Media & Techniques

Exploring Ideas in Fiber Arts (Ep. 300)

In this episode, Tim is joined by artist and educator Alanna Wilcox to talk about yarn-making, dyeing, and all things fiber arts. Alanna will be presenting at the upcoming NOW Conference on February 5th, sharing how to bring more fibers ideas into your curriculum. Listen today as she previews that talk, as well as shares ideas for beginners and advanced artists, working within a budget, and the joys of tactile experiences.  Full Episode Transcript Below.

Resources and Links


Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education University. And I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

Today’s discussion is going to be a good one. Alanna Wilcox, a fiber artist and educator from New York, is going to join me to talk about all things fibers. She has all kinds of expertise, does so many incredible things with fibers and is willing to share a lot of what she does. She will here today and she’ll also be sharing at the NOW Conference, coming up in a few weeks, coming up on February 5th, to be exact. If you listen to this podcast a lot, you have heard me talk about my experience with fibers or more specifically my lack thereof. So I’m looking forward to learning from Alanna, hearing about her own art-making experiences and how those experiences can be brought into the classroom. So she’s here. She is waiting. We will go ahead and get the conversation started.

All right. And Alanna Wilcox is joining me now. Alanna, how are you?

Alanna: I’m good. Thank you so much for having me.

Tim: Well, thanks for coming on. We have a lot to talk about, and I have not done a ton of podcasts about fibers or fiber arts. So I think this will be a good one, but to begin, can you just introduce yourself for our listeners? Tell us a little bit about you or your art or your teaching, or anything else that you want to share.

Alanna: Sure. So like you said, my name is Alanna and originally I’m from Brooklyn. So I bring that up only because I teach in Rochester now, and in Rochester, New York. And it’s kind of funny because every time I say the color orange, the students always laugh at me. So I tell them it’s because I’m a pirate, I know it’s orange, but I say orange. And let’s see, so other stuff about me: I’m really into cats so I have a couple of those. And as far as my fiber background, I’m really interested in spinning. So I have this thing that’s called a Master Spinner Certificate. It’s kind of like the black belt of yarn maker.

Tim: Nice.

Alanna: And I’m a dyer and I’m a question asker, but as far as my teaching philosophy and how I approach teaching, when students come into my classroom, I have a little sign up on my wall. And basically it says, “If you say you can’t, you won’t, but if you say you’ll try, you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish.” And so I think I approach that both as an educator and as a student myself. And so modeling that and kind of toggling back and forth between the two can kind of give you a little bit of an idea of who I am.

Tim: Wow. That’s very cool. Now I want to ask you, because you mentioned both of these things, I know you do a ton with fibers, a lot of really interesting stuff, but it really seems like you’re especially passionate about spinning and about dyeing. And to be honest, I’m not terribly familiar with either of those processes. I know about them, but don’t know a ton. So can you tell me a little bit more and tell our audience a little bit about each of those processes?

Alanna: Sure. So if you Google spinning, you might find a lot of people really into bicycles and exercise classes. So the keyword search is really important if you want to learn more about it, but basically the act of spinning in of itself, is basically taking the fibers of one type or another and putting twist into them. So you can have something like grass or plants or things like that, that if you just put twist in it, that’s spinning. You’re turning it into yarn. And so you can do that with things like wool, with cotton. So those might be things that you’re more familiar with, but pretty much any type of fiber that you see on clothing labels, even nylon and polyester and all of those, those are fibers that can be spun.

So the act of spinning is really just putting twist in. And then with regard to the tools and things like that, sometimes people will imagine these old-fashioned spinning wheels, like Sleeping Beauty, and yes, that’s one type of spinning wheel or tool that that spinners use. But there’s also other types of tools too, that are called drop spindles. And those are ones that I’ll often use with my students. And so sometimes those can go for maybe like about like $15 to $20, but I did this hack with fidget spinners and wooden dowels. So there’s ways to get the tools to make yarn, fairly inexpensive for a full class instead of just having one spinning wheel for a group of students.

And then the other thing that I think that really made me drawn to spinning specifically is that it’s a very tactile medium. So like touching wool, or if you go to Target and they have those really soft squishy blankets and just that feeling of what that does sensory-wise to your fingertips, that it really, it impacts your mind. So there’s the physical and mental connection. And I think that those that maybe teach ceramics or that do things that are more manipulatives as opposed to drawing, can kind of understand where I’m coming from.

And I think what really drew me to spinning, I’ve always loved fiber and thread and all of that, but recently this past year, which is kind of interesting too, as a teacher, but this past year I was diagnosed with ADHD. And so I found in talking to other fiber artists that there is what I would refer to as like the quieting of the mind, where when you spin, it’s a physical activity, because you’re either twisting a dowel, twisting like if you think of a top, it’s, it’s similar in that sense. And then the touching of the fibers, you’re getting that sensory input.

So if you think of students that have ADHD, or if you yourself have ADHD, that having something to do with your hands and your fingers, that sensory input can really have a profound effect on the brain. And so the act of spinning, I found became very meditative and my brain would go quiet. And so that was just such a welcomed experience that I couldn’t really get that from anything else before.

And so dyeing is related in that sense, in that dyeing is the act of putting the color onto the fiber. And so for those of you that are painters, it’s very different than pigment. So when we’re talking about things like chalk pastels or oil paints and all that, there is different binder mediums that will make it so that pigment can be applied to surfaces. But what fascinates me about dyeing is that it’s actually a chemical process whereby the colorant, whatever the dyer is choosing to use, is actually chemically bonding to the fiber. So when someone goes to get their hair colored, that’s hair dye, right? So the same kind of chemical process or a similar one will happen to fiber. Now what’s interesting with dyeing is that there’s different types. So you have natural dyes. So you have where you can get colors from plants. So like walnuts and onion skins are food grade ones that you can eat, but there’s all different types of natural dyes, different plants and minerals and things like that, that you can use.

And then there’s synthetic dyes. So those are ones that are more chemical in nature as opposed to organic. And they require different types of binding agents. So some natural dyes can just affix to the fibers and then you might need more chemicals. So it’s this really interesting to me, chemistry scientific lens of applying color that goes a little bit beyond the artistry. Now it’s like it has a science to it. And that really fascinates me about dyeing. But also I think what’s interesting too in the educational realm, is how can you teach something like that to students? And so maybe speaking to the listeners in the audience that are not familiar with what dyeing entails and pigments and dyes and all of that, if you think of it, the things that you like in your cupboard like food coloring, Kool-Aid, we always read ingredients that we don’t know what exists in our food, and sometimes we’ll see different colorants in it.

So we’ll see things like Blue 72 or Yellow 13. And it’s like, what the heck is that? Well, so just as an interesting I would say, hook, if you will, for students, whenever I teach them about dyeing, I ask them “What do you think these substances are that we’re eating and we’re consuming?” And the one that the students kind of scrunch their nose up at me and get really a little bit freaked out by, is that, especially for those of you that might be vegan out there, there’s a colorant that is called Cochineal. And it’s a bug that basically gets ground up. But if you look on ingredients, it might show up as Natural Red Number Four. But it’s also in things like Dannon yogurt and Skittles and Ocean Spray. So once you can make it relatable to students, I think that’s when it gets interesting. But yeah, I could go on and on about dyes and [inaudible 00:10:26]

Tim: I’m kind of curious now. I’m fascinated and I’m horrified by that at the same time. And that’s great. Okay. But as much as I would love to do a whole podcast on dyeing, because I think that could be fascinating, we should probably move on, but I do want to circle back to something you said, just sort of that tactile experience for kids that I think can be so valuable. It’s something that I think our kids don’t get a lot. And so I guess my question for you would be, how can we bring that to our classroom? For teachers who don’t have a lot of experience with fibers, they want to bring in fibers or create these sort of sensory input experiences, tactile experiences for their kids. What are some simple ways that teachers can bring fibers into their classrooms if they haven’t done much before?

Alanna: Yep. That’s a great question. And so again, I think from what I said earlier, as an artist and a student and a teacher, I like to model for the students how I like to learn about things that I don’t know anything about. And so part of that could be having a research component as a class, where it could be something that you bring to your students and you say, Hey, you know what? I learned about this new art medium, this new thing to me. And it sounded really interesting, but I don’t know a lot about it. So maybe each of us goes and tries to find three facts about it. Maybe you find an artist, you find a work of art and you find maybe a location in the world where it’s done. Because that’s kind of the neat thing about fibers. It’s not geographic specific, it’s not timeline and history specific. It’s something that’s been around since we decided that wearing clothes was a good idea.

So it’s something that is in all cultures. There’s so many ways to jump into it, but I really encourage people to open it up to your students. And then it becomes this mutually learning kind of experience where you learn from the students, they learn from each other. And I think that’s a great way about going about it. If that’s maybe not something that would work for your age group or your student demographic, other things that you can do again, it’s a very rich resource, is your community. So you have people in your building you can reach out to. You can ask the students, do you have anyone in your family that knits, that crochets, that works with yarn?

And the thing about the fiber arts that I love, is that while the act of creating art in of itself is an individual act much like a musician playing an instrument is an individual act, fiber artists tend to work in unison and in groups. And so they also have guilds. And so wherever you are in your community, I can guarantee you within an hour’s drive tops, you are going to have some type of guild or some type of group of fiber artists that get together. So it can be a quilting guild, knitters guild. And then you can ask them if they would like to come in as a visiting artist and then share their experiences, what got them into it. And then you may even want to go and join the guild and learn more about it too.

So it’s definitely something that has that handed-down generational quality. Because I know when I was in high school, I never learned about the fiber arts in school. [crosstalk 00:13:59] So yeah, exactly, exactly. And I think what happens is that we might get fiber materials, like we might get fabric and we might get yarn and things like that, but we tend to use it more as a sculptural accent as opposed to actually exploring it for its full capability to actually create art as opposed to following the pattern or doing more craft aligned things.

Tim: Yeah. Yeah. That’s fair. So I guess those are a lot of great ideas. I also want to ask though for teachers who are at the other end of the spectrum, if they have more experience with fibers, if they know more about them, what are some things that they can do or that their students can do to take their work to the next level? Would you have suggestions as far as materials or techniques or ideas that would be worth exploring?

Alanna: Yeah, definitely. So I think if a teacher is already interested in it or if it’s something that maybe they’ve dabbled in a little bit, one of the best things that you can do and how I learn more is really to take classes and workshops. And so again, guilds and even stores, like if you go to, it could be a box store like JOANN’s, but even if you go to a local fabric store, a local yarn store, they have tons of classes that you can learn more in that sense. And there’s also regional conferences, there’s fiber festivals. And those are some of the places that I tend to teach workshops at and learn at, but pretty much any type of fiber art, whether, like I said, it’s knitting, crocheting, whatever, they all have conferences and places like that, that you can learn. So there’s tons of resources in that sense.

But if your students are really interested in it, or you want to give them a deeper level of experience and learning, then I would really encourage you to have your students think about when they’re using their materials more in the sense of art making, as opposed to skill building. And so what I mean by that, is that you might have very basic knowledge with knitting. So maybe you just teach the students actually how to knit and then it ends there. But if you are someone that’s more advanced, maybe you can explore not only teaching the students how to knit, but if you go beyond knitting with yarn. So maybe you’re going to knit with cut up pieces of plastic, garbage bags, or something like that. So you can explore how what you’re using as the tool can then change the meaning of what you’re creating and the art you’re making. As far as the materials go for those that are more advanced and maybe have budgetary concerns or constraints, because I know that that’s how I’ve always operated.

Tim: Yeah I was going to say, we’re teachers, we don’t have any money.

Alanna: Exactly, exactly. So definitely to tap into the community for supplies. Again, reaching out to fellow staff members, they might have someone in their family that’s looking to get rid of a whole whack of fabric and they don’t know what to do with it. So definitely reaching out again to local fiber stores, fabric stores, yarn stores, and even asking them and saying, “Hey, could you put a donation box out and have your customers donate?” So there’s lots of resources in that sense. But as far as the techniques go that you can explore if you’re wanting to go a little bit deeper with students is, for me anyway, I think this is fun. This is something that I’ve done with my students. But if you combine the element of technology and dyeing, it could be a really fun activity to do color mixing with food coloring and then dying and creating a color wheel. And you can go on a computer and look up the CMYK breakdown of a pixels color and then see if the students can match it on yarn.

And those are just kind of some fun exercises that I do. But if anyone is interested in that higher level stuff that you can do with students, I’m definitely happy to share. And maybe at the more basic level, if you’re intermediate, maybe even thinking of all the projects that you do with paper and how could you substitute fabric in place of paper? So technically paper might be in the fiber’s realm, but if you want to go a little bit further, maybe how could you substitute fabric for paper?

Tim: Interesting. Yeah, those are some excellent suggestions. Thank you. Now I do want to also ask you about the NOW conference, just a couple weeks away now. You’re going to have a great presentation there. I’m very excited for everybody to hear from you, but can you tell us about your presentation and just what people can expect to learn there?

Alanna: Sure. So I’m going to be giving some more tips and tricks and resources in how you can make that integration happen. Again, I like to approach things in a very playful, exploratory way. So I try to present things in my presentation so that it’s accessible. That it’s not something that is super-complicated or difficult to do. So I have lots of tips and tricks there. I have a list of resources that are budget-friendly. So all the different places that you can locate resources for your classroom. And then as far as a project goes, I shared how I used fabric and computers and technology to create portraits with my students. So I kind of break that down and explore that as an idea.

Tim: Cool. Cool. Like I said, I think people will love hearing that and love seeing some examples, putting some visuals with some of the ideas that you’re talking about. So that should be great. And then just before we go, you mentioned some of the workshops you do. I know you do a lot of additional outside teaching, outside of the classroom. Can you tell everybody I was listing about your books, the workshops you do, and just where people can find more information if they’re interested in check that out.

Alanna: Sure. Yeah. So I like to keep it simple. So my website is just my name, and I have, like you said, my books and workshops are up there. The books that I’ve written, I have one book on how to approach spinning fiber that’s been dyed, for different color approaches. And so that’s something that I’m really passionate about is color. And obviously to get the color on the fiber, you need to dye. So that was part of my thesis. So like I said, I have what is referred to as a Master Spinner Certificate. And that was just this, almost like a six year process that I went through, to learn how to spin and all facets of it, but my thesis and my final project was basically the culmination of my book.

And then with regard to the CMYK and then doing the color mixing, I came up with this color matching technique and approach. And so I have a dye guide on there. So that’s on my website and I have all different spinning and dying workshops there. So you can definitely see it on my website. And then I also have a lot of my projects that I do, my personal projects and dyeing on my Instagram. And so my name on there is spinnybuns. So it’s S-P-I-N-N-Y-B-U-N-S.

Tim: Okay, awesome. We will link to those. And one last, very important question. Do you have pictures of your cats on your Instagram also?

Alanna: Of course, of course, because you know what art teacher/cat lady would not be complete without pictures of cats and they’re really cute and funny, I think so, but I’m biased.

Tim: Oh, that’s great. All right. Well, Alanna, thank you so much for joining me. I appreciate the conversation and we will look forward to seeing you at the NOW conference in a couple weeks.

Alanna: Okay. Thank you so much. And I look forward to hearing all of the ways that art teachers are incorporating fibers. And again, if you have any questions about how to do that, please feel free to reach out to me.

Tim: Awesome. Thank you. If any of these ideas that Alana talked about today appeal to you, I would say the first thing to do is visit her website We’ll link to it in the show notes like I mentioned, and there are a lot of great resources there. It’s a great place to see more about her work and learn about everything that she does. And the second thing is of course, to sign up for the NOW conference. Less than three weeks away, the conference is an incredible opportunity for a day of professional development. Along with a ton of other teachers covering a ton of incredible topics. Alanna will be there talking about ideas for bringing fibers into your curriculum. And she’ll also have a second video in the afterpass. That is a longer video that goes into all the details on how to put together a fabric portrait lesson and everything you need to know to start teaching with fibers.

So, as I said, if you’re interested in doing more, Alanna will have you covered at NOW on February 5th. So take a look at the AOEU website for all of the details of that conference. Thank you to Alanna for the conversation today. I know a lot of people will be looking forward to implementing some of those ideas and hearing more from her

Art Ed Radio is produced by the Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you as always for listening. And we’ll talk to you next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.