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?