Focus. The One Attribute Essential Our Students. Embroidery can help.

As I have been teaching embroidery to students for many years I have been in a perfect place to notice how learning embroidery affects 7, 8 and 9 year olds.

Firstly, as is probably obvious, putting a needle, thread and fabric in the hands of a child creates in each a variety of different emotions. And as I give out the materials I can see these emotions on their faces. What do I see? Mostly I see curiosity, excitement,( this is a bit out of the ordinary…what’s going on?) Alongside those emotions I see concern, worry, and in a few cases panic.  But the overriding atmosphere in the class room is one of intrigued anticipation. ( What on earth does she want us to do with this stuff?)

In order for the student to make a success of their embroidery they have to be able to listen to instructions carefully, follow directions exactly and focus completely on the assigned task….to make one stitch.

Some students do not find these three requirements a challenge. they can listen, do and create without too much difficulty….to their delight. Some students for whom any one of those three is difficult will struggle to complete even one stitch. It is these students for whom embroidery is a slowly opening door.

If they cannot listen then they cannot follow directions…or complete the task.  If they listen but without the needed focus they cannot follow the directions or make a stitch and if they can listen and follow directions but lack focus to finish the task as directed they cannot do this either.


This task cannot be completed without the focus that this student is showing


This is focus in action.

Education will have to go through a serious revolution if it is to prepare our students for their working lives. Their future promises to be one of constant change, lifelong learning and adaptability to a workplace which not even the smartest among us can forsee.

Ok…I hear you say…what does this have to do with teaching embroidery to a class of third graders.

Dr. Daniel Goleman wrote a book entitled Focus, the Hidden Driver of Excellence. In his excellent book he describes in detail what it takes to develop focus and how important this attribute will become to our future citizens.

Over the years I have watched embryonic embroiderers grow, develop and master the needed focus to complete their assignment.  Embroidery teaches focus. I can see it in action. The students tell me that as soon as they stop focusing they make an error. They are aware of their work, they are thinking about the way they do what they do. Any error is very obvious and very annoying and they are therefore very incentivized not to make errors. How do you not make errors? Answer……….Focus.

I Know Something Most Teachers and Administrators Do Not Know.


Up until now this blog has been mostly about teaching young people to embroider. Counted thread embroidery is always the focus as it is kind to the learner ………and the teacher too actually. I will not stray far from this subject matter in this post but I have come to realize after reading Tom Friedman’s description of what a blog should try to do ………..that I need to do more, say more, require more of my readers, if there are any, and generally stick my neck out; educationally speaking .

So…what is it I think I know, that most teachers and administrators do not know.

I know that embroidery in the classroom is an amazing tool to teach so many different skills simultaneously. I cannot understand why embroidery is not embraced as a mandatory, curriculum addition for second and third grade. Well, yes I can understand it, because most teachers and administrators are looking at different things. Time is short, tests are hard, expectations are high, reading is essential, math is fundamental, science is our future.  Who in their right mind would think that embroidery in the classroom was a good use of the students’ time.  Me. And I am in my right mind.

Here’s what I know: I know that when I put fabric, needle and thread  in a student’s hands I have their absolute undivided attention. I know that they are learning with their hands and their hands are teaching their brains things that cannot be learned any other way.

I know that in order to thread a needle and make even one stitch requires total focus. That the student’s spacial awareness, ability to visualize three dimensionally, and to follow instructions are all at full stretch…..there is total silence in the classroom as the students engage their hands and their brains to make one simple cross stitch.

I know that to make one stitch is a huge deal and elicits squeals of delight at a new skill. I know that because embroidery is really repetition that if a student can make one stitch then they can make a thousand stitches. And I know that repetition and its predictability makes something  that felt horribly difficult suddenly manageable. The feelings of accomplishment are palpable.


I know now that having mastered the skill to make a stitch the student feels empowered to continue. I can see the excitement on their faces. “Now I can do this what else can I do?”

I have a ready answer for that. I know that when a student takes their new skill and learns to apply it to a charted design then the learning really takes off.

The little trees at the top of this post are the first projects of the third graders. In order to achieve this result they needed, focus, dexterity, persistence, accuracy, math, spatial awareness and above all focus. Embroidery trains the brain and builds the neural pathways needed for achievement at everything else….and the students don’t care about any of that….they are just have a wonderful time being creative.



Goldwork in School. Pure magic

How to couch. The metal thread is laid on top of the fabric and held in place by couching stitches.
How to couch. The metal thread is laid on top of the fabric and held in place by couching stitches.

So….we had 20 students not 17. Teaching elementary goldwork to a large group of young embroiderers needs careful planning. And I discovered that even with what I thought was very careful planning some things were a surprise.

I had no clue how long this project would take. To have 20 students learn a new technique, and stitch an entire, time sensitive project before the holidays was hopeful perhaps. After some initial name changes in the student list and some additions of students who really wanted to be included. We made a good start with learning couching. Surprise #1. The 5th grade students took to couching like pros.  We had great conversations full of math words like “equidistant” and “perpendicular”.  But couching is now theirs. They understand it, they have harnessed the dexterity necessary to make the materials behave the way they want them to behave and they are thrilled with their new found skills.

Four finishers. Four proud people. Four students with success in their hands.
Four finishers. Four proud people. Four students with success in their hands.
Seven more completed.


Goldwork is a very simple, very pleasing art form. The students really enjoy the creativity involved and the feeling that they have learned something new and made something beautiful.

Surprise #2. We are going to finish on time. There are 11 finishers who can come to class as tutors for the nine still to finish. To learn a skill and teach it empowers the students. It is possible to watch the self esteem blossom in the classroom. The warm smiles and palpable feelings of accomplishment are very rewarding, to themselves and to me.

Surprise#3. Even though I organized the gold threads into bags labeled and counted exactly, with extras just in case …and explained this in minute detail to the class. We still ran out of the third gold thread for the tree. Can 5th graders count to four?  How did that happen? No idea. Mysteries of this kind are all part of the story of teaching creativity to a large group of enthusiasts.  Embrace it.

Surprise #4.  It is likely that my after the holidays class might be bigger. This is a challenge I am happy to embrace. Goldwork “lite” which is how I think of what I am teaching is a simple, effective creative technique. The glitter and glitz of the threads and the interplay of learning and undeniably attractive results makes this class a popular choice with this group of after school artists.

Dolphin Club. After School Program….Embroidery.

Although all the eager embroiderers from third grade are very keen carry on with their embroidery and grow their skills with this art into their 4th grade year it is not possible. Their curriculum is very full and there is no discretionary time for this kind of activity.

So …we compromised and offered embroidery at the after school program. This is not perfect as it only can be offered to the students who attend the program.

This year I thought it was time to branch out from the counted thread embroidery with which the students have become so comfortable. So for the fifth grade group I offered an elementary goldwork class featuring a Christmas Tree. I have 17 students all learning the skills needed to embroider with gold thread.   Very exciting and they love it.

For the 4th graders,  building on their counted thread embroidery skills we are using the same fabric as third grade, same threads, same needle but seven new stitches which the fabric is designed to help them master.  They choose their own colors and we discuss choices by looking at the color wheel. They will need to design their own names and center the lettering on their project.

Delighted 5th grade students with their new found skills
Teaching your fingers to hold the thread, manage the needle, follow the line, evenly space your stitches, make them perpendicular and equidistant. The brain gymnastics of embroidery.


4th and 5th grade projects for Dolphin Club after school program
4th and 5th grade projects for the after school program



Third grade embroidery project coming to a close for another year.

image image image image imageHow many years have I been introducing the third graders at El Granada Elementary School to the delights of embroidery? This is, I think,  my seventh consecutive year.

So, how many students now know how to thread a needle and make a stitch…well quite a few stitches actually? The answer is…..somewhere in the region of 440 El Granada Elementary students have learned how to embroider over the years.  Some love it, some are not so sure, some will never pick up a needle again if they can help it.  But they can all sew on a  button if they need to and mend something if necessary.

The students have made huge progress this year. From knowing nothing about the task at hand to being masters of the materials and designing their own samplers, with an understanding of the rules of design and with the grit to see through a difficult project to completion over several months.


I am am very proud of them. The perseverance required is considerable. The final project, a birth sampler, a repeat of the project from last year. The students have to design their name and birthdate and center the lettering and numbers. The they can choose from a series of motifs which have birth and love as their symbolic message. There is a stork, obviously, hearts…obvious too, then there is a butterfly= joy and a mushroom= everlasting life. These motifs have all been taken from samplers stitched by students from the 19th century, when all students had to learn how to embroider and stitch as there were no sweat shops in Asia filling the stores with cheap clothing.

I am finishing this post with a PS. Now these third graders are 4th graders. At their after school program 17 of them have elected to take an embroidery class after school. So we have a large class of very motivated students. New projects. New stitches. New adventures in creativity. Exciting.

Funding our Embroidery at El Granada.

A display of the students’ finished mini samplers
Every student designed and stitched their own birth sampler. They added symbols and chose colors. Casey loves DMC 996. Electric blue.

We have been embroidering since October. There are 90 students who can now thread a needle, make stitches, and follow a complicated chart. They can center a design, design lettering, choose colors, balance their colors and motifs. They are totally amazing.  They have been able to do this with the best materials on the market. If they are going to take all their time and energy and effort and put it into the fabric and thread and make something which can last a hundred years,  we need to have the best…only the best. So who pays for all this? 90 students all stitching projects from October to June. That’s a lot of thread and fabric.

No, we do not ask the students for $10 at the beginning of the year. No the PTA does not pay for it. No, the teacher does not pay for it out of the stipend. No, I do not pay for it.

It is paid for by the students’ enthusiasm for what they have learned and their desire to do more of it. I have designed a sampler which features a dolphin, the school symbol, it has a space at the bottom for the student to personalize it.

I take orders for kits. So that the students can carry on with their stitching at the end of school they can…..if they want to….purchase a kit form me. Each kit is $10 and $2 for a needlethreader if they want one.  I packed 90 kits…..The students were so thrilled by their skill and their ability to embroider they did not want to stop at the end of third grade. So now the stitching fund,  which has its own B of A account,  is the richer for $900. I have been able to purchase all the fabric and threads I need to teach next year’s third grade.

And because this post is very late….we have already started this year in third grade at El Granada Elementary School. Threads and fabric purchased are in the classrooms and being used and enjoyed by a new group of eager eyed embroiderers.


Third grade students finish their embroidered year

School finished for my 90 stitchers in early June.  They have been a wonderful group of enthusiastic embroiderers. Not wanting them to set off into the summer months with no embroidery projects after so much work and creativity, I did what I have been doing for the past few years.

I made up and sold kits. Keeping 90 students in expensive fabric and colorful dmc thread for a whole year of embroidery costs some serious dollars.  The school does not fund the third grade embroidery program. The funds come from the students themselves. I do not charge them for the materials. Everything, throughout the whole year is plentiful and given to them free of charge.

Towards to end of the school year I explain to them that I will be selling kits to those students who wish to continue with their embroidery when school is out for the summer.  I explain that NO ONE has to buy a kit. If they are sick of embroidery and never want to do it again that is fine. But…..if they would like to carry on, explore some different techniques and fabrics then I can help them out. I make up two different kinds of kit. One has a chart and all the materials needed to embroider the school mascot, a dolphin. The other kit contains a variety of fabrics and threads, beads and instructions on how to explore their new found art.

imageEach kits sells for $10. This year I added the bonus of a needlethreader for an extra $2.  The teachers take the orders and collect the money and I make up the kits and bring them in to the students’ classrooms. It is a huge undertaking making all the kits and my work room is awash with organized threads and fabric and sheets of instructions. This year I made about $800 selling kits to students. So the embroidery fund is looking really healthy and I can order threads and fabric for next year.

But……even better than the cash for next year’s students is the knowledge that the students this year enjoyed their embroidery so much that they wanted lots of kits to carry on.

The above picture shows one of the students who stitched his summer kits even before school finished! This student arrived in third grade with no English. ….but he has many skills as you can see.


Feelings about threads

Last week I was with four third grade classes. We are designing and stitching our own birth sampler.  I have provided the students with a border chart and some motifs from historical samplers which are symbols associated with birth. The students will stitch the border and then place their own name, birthdate and weight at birth inside the border along with whichever of the symbols they wish to include. They are in charge of content, design and color  choice.  I am so impressed with them; 5 months ago they could not thread a needle, or make a stitch and did not know why anyone would want to.

Casey came to me for some extra threads she needed to complete her previous project. DMC pearl #995 brilliant electric blue is very popular with the students. As I pulled two skeins of this color from my bag Casey gave a shiver of pleasure and an involuntary and appreciative “ooooh”. I could have kissed her…as this is exactly the effect these threads have on me too. And it struck me as I handed these over to her that how we FEEL about what we do is more important than we recognize, and that I really ought to do a lesson on feelings and embroidery.  I would like to know how my third grade students FEEL about what they are doing.

Some thread crazed, middle aged, looney woman comes to their classroom with sharp objects and annoying instructions;  dishes out fabric and incomprehensible directions. How did they feel about that? Now, after 5 months with aforesaid crazy person, how do they feel about  what they are doing? Who would like to continue with their embroidery and who NEVER wants to pick up a needle ever again. AND…what is  becoming apparent to me…who would have continued with their stitching after the first frustrating hour if they had not been made to.

Home School Students and learning to embroider

“I have taken on some home schooled students. Or rather, they have taken me on. I feel a little like an experiment, perhaps I am. There are 13 classes of one hour duration, there are a fluctuating number of students which is a little disconcerting as it needs for students to start from the beginning each week when others have progressed beyond the “thread the needle make a stitch ” phase. But we are working with it.

Thirteen weeks is quite a long time. And, as I have never taught a class of this sort before I  had to come up with a plan. I settled on two projects which could run in parallel. The students will stitch a sampler with the alphabet and their name on, as did students of the 19th century. I have shown them the samplers which I own from this century and we discuss the place of embroidery in history and compare it with now. And the second project is to construct, with their new-found skills, an embroidery kit and a bag to keep it all in.  Most of the students have absolutely NO idea what embroidery is before they come to class. That their parents signed them up for my class is interesting. One imagines the conversation

” Oh, by the way,  I have signed you up for an embroidery class”

“What’s embroidery? Parent…”mmm not sure”

“What will I learn?”  This question, if asked, was never answered as the students arrive in class wearing question marks on their faces.

We have been going for 5 weeks and there is progress and a sense of accomplishment as they find their work taking shape.

In my next post I will describe the work more closely and share the rules of our classroom.

Royal School of Needlework Certificate of Technical Hand Embroidery progress

It is embarrassing to realize that I have been taking this certificate for a long time, so long in fact, that I cannot remember when I started. However, I am keeping going. There are four pieces which have to be stitched in four different disciplines. I have chosen the theme of peacocks, actually not quite sure why…seemed like a good idea at the time and so it is proving to be. This far. I am going to run out of road when I get to silk shading as there is a rule….who knows why….that silk shading can only have as a subject, a fruit, a vegetable or a flower… birds…or feathers…so if there is a peacock fruit or flower or vegetable I am in business.. If not some creativity is needed……mmmmm isn’t that what it is all about?

Actually I have found a peacock flower. Not the brightly colored inspiring petal creation you might expect but it will be just fine as a subject for my silk shading which will be amateurish I expect. …..since I have never tried it before.

Will keep you posted.