Fabric Arts and Assorted Magic
At Evergreen Elementary we define fabric arts rather loosely. Anything that requires cloth can be found there, as can needles and pins and sharp scissors that won't balk when they cut through fabric. Fabric scraps find their way into the center, but so do bigger rectangles of felt that can be used to craft stuffed critters. Here, there is faux fur that can double as carpets in 3D sculptural rooms or monster hide. Even more scraps live in a large bin beneath the table, full of hundreds of small snippets from generous donors' sewing boxes. Strings? Got 'em. We have a big selection of different weights of yarn, cotton string suitable for beaded necklaces and thicker cotton string that works well for warping looms. We have cones of thread for sewing alongside brighter, shiny embroidery thread. Ribbons are displayed on a length of hanging dowel (thanks, spider plant!) as well as in clear, plastic bins.
A three-drawer cabinet holds beading and button supplies. One can get a scoop of either and string enough together to make a necklace or an augmentation for an ojo de dios. The beading string lives here, as well as the occasional shiny paper or faceted plastic ornament that doesn't seem to fit anywhere else.
The rainbow cabinet holds many essentials for fabric arts as well as other centers. Its drawers are a little tired and slip down when they're pulled out too fast, but we're all well practiced at putting things back together. Fabric arts (arte de fibra) is a good training station for understanding the difference between kid scissors and mom scissors and complexities like the three different weights of glue that are available for artists. In these drawers, too, are stored pre-glued craft sticks for winding ojos de dios. I spend a few minutes during my early morning prep gluing together four or five at a time, since about 20 are required each day that the studios are open.
Wire shelving (after four years, I have three full sets in my room) holds fabric, ribbons, and embroidery hoops. It's important to have anything that is available within sight of artists, since some ideas are born when looking at materials instead of being planned from zero. Wall space is scarce, but we have room for some Velcro-backed examples that can offer ideas. Examples that are stored highest tend to be for taller artists, but there are always exceptions. Cabinets above contain cardboard looms, but craft stick looms are tucked into a labeled drawer in the rainbow cabinet.
A large, flat, plastic tub with a lid that snaps closed houses most of the yarn collection. I used a woodburner to melt holes across the sides and feed the center piece of yarn through it for easy access. I've found that it helps to take the paper off the skein and wrap a tight (it'll loosen as the yarn is used) belt of wide plastic tape to contain the outside leading yarn. Skeins of yarn are designed to feed beautifully from inside, but the outside thread requires more movement than the box allows. In a never ending attempt to get children to pull the yarn out a bit before cutting (so it doesn't fall back inside the box... grrr) I have a cartoon snake at the edge of the counter. She's a little too much like a nagging mother, I fear, since nobody but me hears her voice. Demos always involve a dramatic pull to the edge of the counter before cutting so the yarn can remain tangle free. One other fun innovation was our discovery that odd snippets and leftovers of yarn, when collected, made great stuffing for our stuffed critters and dolls. It's soft, free, and - did I mention... free? It's also a good reminder to keep stitches close enough so colored pieces don't escape from a project.
So that's the what. The "how" of our fabric arts center is a little more complex. Like many women who were born in the 50's, I was taught to sew by my mother. While my grandmothers had more formal instruction in sewing, crochet, knitting, and embroidery, much of my familiarity with sewing came as I watched Mom sew dresses (and curtains and table cloths and Halloween costumes) for us. We also did lots of projects in my years of scouting that inform my approach to teaching children to sew. Just like all other facets of art, there's a "scribble stage" for fabric arts. Some children benefit from lacing and wooden bead sets when they're in pre-school and some have enlightened teachers/parents who provide heavy cardboard plates and laces or yarn to sew with. My own school community has large numbers of immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala, where weaving and sewing skills are highly valued. Many of my students enter school with familiarity with back-strap looms and the processes involved in weaving cotton friendship bracelets.
As I plan for my students' choices in fabric arts, what skills do they need? They need to be able to manipulate sharp scissors safely. Try to cut a length of cord with dull student scissors once and you'll agree. They need to have a sense of how much of the materials they need. (How long do I make a necklace so that it'll fit over my head after it's knotted? That long? Really?) More importantly, they need lots of practice tying knots. Just like the artists in our paint center gather and care for their own paints, water, aprons, paper, and brushes, students in fabric arts are expected to do their own preparation for sewing, weaving, and beading. Their art teacher will not be there at home when they want to sew a seam or attach a button so knotting skills are important. To that end, I do two mini-lessons (YouTube clip) of about five minutes each each year. Using 18" lengths of cotton rope, we learn a couple of basic knots - half hitch, square, granny, and a loop. If a child has always had someone else tie his or her shoes or only worn Velcro-clasp shoes, our lesson might be the first exposure to tying a knot. We have lots of fun with it, but it's immediately apparent who has never tied a younger sibling to a pole. Knots are extremely important, and absolutely required for second grade introduction of ojos de dios and looms. We practice, we laugh, and some of us forget, but it's not a problem. When the knot tying is hard to recall to memory, we put down our string or yarn, get the length of cotton rope, and do a quick refresher.
We use lots of sequencing when we learn new skills. Before doing a six-pointed ojo, for instance, one must master the four pointed model. To do a satin stitch in embroidery, one must have mastered a running stitch, then a stem or chain first. When we do paper weaving, we do straight rows before attempting wavy op-art versions and simple Danish hearts before doing the trickier patterns. It's a matter of practice and within the process of adding new skills, we find a lot of pleasure and self confidence.
Most forms of artistic expression offer one level or another of satisfaction as one works through the creative process. Weaving and sewing, in particular, offer something special. I have students who are self-critical and perfectionistic about their work but thrive when they work on weaving. There is a Zen-like quality in their concentration on pattern and balance as they work with fibers. Part of the peacefulness, I believe, comes from the behavior of fibers. A watercolored line is infinitely variable, subject to the capricious forces of gravity or density of pigment or force of brush. In contrast, yarn behaves itself. It doesn't stretch or wander (though one does need to watch for tangling if too much is cut and not corralled correctly.) Unlike the contrast in a watercolor, likely to bleed and wander, the colors of woven fibers will stay put and remain their original colors.
There's a regular serenity to be found in weaving. Patterns are easily visible, to the point where my kindergartners crow "A B A B!" when I demonstrate how paper weaving works. In hounds-tooth, older students note, "AA BB AA BB" and I can look like a wise teacher when I remind them of the connections between math and art. A colleague on one of my professional Internet lists wrote recently about the benefit of weaving for healing - particularly from brain injuries - and that makes sense to me. Manipulating patterns is satisfying on deep levels, just like tracing a pathway in a labyrinth or singing a childhood lullaby for the hundredth time. There is research that suggests that the work with patterns may help to restore connections within injured brains. I look for activities that encourage children to slow down, concentrate, and enjoy the process of art-making. So much of their world is filled with races, fleeting sound bites, and speed. Weaving is a good tonic.
Children understand how scribble stages work. When we talk about weaving we discuss how "little kids" pull their weaving so tightly that the sides draw towards the center. We brainstorm words to describe the shape of the arch that we use on our big loom - "Rainbow! Bear back! VW Bug!" and notice - as a group - how lovely and loose the sides are when we weave without tension. We react with all appropriate horror when we talk about scissors too close to the warp threads and cement our tradition of "leaving tails" for safety (yes, I did learn this lesson from experience.)
It's also interesting to note who chooses fiber arts and what kind of things they create there. Even the most bouncy child (read: ADHD or assorted syndromes) finds peace in the steady winding of an ojo. They all know that the time commitment on weaving is substantial, so there are fewer loom projects than stuffed critters, but I bend sometimes and allow weaving projects to wander. The only rule is that one needs to avoid driving classroom teachers crazy (translation: no straw weaving during math lessons...) and it's OK to come get more yarn for your whatever, but asking permission is required.
Examples of child to child teaching abound, particularly with innovations in fabric arts. We've had spates of original new patterns in ojo weaving, some intriguing designs in yarn painting, and artists using beads to embellish other types of weaving of late. They're good examples for us. We can improve our offerings in fiber arts (and any other medium, for that matter) by reading, combing the web for new ideas, talking to colleagues, bothering professional weavers, and interviewing the gentle people who work in weaving and fabric stores. We can talk to our grandmothers if they're still around, hit up our local bookstores for suggestions on books (watch out for that felting world - it looks fascinating) and query local craftsmen and women about their favorite techniques. Ask your students if there are any weavers in their families and check to see if there are any artists' collaboratives close to your classroom. Hmmmm. I may even look up that distant cousin in Wyoming that raises Cheviot sheep for their wool. I wonder if she still spins and weaves?