There is a university course underway inside Room 234 at Western’s John Labatt Visual Arts Centre, but there are no laptops in sight.
Pencils are traded for brightly coloured spools of embroidery floss.
A professor has yielded the floor to half a dozen members of the London Embroidery Guild, who co-teach the class.
Instead of a podium and traditional lecture, the master embroiderers sit underneath a document camera, the lens picking up their hands and skillful stitches to share it with the class.
A centuries-old craft, once considered a lost art and now tapping into newfound trendiness, is passed down from one generation to the next during the third-year embroidery course.
Fourth-year fine arts student Liv Pattison built her entire second semester around the embroidery course, so eager not to miss out after languishing on the waiting list last year.
“During COVID-19, I started sewing with my grandma,” Pattison said. After learning to tailor her clothes and transforming a few outfits, she decided she wanted to learn to embroider. But her grandmother didn’t know how.
Pattison emailed professor Tricia Johnson as soon as she saw the class would be offered again in 2023, to ensure she could lock in a spot.
“It’s been so much fun, just to be able to sit down at the end of the day and stitch,” she said.
She finds herself digging into her embroidery projects in front of the TV to relax at night, now mostly listening instead of watching her favourite shows.
“It’s so fun learning from the Guild and being taught by people who do it every day.”
At first, the community artists were nervous about becoming teachers of SA 3672B, Embroidering with the Guild.
“The Guild members started off as wallflowers,” said Deb Gorman-Smith, a longtime member of the club who’s been involved with the class since the partnership started several years ago.
But they quickly warmed up, gaining joy from sharing their embroidery experience and seeing students pick up new skills.
There’s a great flow of knowledge exchanged both ways, Gorman-Smith said, with Guild members learning from the students’ creativity and their independent research projects on topics like the history of needles.
The Guild also offers a $750 scholarship to a visual arts major in third year or higher.
Gorman-Smith recalled the first year the course was offered, in 2018, when a biology major enrolled and stitched images of internal organs into her patterns.
Johnson said it’s special to see the hands-on interactions between students and community members unfolding in her Tuesday classes.
“You’re being taught by experts, not YouTube,” Johnson said of the unique learning model. “The Guild members are such talented artists. Most have been doing this for decades.”
The students also develop bonds with their new teachers. When Johnson informs her students that a particular embroidery project – under the document camera to be used as an example by a Guild member teaching a new stitch – previously won a prize, the class erupts in cheers.
The veteran and rookie embroiderers sit around five long tables, instead of a typical classroom set-up with rows of desks, to better facilitate engagement and interaction.
The embroidery doesn’t end at the classroom door, either.
Stitching outside the classroom
Johnson said she frequently stumbles upon students taking their newfound embroidery skills elsewhere, stitching away in the student art lounge or incorporating techniques into different forms of art in their other classes.
“They do often get really addicted to it,” she said.
“It’s an art, not just decoration, and the students realize that.” – Tricia Johnson, visual arts professor
One past student embroidered her ballcap and was soon overrun with requests from friends and classmates to adorn their hats, too. She spent the semester making money from the spontaneous side hustle.
Gorman-Smith said one student used embroidery to pass the time at the hockey rink while waiting for a sibling.
“You can do it on the bus, in the coffee shop, at home. You’re not taking your painting or your printmaking with you,” Johnson said of the portability.
It also fosters new connections with family members, as students reach out to their aunts or grandmothers to talk about embroidery, seek new supplies and forge a bond over a shared craft.
“In our society, we’ve lost this kind of teaching because of distance. “We’re not learning in grandma’s lap like we used to as children,” Gorman-Smith said.
Through students’ eyes
Jamie Smith, third-year art history and museum studies specialization: “We like the freedom and creativity, but also the community aspect. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a course where it’s really communal; we’re all together, we’re all exchanging ideas. Being able to engage with people outside of the Western sphere, having the Embroidery Guild come in, that’s so rewarding. That’s a whole other area a lot of us never knew existed.”
May Walpole, fourth-year art history and studio art specialization: “It’s perfect for what we’re doing. Embroidery is traditionally a craft, and continues to be a craft, that’s done in more community settings. I feel like we’re learning it the right way.”