Lessons I’ve Learned The Hard Way

There are plenty of times when we are so humbled by an experience that it is hard to admit that anything good came of it. Such was a felting workshop I took in May. Five days felting with an internationally renowned fiber artist, a good friend taking the workshop with me, staying in a home walking distance from the studio on a beautiful island. My hopes were very high, probably too high.

I haven’t written about the workshop before today because it was so hard to accept the disappointment I felt after it was all over. I carved five days out of my schedule, made arrangements to ensure that my family was taken care of in my absence, and paid the staggering tuition and materials fee; each of these steps was enormous and carefully considered. It was difficult to admit once it was over that I didn’t get what I wanted out of it. To make things worse, the director of the school told the five students who complained about the class that we were to blame because we were overachievers, the teacher was an Artist and we didn’t have the right to expect any more from her. Suffice it to say that we were deeply hurt and my confidence in my abilities as a feltmaker suffered tremendously.

Three months later, after exploring new ideas and giving myself the freedom to make some mistakes, I realize that I did learn several things during that week. The teacher specifically prohibited us from photographing the class, or blogging about the workshop. She seemed to be fearful that we would appropriate her scant materials (hand drawn schematics, not labeled in English, no written instructions) or try to knock off her designs.


Since I’m not going to name any names, and I paid bundles for the class, I think it is my prerogative to reclaim some of her power and talk about what I learned from the class (not necessarily what she taught).

I learned that I have a hard time focusing for extended periods of time, and lectures bore me. I forgave myself for not persuing a career in academia as I would be terribly ill-suited to that environment. I also forgave every wiggly child who has ever sat in front of me at a concert, puppet show or library story-time. It is really hard to sit still when you have nothing to do with your hands. Have mercy on us!

I also learned that I have a hard time creating under pressure. That is why I did such terrible work in my high school art class.  I wanted to create, but couldn’t come up with an idea and execute it with during a 50-minute class. My mother has asked me several times why all of this creativity suddenly surfaced in my late twenties. Now I know. Pressure crushed it and it took years for my confidence to grow enough that I could try again.

I don’t do well with spatial parameters are shifted. Our teacher directed us to create our pieces inside out: lay down the design elements first, then add buckles, belt loops, straps or bobbles, next add pockets and finally lay down the bulk of your piece. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I get dressed, the last things I choose are my accessories. Shirt first, then skirt, then stockings, then shoes and now I’m ready for either a necklace, earrings or scarf.


My first bag, looks lovely right? Except this was supposed to be the inside.  Lots of time spent color blending the roving with hand carders, but it doesn’t matter because the color doesn’t show on the outside. And the outside design shifted so much in the felting that it skewed right off the top of the bag. It isn’t even worth photographing. So the inside becomes the outside and the ugly slanted design hides inside.

If we took anything away from the workshop, our teacher stressed that we should make our felt speak of the wonderful things only felt can do: be seamless. Integrate your closure into your design. Think through the elements and place them strategically so they don’t need to be sewn on later. And do it backwards. That was the part that really stumped me. I love the idea of planning my designs, really I do, but I’m more of a trial and error kind of gal. That is the other bit I learned. Work it through, learn from my mistakes and then try it again.

The inspiration for the next design came to me over dinner on the second night (we spent the first two days listening to lecture and watching slideshows).


To her credit, our teacher did help me work through how to attach the i-cord to the bag and carry the icicle design down with the knotted cords. But the reason she had to walk me through it is because the whole thing was backwards again. The inner pocket is on the outer wall, not against the back. I planned a handle on the top so you could carry it if you didn’t want to sling it over your shoulder, but I had to cut it out during felting because it didn’t work or look right where it was. The whole thing is backwards because I designed it from the inside out without being able to turn my head around that way.


For the last bag, started on the fourth day, I decided to ignore her completely and work as if I was at home in my studio. I put on my headphones to block out the chatter around me and set to work. When a fellow student sent me this photo, I couldn’t believe how happy I looked because I thought I was miserable the whole time. Clearly, when I threw the monkey off my shoulder I can really let go and enjoy the process.


I borrowed another student’s template instead of sewing my own (she made us sew two pieces of bubblewrap together for a resist). I cut little slices of a sushi roll brought from home and embedded them in the top layer of the bag, then covered the pinwheels with more maroon roving. The pink bits are hand dyed silk cap I bought last summer at The Fiber Studio in Henniker, NH. Then I felted the bugger out of it. Start to finish, this bag took seven hours to make. It has a seamless nunofelt pocket inside (the silk gives the pocket extra staying power for heavy phone and keys). The bottom was pulled and stretched during felting so it can stand up without toppling over. It is the perfect carry-everything catch all bag.

A couple of additional techniques I learned, actual felting lessons:

  • Use needle-nose pliers to pull felt out from the middle in order to straighten the edges
  • Attach i-cord to a flat piece of felt by making a brush end

Finally, after reflecting long and hard I realized that I knew a lot more than I thought I knew going into the class. Though self-taught, I have spent a lot of time analyzing my process and looking critically at my pieces. I now felt a lot harder and longer than I did before the workshop, but I also appreciate the place I am in now. I do know enough to continue teaching, and I don’t think I send any of my students home crying (please correct me if I’m wrong on this score). I will choose future classes carefully, only after speaking to someone who has studied under that teacher and knowing ahead of time what I hope to get out of the class.

The best thing that came out of that workshop was meeting two fabulous felters and intrepid travelers who drove day and night from Nevada and the Oregon Coast to attend the workshop. We stayed up late sharing, consoling, griping and praising each other. For their company, and the company of my dear partner in crime, Linda, who suffered  through it all with me, I am eternally grateful.


13 Responses to “Lessons I’ve Learned The Hard Way”

  1. 1 Carrie Friday, September 4, 2009 at 9:24 pm

    Wow. I knew you weren’t happy about the workshop but that took some processing! Glad to see you came out the other side stronger and more confident. For what it’s worth, that backpack is FANTASTIC!

  2. 2 Leah Saturday, September 5, 2009 at 11:01 am

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Leah. I too, have struggled in classes (not yours or Tricia — you were both fabulous)! In my view, a great teacher will share skills, structure, ideas, and mistakes. Then allow their students to do with this information as they wish, decide what it is they want to learn and take with them…

    There are no rules. You do great work. Follow your bliss…

  3. 3 Loco Lindy Saturday, September 5, 2009 at 11:43 am

    Thanks very much for sharing your experience, it gives me good food for thought for my own teaching. I’ve not given any workshops in a while but will be soon, and would definitely not want it to be like what you experienced! Love your blog and your work.

  4. 4 blair Saturday, September 5, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    Leah, I love the way you worded this post and your thoughts on the workshop. So often, when I have experiences like you did in that workshop, I often coming away feeling like I failed the experience somehow, I was the one who didn’t get it. But reading your post opened my eyes this morning to the idea that possibly its the other way around. And I don’t create well under pressure either, its taken most of my life for me to realize that.

    I love what you created when you put those headphones on!

  5. 5 joniphippin Sunday, September 6, 2009 at 6:31 am

    I hope you don’t mind but I have linked to your post on my blog. If you are unhappy with it please just comment and I will take it off.
    I really feel for you and want you to know that there are a lot of amazing tutors out there just waiting to give you a great experience – the way it should be.
    Sounds like your teacher is a bit ‘up themselves’.

  6. 6 Nicole Monday, September 7, 2009 at 8:11 am

    I totally understand. That insecurity when others speak so confidently that they know the ‘right’ way. It’s taken years and watching a lot of those people’s ‘right’ way turn out terribly wrong (and in construction that’s saying something!), but now I know that I have good ideas too, that others don’t always (or often) have the solution no matter how highly they are regarded nor how sure they are themselves in their answer. Only I know my project since it’s inception and all the small twists and turns since. I totally understand.

  7. 7 Heather Potten Monday, September 7, 2009 at 10:11 am

    What an interesting post.
    As far as felting is concerned, I have only attended the workshops of 2 felters and both have been excellent – luckily. However, in a casual felting get-together with a couple of other women, one of them was showing us how to make felt flowers.
    Pretty simple, huh? Well, I couldn’t work out what was wrong, but I nothing I tried came out the way she showed us. The others could do it, but not me. I was miserable.
    It wasn’t till quite a while later that I realised that I couldn’t use her techniques because I don’t have particularly strong fingers (especially thumbs!). As a result, I have developed my own way of working…through nobody’s teaching but working to my own strengths. And now my flowers look nothing like hers did.
    Equally, I look to books for inspiration but I rarely do exactly what is there in the instructions. In my bluer moments I reckon it’s because I’m not good enough to ‘get it right’. But then, when I have created something unexpected which owes something to the demonstration but has something of me in it, I realise it’s all part of my development.
    I asked Jeanette Sendler (the woman who really set me on the road to being a felter) if she would look at my work after a week of classes with her. By this time, she knew me quite well. I wanted to know what she thought. “Well, you can obviously felt,” she said, “but have you found your own style?”
    I guess that’s the most important question. Looking at the photos of your work, Leah, I would definitely say that you have. It’s a crying shame the workshop you attended didn’t deliver, but you still created magical pieces and learned a huge amount – about yourself.

  8. 8 walnutgarden Tuesday, September 8, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    Leah – thanks for sharing this! I think you learned a lot actually and maybe mostly about yourself? And I am glad you are able to find something positive out of it. Sometimes that can be so hard. I think all of you were not expecting too much, simply she was a bad teacher. When that many people feel upset, there is certainly something off and the director should have had more guts and taken ownership of the problem.

    The world of felters is a world of self taught people and you know quite a lot! It is so great when we can learn from each other and the more open we are, the more we will all learn from each other. Your experimenting on the scarves post made me reflect on an old piece that I loved but never came out right – a year later I tried again with all that I have learned since and it came out totally different and really cool. So going back to those experiments can be really rewarding!
    Anna Katherine

  9. 9 red2white Wednesday, September 9, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    I am not sure if I am the only one to feel this and if it is right, but I think you should name this teacher. I deeply feel for you. I attended only one workshop, went through all the difficulties you described so that I could be there, spent a lot of money… I can totally relate you your feelings of disappointment/anger. I hope you will come across some very nice and generous tutors as well!

  10. 10 Keith Wednesday, September 30, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    I love the way you write, Leah. I get so drawn into the experience. Way to reclaim some power from the teacher; it’s too bad she felt a need to hoard her experiences….. Love, Keith.

  11. 11 Sarah Thursday, October 8, 2009 at 7:02 am

    I’m just passing by and I read your post about the lousy workshop you had. I’m so sorry that they weren’t receptive to your complaints! The instructor may be an ARTIST, but the second she took your money for the workshop she became a TEACHER. You weren’t buying her ART, you were (trying) to buy some instruction from a person who was selling her teaching and information about felt-making. Obviously you didn’t get what you paid for. That is a bad business model, in the long run. I’m sorry she disappointed you, and I’m sorry that the director of the school didn’t realize that if one person complains, it may be a mismatch of teaching/learning styles, but if FIVE people complain there may be a problem with the teacher. Good customer relations would suggest that sympathy or a discount would have been in order.

  12. 12 Andrea Graham Monday, October 26, 2009 at 11:32 am

    Hi Leah,
    Your work is lovely and you should be charging more for the scarves!;O) On a different note, I am so sorry about this rotten experience. Such a shame. You had the right to expect wonderful things…

  1. 1 Blogging, sharing and other peoples work « Joniphippin Trackback on Sunday, September 6, 2009 at 6:18 am
Comments are currently closed.

Flickr Photos



%d bloggers like this: