Teaching in Iran

Click here to view the Iran gallery.

In February 2004 I was asked by Bernina International to speak at a Symposium on Technology in Sewing organised by Bernina and The Ministry of Education in Iran. Tehran has more than three thousand sewing schools but patchwork and quilting are almost unknown. In a very large auditorium I addressed what seemed to be a sea of women in black abeyahs. Each had a headphone under her scarf, and as I spoke in English she heard it in Farsi – translated a few beats behind me by a man in a glass box. It was strange for me – a line that usually elicited a laugh would not – and then half way through the next sentence everyone would laugh.

I was totally unprepared for the reception I received from the women who heard me speak. I was mobbed afterwards, kissed and surrounded by women wanting more information about the quilts I had made. I was actually a bit frightened, and the Koran reader who had gone to the stage was waiting to read.

In August 2005, as a direct result of the Symposium, I was lucky enough to go back to Iran to teach.

The Ministry of Education and Bernina were sponsors again. Eighteen women were brought from provinces all over Iran – all of them established sewing teachers. The project was to turn them into patchwork teachers.

There is a newly formed Patchwork Guild in Iran – Patch Iran. Patch in Farsi is a checkered cloth, so the name was doubly suitable. Michelle Gilder and the other teachers at Patch Iran wrote a series of classes to bring the new students up to Intermediate level, and I was to teach the next classes.

It is hard to describe the sense of excitement I could feel from the students when I arrived. Not only were they new to patchwork, but unlike most beginners in the west, they had no idea what they were going to be doing with they arrived. Many had travelled very long distances to do the class. Many had left husbands and children to be cared for by others, and were unsure if they had done the right thing. Most had initially worried about whether they would be able to do what was being asked of them, and whether they would enjoy it.

By the time I arrived all doubts had gone. The students were all staying in nearby dormitory accommodation and being bussed in each day. They were from different areas, different ages and economic backgrounds. Most wore the abeya as they arrived each morning – the dark swirling robes of traditional Iranian woman. Beneath the robes – well, they were just like any other class I have taught - enthusiastic, fun, thrilled with their own developing skills. There was even an occasional joke that would raise some eyebrows. We had those who told jokes, those who talked, some who worked in silence and produced beautiful careful work, and some who were so absorbed that they didn’t want meal breaks. One lass sat cross legged under her table for peace and quiet as she worked.

With Michelle and the teachers of Patch Iran they had learnt to use the Berninas which would be their tools for the next ten days. They had made a cushion cover in crazy patchwork which was a way to test some fancy stitches and basic quilting ideas. They then made a series of pieces, all intended as parts of a bag to carry their mat, rulers and cutter. I thought this was an ideal beginner project, as it taught all the basics while creating something very useful and really lovely, made them familiar with their machines and with all the basic tenets of patchwork.

When you teach with an interpreter you can’t afford to waffle – at all. Even humour when directly translated risks going wrong. I was so lucky in having Michelle Gilder, the driving force behind patchwork in Iran as my interpreter. Not only was she an extraordinary woman – born in England and married to an Iranian, fluent in Farsi to the extent that she even reads and writes it – but also an experienced patchwork teacher. However, you still need to simplify what is said and make sure nothing is omitted, and everything has to be said twice so all explanations take twice as long.

There are problems in teaching in a different culture that need to be addressed before I started. In December 2003 I had taught patchwork to Palestinians. I had realised that I didn’t want to introduce new sets of patterns into their culture. I have always thought it important that teaching a new skill or form of craft like patchwork does not disturb an existing culture, but slides in below what is already there, supporting and enhancing it. In the 1930’s a German embroidery school had done exactly this, and all Palestinian embroidery can be dated at before or after the 1930’s by looking at the patterns which appear. I had worked there with traditional Palestinian patterns, making them up as patchwork elements.

I had selected a series of quilts to teach in Iran, and all were basically Islamic patterns and designs. Because I was working with Government sponsorship this was especially important. Iran has such rich sources of patterns that it was really no problem to find and use their own.

We started with a simple quilt. Within a few hours they were off and away making sets of half square triangles. I had chosen a quilt sometimes called Carpenter’s Wheel, or Broken Star in America. The block was renamed by the girls as the Palestine Star, as I had also taught it to Palestinians. As patchwork blocks frequently carry more than one name this seemed a good compromise, and I had chosen the block because the same pattern appears in Islamic imagery.

I was thrilled with the way they grasped each idea and concept. I had thrown them in at the deep end with an immediate explanation of the ‘magic’ numbers for calculating the sizes for squares and rectangles, half square triangles and quarter square triangles. I had to work in Metric, but many Australian teachers work in both so it was not a problem. We had divided the classes into pairs who would work together as a team to make one quilt. As each intermediate class would teach two different quilts this meant that they could each take one home from each session. We had decided to make the quilts quite small so that they would have time to finish and complete as much as possible, and so that the limited fabric supplies would go further. It is interesting that teamwork of this type is accepted in the Middle East – and I cannot imagine it working in Australia.

Within hours many were presenting me with figures for me to check for much larger quilts in the same patterns. Throughout the classes they amazed me with the way they could leap ahead to extrapolate the concepts. They were all already expert stitchers, but I had not expected the degree of expertise in concepts of patterning.

We worked through several different intermediate level classes, then had to grade the students. This was so difficult. Iranian education works on an examination system and this is consistent for even such things as stitching courses. We were asked to identify those good enough to go on to teach patchwork. We did not have an examination, but throughout the course we had watched the ladies and assessed skills and understanding of the concepts we were teaching. Because I was not able to follow the chat around the rooms in Farsi, and I felt that understanding this was an important part of knowing how well the students were coping, I asked Michelle to be in charge of the assessment. We also ran formal interviews, and each girl attended with her notes from the classes, and the work she had made. We identified those to be recommended as teachers in their regions, and also asked permission to ask four of these to attend the advanced classes that I was running for the members of Patch Iran who were more experienced. I am still amazed that after only ten days since their very first patchwork these girls sailed through some very advanced work.

Each day was a real pleasure. Aside from the buzz and excitement in the rooms – and there were several spread through the Bernina School – there were the most amazing morning teas and lunches. I have decided that Iranians take food breaks very seriously. The lunches were wonderful. Apparently the food is supplied by organisations that make up thousands of lunch boxes for students. It always arrived hot. The first day it was Pollo Zereshk – chicken in a mixture of white and yellow rice with tiny barberries – deliciously tangy little scarlet berries with a brilliant ruby colour – and almonds and pistachios through the rice. Next day was lamb kebabs with yoghurt and rice. Each day there was a new treat in the plastic boxes – and morning teas of sweet pastries.

I loved the way that every meal was served with limes tucked into the corners. Many girls did not eat them with the food, but squeezed them into a dessertspoon at the end of the meal to clean the palate of a rich meal with the sharp sour freshness of unsweetened lime juice.

At the beginning all the girls stayed firmly headscarfed, even if the larger voluminous abeyas were removed when they came inside. We had a filming crew from the government and there were four men moving around the rooms with camera equipment. After a week or so we were more familiar with them and several girls were leaving their headscarves off. The men would warn them if they were intending to film and the scarves would go back on. I one class I asked how many wore scarves only because the government said they had to. Most held their hands up. I asked how many would take them off immediately if the law was changed. Most put their hands up. I asked if their husbands and fathers and neighbours would react to that and it started a lively discussion which I could not understand – then a spokesman explained that perhaps it would not be straight away that headscarves were removed – most had decided it would take them a while to be comfortable in public without them. Some had said they would never be seen by other men without a headscarf at least.

At the end of my time I posed with all my students for the usual essential photographs. The car that would take me to the airport was waiting at the gate. They were so obviously sad to see me go that I had a lump in my throat. Lili – one of the more advanced students - appeared with a bowl of water in which floated flowers and leaves from the garden. She explained that it was part of an Iranian ceremony to make sure that I would return. “What do I do?” I asked Michelle.

“Just walk away and don’t look back”.

So I walked away. I heard water splash behind me and several scarlet geranium petals flew past my feet. I didn’t look back, but heard a phrase in Farsi. I got into a black government car and we drove away.

My last memory of my lovely Iranian class is the group of women in black and bright colours, smiles over tears, and the sound of Farsi and splashing water.

Click here to view the Iran gallery.