I’m aware that informal learning has been an issue for me for quite a long time and it seems appropriate to do another of those memory lane trips and think about my own informal learning – or at least some snapshots.
As I keep saying I must get back to lace making, my experience of learning to make lace seems a reasonable place to start. I have wanted to know how to make bobbin lace since I was a teenager. I was always quite proficient with my hands – bodged needlework in sense of making garments, but enjoyed fine counted thread cross-stitch and tapestry, lots of different knitting (used to make Aran sweaters for friends because they were so quick to do), taught myself to crochet from a book and taught myself to tat having had the principles explained to me by a shop keeper. But teaching myself lace-making defeated me – I couldn’t make head or tail of the instructions in the various craft books given me as a girl – it might have helped if I had realised a lace pillow was not the same as the one I put my head on at night – but it was something I wanted to know how to do. About 6 years ago, I saw my first ever demonstration of bobbin lace being made at a exhibition and bought the kit that the demonstrator was selling. I managed to follow the patterns in the kit, but the strips of fabric I produced looked more like badly woven cloth than lace. Then I got given a lace making weekend as a Christmas present. I suspect I would never have progressed without that formal instruction. I was taught how to set up a lace pillow and work a simple pattern – and I acquired a book on how to do it. A passing comment had been made about the patterns being based on a grid and that there were computer programs available to aid lace design. When I got home, I looked at the book and quickly saw how the patterns for that type of lace were indeed based on a grid. I also started doing some web searches and found some lace software and plotted the first pattern in the book onto the grid, printed it and worked out how to work the pattern. I quickly acquired some other books and realised that although there were different styles of lace, they all used the same basic stitches worked in different ways. I then started using the program to design my own patterns by adapting patterns in the books, rather than just working them as printed. In the process, I learned a lot about types of threads, types of bobbins, history of lace (making and wearing), modern textile arts. The learning came from a mix of reading, talking to other lace makers, web searches and attending occasional weekend workshops. There was formal instruction, but most of what I learned was self-taught, and all was unaccredited.
Another skill area acquired a number of years ago was bicycle mechanics. I learned to strip down and rebuild a bicycle from a mixture of observation, reading and trial and error. Although self-taught, I got a number of free holidays in return for my mechanical skills, even if I rarely did more than mend the occasional puncture and replace the occasional cable.
Currently, I am learning a lot about using herbs and spices in cooking. My teacher is my son who has developed an interest in cooking. He goes out and buys herbs and spices and experiments with them. From his experiments, I am beginning to recognise the flavour and effect of different herbs and spices and to experiment myself. This is not a case of following recipes but learning by observation and doing – and teaching each other by the comments we make on the results.
I could go on, but much of what I do, including what I am doing in my studies, is a mix of observation, reading and application. Some of my learning is assessed and accredited, but much/most of what I do is purely out of interest and may not even be known to others.
Would the things I have learned informally be any better or any different if I learned them formally, or if the skills acquired informally were formally assessed in some way? Would I gain more satisfaction from making lace if I knew I was getting a certificate for my efforts than from the pleasure of friends who have received a piece of lace I have made?
When and why are informal skills insufficient and formal recognition and accreditation needed?