You know how autumn has that tingling anticipation? New term, new school shoes, new timetable… As October approached, I have been ticking off days before my first ever stint as tutor of the How to Cover a Traditional Lampshade course at the Women’s Institute’s flagship centre of education, Denman College.

Denman was founded in 1948 in an era of optimism and new independence for women by the National Federation of Women’s Institutes at the elegant Oxfordshire 17th century manor house, Marcham Park. Its purpose was to “assist us to do the things we want to do…read books, enjoy music, grow flowers or vegetables well, decorate a house, do needlework, bring up children, and understand engines or the stars, or the laws of health and much else.”

Today it’s pretty much doing the same, offering day schools and residential courses to WI members and non-members alike in craft, cookery and lifestyle. Denman’s tutors include some of the best in their fields: food writer (and TV chef) Mary Berry, interior designer (and TV personality) Linda Barker and the BBC’s British Sewing Bee’s May Martin. And now me.

Occasionally I’d catch myself marveling at my chance to shine as Britain’s Top Lampshade Expert. Then I’d wonder what on earth I thought I was doing turning up at WI HQ to teach a sewing skill to an older, smarter generation of ladies who could probably beat me bound and blindfolded in a stitchery contest. And, if that wasn’t alarming enough, as a first-time tutor apparently I would be ‘observed’. Crikey.

As it turned out, I had a fabulous, creative, sociable, happy and utterly exhausting time. I was expecting strict curriculum, clipboards and high expectations. I found Boarding School for Incurably Crafty Girls.

In fact, Denman has all the best bits of boarding school and none of the bad ones. It’s optional for a start. The grand main house sits in beautiful landscaped parkland. The informal cheery girly atmosphere (chaps are welcome but thin on the ground), hearty menu, days of time-tabled industriousness, and lively intelligent conversation. “Family history…? Fascinating! Have you come across…?” create a cohesive togetherness which you don’t find in a mere country hotel, where smiling at strangers is a no-no.
Best of all, at the end of the working day (9.30pm), instead of being hustled off to your dorm with a mug of milk and a custard cream, everyone heads to the bar. Hooray!

WI Lessons in Lampshades
Denman’s Craft School and Cookery Schools are housed in a modern purpose-designed building in the grounds a short stride from the main house. It includes three dedicated teaching studios, a large airy conference space and its famous Cookery School kitchen, all arranged around a sociable foyer.

As my inaugural Lampshade class was just two students and myself and we needed little special equipment, we were designated the Ferris Room, the conference suite. Despite our bizarrely huge space we created a busy working atmosphere and thoroughly appreciated the natural daylight, privacy and views of the flower beds. My lampshade lovelies Jill and Nicky were kind, jolly, skilful, appreciative and good at learning. We discussed the fine art of pinning, favourite fabric haunts, how sewing machine feet affect accuracy and the time when Nicky (whose idea of weekend me-time is a gold work master class at the RSN) found her well-stocked sewing basket handy when repairing a sheep’s badly injured shoulder. Over 10 intensive teaching hours, starting on Wednesday evening and finishing at Friday lunchtime, I explained how to strip back and bind shade frames, how to create a pattern for the lining and top fabric for each unique frame, how to accurately pin and sew seams and then stretch the fabrics over the frames, lining up every seam accurately and perfectly with the skeleton frame within. Nicky and Jill were a joy to teach, understanding phrases like ‘seam allowance’, and ‘on the bias’ and asking intelligent questions.

An aside: tubes of UHU scattered about raised a few eye-brows among visiting students to our class, but as Lampshade Expert-in-Charge I stood firm: “UHU is speedier, more accurate and likely to give a more polished finish then stitching.” Jill chose UHU and Nicky stitching.

Of course, with such skilful company, I was bound to take away a few tips.

Two Important Things the Tutor Learned
John James’ curved beading needles are three times finer than a 2in curved upholsterers needle. This, I noted, makes them ideal for finer stitching of silk fabrics and antique braids while upholstering.
When using a washable transfer pencil to draw around a template it’s best to tack the important marking places BEFORE rinsing off the ink.
Obviously. I knew that.

Despite the WIs revival among a younger generation, those who book quality time at Denman are likely to be silver-haired and curly. This is less a reflection on what’s on offer (millinery, paper cutting, felt making couldn’t be more popular on the crafty scene) than the fact that there are scant few working women and/or mums these days with the time or money to slip off for a mid-week Lampshade Covering class. However, despite their generous years, this crowd are bright, jolly, intelligent, industrious and polite. I had some wonderful conversations often ending up hooting with laughter. Considering the day’s activities spanned 12 hours, WI ladies sure have stamina. Must be all those buns that cropped up at every tea break.

End of term report. So, how did I do?
Well, I think Jill and Nicky were full of smiles and happy praise on the final morning, and both went home with a gorgeous lampshade, plus the skills to make many more.

I haven’t heard any official feedback yet, although apparently I do get to see my student feedback forms, which I am looking forward to with interest and trepidation. (I can hear it now… “Joanna is a nice girl, but talks too much…”)

And I’ll be back. Ye-es indeedy! In late November I shall be tutoring a week-long course Immerse Yourself in Upholstery, from 25th to 29th November. I’m already ticking off the days.