was still producing what looked from about three feet away to be very good knitting, in fact–but *technically* it wasn’t a true knit stitch, because I was putting my needle in the back rather than the front to start the stitch. This was not anyone’s fault but my own, but my point still holds.

    So, did my “technique” matter? I could still make a perfectly fine scarf with this stitch, even a hat or sweater, but wouldn’t I be better off knowing how my needle affected the yarn so I could *choose* to twist the stitches or not? Isn’t this what takes someone to the next level, and frees them to be creative and yes, to follow their intuition?

  11. Gosh what an interesting post. I must say that I share your skepticism about workshops. I have attended very few, but always found it really dissappointing. I think a lot does depend on how much the instructor understands about learning styles, how many are in the group, and how burnt out and in need of a break from the money generating merrygo- round they are. Sounds like this one was very burnt out, and really needed to stop and just get back to her art.
    I am like you. If I am paying, I want specifics, I want the instructor to know more about the topic than I do, and to be able to express it well. I think this is impossible in large groups actually, and I have found that there are always one or two people who dominate the group and end up with the lion’s share of the tutor’s time. Personally, I get so much more for my money if I buy a book on the technique, then just practice by trial and error. I know that is because I am a visual and auditory learner who does not do well in group situations (which I find intimidating). Having clicked to this, I have saved myself a lot of money over the years, and a lot of dissappointment. I feel really gutted for you that you have had such a dissappointing experience, but honestly, you have all that knowledge in your head, you have all the building blocks necessary to learn any technique, and I think if you identify your own learning style you’ll have solved an expensive problem.

  12. I have attended many workshops and classes throughout the years and have learned “what not to do” as in instructor. When I began teaching quilting, I kept those classes in mind. I feel that you should learn something from every workshop or class you attend. I not only teach the class, but throw in handy tips, things I have learned in quilting, show samples, etc., and encourage the students as they learn. I do a step at a time, no matter how simple the quilt may be, because there may be just one person in the class that is not as advanced as others, and for those that are advanced, it is a refresher course. After each step, the student goes to their sewing machine or cutting area and repeats the step. I walk around and help everyone to see that they have understood the step. This way, no one feels rushed. After you put all the steps together, the quilt seems really easy, they have fun, everyone has learned something and everyone goes home happy. I am very organized and I think that students appreciate an organized teacher. I always have a list of materials, sewing instructions, pattern, template, etc. in a plastic bag and it is ready for each student when they arrive for class. I find that throwing in some choc. and a little notepad as a gift in these kit bags also helps. I love seeing people learn and it is a pleasure and I find it an honor to teach quilting and share my love of quilts with others.

  13. What do I expect in a work shop. I expect to be presented with all of the material that is in the course description. I only choose workshops that promise to teach me a skill/technique that I can then apply to other projects thus enhancing my skills for that particular craft.

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