How We Organized a Craft Workshop in Our Community

An Interview with Sherry Penney, Labrador West Indigenous Service Centre

Interview recorded by Craft Labrador.
Photos by Sherry Penney.

How can you organize a craft workshop in your community when there is no funding to do it? Often we have a lot of interest in our communities about learning a certain type of craft but don’t know how to go about it. In this article we will learn from Sherry Penney how she organized a workshop to make sealskin mukluks in Labrador West.

How did the idea come about to have the mukluk workshop in the first place?

Sherry Penney works at the Indigenous Service Centre in Labrador West where she often facilitates craft workshops. When they did the duffel slipper workshop they were given a mukluk pattern and Sherry tried it out. That generated the interest – people saw her work and wanted to try it themselves. So many people were interested that she didn’t even have to advertise the workshop.

Sherry is not an expert in making mukluks, or a formal instructor, but was willing to share what she knew. When she facilitates a workshop, the group learns from each other. There were too many people for her to do the workshop alone, but another person who also had a bit of experience agreed to co-facilitate the workshop. Sherry felt that with the amount of work involved, six participants per facilitator would be enough.

What steps did they take to get started?

They had a meeting of all the participants before they started the workshop to agree on what the expectations were for the workshop and what practices they would follow during the workshop. They also agreed that once the practices were decided upon, they would not change them.

One of the things the group decided on at the initial meeting was the type of mukluk they would make. This helped the facilitators to plan the amount of materials to purchase and how to implement the workshop. They also thought that it would be too difficult to facilitate if everyone did a different pattern.

Another thing they decided on was that each person would have to do their own sewing. The facilitators would demonstrate how to do something on their own mukluks, but wouldn’t do any sewing on the participant’s projects.

How did the facilitators break the workshop up into activities?

The facilitators had a lot of work to do beforehand to plan the workshops. They didn’t want to do a workshop longer than six weeks, so they did a six week outline and planned out what they had to show the group in each week. If participants didn’t finish up in the workshop, they would have to finish at home during the week in order to stay on track.

They decided to just work on one boot during the workshop. If participants could learn to do one well, they could do the other at home afterwards. People who did a lot of work at home were able to do both boots in the six weeks.

The pattern they used had a strip of hide at the front and participants were free to make their own designs on this so that each project was personalized. One night of the workshop was spent deciding what each person wanted. Participants did the decorative work at home. Some did beading, some embroidery – each one was different. This gave everyone a chance to be really creative, even though they were working on the same project.

How did they determine workshop costs?

In order to determine what materials they would need for the workshop, the co-facilitators met with each participant individually to finalize each pattern so that it would fit the person who was making it. They estimated that they would need $200 per person for the materials. At the first meeting they agreed that any extra materials they needed would be added on top of that.

In fact, they later added a seventh week to the workshop to add a rubber sole to the boots they had made and they needed to order extra materials for that. They were able to save on shipping for the first order of materials because someone was able to bring them from Goose Bay. They had to pay shipping on the additional materials for the rubber soles. Participants paid for materials up front and Sherry ordered them. Sherry ordered everything on her credit card and because she did that for them, the group decided that she could keep the leftover materials.

The Aboriginal Service Centre didn’t have any funding to pay for the workshop, but they provided the space for the workshop and Sherry was able deliver the workshop as part of her work there. Part of the money that participants paid for materials covered the materials for the co-facilitator because she had donated her time to help plan and deliver the workshop.

The workshop was very successful and Sherry says that she would use the same process again.

What things were important to making the workshop a success?

The workshop went well because the facilitators did their homework – they planned ahead. Sherry says that meeting with the group up front and deciding on the workshop expectations was the most important thing – and deciding that the expectations wouldn’t change. For example, one of the things they had decided up front was that they cleaned up as a group during the last 15 minutes of each session. It was also important for the facilitators that the group agreed to stick to the process they outlined at the beginning. If the process changes part way through, it can make things very hectic.

The facilitators met individually with each participant to size the pattern. This was important to participants because it helped to build a rapport with the facilitators and helped to ensure each participant had a good final product. It was also a good idea to do this outside of the workshop because it was less stressful one on one. When working with costly materials, people are concerned about the fit until they are able to try them on.

What can we learn from Sherry’s workshop?

  • Learning from ourselves: The big lesson we can learn from Sherry’s story is that we don’t need to wait for someone from outside to organize a craft workshop, we can do it ourselves. We don’t always need a formal instructor. One person who has a little more skill, or knows how to do a technique that others want to learn, can help others to learn.
  • Paying for materials for facilitator. Nice way to encourage someone to donate their time to facilitate a workshop.
  • Planning ahead: Meet before the workshop starts to set the expectations of the workshop. Stick to the rules the group has set at the beginning.
  • Fairness is important.
  • Sharing skills was important thing to make the workshop a success. We can learn from each other and shouldn’t be afraid to share our skills and knowledge. Every craft maker is different and everyone has something to contribute to the group.