Professional…or Amateur?

By Gail Sirna

This article first appeared in NANthology, the NAN newsletter, in winter 2008.

It’s time to send in your entry blank for NAN’s annual exhibit, The Exemplary. One decision the entrant must make is whether to classify herself as an Amateur…or a Professional. The NAN entry blank has a definition: A professional is a person who is trained through continuous years of experience and education in the field of needlework. This includes those holding certification, designers, and shop owners/employees who receive monetary consideration, or anyone who considers him/herself to be a professional.

That seems straightforward. Obviously the certified teacher who is hired to teach at chapters and seminars is a professional. So is the certified judge; she has studied extensively, and she is paid. So is the chart designer and the canvas painter. And the local shop owner—they all receive money for their participation in the needlearts.

But there are always ambiguities–grey areas. What about the certified teacher who does not actually teach, who has never been paid for teaching? What about the person in a chapter who is not certified and doesn’t teach for pay, but occasionally works up a program for her own chapter? Suppose she refuses payment as her contribution to the chapter, or maybe to retain her amateur status? If the chapter gives her $25 does this suddenly mean she is a professional? What about the employee in a shop who works one day a week and is paid in merchandise? How about the writer of a stitch book? How about a finisher who doesn’t even stitch? How about the former shop owner who hasn’t owned a shop in 20 years? And how about that really great, innovative stitcher who isn’t certified and doesn’t teach, does not sell her designs, but she’s just a gifted and prolific embroiderer, and she takes the top prizes at every show. Should she be made to compete in the professional group?

There seems to be the perception that “professional” is better than “amateur.” Sometimes, I will admit, “amateur” is used a bit pejoratively as in “that bunch of amateurs” or “it’s all so amateur”. But truly, “amateur” only means that one does something without being paid for it–it has nothing to do with the quality of the endeavor. The word amateur comes from the Latin “amare” which means “to love.” So an amateur is doing it for the love of it. And in many fields people jealously guard their amateur status (think figure skating) so they can participate in prestigious amateur competitions like the Olympics. Usually, at any given time, the best skaters in the world are . . . amateurs. Some time ago ANG changed its designation from “amateur” to “nonprofessional” in an attempt to avoid this seeming perception of inferiority in the word “amateur’. I am not sure that by doing so they have not added to the problem.

And truly, professionals like me often comment that some of the very best technical stitchers are often the amateurs who are not usually rushing to meet a deadline for some teaching contract. Not that we pros aren’t capable of the fine stitching–we’re just overwhelmed with deadlines. And there are some wonderful designers who don’t earn any money with their designs; they are designing and stitching for the love of it. So . . . just because someone is really good does not relegate her to the professional division. If she doesn’t earn any money, she’s still an amateur, no matter how good she is.

Let’s address those grey areas. The stitcher who teaches one mini class a year at a chapter meeting and gets a small stipend is still an amateur. The shop employee who works one day a week: this person will probably have to examine her conscience and decide if she’s just a money taker who knows where the Waterlilies are kept, or if she is advising customers on thread and stitch choice, writing stitch guides for them, teaching them stitches. In the latter case she’s probably a professional. The thing with shop personnel is that they have such ongoing exposure to the needlearts. They know what’s new on the market. They immerse themselves in color and design almost subconsciously all day long They interact with and make design decisions for customers all day several days a week. This constant exposure kind of boots them into the professional category.

Now if one hasn’t owned a shop, or worked in one for 20 years my feeling is that these people have probably reverted to amateurs. You can get out of touch with the industry pretty quickly. I do not believe that “once a professional, always a professional.”

Writers? They’re probably professional, since hopefully they make a little money from those books. I know that writing a book does not make one a good stitcher, but this person is making money from the needlearts.

The finisher? In my not-so-humble opinion, no, they are not professional stitchers, unless they qualify in some other way. It is very possible that a finisher does not do any kind of embroidery; she works on the sewing machine, and thank goodness for her. If by chance she decides to try canvaswork and enters her beginners’ piece she should not be shifted into the professional division.

Okay, now the sticky wicket of the certified teacher or judge who has never taught or judged professionally: upon reflection I think that they ARE professionals because of all the study and work they have done; their education has taken them out of the amateur division, even though they have never earned a cent from their needlework endeavors.

But agairn, please, professional doesn’t mean someone is really good–it just means she has been paid for her embroidery. And amateur certainly does not mean that someone is not a good stitcher.

So give this some thought when entering The Exemplary this year, and get yourself into the right division.