The art in practical work. Handwork lessons in Waldorf school

By Anette Sigler, September 2020

For those unfamiliar with Waldorf education, it possesses some strange features and handwork lessons are considered by some to be among them. Even the name alone! Where similar lessons exist in mainstream schools, they are mostly called “textile design” which somehow sounds more modern and demanding. But this fails to refer to the development and cultivation of manual dexterity which is intended with the handwork lessons at Waldorf schools. Furthermore, in “handwork” the latter half of the word reminds us of the perseverance which is required when workpieces are produced over the course of a whole school year.

But handwork lessons are not just training for the fine motor skills, for concentration and strength of will – much as these are important and desirable side-effects such as occur for example also when learning a musical instrument. Yet children will hardly continue voluntarily with music lessons if they cannot at least obtain some enjoyment from practising. Just as in the latter case it is primarily about the music and music-making, so handwork is about doing and creating something oneself, about the pleasure of doing and the aesthetic experience. Handwork is thus a creative subject with an artistic note. To this extent the name “textile design” also refers to an important aspect.

As early as when the Waldorf school was founded in 1919, the artistic design of the workpieces was seen as constitutive and the first handwork teachers were deliberately sought out with this in mind: not seamstresses or experienced instructors from finishing schools for girls but artists who were also skilled at handwork! That was an avant-garde decision at the time – alongside the revolutionary ambition to let boys also benefit from these lessons. Handwork with textiles was until then undertaken by the bourgeoisie with a delicacy and precision which we cannot imagine today but mostly extended to copying traditional or purchased patterns: dozens of times the same monogram template was embroidered on to trousseaux, for example. In less well-off circles, such as the workers of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory for example, such handiwork at home served primarily to make or repair clothing and everyday implements.

Everything is of use!

The pupils do not, of course, notice to begin with the way in which handwork lessons educate their aesthetic sense and sensory perception. But what the children in the lower classes quickly learn to appreciate is that they make things in class which they can use. “What do you want to crochet for yourself, what do you need?”, I ask the boys and girls in class 2, and so we create penknife covers, belts, shoulder bags, basket ball nets, wallets and many other things. This creative aspect is also the reason why the children and also many adolescents still love handwork lessons: “When do we have handwork next?” asks nine-year-old Benjamin at the end of the lesson. “On Thursday.” – “Whaat? Not until Thursday?” I try to calm him down: “It’s only three days.” The deeply felt response: “But with handwork days are years!”

Look what I can do!

As a matter of principle we only make things that can be used. The emphasis here is on usability rather than need because the children in class 3 probably don’t need the hat they make for themselves since they presumably possess several that were bought. But almost all of them like to knit or crochet one because they look forward to wearing the hat they have made themselves! Proudly they wear it all winter and often refuse to take it off even in the heated classroom. Some even at first keep it on in bed after they have finished it.

Relatives and friends admire this visible proof of what they have learnt and worked on. The 1 times table cannot be worn in the same way! Something tangible has really come about out of the “nothingness” of a long thread, something that they have created themselves, which is unique and isn’t just discarded, and which can also hold its own in the adult world and is seen as useful. And it was knitted or crocheted – that is carried out with a manual technique that first had to be learnt and which they child now knows can be used to create all kinds of things.
Worthy presents can now be made: “My sister is starting school. Can I make a pencil case for her?”

A look behind the scenes

Children want to learn how “something works” and that, precisely, is what they get in handwork lessons. They obtain for themselves an increasingly self-confident standpoint from which they can say with ever greater assurance how the world of things is constituted. Suddenly they can identify how a certain coat is sewn together. A look at my jumper: “Did you knit that yourself?” Without this will to learn, school would be hopeless in any case, that is no different from learning to read and write. Such a desire to learn is particularly noticeable in class 1 when a group of 17 six-year-olds tackles knitting. Will everyone manage? And every time the answer is: yes, all of them have learnt it – because they wanted to!

Thus throughout these many years of handwork at school, a not inconsiderable amount of experience is built up at this concrete, practical level of life. What is practised here can be transferred to all different fields of life – the educational opportunities of handwork lessons extend as far as into the sphere of political judgements in adolescence and adulthood: anyone who wants to sew a solid seam which is simultaneously delicate and elastic, not only has to make skilful use of the sewing needle but also observe very precisely. Anyone who has learnt to look with precision can also better orientate themselves in the clutter of news and opinion.

Many techniques – many opportunities for experience

In order for the children and young people to be able to develop their skills in many different ways, a great range of techniques is offered in handwork lessons. In the first ten years of school we sew, embroider, knit and crochet; we braid, tie, wash and comb raw wool and spin it into thread; we dye wool; we weave and dye, print, tie-dye and paint fabrics, process leather, learn to handle a sewing machine and perhaps a great deal more – depending on school and teachers.

Each techniques presents specific developmental tasks and is therefore selected depending on age and need. Handwork lessons furthermore possess a great potential for internal differentiation, it is therefore easily possible to vary the level of performance demanded for the various activities so that each child can be involved and supported in their development. Some boys and girls devour one piece of work after the other and continue with handwork at home as well, others keep practising the basic techniques. And all of them ultimately hold a finished workpiece in their hands, perhaps made in many different ways but – if at all possible – created in an artistic process.

Art in handwork?

So what does that mean – artistic handwork? Certainly not reproduction, in other words no ready-made workpieces. This is possible from the beginning: as early as the first lessons in class 1 small pieces of work can be individually designed, for example name tags for the handwork or eurythmy shoe bags. To this end a piece of fabric is coloured and embroidered and all the work undertaken in the context of stories, rhymes and songs. When a child shows their tag and we can see that every stitch is important and meaningful for them, and what has been created speaks to them in this way, then the first step has been taken towards intensively felt creativity.

In this process I understand my task as teacher to be to find a framework for the task in which development is possible. The task must have potential, invite improvisation and be open in its outcome. As far as possible there are no constricting rules and no horizon of expectation other than that the design should “fit” the workpiece. Here what fits can be different from class to class, group to group and, of course, also pupil to pupil, just as it is dependent on the type of workpiece, the material and colour palette.

An example from class 8: here the pupils in many Waldorf schools learn how to work a sewing machine. For seven years they have sewn all seams by hand and now they can use a machine to support them. It is not surprising that occasionally the thrill of speed overtakes them! As soon as they can reasonable manage to sew a straight line, ideas for utility items are put into practice. The selected material is cut to size and now – this is the only instruction – designed in such a way that the design functionally or atmospherically corresponds to the utility item. It can be painted or printed on or dyed with techniques such as batik or shibori. Thus the young people have to have a clear idea which fabric sits where in the finished product and whether they want to have it lighter or darker, in colder or warmer colour tones, with boisterous  or quiet patterns.

For a toiletry bag, for example, the bottom can be dyed differently from the side panels. Openings on the zip side can be highlighted. The many possibilities inspire the imagination of the young people. On each occasion there is an astonishing diversity in the way the designs for the utility items are interpreted. And it lies in the nature of the task that no two workpieces are ever the same.

Lessons aim to give space to the imagination

As teachers, we are always on the lookout: not just for further suitable handwork techniques for a particular class but also for materials and workpieces which permit even greater creative leeway and feed the imagination. Can we find fabrics and threads, for example, which can be dyed by the children themselves? Here it can make sense to break away from the traditions which have arisen in some places and to try new things. Not every child in a particular class has to have learnt a particular technique or made a particular workpiece. That would lead to a narrowness in educational approach which would run counter to the Waldorf school and its founding impulses. On the contrary, Waldorf educational considerations allow for many variations in activity leading to new, topical material and workpiece ideas.

It is such artistically conceived and always newly approached handwork lessons which lead to openness: on the one hand, the directly palpable openness in lessons for the present and the needs of the pupils; on the other hand and seen in the longer term, the openness of character and tolerance as the expansiveness of soul of the future personality. Formulaic thinking and the repetition of templates will be of little interest to such people. In the canon of what the school is seeking to achieve, handwork also contributes to a free society of autonomous and creative individuals.

About the author: Anette Sigler is a handwork teacher at the Kassel Free Waldorf School and is director of the handwork training course at the teacher training seminar there.

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