Knitting Needles, Drop Spindle, LoomFollowing on from that Latin Illustration course that I’m running, and the move of the Design Lab to its new quarters, I’m pleased to say that I’m finally getting to offer my class in the technology suite of spinning, weaving, dyeing and knitting.

And the first step is to make the tools.

We’ll be using the Design Lab’s new capacities as a wood-working shop to make the inkle loom, and make the drop spindle that I learned to make from Caveman Chemistry.  (This means I have to learn some dyeing skills from Caveman Chemistry over the next few weeks, which should be fun.

But the other thing that we’ll be doing is making a pair of knitting needles. Obviously, these are not particularly hard to make.  Each needle got sharpened in an electric pencil sharpener, and then had a wooden bead attached to the opposite end — the bead’s hole had to be drilled slightly wider, to accommodate the 3/16″ doweling of the needle.  Awesome.

The loom, of course, is a more complicated instrument, and making the wooden parts is only the first half of the battle; the second challenge is assembling it, and then making the heddles out of string, and then stringing it with the colors you want, and… and there are of course, way more colors than I can possibly accommodate as requests from students for colors to had to our supply list.  But we’ve got a good start, at least, on providing kids with a good range of colors from the primary and secondary color markets. And maybe in the class on dyeing, we’ll find a few more.

There’s been some discussion online lately about what constitutes a Makerspace vs. a Design Lab vs. a FabLab, and what constitutes a STEM or STEAM program against a Maker program in schools.  The Nerdy Teacher has a bit about how, as an English teacher, he sees the Makerspace as something more flexible than a STEM-oriented robotics lab, and more available to all students and adults in a school community. Engage their Minds talks about the value of squishy circuits for teaching electronics awareness, and I totally see us doing this activity (again) at some point — (the challenge is that the dough goes bad before I can have more than a couple of classes use it). There’s a whole playbook of opportunity for what Makerspaces can do, even.  But a Makerspace can also be a computer lab, even if it sometimes feels like preaching to the choir.

For me, I’m interested in showing students how tools make other tools. How we use carpentry skills to make textile tools; how we use textile tools to make and decorate clothes and accessories; how we use clothes and accessories to communicate culture.  Call it HEM, or maybe AGE — History/Engineering/Mathematics, or Anthropology/Geometry/Engineering.  A Makerspace or a Design Lab at a school doesn’t get to just teach kids how to do something; we also have to teach a way of seeing the world that shows them how to think about tools and technology differently than they do.

To paraphrase and contradict Steve Jobs, it’s just not magic. John Michael Greer recently pointed out that technologies come in suites or group packages, and that simple technologies are far more stable than those that must externalize their costs.  This means that technology isn’t a monolithic thing (as much as the tech industry would like you to believe otherwise).  The technology that produces clothing (as opposed to the tech that markets and brands it), has been pushed to the fringes of the industrialized world — in much the same way that the first radio signals Earth produced are now at the outer fringes of a circle 300 light-years (is that 30 parsecs?) across.  The earliest industrial technology, machine spinning and machine weaving, is now found mostly in the countries where the poverty wages of William Blake’s Dark Satanic Mills are still acceptable.  (As wages continue to fall in the industrial world, I suspect these technologies will gradually return from overseas, very likely with painful results).

Inkle Weaving

Inkle Loom set up for weaving

So why teach kids to make their own knitting needles? Why teach them to spin their own yarn?  Why teach them to make tablet-woven strands of cloth? Are these legitimate Makerspace learning opportunities?  I think so.  Because the underlying principle here is to make explicit what is implicit. Weaving, knitting — these are invisible technologies to most of my students, as they were to me before I learned to do them myself.  

(And, because I can’t teach them to raise sheep in my Design Lab.  At least, not yet.)