The Imperfect Stitch and the Beauty of Asymmetry

My friend (and past research colleague), Frances Bell, is attending an online free motion building quilting course run by The Crafty Nomad. I have been enjoying watching her progress as she posts images of her practise samples to her Flickr site, and rather envying her skills. Frances has already made some beautiful quilts so it was interesting to read her explanation of why she is doing this course:

What I am hoping to learn from this course is more about constructing a design – putting together different elements into an overall design. The project that I’ll do in a couple of weeks will have 12 coloured rectangles separated by white space so that’s plenty of opportunity for experimentation.

The image above was the first photo that I noticed. I really liked the trailing thread in the top left hand corner, which I saw as ‘breaking the boundary’, an idea that for some reason appealed to me. Frances explained the stitching that breaks the boundary was where I started’, which of course made sense (you have to start somewhere), but I still prefer to think of it as breaking the boundary! Frances went on to explain that ,

we are encouraged to have a high contrast between the thread and fabric colours. This is so that the “mistakes” stand out so we can work on avoiding them. Then in the projects we will choose a thread that blends with the fabric to make any mistakes recede. I think there’s a powerful message in there for learning/education in general. There’s a lot of controversy about “safe spaces” but I do like the idea of an educational space where learners are comfortable to acknowledge what they will do differently next time.

This idea of making mistakes stand out is further developed by Frances in another practise sample that I really like.

My reaction to this sample was: This is lovely. I like the different coloured stitching on the white background – very subtle and delicate, and once again Frances responded that this is a technique used to highlight errors:

I love variegated threads – they tend to distract from errors. I have chosen a different contrast thread for each module specifically to highlight errors while learning on practice pieces.

Quite by chance, at the same time as having this exchange with Frances I have come across the idea of ‘the imperfect stitch’, or ‘Persian flaw’, which is a deliberate error in an otherwise perfect work of art. The errors are not intended to detract from the beauty of the work of art (which could be a rug, a piece of embroidery, a quilt, or a piece of pottery), but rather to be subtly introduced (so subtly that the imperfection might be difficult to detect), to signify the inherent humanity and imperfection of the artist.

‘A Persian rug is perfectly imperfect, and precisely imprecise’.

In the eyes of the Persian rug makers and in other cultures of rug makers, such as the Navajo rug weavers, ‘Only God is perfect’. Flaws are an integral part of being human. Similarly, according to Iain McGilchrist, in Chinese architecture, the last three tiles are always left off the roof. The first great Chinese historian, Ssu-ma Ch’ien, records:

Even heaven is not complete; that is why when people are building a house they leave off the last three tiles, to correspond. And all things that are under the sky have degrees. It is precisely because creatures are incomplete that they are living .

(Ssu-ma Ch’ien’ quoted in The Matter With Things (TMWT) by Iain McGilchrist , p.840)

When I first came across the photos of Frances’ work which I like so much, I hadn’t read Iain McGilchrist’s chapter on The Coincidence of Opposites (Chapter 20) in his new book, The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. In this chapter Iain writes about the importance of asymmetry. Here are a few quotes from the chapter:

‘There is also a necessity for slight imperfections in DNA transcription for there to be change and creativity: evolution.’ (p. 840, TMWT)

‘Sameness is indeed sterile, and cannot give rise to anything.’ (p. 840, TMWT)

‘Balance needs to be constantly disturbed and restored. Symmetry breaking is everywhere in living organisms.’ (p.840, TMWT)

I realise now that this is why I was drawn to Frances’ practise samples with their errors, which I find so attractive. They include an asymmetry which is a beautiful expression of the combination of sameness and difference, order and disorder (TMWT, p.839). For me, the art of deliberate imperfection seems one worth pursuing, and one which helps to ensure the uniqueness of the art.  I wonder what Frances’ tutor would make of this idea, and indeed Frances herself?


Patowary, K. (2017). The Art of Deliberate Imperfection

Why Imperfect Quilts are Beautiful

Deliberate Mistakes in Handmade Persian Rugs and Carpets

McGilchrist, I. (2021). The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. Perspectiva Press.

Mackness, J. (2021). The Coincidence of Opposites. A talk by Iain McGilchrist

Higher Education in 2025

On November 3rd Frances Bell and I will be at Southampton University’s ILIaD Inaugural Conference. Here is the programme and this is the information about the conference provided by the University.

The University of Southampton’s Vision 2020 states that over the next few years we will “revolutionise education”.  The new Institute for Learning Innovation and Development (ILIaD) has been created to lead on this ambition and help shape the University’s future educational approach. But what would this look like? What will we need to do to make this happen? Will students be happy with the changes? How will research shape our educational offer?

The ILIaD inaugural conference will give staff, students and external participants the opportunity to answer these questions and showcase and celebrate educational innovations. It will provide participants with the opportunity to discover the many ways to engage with ILIaD, and to network with others interested in educational innovation.

As part of this day Frances and I will give a short presentation in which we hope to stimulate thinking about some aspects of the Future of Higher Education. For this presentation we have drawn on recent reports on the topic and in particular on an article by Bryan Alexander (2014) in which he suggests discussing a variety of possible scenarios to support thinking about the future of Higher Education.

Frances and I will each present a short scenario and then open the floor for discussion.

For Frances’ scenario see her blog post – An Interactive Exploration of the Near Future i Educational Technologies.

The wonderful Fiona Harvey, who we met at an ALTMOOCSIG event at UCL earlier in the year, will support the discussion by graphically recording comments and feedback. For my scenario I will ask participants to imagine themselves as middle-aged academics in 2025. Here is a video that I have created to present the scenario.

Scenario Transcript – Jenny’s scenario 291014 (With many thanks to Mariana Funes for her helpful feedback on this video)

In creating this scenario, I drew on Bryan Alexander’s article (2014) and the reports listed in the references below, which I very briefly summarized for myself as follows. It goes without saying that there could be many alternative scenarios.

The Purpose of Education

Higher education is a great national asset. Its contribution to the economic and social well being of the nation is of vital importance. Its research pushes back the frontiers of human knowledge and is the foundation of human progress. Its teaching educates and skills the nation for a knowledge-dominated age. It gives graduates both personal and intellectual fulfillment. Working with business, it powers the economy, and its graduates are crucial to the public services. And wide access to higher education makes for a more enlightened and socially just society.

(“The Future of Higher Education,” January 2003, In: Alexander, B. (2010). The Future of Higher Education : Beyond the Campus. EDUCAUSE Review® Online – January).

This quote from a government white paper was written in 2003, more than 10 years ago, yet is still relevant – or is it?

Is Higher Education a great national asset? Is its contribution to the economic and social well-being of the nation of vital importance?

In his 2010 paper Bryan Alexander wrote that the purpose of education is to educate people for success in life; in their workplace, their communities and their personal lives. This purpose is increasingly challenged by high rates of youth unemployment, an ageing population and increasing social conflict around the world.

The Ivory Tower

Academics have long held a privileged position in society which has granted them academic freedom and academic identity, through the high esteem in which research has been held and the way in which research has been published and disseminated. Despite moves to make research and the research process more ‘open’, it remains slow to publish and disseminate, held up by ethics committees and peer review procedures which are in need of urgent change. In current times, with the fast pace of change, research findings can be obsolete before they are even published. Similarly slow Higher Education accreditation procedures stifle curriculum innovation.

Current Trends in Higher Education

Higher Education is assailed by change on all sides.

The Institution

Rising costs and decreasing resources have led to institutions seeking new business models in a search for improved efficiency and productivity. Economic social forces and sustainability are increasingly recognized as drivers of change. There is similarly a recognised need for greater diversity of educational provision and a move towards openness, transparency and collaboration. Innovation and entrepreneurship are seen to be essential to meet the demands of an expanding global market and growing student numbers.


The use of digital data is changing scholarly practices. Research is more conversational and out in the open, e.g. on blogs and is being crowd sourced. There is an ever increasing number of open journals, and open peer review has also been explored.

Teaching and Learning

The boundaries around HE institutions are becoming more permeable and modes of teaching and learning more flexible, with more online or blended learning provision. Students coming into HE have grown up in a connected, networked world with limitless access to open resources. In response, teaching is more and more focusing on the use of social media for interaction and problem solving. Classrooms are becoming multi-media learning spaces, which emphasise creativity and project-based work, digital storytelling, gaming and mobile learning. From the teachers’ perspective, increased work online results in more visible data and related accountability. The same can be said for the institution itself.


Technological advances continue apace and include: new hardware and software, ubiquitous computing, tablets, mobile learning devices, cloud computing and 3D printing. Gaming is increasingly being used for teaching and learning, as are augmented reality and sensor technologies. Collaboration tools and the use of OERs are becoming commonplace and big data analysis is receiving increasing interest and funding. Identity management and the development of personal learning networks (PLNs) is also a focus of attention.

Ways forward

There is increasing pressure on the Ivory Tower to innovate through:

  • interdisciplinary research and innovation
  • international collaboration and mobilizing collective intelligence
  • designing new business models which focus on students and innovative teaching and learning
  • cross institutional alliances and collaborative entrepreneurship.

Innovation and scenario planning are therefore essential.


Alexander, B. (2010). The Future of Higher Education : Beyond the Campus. EDUCAUSE Review® Online (ISSN 1945-709X), (January).

Alexander, B. (2014). Higher Education in 2024: Glimpsing the Future. EDUCAUSE Review® Online (ISSN 1945-709X). Retrieved from

Blass, E., & Hayward, P. (2014). Innovation in higher education; will there be a role for “the academe/university” in 2025? European Journal of Futures Research, 2(1), 41

Brennan, J., Ryan, S., Ranga, M., Broek, S., Durazzi, N., & Kamphuis, B. (2014). Study on innovation in higher education : final report Study on Innovation in Higher Education Executive Summary.

Downes, S. (2014). Beyond Institutions – Personal Learning in a Networked World. Seminar presentation delivered to Network EDFE Seminar Series, London School of Economics. Retrieved from:

Johnson, L., Becker, S. A., & Cummins, M. (2013). Horizon report: 2013 higher education edition. Retrieved from

See also the work of the University of Northampton which I wrote about in my last post: Shaping the Future of Higher Education – standing still is not an option