Articles - Handwork at The White Mountain Waldorf School

What People Say
I am confident that the education they have received will make them individuals who can and will take the time to think for themselves and inspire and lead others.
Charles Greenhalgh, Parent

“If you’ve had the experience of binding a book, knitting a sock, playing a recorder, then you feel that you can build a rocket ship-or learn a software program you’ve never touched. It’s not bravado, just a quiet confidence. There is nothing you can’t do. Why couldn’t you? Why couldn’t anybody?” Peter Nitze, Waldorf and Harvard graduate, and Director of an aerospace company

Waldorf students have a “can do” attitude. They develop this as they grow, embracing a rich, well planned curriculum. Students master skills and concepts in mathematics, language arts, history, science, German, physics and geometry. Taught in blocks during main lesson, students learn at the appropriate developmental level in a multisensory way. Included in the curriculum are the arts: drawing, painting and music- singing and playing an instrument. Students also study woodworking and handwork. Handwork, in itself, fosters that “can do” attitude. Students understand how things are made because they make them themselves.

Handwork has the important function of establishing and activating pathways in the brain. Current research shows a connection between fine motor skills and brain development. Using the fine motor muscles in the hand can stimulate cellular development in the brain, strengthening the physical foundation of thinking. Students learn to plan ahead, work step by step and sequence steps. They learn to envision a project- whole to parts, then parts to whole. All these skills are carried over into math, reading, spelling and writing. Handwork enhances student abilities in academic areas. Students also learn to appreciate beauty and function in the projects they make.

In first grade, after hearing stories about sheep and wool, students learn to knit. They make their own knitting needles, sanding dowels until they are “as smooth as silk”. A verse is learned to help remember the steps needed to make a stitch. Counting stitches and rows by ones and twos involves math skills. Sequencing is learned along with crossing the mid-line. Students learn to work left to right just as they will when learning to read. Fine motor skills are used. The power of concentration is awakened with each stitch. Attentiveness is required. Attention to detail is learned when one stitch looks different from another and needs to be improved. The will is strengthened as student’s persistence pays off. They are proud of the projects they knit: kittens, flute cases, and birds. Some students knit pencil cases when learning to purl. Remembering how a purl stitch is formed differently than a knit stitch takes much concentration and fine motor agility.

Students continue to knit and purl in the second grade. They learn to increase and decrease stitches, again using their math skills. Projects are made that require both knitting the garter stitch and purling to form a stockinette stitch. Students must concentrate and be able to tell these stitches apart.

In third grade students learn to use a crochet hook in one hand. While difficult to learn at first, students rise to the challenge with their strong wills and learn to single and double crochet. Again math comes into play, counting stitches and rows, increasing and decreasing. Bracelets, fringed bags, belt pouches, teddy bears and snow elves on skis are crocheted.

In both knitting and crocheting students learn to critique their own stitches. They know when to ask for help. They learn it is okay to make a mistake. They are willing to take out stitches to improve their work. This lesson is generalized in future endeavors—it is okay to make a mistake as long as you correct it if you can, learn from it and then move on. This is a valuable life lesson in itself.

The “can do” attitude continues into grade 4 when students learn to embroider. We begin class with the verse “From as far as the stars to here where I stand, I come to use my right and left hand. To embroider, to sew and to knit for work so fine my hands are fit.” Ten different stitches are learned and practiced to make a felt cover for their stitch book. Students enjoy the “french knot challenge” and succeed with this difficult stitch. Planning ahead is needed, stitches need to be consistent in size. Colors chosen are a consideration. Mid year as students cross into pre-adolescence we begin cross stitch. Symmetry in all four quadrants is discussed along an x and y axis. Students design geometric patterns on graph paper, working until they choose their best design. The design is transferred onto fabric by carefully counting squares and stitches. Keeping the design symmetrical is challenging and pleasing at the same time. Attention to detail is required. A small pillow and bookmark are made.

Grade 5 brings a return to knitting. This time 5 needles are used to knit socks. Students review knitting and purling. A plan is made for stripes after discussing factors of 20 to complete 20 stripe rows. Graph paper is used to plan rows and colors. Ribbing forms the top of the sock. Turning the heel of the sock is the biggest challenge. Following directions is essential for this tricky maneuver. Decreasing for the toe comes next. All along students are counting stitches and rows, sequencing steps and paying great attention to detail. These strong willed students persist to finish their socks and are justifiably proud when they do.

Students in grade 6 hand sew dolls. They carefully stitch the bodies together, form a head, create eyes and add hair. Some of the dolls magically resemble their creators. Next clothing is designed and sewn. Dresses, t-shirts and jeans lead to mermaid tails, soldiers uniforms, soccer players, pajamas, capes, pirate costumes and ski outfits for these well dressed dolls. As students strive to learn who they are and what their place in the world will be, these dolls portray all they want to become.

In Grades 7 students strengthen their hand sewing skills. Students make banners for their knighting ceremony. They complete study of the Middle Ages in their main lesson, perform community service and work toward chivalrous goals. In handwork they choose symbols that represent their best qualities or those they aspire to, then embroider and applique cloth banners. Design and color are stressed. In grade 7 vests may be made. Leather work may be introduced. Stuff sack backpacks with an original design pocket of patchwork, embroidery or applique are made.

Study of the Industrial Revolution during main lesson in eighth grade ushers in the use of sewing machines. Students earn their “sewing machine driver’s license” after learning the parts of the machine, how to thread it and how to stitch on mazes, learning control. Patchwork bags are made to practice straight stitching. Patterns are altered for fit to construct flannel pajama pants. Seam allowances of 1/4” or 1/2” are required, careful measuring insures a good fit. Final projects include dresses, wool vests, bucket bags, hoodies and Hawaiian shirts. Students are excited when pieces fit together to form clothing they have made themselves.

One of the most important lessons of handwork is the “can do” attitude students develop. They have knit a flute case, sewn a doll, knit socks and survived turning the heel. They have sewn their own clothes. They know how things are made. They can picture the steps needed. Their will is strong and their confidence is high to try new things based on the positive experiences of the past. As they graduate from The White Mountain Waldorf School their “can do” attitude will take them far.