Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Online Embroidery Classes

You've taken an embroidery class, and you are hooked.  You are stitching up all of the samplers that you can, you are telling all of your friends about your fantastic new hobby, and your weekends are starting to resemble a scene in a Jane Austen novel.  (In the Jane Austen Drinking Game, this would count as "Display of Womanly Skill.")

But soon, you develop a tolerance.  You start to crave the harder stuff--complicated stitches . . . other historical and international stitching styles . . . actually turning your embroidered work into an object.  You would gladly keep taking classes until you've drained your textile hobby budget.

And that's when you realize that you have taken the only embroidery class available in your tri-county area.

It's a crushing feeling, and that's if you could find a beginner class at all.  I was able to take a class at my local craft store because the owner happens to be interested in embroidery.  When my mom expressed interest, I looked on Google to see what classes were in her area.  After sifting through the useless "custom embroidered logo" entries, the only classes I could find were in little independent craft stores in the downtown of her nearest large city--a 40-minute drive on a good day, or a train ride.  Though Michaels and Joann Fabrics both carry embroidery supplies (usually languishing in the farthest corner of the store), I have yet to find any that offer embroidery classes.

That is where online classes can fill the void.  These have become more common in recent years, and are especially convenient for embroidery because you can work on your project in front of the computer.  classes can take different forms, depending on who is putting them out.

Large websites like Creativebug and Craftsy publish classes in the form of videos.  Subscribers can either pay a monthly fee to access all the classes they want, or pay individually for each class.  The classes here are a step-up from free video tutorials on YouTube, filmed with high quality equipment, adequate lighting, and higher resolution.  The videos are divided into chapters so that it is easier to go back and find specific parts to watch.  I find that visual lessons are very helpful for beginners, because it helps to see the steps being performed.  With videos, you can also rewind it as many times as it takes to understand a step.  Rebecca Ringquist of Drop-Cloth Samplers has several great classes up on Creativebug, including one that covers the stitches on her original sampler.

Individual teachers can use a different method, releasing each "class" as a PDF document with detailed instructions for completing the lesson.  The teacher makes herself available by e-mail for questions.  Sometimes the teacher will open a private Facebook or Flickr group for all students taking the same class.  In this virtual classroom, students can share pictures of their works in progress and ask each other questions.  While the class might last a few weeks in terms of releasing the PDF lessons, the group is open for several months so that students can progress at their own pace.  This style of online class is good for embroiderers who have mastered the basics and want to learn additional skills.  (If you find it easy to learn stitches from diagrams in books, that will work in your favor.)

For a birthday present, I am treating myself to an online class from one of my favorite embroidery bloggers, Nicole of Follow the White Bunny.  She designs patterns inspired by illustrations in children's books.  Her class, Furry Nice, will cover the techniques necessary to stitch small animal portraits.  I can't wait for class to begin on April 10.  Other students have been introducing themselves in our private group.  Nicole is from the Netherlands, and other students are from the USA, Norway, Australia, and the UK.  Even though we are worlds apart, we are able to introduce ourselves and visit each others blogs.  It really is starting to feel like a class.  I feel so lucky to be a crafter in the Internet age, when I can overcome geography and limited resources by clicking on a link.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Level Up in Crafting

Back in January, I talked about my stitching goals for the year.  With so many projects in my queue, I have to make sure to stitch every day that I can and I wanted a way to keep myself on track.  When I went to Home Ec last Saturday morning, my friend Angela brought up an intriguing option for those who want extra incentives to keep up with a task.  (Extra incentives other than the finished project or the satisfaction of a job well done, of course.)

HabitRPG turns your goals into a role-playing game, like Dungeons & Dragons or World of Warcraft.  You begin with a basic character that you can customize.  I'm not very imaginative--I just like seeing how I look as a low-resolution video game character.

Then you set up tasks that you want to make a regular part of your life, or that you need to accomplish by a deadline.  They come in three types:
  • Dailies:  Tasks you need to do every day or at regular intervals (Walk the dog, weed the garden)
  • Habits:  Tasks that you want to encourage yourself to do more regularly (Don't eat junk food, take the stairs instead of the elevator)
  • To-Do List:  One-time tasks

Whenever you complete a task, you earn Experience Points, and gold and silver coins.  If you fail to do a daily task, you lose health points.

As the days go by, the tasks that you do more frequently earn you fewer points and coins so that you have extra incentive to do the less-frequent tasks.  The experience points allow you to attain higher levels for your character, which unlocks incentives like clothes, weapons, pets, and potions.  You can use the gold and silver coins to buy prizes in the game, or you can set up your own prizes (100 gold coins = 1 new embroidery pattern).  If you go too long without accomplishing daily tasks, then your character will lose all its health points and die.

Lots of people use HabitRPG as a way to remind them to do less pleasant daily tasks like cleaning, or to help them stay on a diet-and-exercise regiment.  This is a game where you set many of the rules, so people use it to make progress in a hobby, too.  There are forums called "guilds" where you can meet other people with your interests and get ideas on how to use HabitRPG to increase your skills.  If you have friends who use it, you can set up "parties" or "quests" to keep everyone accountable as a group.  There are already guilds for stitching and knitting/crochet, so crafters are in good company here.

With its RPG style and reliance on the honor system, this is not the right method for everybody.  My husband freely admits that if he signed up for the site, he would try to "break" the system by doing things like counting breathing as a daily task.  For those who are sincere in their desire to change their habits and have a love of computer games, HabitRPG seems like an innovative way keep on track.  It is highly adaptable to whatever area you want to improve.  I am using it to keep myself stitching for at least 30 minutes daily, to finish one project before moving on to new ones . . . and to see how I would look wielding a mace and riding a hedgehog.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Altering Patterns: A Debate of Art and Ethics

I finished the January and February squares of Frosted Pumpkin Stitchery's Once Upon a Time Sampler.

January--Snow White
February--The Frog Prince
I like the cleverness of the images.  Who would think to show Snow White during an ordinary laundry day?  It's like "A Day in the Life of a Fairy Tale Character."  These squares were, however, the beginning of a large debate among people following along with this pattern.

With the Woodland Sampler, the squares were all based on generic woodland creatures like racoons and hedgehogs.  They were not tied to any specific named woodland creatures or pop culture references.  Some people liked to alter the patterns to suit their tastes.  One woman replaced the rain in the April Jackelope square with a rainbow.  Another added a 2nd mushroom to the terrarium in the March square.  I made a few color changes, like making snow out of white thread instead of metallic thread because white "read" more like snow to me than silver and I was finding the metallic thread very difficult to work with.  When we shared our changes in the Facebook group, people complimented the changes.

Right away, it was clear that the Once Upon a Time sampler would be a different matter.  We've grown up with fairy tales as stories and movies, and many people have specific images come to mind when we think of these stories.  Overwhelmingly, people's images have been shaped by Disney movies, and that effect has been more pronounced since Disney has been promoting their "Disney Princess" line of merchandise.

As the speedy stitchers started finishing the January square, some of the finished products had changes that reflected these strong cultural ties.  Some women changed the coloring on Snow White's dress to be closer to the primary colors of the Disney character's outfit.  Some added poofy sleeves.  One enterprising woman added the Evil Queen's image in the mirror.  Quite a few women commented that they loved the changes, and the original stitchers posted charts and DMC thread colors so that others could make the same changes.

Unlike the Woodland Sampler, some people became extremely critical.  Long Facebook arguments erupted over whether whether it was acceptable, artistically or ethically, to change the images.

"If you are going to change the pattern so much, why did you bother buying it?  Get a Disney pattern or make your own."
"I'm making this for my granddaughter.  She loves the Disney princesses, so why can't I make it the way she likes?"
"This is really mean.  It's like you are saying you don't like the designer's ideas.  They probably aren't even allowed to make the characters look like Disney ones."
"I used to love sharing my photos here, but if it's going to cause so many complaints I'm just not going to do it anymore."

If you didn't agree with the changes, then you were stifling the creativity of others and clearly didn't want the children who receive the finished products to be happy.  (You don't hate children, do you?)  If you did agree with the changes, then you have bought into all of the cookie-cutter commercialism and questionable morals that Disney has come to embody.

Honestly, it was very disheartening to me to see all of this play out on Facebook.  Until this point, all of the crafters I have met in person and in this group have been so helpful and happy for the success of others.  When I discovered the world of crafting online, I was so excited to find other people who shared my interests and it provided validation for the things I made.  The Internet took what was once a solitary hobby and turned it into a social experience.  Once people started making changes reflecting Disney designs, things got downright nasty.  The whole experience made me realize that there is a downside to the online socialization of these hobbies.  Joining an online community means leaving yourself open to criticism, and feeling the obligation to justify your choices.  The lack of non-verbal queues and the anonymity of a large Facebook group makes it easier to make cutting remarks or misunderstand comments.  If someone speaks negatively about something you've made, it feels like they are speaking negatively about YOU.

The Frosted Pumpkin designers ended up stepping into the fray and laying down ground rules.
  1. Hair and skin color can always be considered suggestions, whether you want to make a princess look more like your daughter or just like the idea of multicultural princesses.  They are also accepting of color changes that are necessary to make the thread show up better against fabric of different colors.
  2. Feel free to post pictures of a finished square, but do not post charts of the changes you have made.
  3. When describing the changes, keep in mind that the designers worked very hard to create these patterns.  Would you want something you created to be described this way?
With most of the cross-stitch patterns I have made, I have made very few changes.  I buy these patterns because I love their quirky design and their ability to come up with images I would have never thought of on my own.  There will come a time, however, where I will want to make alterations to reflect my preferences.  In the Springtime Sampler, I would like to change an Easter egg to a seder plate.  The Winter Sampler has many Christmas-themed squares that I would like to alter to Chanukah designs, like changing a Christmas cookie to a latke and tree ornaments to dreidels.  Some people might see these changes as significant, and would say I should design my own patterns entirely.  I buy the Frosted Pumpkin patterns because I like their style, and I am not that good yet at designing.  (My attempt to create a "Kawaii Shabbat" pattern was . . . . dismal, to put it politely.)  I think the original patterns are very cute, and if I was making them for a non-Jewish friend I would not hesitate to stitch them as is.  I just want the embroidered art I display in my house to reflect the reality of my lifestyle.

The important lesson I took from this experience is that people will always put their own personal flair into the objects they make, even when it is something as uniform as a cross-stitch pattern.  When we make these changes, however, we need to respect the original designers--both as artists with intellectual property, and as people with feelings.