Monday, February 22, 2016

Introducing Fabric Manipulations!

Connected Learning while Re-Crafting Math

* Originally posted in Anna's Constructionism, February 22nd

After long days at the school, I like to browse Pinterest for fun craft projects and to get inspired about what I could make if only I had more time. Perhaps an indicator for having a healthy attitude towards the future, the many pins and re-pins on the pictures in the app tell me that there are probably many people like me out there. A resource to tap into were I to commit.

I am a graduate research assistant at the Creativity Labs, where we strive to design for powerful ideas keeping in mind tools and materials for more equitable learning environments. One of the projects I had the chance to work on is the Re-Crafting Math project, which explores the implicit and explicit mathematics and STEM related concepts tangled into traditional female fiber arts practices. We are exploring this through embedded ethnography, e.g., joining a crafting group and learning along with its members, and interviews of experienced crafters. In the office, there is usually someone talking about the complexities of knitting, sewing, crocheting, or weaving at some point every day. Fiber, threads, fabric, needles, and pins have become an important part of our academic and professional culture. 

To really get going on the Re-Crafting project, I had to find my own fiber craft. Initially stretching it towards the harvesting of fiber for basket making, a craft in which I experienced a strong pushback between crafter and material, I settled on fabric manipulation. Fabric manipulation is the craft of folding, sewing, assembling, and pulling fabric into three dimensional and layered shapes (see pictures above). A sub-category of fabric manipulation is origami quilting, in which the crafter folds fabric similarly to paper origami and sews the folds on to batting, the insulating material, and backing material. 

By diving into this craft, I could combine my interests in lines, folds, and clear cuts with my interest to start a particular craft that could contribute to the project. It is at the intersection of these three areas, (1) the interests, (2) academic, and (3) peer culture, where Connected Learning is theorized to happen. Addressing divides between in-school and out-of-school learning, income equity, and generation, Connected Learning is ties together production-centered, openly networked, purposeful creativity with interest and peer driven learning. Sharing productions and insights with local communities as well as with the broader public is an important locus of Connected Learning. Learning outcomes relate to individuals as well as to the collective or society. (Ito et al., 2013)

While personal interests, academic/professional culture, and peer learning seem come together in my fabric manipulation journey, I wondered what, if not all, could be considered Connected Learning?

When I found the Fabric Manipulation pictures on Pinterest, I was surprised by the versatility of fabric and the beauty of the shapes people had created. At first glance, one can imagine how the techniques could be embedded in fashion or quilting projects. Undecided how to move forward in relation to a larger contextual frame, I decided to explore some of the techniques by following tutorials that Pinterest linked to.

The windy, rainy days of winter break 2015/2016 were my chance to get started. Having had dreadful memories of breaking the machine in the past, I was lucky to get started at home in Germany where my mother, once again, could teach me to use the sewing machine. Together, we converted the inches into centimeters and got set up after ironing a pillow cover that used to belong to my grandmother and cutting it into pieces. With the smell of steamed old linen in the air we got started sewing. It felt great to engage in this intergenerational experience through a tangible and production-centered project that could be useful for my academic work as well.

Most of the complex mathematical thinking happened during preparation and sewing the projects. For example, we discovered that many of the techniques were not straight forward and problems needed to be recognized and set up first. This was especially true for the projects that involved tucks, because the overall fabric size needed to be calculated in relation to tuck size and final project size. Implicitly understanding those mathematics concepts that could be written into equations, we often moved forward by inventing short-cuts. For example, to center the tucks we folded the fabric rather than calculating and measuring distances.
Smocking mathematics in Puerto Rico
After leaving Germany, I continued my crafting during a pit-stop at the San Juan beach and later at home in Bloomington. When I paused to actively think about the mathematics concepts involved in the different fabric manipulation projects involved, the list kept growing, including basics, such as addition, multiplication, and measuring to more challenging mathematics, such as coordinate geometry, trigonometry, and quadratic functions. I noticed that when showing my projects to people, I traced lines, folds, and curves at specific parts of the project to point out mathematical concepts and mistakes I made when calculating or short-cutting the projects. I started calling my fabric manipulations mathematical proofs, and started to explore the tactile and auditory interactions of the spatial manipulations.

Thinking about how to bring Fabric Manipulation to the classrooms, many ideas came to mine, mostly cycling around a gallery walk that displayed my mathematical proofs, unicolored as they are, as suggestions to move forward. It was only after I met with the former president of the local Quilters' Guild that the idea of an instructional book was tossed around. We imagined the actual fabric projects being pasted on one side with the mathematics concepts listed on the other – the viewer could to literally grasp the mathematics. We also came up with a few  example projects that could be illustrated to present the versatility of individual techniques. These examples could reach from using different colored fabrics to useful projects such as ornamented pillows or bags. 

The connected journey, stretching across international waters, generations, and academic, professional, and peer cultures is a continuously growing learning experience. With each step new possibilities emerge with decisions awaiting to be made. Following my interests in the production of projects and the types of connections I make is my campus along the way. As I continue to explore these project examples, I am excited to discover new pathways into STEM learning together with other crafters. Next stop, the Indiana Heritage Quilt Show!

Ito, M., GutiĆ©rrez, K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, B., Rhodes, J., Salen, K., Schor, J., Sefton-Green, J., & Watkins, S. C. (2013). Connected learning: An agenda for research and design. Digital Media and Learning Research Hub.


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