December 13, 2017

“We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color.
-Maya Angelou”

A few of my friends know that I once majored in weaving and textiles. For three semesters, I was enrolled in a college-level program to train designer craftsmen. The program, known as PIA, the Program in Artisanry, was at Boston University. Despite moving on and completing my degree in art education, the passion for handcrafting has never left me.

Many of my young students are drawn to the work of the hand, whether it be with clay, yarn, wood, cardboard, or other raw materials. I will leave the whole debate of art vs. craft for another time and place. My intention here is to talk about the value of helping children experience handcrafts as a way of increasing understanding and empathy across cultural and other boundaries.

Weaving on a cardboard loom

Weaving on a cardboard loom

Handcrafts help us connect in a deep way to our origin as a species–to times when humans, not machines, did most of the manufacture of usable goods. Humans have always used the materials at hand to make things of use–from baskets to blankets, garments to tools. Even, and especially today, in the WalMart era of globalization and cheap goods, people seek out handmade objects. Why is this the case? I suspect it is, in part, because using or wearing something hand-made connects us to our own humanity and also to our deep and abiding connection to one another as humans.

Friends, Tempera painting,12" x 18", grade 1

Friends, Tempera painting,12″ x 18″, grade 1

This connection to other humans is where empathy begins. We start to discover our commonality as human beings despite regional, ethnic, and religious differences, across time and space.

The beautiful tapestry we call humanity is expressed in the things we make by hand. Hand-made things are often used for ritual or ceremonial purposes.

In my art classes, children have made menorahs and dreidels from clay for the Jewish festival of Hanukah. They have made beautiful felt ornaments and trinkets from clay or paper to display on their tree for the Christian holiday of Christmas. 

glitter ornaments

My young students love to learn how to make useful things in art class. These useful things can be toys they can play with or they can be functional objects like a ceramic mug or dish to gift to a loved one.

As we draw near to the Winter Solstice and all the  holidays and festivals surrounding the shortest day, my classroom becomes a hive of handcrafting. These “make and take” items, made from the heart are often given by children to their loved ones.

It’s my strong belief that children need these opportunities to make things and offer them as gifts. While it can’t be our focus year-round, during these weeks between Thanksgiving and winter break, I invite the children to explore how making small hand-made things can connect us to the people and celebrations in our lives.

weaving with cloth strips, grade 3

weaving with cloth strips, grade 3

Art teachers, I am curious–How do you integrate handcrafting into your art program?

azalea's paper weaving

Here are some of my suggestions for how to get started with weaving.

Picture Books about weaving traditions from different cultures:

~Abuela’s Weave, by Omar S. Castaneda, Illustrated by Enrique O. Sanchez (contemporary story about traditional weaving from Guatemala)

~Rainbow Weaver Tejedora del arcoiris by Linda Elovitz Mashall, Elisa Chavarri (ancient Mayan art of weaving, Guatemala)

~The Goat in the Rug by Charles L. Blood (Navajo weaving story, Navajo Nation, North America)

~Master Weaver from Ghana by Gilbert Ahiagble (Ghana, Africa)

arhinarmah -

arhinarmah –

To get started with making:

  •  Start simple with paper weaving. There are many lovely variations, including weaving painted papers.
  • Collect and offer a rich variety of natural and synthetic fibers and other materials. Tap into the parents and families in your community for donations of yarn, wood, cardboard, fabric, etc.
  • Use books, video and online resources to expand awareness of living traditions such as Navajo weaving.
  • Investigate traditional materials–sheep or goat’s wool, silk, brown ash wood for baskets, etc.
  • Find out what crafting traditions are practiced in your part of the world.
  • Invite family and community members as guests to demonstrate and share their craft skills.brooks_december

Dear Readers, I welcome your thoughts and participation. Please share your suggestions for book titles or other resources on this topic.

Robin Brooks, Topsham, Maine