Stitching with the Stars

I'm sure many of you are familiar with Maiwa's annual Symposium and their School of Textiles. I have attended many Maiwa workshops and they have been quite wonderful. The ones with Dorothy Caldwell here, here, and here, and Beverly Gordon stand out in particular. This fall, I took one with the famous Dutch embroiderer, Tilleke Schwarz, and I am sad to say it was a dud. Thinking about why it didn't work for me led to these thoughts:

  1. The instructor of the workshop needs good teaching skills.
  2. The participants in the workshop need to have a shared intention, and have left their neuroses at home. The focus of the participants is at least as important as how good the teacher is.
  3. The location of the workshop should be accessible, with good light and enough space for the group. 
  4. The participant herself should be realistic about how compatible her skill level is with the material to be covered.

So, what went wrong in this particular workshop? I was thrilled about the chance to learn from Tilleke, who is a justifiably famous star in the stitching world. Her lecture the night before was inspiring enough, but then she just repeated it for the class. That would have been okay if a number of participants hadn't heard the lecture already, but most had and were eager to get on with it.

The really unfortunate thing was that right off the mark Tilleke said she wasn't there to teach us how to stitch like her. Fair enough, but she also was not forthcoming with any instruction. Instead, she waited until we had stitched something to critique it. I wasted a lot of time using the tracing paper design transfer method she recommended, and, after a couple of false starts over the two days, ended up with nothing to show her. So my interaction with the instructor was pretty limited.

I'm willing to take my share of the blame for that, but what had me really annoyed was that a couple of participants chose to talk throughout the whole thing in loud voices about themselves and Tilleke did nothing to get them to quiet down. Midway through the second day, my friend and I picked up and left because she sensed I was getting ready to blow. (I think I reached my breaking point when the lady from Texas proudly said they had "Open Carry" gun laws in her state.)

The workshop took place in the Net Loft on Granville Island, which is incredibly fabulous. No complaints there. The staff at Maiwa are pros at providing all the amenities.

In the final analysis though, of course, the biggest problem was probably me. I already knew everything Tilleke had to show us. (Which wasn't much, but still...) My style is already quite developed. I was there just to rub shoulders with an art star, and nothing much was rubbing off Tilleke. She was a very nice lady but what I hoped for just wasn't happening.

Workshops aren't easy to dial in, so much depends on the group as well as the instructor. But when a workshop has an elite reputation, and costs over $300, it's hard for me to write off a bad experience.

I didn't even take any photos. There really wasn't anything to show. But I did have a great visit with my friend Barb, so the trip to Vancouver was not completely in vain.


  1. Unfortunate.....and unfortunately, i heard from someone else who took a class with her years ago, was that the first thing she said was "You'll never be famous like me"......
    I wish i could take some of the Maiwa classes, but alas, most are snapped up so fast i never get a chance. Add the cost of flights and accommodation as well, and that would be an awfully expensive class.
    I'm also hestitant when i see the same names over and over at these things, often re-gurgitating what has gone before. (At least from what i hear and see, having never been able to take one.)
    I had a crappy experiennce with one of my embroidery heroes, Anna Torma, who told me my backs weren't neat enough, i should use more colour, and then proceeded to spin my embroidery like it was a toy. She had nothing good, constructive or nice to say about anyone else's work, leastly the one in her hand.
    I guess there's a Cult of Personality in the textile world as well.

  2. Teaching is really hard to do.

  3. Ugh, know how that feels, and it's not good. I had a similar experience with a famous eco-dyeing expert.
    Sad to say, it was very expensive, multiple days, and the attitude was unbelievable. No itinerary, no hand-outs, because she doesn't do that. Hmmm OK
    Haven't taken a class since, but I have never tried MaiwA. SORRY that happened.

  4. can relate to this, as a very slow stitcher and artist who takes years to present a body of work, there is simply not enough time in the space of a workshop to do much more than touch the surface of any ideas & techniques presented

  5. Ugh. Sorry you had such a lousy experience! Personally even though I can walk to Maiwa from my house I haven’t been remotely interested in taking the classes recently. Too expensive for what I could get out of it and I just keep thinking that money could be better spent on materials to just do it. Not that I need any more materials or anything!

    I think Arlee is on to something about the Cult of Personality. Just because they are famous doesn’t mean they are good - or can teach, which is a whole ‘nother skill set.

  6. yikes! I've had one very bad Maiwa workshop and a couple iffy ones. Haven't been in a couple years - can never get my first choice and tired of paying for 2nd or 3rd choice.

  7. With experience of both teaching and learning on these types of workshop I have a similar list. The teacher needs to know how to teach adults and the aims have to be achievable in the time given. The students have to be willing and open minded. They're often not, which presents the greatest challenge to the teacher. What I find works best is an approach based on some skills but mostly about awakening people's innate creativity.

  8. I love this post Heather. I agree with your list of 'ingredients' that make a good workshop. I've taken many myself, and agree that the students gathered are as important as the teacher. One pet peeve I have is at the premier workshop venues, like Haystack and Anderson Ranch, where they give out scholarships. I have been in a few where the recipients (college age girls, in this case) don't have the same motivation in being there as the paid students. These are very expensive workshops, and I've had the recipients of scholarships seem to take the workshop as a vacation experience, and were annoyingly disruptive in their dialogue and attitude.


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