Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Craftivism: An experiential report on the capacity of activism through craft

Craftivism: Activism through networked craft
Kate Samson

Over the past several months, the ReCrafting Mathematics team has greatly furthered our understanding of rich interpersonal and technical details of crafting practices and communities. In addition, we have come to understand the integral function of community in the continuance and preservation of these crafts. Similar to storytelling, traditional crafting practices can be passed from generation to generation within communities, as older or more skilled individuals share their knowledge with younger folk. These same crafting practices also percolate through networked online communities. Crafters often talk about a recent resurgence in traditional craft, which can be attributed to the accessibility of crafting knowledge through online video content, such as YouTube. Though it is difficult to attribute the longevity of traditional craft to a single group or tool, we can make a case for the crucial role social media and online communities have played in the development of craftivism.

Craftivism is a term for the blend of activism and craft. This blog communicates the idea well.

A Call To Action

Recently, craftivism was realized through a powerfully beautiful and beautifully powerful cross-continental craft project: The Pussyhat Project. This project was a call to action for crafters and women (and really, for all people) to unite through the creation of knitted or crocheted pink pussy hats during the Women’s March on D.C. and across the country. Solidarity through pink yarn? You bet!

A Pattern-Sharing Network

Kat Coyle from The Little Knittery in California created the first pattern for a knitted hat, which served as the template for additional patterns for crochet and sewing. The patterns were first shared when the project launched over Thanksgiving weekend. It what seemed like a matter of days, the project launch catalyzed an outbreak of conversation and craft over Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. I experienced the intensity of craftivism as galpals near and far sent the pattern to me via text, and my most-frequently-visited local yarn shop, Yarns Unlimited, became a haven for pink hat crafters.  Awareness of the project spread rapidly. Yarn shops around the country opened their doors to the project.

Present From Afar

Several friends packed their cars with sisterfriends and climbed onto buses on the eve of the Women’s March. Though I could not be in D.C., I did make a pink hat for one best friend to wear at the march. The pattern was beginner-level (the entire hat could be crafted from stockinette stitches), which meant the process-of-making was quick, with little room for error. This simple knit allowed me to think through the importance of women’s rights and the power of community as I knitted along. I can still look at the hat and remember what I was thinking during particular parts. I talk about this phenomenon in an earlier blog post, but the feeling was especially salient during this knit.  The woman who wore the hat mentioned that the Pussyhat Project enabled me to be present from afar, as she marched my knits and purls down the streets of D.C.

ReCrafting Math: Beyond the classroom

The Pussy Hat project is an exemplar of the function of craftivism in action related to social and civic ventures.. For many, traditional craft is conceptualized as a niche interest, with historical and cultural roots (not to mention the typical mapping to grandmas).

What could happen if traditional craft were incorporated in the classroom? How might educational spaces benefit? What if craftivism were a norm - something youth across the U.S. regularly engaged in?

Direct-Action Craftivism
Angela Caldwell

The dedication and commitment to community was apparent when the Women’s March on Washington was announced.   My work partner Kate, knowing that I intended on traveling to D.C., sent me a link very early on about The Pink Pussy Hat Project.  I was intrigued but put it on the back burner.  It was hard to ignore.  Many of my knitting friends began talking about it, I’d see posts on Facebook and my local yarn shop was buzzing with people in and out purchasing pink yarn and sharing the pattern.  This was craftivism at its finest.  On MLK day, my yarn shop had a sit in, knitting pink hats for sale with proceeds benefitting a women’s organization.  Over $2,000 was raised!
The night of my long bus trip arrived and I, and 50+ women gathered in a parking lot awaiting the arrival of our bus.  To see many women already wearing their hats was an incredible sight.  When we stopped along the route, more and more pink hats could be seen.  Pictures were popping up on the internet of airplanes filled with pink hats!  But nothing could prepare me for he walk to the Rally and the March itself.  Amazing to think that so many women stopped their busy lives to create this sea of pink.  

Now that I’m home, I still wear my hat.  1) Because it is soft, warm and very comfy and 2) Because these hats have created a sisterhood.  I get nods and comments everywhere I go.  I’ve also had requests from three women to make them hats.
This speaks to the ever important matter of gauge.  I have a peanut sized head so I had to do the math – converting number of stitches down to fit while also considering using a smaller needle.  In making of the gift hats, I will again have to consider type of yarn, stitch count (I reduced mine from 60 to 52) and needle size in order to knit a beautiful and comfy hat for my community of women.

Friday, December 23, 2016


I needed to make a baby hat in a hurry, so I went to my go-to pattern called “The Tri-Cornered Hat.”  I’ve made this cute hat a few times, as it’s quick and easy.   As I started thinking about this project, I realized “Oh, my gosh! I’m doing so much math.”  There’s math right off the bat.  It uses chunky yarn and big needles = fast knitting because everything is big.  If you’ve read my past posts, you know that gauge is very important.   A lot more math is necessary when figuring out the amount of stitches to cast on.

Having dug through my yarn stash and found an appropriate chunky pink yarn, I began the cast on using size 11 needles.  I didn’t know exactly how many stitches to start with but knew that, due to my pattern, I needed a number of stitches that was divisible by three and then that resulting number had to be divisible by two.  (Pretty confusing as three things need to be correct – the proper circumference for the size of hat desired, a number divisible by three then two.) 

As I cast on and got near the needed circumference, I began analyzing the more complicated math.  I was right around 40 stitches when I looked at the size, but it was too small.  I thought, “why not go to 50 and see how big that is” but then realized that 50 is not divisible by three.  Oh, 51 is, 3 ÷ 51 = 17, but 17 is not divisible by 2.  What next? 45?  3 ÷ 45 = 15 but again, 15 didn’t work with the next step of math.  46?  Nope.  47?  Nope.  Ahh, 48 was the magic number.  3 ÷ 48 = 16.  16 ÷ 2 = 8.  Yes.  I enlarged my cast on to 48 and it looked to be about the right size.  (Who knows how big a nine month’s head is anyway?  Plus, there’s always some stretch – or room to grow, right?)

Now that I had the right number of cast on stitches, I began knitting in the round.  The pattern calls for at least 6” of knitting before working the tri-corner portion of the hat.  But, uh-oh.  I was running out of yarn.  I had thought this might happen, so I had a complimentary color for the top of the hat, but this also posed a math problem.  This yarn, while called chunky, was much thicker than the hand made yarn I started with, which would mean altering the needle size with this new yarn to continue making the same size stitch as the rest of the hat.   I knew I had to go down several needle sizes so grabbed a size nine and gave it a try.  Creating a nice tight knit stitch resulted in a similar size, so I could move on with this new yarn. 

Once I reached seven inches in length of the hat (I added a little more for safe measure), I began dividing my stitches per the pattern.  I separated my stitches into three pairs of 8 and cast off using the kitchner stitch.  Whala.  Hat completed in short order with a little math lesson included

Girls' Maker Night: Math-y knits

A few weeks ago, I hopped on I-70 with a carful of yarn and drove eastward towards Pittsburgh, PA - home of many bridges, The Steelers, and an awesome little makerspace named Assemble

The space is always buzzing with workshops and displays of local art, but I am particularly intrigued by the Girls' Maker Night (GMN) workshop series, which is a Monday night event open to and geared towards middle school girls in the area. The range of skills explored at GMN is diverse, but this week, the girls would be learning about knitting and yarn bombs with yours truly. Kylen Tennies - master knitter and manager of Knit One in Pittsburgh - co-led the workshop with me.

Workshop Design

The plan for the workshop was structured, but malleable. The intention was to explore the mathematics of knitting while also starting a conversation about yarn bombing, a form of street art that can be used to communicate (sometimes controversial) statements or draw attention to public spaces without leaving permanent or environmentally destructive damage. It was important to leave room for the girls to ask questions, make mistakes, and talk about school, art, life. 

What's a yarn bomb?

A yarn bomb, as discussed in an earlier post, is a street art technique through which the artist covers a physical object in a 3-D net made of yarns and fibers. Yarn bombers often install their pieces at night, similarly to other street artists. One interesting feature of yarn bombs is the minimally destructive capacity of the material used; unlike other forms of street art that are sometimes dismissed as being destructive or obscene, yarn bombing is rarely critiqued as being socially, civically, or environmentally harmful. 

As the girls arrived at Assemble, Kylen and I worked up a rough sketch of the door handles we would be attempting to yarn bomb with the freshly knitted pieces. Assemble is housed in a structure that shares space with a set of apartments. The girls agreed that it would be a nice way to share the positive features of craft if we couls yarn bomb the door handles of the building that are used by many people. 

With help from Jess, one of the leaders and organizers at Assemble, we bundled up and went outside so that we could look closely at the doors. We took measurements of the dimensions with measuring tape. This activity allowed the girls to develop a better understanding of the concept of a three dimensional net, which would be knitted to cover the surface area of the door handles. Once we were back inside, Kylen and I talked with the girls about the measurements we had taken and how we could use the yarn label to help us achieve gauge for the materials. These ideas will be covered in more detail in a future post-so stay tuned! 

Cast Ons & First Loops

To begin, each girl picked up a pair of size 13(US) or 15(US) needles and one skein of yarn. We talked about about the feel of the material and the quirky names that companies sometimes give to the yarn. One skein was even called Pittsburgh Yellow, which we all thought was funny! The first step in the knitting-centric phase of the workshop was to teach and learn to make slip knots and cast on. It is often the case that the difficulty of casting on turns people away from knitting -- it's complicated, it feels weird to do, and takes many attempts to master. From my perspective, the best way to approach those difficulties while teaching the girls to cast on was to be straightforward about the initial awkwardness of the motion. 

We begin the cast-on lesson by exploring the material and learning to make a single slip knot.

After all of the girls crafted a working slip knot, Kylen and I slowly demonstrated the motion of the knit stitch with our needles and yarn. We were careful to repeat the motion from different angles so that the girls could observe what the materials looked like from the crafter's point of view. 

The girls test the fit of the slip knots on knitting needles. 

It was important for us to stay aware of the challenge of knitting for the first time. The beginning of knitting can be difficult, and there were murmurs of frustration in the room. Fortunately, there were enough facilitators in the room to have close to a 2:1 ratio of learner to educator, so all of the girls were able to receive one-on-one instruction in the workshop.

The motion of the knit stitch becomes more natural after knitting a few rows. 

Garter Stitch Gals

The remainder of the workshop centered on creating rectangles of garter stitches. We focused only on the knit stitch. To achieve the measurements required for the doors, each girl had to stay consistent with the number of stitches in each row. This exercise naturally led to conversations about tension, for shifts in tension can cause inconsistencies in the shape of the knit. 

After some one-on-one instruction, the girls are able to knit additional rows by themselves. 

Needed: A few more stitches in time

The girls at Assemble were good examples of young makers - genuinely curious about The Way Things Work. They asked a lot of questions, and most of them really focused on their knitted pieces. This workshop also left space for the girls to chat about life, family, holidays, school and other thoughts while crafting, which demonstrated the ease with which hands-on making can be incorporated into after-school spaces while also offering outlets for social engagement. It is important to note that we ran out of time and could not complete the full yarn bomb that we had imagined and talked about in the beginning of the workshop. In retrospect, this workshop design may have been better suited for a two-session workshop.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Loom Mechanics

Variation in loom mechanics can provide clues about the cultural origin and age of a particular loom type. Here, we begin to take a closer look at the engineering involved in loom construction. We find that this variation in structure is quite diverse. Further, the loom mechanics inform the technique for how the loom should be used to weave. In this post, we compare back strap looms to warp weighted looms as we explore the rich cultural and mechanical history of these tools.

Backstrap Looms

A type of backstrap loom is used for centuries in countries such as Peru, Guatemala, China, Japan, Bolivia, and Mexico. It is used by Mayan women in some parts of Guatemala. The loom typically consists of six to seven rods, which usually weavers make themselves, and the width of the project depends on the width of the rod. Generally, Mayan women use embroidery to attach multiple parts of the woven cloth in order to attain the required width. These rods perform the basic function of raising every other warp thread. A backstrap loom is easy to carry as it can be rolled up when not in use.

Back strap loom.jpg
Weaving with a backstrap loom involved the coordination of multiple rods.

The rods are of varying size and often are handmade.

Warp Weighted Looms

Warp yarns hang from a single bar in the warp-weighted loom. Groups of warp threads are tied to the hanging loom weights, which keep the tension correct throughout the weaving process. In contrast to the back strap loom, the warp weighted loom is designed to lean against a wall while two weavers work together. A single heddle bar is often used, but it may have been the case that weavers in early European history used multiple heddle bars depending on location and desirable designs within a community. In the warp-weighted looms weaving, clay weights shaped like rings hang from the yarn to control the tension of the material bidirectionally across the weave. As you can imagine, the warp-weighted loom is not easily portable like the back strap loom may be.

Two weavers simultaneously interact with warp weighted looms.

The warp weighted loom is thought to have originated in Ancient Greece and spread north and west throughout the rest of Europe. Evidence of these looms - both in folkloric tale and pictorial artwork - can be found in European villages. Depictions of warp-weighted looms - specifically of two women work with a warp-weighted loom, can also be found in artifacts from Ancient Egypt.

Depictions of warp-weighted looms can be found on ancient artifacts.

The story of the warp weighted loom is mysterious. Typically, this type of loom is historically associated with Scandinavian people, but over time, the presence of the loom diminished until the design nearly disappeared from common use. In 1964, Marta Hoffman published a monograph centered on ancient weaving technology, specifically the warp weighted loom. Hoffman had to search extensively to find any weavers who still knew how to use the loom. Eventually, she came across six weavers - three sets of two women - in Norway who could still use the loom. Hoffman narrowed the focus of her research to these six women.

It is interesting to note the role that observable differences in loom construction play in modern comprehension of narratives related to materialisms. Variation in loom mechanics led to variation in design across time and location. A closer look at the particular loom used to make a weave can give the weaver or consumer an in-depth understanding of the cultural background of the craft.

Co-written by Pooja Saxena and Kate Samson

Saturday, December 3, 2016


Yay!  I accomplished my first yarn bomb project.  I successfully bombed a tree on campus without much notice.  Good thing my dogs were good decoys. 

I’ve read that there are two ways to yarn bomb.  One is to know what you are going to tag and do the measuring beforehand and the other is to make something and find the right size object to tag.  Since I wasn’t really sure where to begin, I chose to sit and knit and picture where I would like to place my finished project.

While creating this piece, I was also learning a new stitch, which involves creating fast increases and fast decreases to form a bubble on the surface of the knitting.  I wanted to space these out in a pattern, so I had to count my stiches and do the math to figure out where I would place them.  I wanted them to be offset, so I had to do the math there too in order to have the bubbles scattered across my sample equally.

I also wanted to place three monster claws on the bottom of my swatch, which required dividing my stitch count by 3 in order to equally space my them.

Once completed, I measured my swatch lying on a flat surface.  It was approximately 11”.  I had read that a good tag fits snuggly on the object in order to not flop and drop and sit securely.  As I was walking to campus, I stopped when I noticed a small tree I thought might be a good fit.  I measured the base of the trunk and it was just over 12”.   I then wrapped my sample around the trunk and it was a perfect fit – snug enough to stretch and grab tightly.

Feeling a bit more confident that I knew what I was doing, I walked on campus to the edge of the woods seeking a similar size tree trunk, visible from the walking path but also “hidden” enough that I could easily complete my tag in broad daylight.

Nervously I bent over and began to whip stitch the ends together using the long tail from the top and the bottom.  (I had left enough yarn at the beginning and the end of my swatch, having done the math to know how much yarn would be needed to sew my swatch to the tree.)  I had just enough to secure the sample, stretched just enough to fit tightly around the tree trunk.

Hooray!  The math prep enabled me to create an interesting and successful tag.  Now on to my next tag.  Stay tuned. 

Monday, November 7, 2016


A few weeks ago, I realized I was behind in getting a start on a baby gift.  I rifled through my yarn stash and found a skein I thought would suit the pattern.  In my haste to begin, I DID NOT do a swatch, I DID NOT check my gauge, and I DID NOT check my needle size.   I began knitting along, only paying attention math wise, to increases and decreases and number of stitches on my needles.    About half way in, I stopped to really take a look at what I was creating.  Boy, did I wish I had done the math!  My sweater that was intended to fit a 9 month old, would probably fit a 10 year old!  Rats.  I was forced to frog the whole piece.  (Rip it, rip it, rip it.) 

I learned my lesson.  My second attempt involved making swatches and testing needle size.  The important thing to always remember in knitting is to think of the ratio of the thickness of the yarn to the size of the needle.  Make a swatch, count your stitches and compare that result to the recommend stitches per inch on the pattern and then make adjustments, if necessary.

While I always try to look at the cup half full, I sure wish I hadn’t wasted my time by not doing the math.  Winter is coming.