What is Handwork in Waldorf Education?

Beginning in the first grade, children learn that their hands are their most useful tools as they learn to knit using their own hand made knitting needles. As the children grow, so do their knitting skills. By the end of second grade they are able to cast on, cast off, knit, purl, increase, decrease, and so much more. As the children enter the 3rd grade and the nine-year change they are feeling very industrious! They learn to card wool, spin yarn on hand made drop spindles, dye the yarn with natural plant dyes and then use it to crochet and weave. The 4th grade brings cross-stitch and embroidery, firmly grounding the children into a sense of self. In the 5th grade we move into the "hard" crafts of leatherwork, woodwork, and intricate beading. The 6th grade students learn to draft their own sewing patterns to create hand-sewn animals. In 7th grade, as the students are moving into early adolescence, we move into wet felting. As they felt their unique slippers they must develop a relationship with the fibers, knowing just when to apply pressure, and when to hold back. Finally in the 8th grade, as the students are studying the industrial revolution in history class, in handwork they learn to use the sewing machine. The students learn the name of each moving part of the machine and how the parts move and work together to sew a stitch.
Why Do We Teach Handwork?
Why do we teach handwork in Waldorf schools you may ask? Our fingertips contain billions of nerve endings. If we do not use our hands and stimulate our sense of touch, many of these nerve endings can become atrophied, leaving our hands essentially finger blind. Modern brain research confirms that mobility and dexterity in the fine motor muscles of the hand builds and strengthens neural pathways in the brain, thereby strengthening the physical foundation of thinking.
Helping Children Learn to Read:
As children knit and sew they are continually crossing the mid-line, building connections between the left and right side of the brain. Stitch by stitch and row by row; children are increasing eye-hand coordination, tracking eye movement left to right, increasing capacity for concentration and focus. The ability to observe the affects of their work, staying organized with their materials, and problem solving on their own, are continually being applied right down to their fingertips. Knitting also supports rhythm and develops fine motor skills. These neural connections are important precursors to reading, writing, logical thinking, and problem solving. Modern brain research shows that learning to knit is actually proven to help children learn to read.
Strengthening Math Skills:
Following a knitting pattern requires children to use all four math processes; addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Over the years as the handwork projects become more advanced, so do the math skills. Drafting sewing patterns or weighing out wool and calculating shrinkage rates require students to use geometry, fractions, measurement, and algebra.
A Sense of Beauty and Worth:
Further than brain development, the handwork curriculum develops the senses of touch, beauty, color, and design. In this modern day our children too easily become passive consumers who, as Oscar Wilde once said, "know the price of everything and the value of nothing". Through the Waldorf handwork curriculum children develop a deep understanding and appreciation for fibers, toys, and clothing. They experience every step of the process from shearing the sheep, to carding, washing, spinning, dyeing, weaving, knitting, and sewing.
Handwork in the early years also builds confidence. It imbues a sense of well being to be able to create something that is both useful and beautiful. Children learn that with their hands they are able to transform natural materials into something new. While in the early years it may be to create a toy, a hat, or a bag. Later in life it translates into an important survival skill for meeting the needs of the individual, the family and the community, as the young adult feels empowered to create what is necessary and useful. Handwork gives the child the power to believe in themselves, to be able to say, "yes, I can do that", even if you have never done it before. The child knows, with confidence, that if you want to, you can learn to do and make anything. That is an understanding you will carry with you for your whole life.