Our Waldorf homeschool group has the great, great fortune of having a very experienced Waldorf Handwork teacher who teaches both children and adult handwork classes! Not every Waldorf homeschooling family is so lucky, and so I asked our teacher if she would be willing to write an article for you all regarding Handwork within the Waldorf curriculum.
So, without further ado, please do let me introduce you to our wonderful handwork teacher! Judy Forster grew up in a family where all kinds of Handwork were important and appreciated. While working as an adjunct instructor of English, she was happily recruited to her first position teaching Handwork at the Susquehanna Waldorf School where her son was a kindergarten student and her husband had taught German. She completed the first Applied Arts training offered in the United States at Sunbridge College. Over the years, Judy has taught Handwork to students of all ages in Waldorf schools and private schools, for homeschool Collectives, and at summer camps. She is currently working at home while enjoying time with her toddler daughter; her son is now in college. Judy teaches homeschool students, homeschool parents, and runs her on-line business for naturally plant dyed stuff at Mama Jude’s Plant Dyed Stuff
And here is a fabulous article she wrote; I hope you all find it useful!
Handwork—An Integral Part of the Waldorf Curriculum
by Judy Forster
Waldorf Education has many unique aspects that add to the richness of the overall curriculum. One of these aspects is the handwork curriculum, but what exactly is handwork, and why is it such an important part of the larger Waldorf curriculum? In most Waldorf schools, handwork includes, but is not limited to, knitting, crocheting, hand sewing, embroidery, cross stitch, wet felting, paper crafts and machine sewing. It is taught as a specific subject, but it often permeates other aspects of the curriculum.
Many handwork skills are integral to various cultures around the world. In our modern society, many of us often see handwork, but we don’t always realize what it is or how it happens. When you buy a crocheted purse at Target, you many not realize that somewhere in the world someone is busily crocheting those purses. Any item of clothing you buy was probably sewn by someone on a sewing machine. In the past, a sewing machine was a staple of many homes, like a stove or an iron. Nowadays, not every child can identify a sewing machine or realize its purpose.
Many of the examples of handwork around us are mass produced, and that mass production is often guided by need and provides a livelihood for many around the world. However, handwork can be a very individual task as well. What many of us often forget is that these practical tasks are often connected to the intellectual and creative aspects of a human being, and it is this impulse that was strongly felt by the founder of Waldorf schools, Rudolf Steiner. Handwork has been a part of general education of the human being for a long time. It arose out of necessity, such as the need for clothes or useful items, but often evolved with a more complex purpose. You might imagine the complicated patterns found on rugs in the Middle East or the American southwest—needed household items infused with symbolism and meaning. Even in our own country up until the 1980’s, aspects of handwork were still taught in many public schools under the name of home economics. When we move away from handwork as a part of education, something is lost. Steiner recognized this and formally integrated handwork into his curriculum for the Waldorf schools.
Knitting, which is taught in first grade, was an aspect of handwork that especially appealed to Steiner. He often referred to “thinking as cosmic knitting.” When you take ideas and put them together to form more complicated thoughts, it is similar to the process of knitting where one thread is pulled up again and again to create a fabric. But handwork for the Waldorf student starts much earlier than first grade knitting. Handwork begins in the Waldorf kindergarten. It may appear as the chopping of vegetables for soup, the kneading of bread dough, making a belt from a finger chain or a crown from flowers, folding your napkin, or even as basic as tying your shoes. These simple activities are the foundation for a sense of self reliance and also create an unconscious pool of knowledge which can be drawn from when later subjects such as physics, geometry, or other areas of math and science.
The handwork curriculum weaves through the grades. Very simple knitting, which often has a balanced sense of using both hands, is taught in first grade. Often the faeries might come and help out with a dropped stitch or if someone is a bit behind in his or her work. Basic knitting skills such as casting on, casting off, changing colors, simple increasing and decreasing, hiding ends, and sewing up a project are introduced, refined, and developed during the knitting journey of first and second grade.
Crochet, which focuses more on a child’s dominant hand—the one used for writing, may begin in second grade and is often one of the mainstays of third grade. Sometimes in third or fourth grade there is a return to knitting. Purling is often taught around this age or later. The backward gesture of purling, as opposed to the forward gesture of knitting, is taught at a time when children have left the dreamy world of first and second grade and can be more aware of the world around them—especially the “backward space” behind them. In third or fourth grade, students are often introduced to simple embroidery and the use of a sharp needle. This activity ties in with the awakening that accompanies the 9-10 change.
In fourth grade the emphasis is also on cross stitch as the students begin the journey of crossing from childhood into adolescence. Many of the mirror image patterns used in fourth grade tie in with the teaching of fractions and the concept of equal parts. Fifth grade is devoted to knitting in the round which almost always includes socks but can also include mittens or hats. (Keep in mind that the curriculum has flexibility for location—one might not knit socks when one lives in the tropics.) These complicated projects reinforce many mathematical concepts.
In grades six and seven, students will often undertake long term sewing projects such as dolls or stuffed animals often creating their own patterns. Sometimes wet felting is introduced in grade seven. This activity is physically all-encompassing and readily meets the middle school student as their bodies grow and change. Eighth grade often focuses on machine sewing which ties in with the study of the industrial revolution. In the high school, handwork is often transformed into the practical arts which are taught by master craftsmen. The subjects may include but are not limited to blacksmithing, hand spinning, quilting, copper bashing, advanced woodworking, cabinetry, advanced machine sewing, weaving, basket making, and book binding. As the curriculum progresses through the grades, students continue to build confidence and learn new skills every step of the way.
There are other hidden gifts found within the handwork curriculum. Current research shows a connection between fine motor skills and brain development. Activities such as knitting or crocheting also involve using both sides of the brain. Other skills reinforced by handwork are as basic as eye tracking and numeracy. The eye tracking which can be as simple as following a stitch from one knitting needle to the other or creating a mirror image pattern on a cross stitch bookmark is a big help for developing and strengthening reading skills. Number skills are essential to all types of handwork—knitting, crocheting, sewing, cross stitch. How many stitches did you cast on? Did you lose any? How far apart are your running stitches? How much do you add to this pattern for your seam allowance?
In addition to the sense of self reliance and the intellectual aspects addressed in handwork, there are creative and heartfelt aspects as well. There are artistic and expressive opportunities for students within the work. Students often give the items they make as gifts to loved ones. Sometimes a class may make an entire project for another group. For example, a community service group made up of seventh and eighth graders might sew pillow cases for a daycare or knit hats for newborns. On a more widespread note of care, handwork can instill a sense of value and concern for the environment. If you can sew a hole in your jeans or replace a button on an article of clothing, those items can continue to have use. So often our society tends towards the disposable gesture. Instead of throwing something out, we can repair it and continue to use it. In addition, Waldorf schools often use natural materials. These materials, such as wool, cotton, linen, silk, or rayon, come from renewable resources unlike petroleum based fibers.
Currently handwork has seen a rise in popularity in America. Celebrities have helped to make handwork trendy by writing books of handwork patterns or creating their own lines of yarn. (And we are grateful for the joy and awareness this brings!) But in the Waldorf schools, handwork is here to stay. Like all of the aspects of Waldorf education, the handwork curriculum integrates the intellect, a sense of care, and practical skills to create strong human beings ready to meet the world.
Many thanks to Ms. Judy for this wonderful article! Please do go visit her Etsy shop at http://www.mamajudes.etsy.com
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What an amazing article!!! Thank you Carrie and thanks to Judy as well!!!
I love Judy and it has been such a joy to read her. Thank you Carrie and you guys are SO lucky to have her!
Thank you Fabs! My favorite part is about the “backward space”..
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This is a great article.
As a Handwork teacher for Sun Haven Waldorf School on the West Coast of British Columbia and the Handwork Skills teacher at the West Coast Institute for Waldorf teacher training, I feel the need to express my opinion about needle felting.
I strongly believe this belongs with adults. It should have no place in the grades Handwork curriculum.
Just think of the gesture: stab, stab , stab repeatedly with a sharp weapon.
As adults we know the difference between stabbing a real human being and ‘stabbing’ fleece with a sharp needle to make a toy or item of clothing.
Of course at some level young children also know the difference, yet this gesture is truly a violent one and not something we should be emphasizing.
It conjurs up the superstitious practice of sticking pins in figures as you imagine them to be someone you dislike and wish to harm. Where we put our energy and focus is highly significant. The gesture with which we do it is also highly significant.
There are plenty of other activities and projects in the Handwork curriculum. Welt felting is a different occupation altogether and is appropriate for all ages, from kindergarten upwards.
Needle felting is in vogue, the latest craze; that doesn’t necessarily make it appropriate for children.
Sarnia, You and Judy and I are on the same page. Judy made a veiled reference to ut in this article, and if you see my post on Handwork Projects in the second grade, I make a pointed reference to it 🙂
Thanks for reading!!
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I have a question is knitting, crochet etc taught to both boys and girls. Over here in Malta it is considered girlish and although I wouldn’t mind teaching it to my son as such I was wondering f they have different handwork. Besides I should start myself knitting as done it only a few times and dont quite remember how to do it.
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Always finding old treasures on your site 🙂
I have come upon this article several times in my handwork research and always get stuck on not teaching purling as it is knitting in the back space. In knitting we are more in the back space than purling. In purling we can always see the yarn and the needle in the front. Thank you for all the wonderful information on your site.
Interesting! I never thought of it that way myself. I will have to look back through Steiner’s lectures and see what indicates lie within.
Judy, it was lovely read. I am also a handwork teacher in India, teaching for class 2 3 and 4.