A few years ago I received an invitation to teach quilting at Nasr School in Hyderabad, India. The invitation came from my husband’s cousin, Begum Anees Khan, the school founder. Starting with a small nursery school in the 1960's Anees slowly added students, extended the curriculum, built classrooms, and acquired property to expand the school. Today Nasr School enrolls over three thousand students from preschool through high school on five Hyderabad campuses.
Despite my misgivings, the challenge of teaching in India was too enticing to resist. In early January 2006 my husband and I flew to Hyderabad for a seven week stay. We became part of Anees’ family living in her home on school grounds. I taught hour and a half sessions of beginning quilting twice a week to a class of 12-14 year old girls. I also taught quilting to two groups of women, mostly teachers, two afternoons a week. I had a busy social schedule as well: formal house calls to all of my husband’s relatives, dinner parties, weddings, and other family celebrations.
Twenty-seven girls signed up for my quilting class. The sewing classroom was large, but sparsely furnished. There was a small teacher’s desk, eight “new” treadle sewing machines for my quilting classes, and benches for the students. I asked for the addition of six large tables, bulletin boards, and irons and ironing boards, a request immediately granted because of my relationship with Anees.
Unfortunately, the “new” treadle sewing machines were a disaster, at least in my classes. Most of the girls needed instruction in their use and time to practice on the machines. Since the treadles were easily jammed with thread and inoperable most of the time, I taught them how to piece and quilt by hand.
I brought plastic rulers, cutting mats and rotary cutters to India in my luggage. Before my departure from home I debated whether to do so. It seemed reasonable to teach students the easiest, most accurate ways of measuring and cutting fabric. But would it be wise to teach the use of tools unavailable in the Indian market? Hyderabad is a city of seven million so I thought quilting tools might be for sale in the city if I could only find the right shop. A relative spent hours and hours driving me around the city to look for the tools with no success. Fortunately, most of the girls in my class said that they had relatives living the Middle East, England, and United States who could send them quilting supplies on request. I donated the tools I brought from home to the school on my departure.
In driving around the city I also looked for cotton or wool batting like we have in the States. None was found. However, I did find a thick polyester batting that might be used if split. In one small shop I met a quiltmaker who was doing hand quilting for a client using layers of thin rubber sheeting as batting. I used flannel for batting in the small quilts I made while in Hyderabad.
In winter months Hyderabadis like to sleep under soft full-cloth bed quilts that are filled with cotton held in place by rows of large hand-sewn stitches. The cotton is so light and fluffy that workers in shops where the cotton is sold wear masks to protect their windpipes and lungs from fuzz in the air. When dirty from use, the quilts are taken apart, the used cotton fill is discarded, and the fabric sandwich is washed. The fabric is then refilled with cotton at a shop.
Once classes started, I taught the girls to measure and cut fabric, and how to sew together quilt blocks. We focused on four- and nine-patch blocks and those that included half-square triangles. The girls then practiced how to assemble a variety of quilt blocks using paper and fabric cutouts. It was my expectation that they would then choose a pattern and start making a small patchwork quilt top in class using fabric brought from home. To my disappointment few girls actually started a quilt project. Instead of learning the final steps in quiltmaking by doing, the girls watched me demonstrate how to add borders, batting, and binding, and hand-quilt with a hoop.
My classes for adult women were much more successful. All of the women had sewing experience, and all wanted to learn as much as possible about quiltmaking before my return. While some of them wanted to make quilts for their families, most were teachers who carefully took notes in class hoping to pass on knowledge of quiltmaking to students of their own. The women didn’t want a slow-paced class that allowed time for practicing new techniques in the classroom. They preferred that I spend all of the class time introducing new material. At the next class they would bring me samples they had sewn at home to show me that they had mastered the skills that I had demonstrated in class.
My husband and I enjoyed our stay in India. On my return, however, I keep reviewing my experiences including all of the teaching mistakes I had made. I could have done better. Last Fall my spirits were bolstered by an e-mail Anees sent to me with pictures attached showing girls in Nasr School uniforms sewing patchwork blocks onto school tote bags. None were my former students…my girls must be nearing high school graduation by now. However, Nasr School’s sewing teacher was in my adult class.
Girls sewing patchwork
California quilter, Donna Hussain, has exhibited in major quilt shows around the country, authored books, and is a regular contributor to Fiber Focus. Click on her name to see all of her past articles.
The photo shows Donna with her husband, Pascha.