Friday, December 23, 2016

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.