Saturday, February 28, 2015

Sophia Bender - Embedded Sewer

Hi everyone! I'm Sophia, and I'll be working on sewing outfits this semester.

This is me:

Believe it or not, this is also me:

Yes, that's right! I'll be sewing outfits particularly for the purpose of cosplay!

I'm a third-year Learning Sciences PhD student working in Dr. Kylie Peppler's Creativity Labs, where I'm exploring ways that hands-on making can make education more creative, playful, and interest-driven. I've done a lot of work with e-textiles (more info at our other blog here!), which integrate electronics with clothing, accessories, and other soft articles. We've found that e-textiles help kids to learn circuitry better than other circuit kits do, and seem to be more appealing and inviting to girls than other techie toolkits are, thus opening up the possibility that this could be an alternative pathway into STEM fields for them. This is particularly important because women are so underrepresented in STEM fields. But our goal is not just to introduce girls into conventional STEM fields. We hope that these experiences may inspire them to transform those arenas entirely! Diversifying the voices and perspectives of these traditionally white-male-dominated fields can help to do that.

So it's super exciting that the Re-Crafting Math project builds directly off of this prior work, by looking at how we can rethink math education through the use of traditionally feminine textile crafts. It may be shifting the focus from science to math, but the overarching goal is the same: increasing female representation in STEM fields, and hoping to transform those fields entirely.

Where does cosplay fit into all of this? Fan culture happens to be another one of my interests, but this is the first chance I've had to explore it through research! It's really amazing to me that certain stories can be so powerful that they inspire people to create all sorts of appreciative fanworks around them, including entire elaborate outfits so they can dress up as the characters they love. And surely some math had to go into making an outfit that fits you and looks right! What a fruitful area of already-existing deep engagement! If we can show cosplayers that they're already engaging in science and math when they make their outfits, then perhaps we can open new vistas of possibilities to them.

I'm already involved in a sewing community here in Bloomington, Indiana--Discardia, a group of upcyclers that holds a monthly Mending Day at the local library, where they help you to mend your clothes so you can continue to wear them instead of throw them away, or else they help you upcycle old clothes and scraps into brand new outfits. Already, Discardia members have helped me a great deal with my mending projects and with the cosplay above. In my future posts, I'll share more about this unique, generous community, as well as about my experiences with making and wearing cosplays. Looking forward to sharing my whimsical journey with you!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015


The first time I tried to knit an entire scarf I messed up. Quite comically. Fortunately, my mistakes helped me to learn.

Here’s what happened:

One of the first steps of knitting is to learn how to cast stitches onto the needle. It took me more than a few tries to learn to cast on, but eventually I got it. 

“Awesome!” I thought to myself, “FINALLY. I've got it!”. 

In the midst of my excitement, I got slightly ahead of myself and cast approximately thirty-five stitches onto a tiny needle.

Mistake Number 1.

Be sure to find a good estimation of how many stitches to cast on before you begin.

I did not realize that the knit stitches would  “grow” as I knitted along the needle. Soon after casting on so many stitches, I observed that the knitting became very difficult. It seemed that the needles were overloaded by WAY too many stitches. I thought about this for maybe a moment, but continued to knit away, revelling in the observation that I was actually knitting. Or so it seemed...

Mistake Number 2.

If something seems off about your project...Stop. Look at your stitches and ask yourself, "Does this look right?". Keep in mind that you (or a friend) are probably planning to wear the finished project.

I continued with the scarf, and I began to have a hard time transferring stitches from one needle to the other. As I mentioned before, I was knitting too tightly and too closely to the top of the needles, which caused the stitches to catch on the ends of the needles.

Mistake Number 3.

Remember to knit your stitches below the top of the needle. If you knit too closely to the top of the needle, where the point is, the knots will be too small. The top of the needle is smaller than the mid-shaft section of the needle. I made the mistake of knitting too close to the top and ended up with knitted stitches that were far too small in diameter. When I tried to move the stitches down the needle, they got stuck.

As I sat there, looking at my mistakes, I tried to figure out how they had happened and why the knots looked strange. I could see that my work had gotten slightly better as I progressed through rows. I started to pull out some of the stitches, working back to a row that made more sense. In such reflection, I began to understand how I might fix the mistakes.

As you can imagine, the scarf I produced from this naive knitting project was not much of a scarf at all. Instead, it was a collection of different sized stitches with little bits of wool sticking out. By the time I got to the end of the skein, I had a project I was not happy with. It was not pretty, or cute, or trendy. It was just...well...a mess. Nevertheless, I have found these mistakes to be invaluable to my progress as a knitter.

One key benefit to the “unknitting” practice has been the development of the ability to differentiate knits from purls. I learned more about the structure of the knot as I "unknitted" and "unpurled" Additionally, I have found the process of remaking a piece to be quite rewarding, for the advancement in skill level the second time around is both observable and tangible.  

These observations, along with previous research, lead us to question the role of mistakes in education, and further, the cognitive benefits of “messing up”.

The importance of mistake-making is often present in conversation about the learning process. In this blog post, New York Times journalist Alina Tugend discusses the role error making in school classrooms, arguing that students can benefit from embracing such mistakes. If students are afraid of mistakes,” she writes, “then they're afraid of trying something new, of being creative, of thinking in a different way.”  Tugend grounds her ideas in the empirical work of Dr. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University. Results from Dweck’s research suggest that student mindset is tied to the acceptance of mistake-making as part of the learning process.

This work is motivating, for it seems that if I am open to inevitable mistakes and the learning that can result from subsequent correction, it is likely that errors will have a positive function in my learning process.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

CNN: This is your brain on crafting

A few weeks ago, I came across this CNN story while reading the news. The reporters explore the potential therapeutic, meditative, and neurological benefits of knitting. As I have become more familiar with knitting techniques and the rhythm of the movements, I have started to find a comfort in the practice. I like to sit and knit as I am talking to others or listening to a podcast. In fact, every now and then, I start to feel a bit antsy if my hands are still. I am not sure if anyone has noticed, but sometimes I bring my yarn and needles to class, and knit while the professor lectures (the ball of yarn hides in my backpack, while a trail of working yarn leads to my desk). 

It seems, at least for me, that knitting can have a calming role in daily life.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Knitting: Not just for grandmas

After talking with friends, I have observed an interesting dichotomy in the college gal’s conceptualization of knitting: The more artsy ladies seem to find interest in knitting and various fiber arts, but others seem to think that knitting is “something grandmas do.” I have spent some time trying to think through why this might be. Perhaps the college-aged woman thinks knitting is a hobby for older people because she learned from an older person. In fact, many of the women I have spoken with know how to knit only because their grandmothers taught them.

While it may be the case that older family members are responsible for the continuation of fiber arts practices in younger generations, it seems as if recent developments in maker culture have led to a resurgence in the crafting domain.

In a BBC News article, wire artist Charmione Lloyd states that “knitting is going through a sort of renaissance”. She says that evidence for such revival can be found in the growing number of knitting groups--so-called crafting circles--that have begun to pop up in communities worldwide.

A couple of years ago, Tom Ashbrook, a radio DJ in Boston, dedicated a radio session to knitting’s comeback in the 21st century. On Point, the name of Ashbrook’s radio show, aired a piece titled “The Resurgence Of Knitting”, which featured several north-eastern knitters who are young fiber art enthusiasts. Listen to the full piece here.

In the following weeks, I will dig deeper into the idea that knitting is an art for all ages (not just  grandmas).

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

First Knits

It’s easy to see why fiber arts are appealing: You get to use soft materials, your crafts become wearable (find patterns on Ravelry), and when a friend asks where you bought your beautiful scarf, you can tell her you made it!

But fiber arts aren’t easy. From the perspective of a beginner, learning to knit can be a bit...knotty…

“Knits, purls, English style, Continental style, casting on - what is all of this stuff?” I thought to myself, one month ago.

Here are my first few stitches!

Stick with the sticks (a.k.a. needles) for a couple of weeks and you may find, like I did, that from such complexity comes simplicity. Knitting is a pattern-art; once you learn to see the patterns, the craft is enjoyable. A purl stitch is essentially the complement of a knit stitch. Also, the movement is repetitive, which enables rhythmic like movement to emerge from engagement in the craft.

For my first project, a simple scarf, I picked up some forest green wool at Yarns Unlimited, a local fiber arts shop. I chose the color after speaking with a woman working in the store who told me to stay aware from light colors for now. “It will be too difficult for you to see your stitches,” she said. I also picked up a copy of The All New Teach Yourself To Knit book by Evie Rosen. Although the book contains an excellent collection of detailed illustrations, I found that the visualization of 2-dimensional illustrations into 3-dimensional space was an exercise in mental spatial rotation.

I am finding that knitting is more complicated than I ever really thought. In fact, I had never given the intricacies of patterns much thought, but now, everywhere I go I see knits and wonder how they were made.

So what’s math got to do with it? I will keep you in the loop...