George Lucas Educational Foundation

Counted Thread Embroidery: Does it Have a Place in the Classroom?

Counted Thread Embroidery: Does it Have a Place in the Classroom?

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What on earth is being taught in a third grade classroom where the smartest girl in the class is crying with frustration and the student who cannot read is excelling and delightedly helping others? 

This happened when I introduced counted thread embroidery to a third grade class. So, does that mean embroidery reaches parts of the brain which are hitherto untouched by the regular curriculum?

It all began one day when, frustrated with the lack of artistic opportunities in my classroom, I decided to teach my class to embroider. It was revelatory. Embroidery had an amazing effect on the students. It was as though learning to embroider had unleashed an unrealized and pent up energy to be creative. The students fell in love with their stitching. It filled every spare minute of their day, rainy recesses, and before classes started in the mornings. Their energy and enthusiasm caught me off guard. I was not really sure what was going on. It was just fabric, it was just threads and needles.....but for them it was so much more than that. What was happening?

With fabric, needle and thread in the students' hands I have their absolute, undivided attention. They are learning with their hands and their hands are teaching their brains things that cannot be learned any other way. How to think in three dimensions, how to manage and manipulate the tools and materials to achieve the task, how to be the boss of the process, how to plan ahead, how to treat an error, how to avoid error in the first place. Their brains are as busy as their hands.

In order to thread a needle and make even one stitch requires their total focus. 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.

So, is there a place for counted thread embroidery in the curriculum? 
I think so. Using counted thread embroidery it is possible to teach  addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, ratio, money, statistics, geometry, measurement and averages. Counted thread embroidery is Project Based Learning at its finest. Besides the listed mathematical advantages it is possible to teach social studies, design, art and use of color. Counted thread embroidery is a fertile starting point for discussions about the historical need for children to learn to stitch in order to make their own clothing. (Examples of children's embroidery from 19th century are plentiful).  Which leads to who makes our clothes now? Where are they made and the working conditions, and use of child labor in third world countries. 

Aside from all the learning opportunities which come from including counted thread embroidery in the classroom, as my opening story demonstrates, embroidery sidesteps the usual road blocks to classroom achievement. Some of my best embroiderers are special education students for whom this hands on activity is balm to their soul. Students without a word of English can complete a perfect project. How good a student is at math or reading is irrelevant to embroidery success. Suddenly students who never shine at anything can be the best. 

So, while all I have written about makes me very happy, it is a happiness tinged with regret. I love sharing embroidery with so many eager eyed stitchers. It is a total pleasure for me to be greeted like Santa Claus at the beginning of each class and to see the colorful works of art which surprise their creators by their loveliness. But all the while I feel that there should be more of this, more art, more creativity, more color, more sense of achievement, more opportunity for self expression....just more embroidery in school.

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Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

I love this story, Anna! I agree that there is definitely a place for embroidery in our classrooms. I agree with you that we need more art, more creativity, more self-expression in our classrooms, too. It is so cool that your students got so excited about this project -- and I think they would be excited about so many other artistic and creative opportunities. My strongest elementary school memories are of times when we made something creative: papier-mache masks, holiday gifts, etc. Keep doing such great work with your kids!

TLambert's picture
Elementary School Librarian

This is so encouraging to hear. I am going to pursue this next year.

anna davidson's picture

Delighted to hear about your plan to teach counted thread embroidery next year. If you need any help or advice let me know. I have spent ten years of trial and error discovering the best approach and materials suitable for elementary school students.

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