Attitudes to arts education giving me 1980s flashbacks

Standing on a train platform the other day I could have been transported back to the 80s. To the right a poster for a Stallone movie, to the left a Schwarzenegger one. A new Bowie single out. Oh yes, and headlines about recession.

But it was a very 21st century phenomenon that really made me think of the 80s –  the podcast I was listening to featured Sir Christopher Frayling, former head of the Royal College of Art and author of On Craftsmanship towards a new Bauhaus, talking about the current devaluing of arts education – especially in relation to design and making.

Like outgoing chair of the Arts Council in England Liz Forgan, he was decrying the fact that arts subjects have been left out of the core curriculum for the reforms of secondary education in England.  

Frayling was also talking about how the Russell Group of universities did not recognise arts and design subjects as important

It was this downgrading of the value of arts, design and making that took me back to the 1980s and an interview for a place at Cambridge that may well have set me on a very different course to the one my teachers anticipated back then.

80s style copy

Me in the 80s - I'm the stoppy one on the left! 

At that point being very able at maths and sciences I was on track for an engineering degree. I already had gained my maths A level a year early and thanks to a combination of my own desire to pursue all by interests, a school that believed in diversity and my natural traits of overachieving and bloodymindness, was now studying for art, further maths and physics A levels, as well as fitting in a Drama O level/GCSE.

So there I was in Cambridge meeting a senior member of the engineering department feeling nervous but OK because I’d already achieved one of the standards for entry. So it was a shock to be described as a “typical female” who couldn’t make up her mind about science v arts. The attitude was that art was a waste of my time – despite my arguments that spacial awareness and an aesthetic sense were in my view important skills exhibited by many engineers.

This was the first time I had really encountered the attitude that art and design was a lesser type of education or skills. It was a shock – especially to someone who came from a family filled with artists and makers.

It was that experience that made me think beyond my expected career path and I’ve spent all my adult life in one creative sector or another – theatre, TV, publishing, craft.

Over the years there has been a change in this divide between science and engineering and the designers and makers – note the rise in discipline of product design. So it is depressing to think that education in the UK might be returning to the attitudes I experienced in that dim Cambridge study. It also goes hand in hand with the lack of publicity given to the value of design and making skills, include heritage crafts, to the UK economy.

We risk returning to the assumption that art education is about creating pretty pictures and not about how visual skills can equip people to find different types of solutions to problems. And those different approaches can be as important to great innovation as research  in lab.

For the UK to be a success we need the skills of science and engineering and the skills of art and design to turn the ideas of the former into great products.

Stitched Selves at the Science Museum

  Knit 011
An army of 15cm knitted and stitched figures took the Science Museum by storm this evening as part of the latest Sciemce museum late event.

Organised by Stitch London the "stitched selves" were self portraits of their makers and with more than 250 on show it made an interesting exhibit in terms of the detail on show, the techniques and what peoplethought was significant about themselves.

Here are a few photos to give a flavour of the event.

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 Personally I think I'm one of the most threatening looking of the group - it's the way I grip the sword as if I'm about to break out over the slashed remains of my fellows.

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Knit 004  Meanwhile Elaine sits glamourously by as if waiting for cocktails with Caroline who was sadly at the other end of the display.

Knit 013  Some selves were real glam-pusses,
 some used interesting
techniques.  Knit 008  

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And one was even dressed in her Science Museum uniform

Look I'm really really in a Science Museum case!

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And just a few more

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The making of Mini-Me

Knit 170a  Well , I'm finished. The 6in knitted version of me for the Stitch London/Science Museum Stitch Yourself project is complete. 

Here are some of the stages.

The body bits. I don't like i-cords so I went for an attempt at shaped and stuffed arms and legs.

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 Once joined up I decided on leggings:

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Knit 163  Hair seemed like a good idea. I managed to find variegated  Knit 164  
 brown yarn that  also matches my hair in being straight
 but completely unruly. 

Further clothing in the form of a belted tunic dress (in a yarn I've made a top for me) and a hat and shawl.

Knit 165 Knit 167   

At least the hat controls the hair.

Finally a face of sorts, a necklace and some shoes. I'd still like to find one of those cocktail plastic swords but otherwise I'm done. And I even have a gammy leg.

Knit 169

Knitting the pain away - science and yarn

A study conducted Royal United Hospital, Bath, suggests that knitting can improve sufferers' experience of chronic pain.

It says more work needs to be done to work out why this happens. It could be  a number of things such as:
rhythmic repetitive movements and their role in meditation and serotonin release; the effect of bilateral  patterns of hand movement on brain maps; automatic movements on rumination; the ‘end product’ and its effect on the reward system; the effect on cognitive function; stimulation from colour, texture and being creative.

I'm particularly curious to find out what is going on because I have osteoarthritis and sometimes experience a great deal of pain. But my anecdotal experience is that knitting in some way improves the experience perhaps by distracting me or perhaps its the medative thing. I'll be following this with interest.

Knit yourself for the Science Museum

The Science Museum has asked London knitters through Stitch London to craft 6inch tall models of themselves for an exhibit in June. 

The stages of mine are likely to feature here and on Ravelry. It will feature either a turquoise or a pink tunic dress, Rowan Tapestry hair & black leggings but could do with a suggestion for the shoes. I'm also wondering about making a fencing mask or sabre for it to carry...hmmmm

Noise to knit by - podcasts and audiobooks

On my hour-plus each way commute, along with my knitting I listen to my MP3 player . Sometimes music, sometimes audio books and quite a lot of radio podcasts.

The current commuting project is a lacy sweater called Chevron by Kim Hargreaves.

As you can see it is a tad fiddly. Yesterday I noticed that I made a lot of progress listening to a BBC debate on attitudes to religion and to a Michael Connolly thriller but made a vast number of mistakes during a science podcast discussing “quantum information theory”.

This got me to thinking about what I listen to when knitting and so a few (mainly UK-based podcasts).


The Electric Sheep- really enjoying this London-based podders take on knitting. Each episode features thoughts on a topic (a thought for the week) and reviews of yarns and patterns I really like the detail in her reviews and comments and usually find something useful.

From the US Knit Science - also has a lot of technical detail and thoughts on garment construction


Media Talk from the Guardian - humourous take on the week's media events from the Guardian Media team. I usually learn something interesting even if it is very broadcast focused.

The BBC's Media Show is a bit more serious but contains plenty of interest for those with an interest in UK media.

Science and Tech

The Guardian has two great offerings in this area Science Weekly and Tech Weekly - there are always high level interesting guests and plenty of science and tech news.

Occasionally the BBC broadcasts a series called More or Less which looks at stats and figures in an entertaining, nay funny, but intelligent way. Excellent for the ever-so slightly numerate but pedantic amongst us.

Arts and Literature

Two classics from the BBC, Start the Week and FrontRow - all that's best about intelligent broadcasting from Radio 4.


Last but not least the fabulous, wonderful, unsurpassed Film podcast - Kermode and Mayo's Film reviews. Such a cult it has spin-off facebook pages following stands or jokes from the show.

And thinking about all of these, I wonder if I might need a longer commute...