So Much To Learn — And I Need Your Help!

For many people, the last week of the year is a time for tying up loose ends. We clear out old files, discard mostly-empty jars of dried-up fabric paint, and donate leftover yarns and fabrics to thrift shops and guild exchanges. I’m doing some of that this week myself.

But I need your help to get ready for one thing I need to do in 2013. First, here’s the situation.

I signed up to take an online class from the University of Edinburgh called E-learning & Digital Cultures. I already teach online classes (Cross-Knit Looping begins January 15 and New Age Looping Basics begins February 5). But in this fast-changing world, I know there’s much to learn.

I’m particularly interested learning ways to foster connections among students in online workshops. A handful of my fiber arts instructor friends are taking the class together so we can bounce ideas off each other.

It’s more than a month before the start of the class we’re taking, and already students from around the world are connecting on Facebook, Twitter and other sites. They’re already setting up study groups that will comment on each others’ blog postings related to course material. But that got me thinking about whose opinions really matter to me. And the answer to that was easy: Yours.

So when the class starts I plan to write about how things I learn can be applied to e-learning and digital culture in the fiber community. I’d like to post that writing here where I hope you’ll comment on it, and maybe ask your friends to put in their two cents’ worth as well. But I don’t want to drive away readers who prefer I stick to topics like looping and natural dyeing and gift-making.

So what do you think: Post here or not? Please hit the Comments link below and let me know. Thanks!

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When Tension Is A Good Thing

There are some things it’s just hard to explain, so you’re glad you don’t have to. Luckily, I didn’t break my nose yesterday, which means no black eyes today. Yesterday, in my haste, I lost control of a bin of beads recently moved to a different shelf. A higher shelf. I’m rethinking that location now. And before you ask, I was able to keep the bin from falling to the floor and spilling its contents into the cracks between floorboards. Because I arrested its fall with my nose.

It was a tense afternoon. But I’m not a toddler, able to take a nice long nap to reclaim my sunny disposition. I’m a freaking Pollyanna, determined to remind myself that tension can, in fact, be a good thing. That’s why I’m showing you the high-tech tension aid I use for braiding — a loop of thread around my foot. Pretty simple.

So is my solution to the kind of afternoon I was having yesterday: After a few tears and a hissy fit, I sat down with some looping, which, for me, is more relaxing than a nap. And while I was stitching, a thought came to me. Duh — I could label which bin contains the size 8s instead of, well, the stupid thing I was doing when I lost control and stopped the bin from falling with my nose.

Did you know I label posts so you can search for them by topic (there are handy tools in the right-hand column)? Instead of starting a new category called “Near Misses” or “I’m An Idiot”,  I’m filing this under Learning. (Things are a little different since I moved to WordPress. Now there’s a search box in the right-hand column.)

Have you learned something the hard way recently?

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What’s On Your Year-End Inventory?

With 2012 garden catalogs starting to arrive, it won’t be long before well-meaning people start talking about New Year’s resolutions and creative goal-setting. Bless their hearts. That’s way down my list of things to do right now. But I think I am going to take a little time to inventory some of what I’ve learned this year. That should make me feel better about how much is still on my to-do list. Could the same be true for you?

December Daily Doodle for 12-7-11 done on tablet

For me, the past six months have been one big roller coaster ride on the Great Technology Learning Curve, which included the purchase of a new laptop with a new operating system and all new open-source software. At that time, I also bought an inexpensive Wacom pen tablet for digital drawing.

Last night, I finally loaded the software and started practicing with with the tablet. I figured my December Daily Doodle project on Facebook would be good incentive to work with this new tool. I forgot that my December Daily Doodle project was intended to be a few minutes of creative relaxation in the midst of the hectic holiday season.  I’m sure doodling on the tablet will be relaxing. Eventually.

Willow-dyed scarves by Donna Kallner on

I’ve learned other things this year, too. Like tagging and SEO. Until recently, my New Age Looping book was the only item in my Etsy shop, and most people found it because they had the link from my web site or blog. When I decided to get serious about selling other things on Etsy, I knew there would be a learning curve. Understatement. It feels like learning a whole new language. Choosing tags that help search engines help shoppers find you is as important as learning to ask “Where’s the bathroom” in a foreign country. There may also be a secret handshake. I haven’t learned that yet.

And then there’s the stuff that’s so easy once I learn it that I can’t fathom why it took me so long. Like today: I saw on another Etsy seller’s web site a Page that goes directly to her Etsy shop, and thought I’d add a similar Page on my blog. I figured it wouldn’t take more than a half-hour. What a pleasant surprise to find it was as simple as clicking one box I never noticed before. In fact, it was so easy I made a Page link to my Spoonflower fabric shop, and one to my web site, too. Those are on the bar at the top of the page. OK, this is not earth-shattering stuff, but I can see what I got done today.

And a lot of days, you can’t see what you got done. I’m lucky to have Bill to remind me that I didn’t do X because I did Y and Z and I had to learn A through W to get those done.

Next time you consult your December To-Do list, think about all that you could put on a To-Done list. What’s on your year-end inventory?

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A Good Yarn

I’m still floating (or should I say “lofty”) from the 5-day spinning class I took last week at Sievers. Since I basically unplug when I land on Washington Island, here’s the capsule version. And because I was so enthralled, I kept forgetting to take pictures. Here’s a group photo of the class taken by Sievers’ Carolyn Foss.

That’s me on the far left, holding the remains of a distaff of basswood bark. More on that shortly.

The Backstory
The instructor was Deb Jones, and I really, really wanted to study with her. I’d met Deb when I was teaching a concurrent class at Sievers.  Sievers instructors often share thoughts and theories about teaching at the end of the day. I felt like I could learn about more than spinning from Deb. I was 100 percent right. She did a beautiful job of managing a group of 14 with a wide range of interests and varying levels of experience in spinning and dyeing.

I was barely qualified to be in the class. This year it was Beyond Beginning Spinning. Before I registered for the workshop, I contacted Deb to discuss a) if it would be possible for me to attempt spinning my basswood bark in class and b) what skills I would have to acquire beforehand. She said a) yes and b) I needed to be able to spin wool on a treadle wheel. I bought a wheel in April, had a short lesson when I picked it up, and arrived on Washington Island on August 29 hoping I hadn’t developed too many bad habits.
The Class
Because I was pretty focused on not embarrassing myself or being unfairly needy, I can’t swear this is true. But I think there were 12 or 13 different models of spinning wheels brought to the class. Deb watched us all spin for a little while to assess our needs, then gave us our first challenge. By the end of the day, I was much more confident about how to set drive band and the Scotch tension on my Ashford Kiwi to produce results that were intentional. By the end of the week, I was able to spin with a long draw and spin from the fold.

Here are four singles I spun early in the week.

And here they are plied and cabled. Navaho plying took some hand holding (literally), but now I absolutely love it.

One evening I did manage to, ahem, ply a yarn in the same direction it was spun. Oops.

I’m assured that everyone does this at least once. I assume I’ll do it more than once.

Deb had a beautiful selection of fibers for us to sample. Here’s a silk cap I dyed in one of the class dyeing units and yarn I spun from it.

I loved spinning the silk and the linen, and I can’t wait to sample the rest of the fibers Deb provided.

There would have been time in class to sample all those fibers, but I really wanted to spend some time exploring what I could do with basswood bark. In the past, I’ve made basswood cordage, twisting and plying it by hand.

Spinning Basswood Bark 
My first attempt with basswood bark on the wheel was a little like wrestling snakes. Then Deb showed me how to set up a distaff. I didn’t think to take a picture, so you’ll have to image what it looked like. We used:

  • the handle of a broom from the bathroom
  • the spare tire from my car, as a weighted base to stand the broom handle in
  • and a piece of PVC pipe and some rags, to keep the broom handle from wiggling too much in the tire.

Deb taught me how to lay out the fiber and tie it on the distaff. It was much easier to manage that way.

This photo shows some of my spun basswood bark fiber in a skein across the top. The ball on stick shows what the bark looks like after being boiled for a couple of hours. The boiled yarn is what I used to crochet the small sample bag. I’m very happy with the results, and can’t wait to see what happens when I have a bit more practice.

But Wait, There’s More
Over the years, I’ve spent some magical times at Sievers, both as a student and as a teacher. This week ranks right up there. And this may have been my all-time-favorite inter-class studio visit. On Thursday afternoon, Daryl Lancaster’s A Wearable Extravaganza class visited our studio to learn what we’d been up to. They arrived wearing their beautiful custom-fit jackets, and treated us to a fashion show after oohing and aahing in all the right places at our stuff.

It was fun to spend some time visiting with Daryl on the way to the airport. I also got to have lunch and reflect on ideas with my friend Ellen Graf, who was in Daryl’s class. I made some wonderful new friends, and think the magic that forged lifelong friendships in my first Sievers class is still strong.

During the week, I had a chance to visit with some of my island friends. I hope others will forgive me for coming and going with nary a word. I suspect they know exactly how it is when you’re learning something new and exciting and your head is swimming with possibilities. And in a few weeks, I’ll go back for The Gathering and get to see them then.

On Friday, Deb asked us all to sum up the week. The word I chose: Possibilities.

So thank you all — Deb, the Sievers crew, Daryl, Ellen and everybody in the class. That big, dopey grin on my face? Still there.

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Raising Cain And Blisters

Bill and I spent last weekend at Woodlanders, an annual gathering of rustic furniture makers held at Shake Rag Alley Center for Arts and Crafts in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. Bill has been going to this event for several years, but this is the first time I’ve been able to accompany him. We got to see some old friends and made some new ones, including a few of the winged variety.

It’s a stretched to say we raised cain, but we did our share of whooping and hollering during the boat race, in delight over the automatons in Judy’s studio, and in appreciation of an impromptu symphony of PVC instruments.

We both tried to earn our keep by teaching some short sessions. Bill taught how to make homemade soda pop, and took a variety of flavors for folks to sample. The people who don’t like rhubarb didn’t care for rhubarb soda, either, but there was great appreciation for strawberry-rhubarb, lemon-lime-hops, ginger-cherry, root beer, and the pièce de résistance, rose petal soda. I had fun teaching a couple of short sessions — Image Transfers on Wood and More and a Creativity Cram Session.

We both also had a chance to take some workshops. Bill made a floor lamp with Todd Kingery.

I spent Saturday in the Blacksmith Shop working with David Eagan. This was totally different from any kind of work I’ve done before.

David took us through the whole process, from building and maintaining the fire in the forge (I loved the forge), to making hot and cold cuts, shaping and twisting steel to make hooks and hangers, and to applying a finish with beeswax.

By the end of the day, I’d managed to raise one pretty good blister on my hand. It reminded me of all the beginning kayak students in our previous life. When everything is unfamiliar and just a little hazardous, it’s not unusual to latch onto your tools with a death grip. Even when you know it’s not the most effective way to use them, it’s hard to ease up.

That’s the main reason I took the blacksmithing workshops. It’s good to do something a little out of your comfort zone now and then. I needed that reminder to take a deep breath, think things through (oops on that one), and make each stroke count.

Funny how much blacksmithing is like embroidery.

What have you done lately to raise some cain and maybe a few blisters?

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Gimping — Again

Did you notice back in February the lack of progress in my plan to master the free alternative to Photoshop called Gimp? I’ll admit it got a little overwhelming. I had a few light bulb moments, but they didn’t feel quite post-worthy. In short, the exploration was helpful but far from complete. And I’ll confess: For most of what I do, especially when I’m in a hurry, I’m still falling back on my old software, which is more limited but familiar.

So guess what appeared in my Google Reader tonight: Sharon Boggon from Pin Tangle is doing an online class called Gimp For Textile Designers at It starts July 7. Six weeks, sixty bucks. I’m already registered.

The do-it-yourself approach in February felt like going through the wardrobe into Narnia. Nothing was familiar. I’m glad to have a guide for my next visit.

Anybody want to meet me at the lamppost?

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Tension, Tangles, And A New Language

Does this happen to you? You’re working on some fiber technique when bam, it hits you: “This sums it all up right here — Life, the Universe and Everything.” (Thank you, Douglas Adams.)

On Monday, I picked up my new spinning wheel and started practicing. By the time I was ready to change the bobbin, I was feeling pretty good about things. That, of course, is when it all fell apart. I could only produce severely overtwisted stuff (can’t call it yarn) that wouldn’t feed onto the bobbin. I fiddled with everything that could be fiddled with, and emailed Kathi for help. The main cause of my problem was that I put the new bobbin on (mumblemumble) backward, so it couldn’t rotate (my husband hero, Bill, figured that one out). And because it wasn’t operating properly, I was getting more and more excited and thus treadling faster and faster.

This is all good, though. I won’t make the bobbin mistake again. I have a much better feel for adjusting the Scotch tension on this wheel now. And I’m making my treadling speed much more deliberate. As you can see, all of this is now producing results that I can, in fact, call yarn.

Many of my thoughts this week were as twisted as that mess in my hand. I had some time to try to sort them out, thanks to this week’s record number of mechanic and vet appointments, but am still looking for answers.

Daryl Lancaster gave me a lot to think about with two posts. In the first, she shared her excitement at seeing the work of a new generation at the Conference of Northern California Handweavers.

I don’t know if there is a Project Runway influence here as well, but the rectangular shapes of the garments that came parading across the runway were not the shapes of yore…  I’m going under the assumption that since home ec is not part of the current curriculum in most schools in the US, that these amazingly talented young women are learning fashion skills somewhere else.  The influence is pretty clear, since the rectangular clothing up on that stage was thoughtfully draped over someone’s body (a dressform?) and folded and tucked and seamed, stitched and embellished into some extremely creative clothing.

Daryl also wrote a thoughtful post that touched on why she didn’t post images of those garments but really addressed the larger issue teaching artists protecting their intellectual property.

More than one of us noticed that as we were teaching, there were small video cameras or cell phones pointing at us and we realized too late, that our seminars were being recorded.  I’m going to assume that because the equipment is so available, just point a cell phone and press start, that no one actually thinks about the long term ramifications of these actions.  I’m also going to assume, at least I hope this is the case, that those who are recording the seminars, are just trying to remember everything that was said, fine points the teacher made that weren’t in the handout, and that that recording will eventually go by the wayside and never be looked at again.  Trouble is, those recordings will now be downloaded to a computer, and will be available for viewing by anyone anywhere for the rest of all time…. And, once a guild has passed around the handout, seen the photos of all the samples, and listened to the video of my seminar, where is the incentive to actually hire me to come out and teach.  This is no different than making twenty copies of the latest sock pattern in Knits magazine, and passing them all around the knitters’ guild.  This is all about protecting those of us who spend our lives providing projects, creating inspiration, and pushing the envelope of what we do all the while trying to eek out a living. It is about having control of your work…

I’m guessing that the students recording seminars at CNCH were probably not the youngest people in the room, probably not meaning harm, probably not intentionally disrespectful of an honored teacher. Hold on. One more thing to add to the mix.

Out of the blue, I got a phone call this week from an artist whose work I’ve long admired. We have friends in common on Facebook and my name kept popping up on her screen. Her curiosity led to a call, which led to a lovely conversation. Here’s the part that relates to this post, heavily paraphrased by me: She developed her unique style in part because Native American elders with whom she studied told her plainly that she could learn but not copy their traditional styles.

As a teaching artist, I’m shoulder-to-shoulder with Daryl. If this were an easy way to make a living, more people would do it. For the most part, students are very respectful of our work. But like those native elders, we may have to more clearly state what behaviors we expect from students. And yet…

We want to see young fiber artists learn, grow, and be part of the community for many years to come. That applies not only to those in the CNCH fashion show, but also to young embroiderers, surface designers, garment makers, knitters, spinners, and all their brethren and sisters.

For the better part of a year now, I’ve been working to learn new skills I think will be necessary for communicating with learners who are native in a language I still speak haltingly. Communicating in 140 characters or video involves translation, for people like me. While I’m translating, they’re designing LED clothing, for pete’s sake. I believe their perceptions of media and access to information may be as different from mine as, well, take a moment to reflect on this from Hisako Sekijima on values regarding labor and possessions.

Even when two people or groups treat each other with respect, when you’re not speaking the same language things can get messy. Now I’ve got all this overtwist in my head, and it’s not winding on to the bobbin.

How can fiber elders meet the needs of learners who speak this new language? Could fiber teachers make information so available that copyright protection is a non-issue, and still make a living so they can keep teaching and inspiring that next generation? How do we balance all this?

What do you think?

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Practice Makes Fluent

A while back, I read the phrase “Practice Makes Fluent” on Liz Massey’s blog, Creative Liberty. I told her I was going to embroider it on a pillow. No progress on the pillow yet. But I’m thinking this sampler I made as a 4-H project back in the 1960s says almost the same thing, if not in so many words.

Earlier this month, I pulled this sampler out of the cedar chest (bad storage practice, I know). I wanted to use a photo of it in the Powerpoint presentation that accompanied my “Complete Fabrication” keynote address at the Missouri Art Education Association conference. The sampler is still pinned to the design board in my studio because I haven’t had time to put it away. And ideas have been incubating. Like, not only do art and stitching improve with practice, but so do skills like hospitality and friendship.

I love that our friends’ kids enjoy coming to our house. We enjoy making things with those kids, and are grateful when their parents don’t seem to mind a bit of paint or mud on their offspring.

The kids sort of know what we do for a living. But they’re too young to realize yet the years of practice it took for us to develop the skills it takes to live our lives. That includes learning to represent trees that don’t look like lollipops (not that there’s anything wrong with lollipop trees), and everything else it takes to be self-employed artists. It also includes being able to throw together a simple meal, shut the door on the embarrassing mess in the office, and have fun with friends playing Phase 10 or Swipe.

It takes practice to make fluent the language of friendship. We’re fortunate to have friends who understand that when I say, “It’ll be just soup and bread,” I really mean, “The amount of effort I put into this meal doesn’t begin to reflect how much I enjoy your company and want to spend time together.”

Last week, there was another post on Creative Liberty that caught my attention. It was a link to a post by Annmarie Thomas called Why Making Matters. She writes:

There’s another important lesson to be learned through early exposure to building and creating. It’s that making often fails. Any of us who build stuff for a living have had our share of failures. If inventors and engineers stopped at their first failure, we wouldn’t have the airplane, the lightbulb, or countless other great inventions. Learning to work through failure is painful, and best learned early. If a child’s only building project is for a class assignment where failure means a poor grade, it’s understandable why they might not be excited about building things- failure’s scary. But if a child is taught the pleasure of making, failure becomes part of the process.

So I’m trying to decide if, instead of putting this sampler back in the cedar chest, I should display it in my home so the kids can see that I worked for many years to go from lollipop trees to the work I’m doing now. Or I could just scorch the soup and laugh about it. What do you think: How do we encourage kids to be makers, and to understand that failure is part of success?

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Are You Smarter Than A 2nd Grader?

What would you have done? You’re walking down a hotel corridor and somebody else is having her picture taken with a 9-foot-tall hot-pink walking paint spatter. I thought so. This is me with Blobby at the Missouri Art Education Association conference. Last weekend I was in Kansas City to do their keynote address and present some seminars. I got to sit in on a few seminars, too, and would like to have taken some that were scheduled at times I was teaching. Even reading their descriptions was inspirational. So was walking through a corridor lined with student artwork teachers brought to display.

In the vendor area, I met the folks from the world’s largest online student art museum, Artsonia. This is a free-to-join web site where K-12 teachers publish their students’ artwork. Students can earn awards and honors. Family and friends can not only view the work, but also join an artist’s fan club and purchase things like T-shirts, tote bags, canvases and tiles imprinted with that artwork. And when they make purchases, 15% of the revenue goes back to the school’s art program. There are no banner ads on Artsonia, and there are security measures in place to ensure that it remains a safe, educational environment.

The folks at Artsonia gave me a $35 gift certificate for Blick Art Materials that I’d like to pass along to a teacher. The rest of you, please stay tuned for just a moment while I do this:
Just For Art Teachers
The $35 Blick gift certificate contains a promo code you’ll have to use during your Artsonia account registration. So check out the site, but before you register come here, click Comments, and leave the name of your school, your school’s location, and the grade levels you teach. On Tuesday, March 16, I’ll do a drawing for the gift certificate, post the winner in the comments section here, and have you email me for the promo code. The certificate is valid only for U.S. public and private schools (sorry, no art camps), and only schools that have not published artwork on Artsonia are eligible. There’s no obligation to join Artsonia, but to receive the $35 Blick gift certificate you must submit at least 25 students’ artwork by June 30, 2010. 
If you’re not an art teacher, you can email this offer to an art teacher by clicking the mail icon at the bottom of the post.
Better Than Free Materials
Now I have an offer for all of you. There’s no promo code for this, and nothing you have to sign up for. 
But for free and in the privacy of your own home, you could get a little of the inspiration that’s guiding the work of the artists who are showing on Artsonia. Here’s how.
  1. Browse. Go to Artsonia and browse some of the art exhibits.
  2. Read. Read the teacher’s comments “About This Exhibit.” For example, Mrs. Youngman at Willow River Elementary in Hudson, Wisconsin posted this about Matisse’s Goldfish:  Second graders started the year looking at art by Henri Matisse. They learned that when Matisse got older and could no longer get out of bed to create art he got creative! He not only taped a paintbrush to a stick and painted on a paper taped to the wall, but he also invented collage! By cutting shapes and gluing them to another piece of paper he was able to create many masterpieces! We looked at his painting, Goldfish and noticed his use of bright colors, patterns, and outlines. Students then learned how to make a 3D room with only three lines. The walls and floor were painted, and then they created a unique fishbowl, paper table, and tissue paper plants. Finally, all of it was collaged together to create our final masterpieces.
  3. Do. Gather materials and challenge yourself to do a project inspired by the work you see on Artsonia.
  4. Repeat.

You’ll find hundreds of exciting prompts on Artsonia that can spark ideas for your fiber art. Isn’t it great to know you don’t have to be smarter than a 2nd grader to play and learn along?

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Thank You, Mrs. Zawisza

It was the usual battle of bulk versus weight, but seminar supplies for Kansas City are packed and weighed. As usual, I figure people don’t so much care what I’m wearing as what they’re learning, so I pack light on wardrobe, heavy on class supplies. Everything fits, everything rolls, and I have five irons in my checked luggage.

A couple of years ago as I was on my way to teach in Nebraska, my flight from Green Bay boarded and all seemed fine. Then the flight attendant announced that the plane was overweight and asked for a volunteer to wait for a later flight. When no volunteer came forth, they made a man (tall but trim) in the back of the plane (probably flying standby), get up, gather his personal belongings, and exit the aircraft. I had five irons in my checked luggage that time, too. Sorry!

I’m off to the Missouri Art Education Association’s spring conference, where I present “Complete Fabrication” as the keynote address. I’m also doing an extreme sampling workshop (2 hours, 20 things you can do with inkjet heat transfer paper), an Art Tees demo, a Creativity Cram Session, and a new seminar called Snoping Color: We’ll be using transfer crayons, disperse dye transfers and Inkodye to explore how what you see isn’t necessarily what you get in a way that fosters the development of critical thinking skills.

The habits of art – observation, developing ideas, selecting from among choices, reevaluating decisions — are essential in critical thinking. Art classes give students opportunities to develop the habits of asking what if, who says so, why and why not — in and out of the art room. And techniques where things are not necessarily as they first appear – that’s just too good of a teaching opportunity to miss.

So as I sign off, I want to thank my high school speech teacher. Mrs. Zawisza, you made a difference in my life, and I appreciate it! How about you? Is there a teacher you’d like to thank?

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