Media & Techniques

Fiber Arts at the Secondary Level (Ep. 199)

In today’s episode, Tim askes Amber Kane to come on the show to discuss Fiber Arts and how more teachers can incorporate fibers into their curriculum. Amber has a new PRO Learning Pack out this month, and in this conversation, she shares a few of her best ideas from that pack. Listen as she and Tim discuss why students enjoy learning fiber arts, where to find inspiration, and how simple ideas can transfer into bigger projects. 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 I’m going to be joined by Amber Kane to talk about her work with fibers and how she teaches fiber arts to her students. Amber has been on the show before talking about the importance of communication, and she has been a presenter at the Art Ed Now Conference a couple of times, most recently talking about fibers and how we can move from thinking of fibers as a craft and begin thinking more about fibers as a creative practice. So we’re going to cover a few of those topics today.

Speaking of the Art Ed Now Conference, it is time for you to sign up. We have an amazing featured presenter, CJ Hendry, who you heard from last week here on the podcast, and we have another 20 incredible presentations, an entire amazing day of PD, and if you sign up soon, a swag box full of art supplies getting delivered to your door. So check out the details and get yourself registered at

Before you do that, however it is time to talk fibers, so let’s go ahead and get the conversation started. (music) All right, Amber Kane is here. Amber, welcome back to the show. How are you today?

Amber: I’m doing great. I’m super excited to get to spend the morning talking to you about fiber arts.

Tim: I know. Fibers has always been a weak spot for me. People who listen to this podcast know that. I just don’t have a ton of experience with fibers so I’m always eager to learn. I watched your pro pack and I don’t know it gave me a lot of good ideas to try, but I guess to start with, can I just ask you something simple. Question would be why should students be learning to work with fibers? What do you enjoy teaching when it comes to fibers and what have you found that students enjoy learning?

Amber: Yeah. So one I always think about, I think it’s important to expose students to a lot of different mediums. So of course we are talking about fibers specifically today and I think it’s one that a lot of people, especially when it comes to the high school level tend to avoid. And when I really think about my personal connection to fibers is I really was first taught it by my grandmother and then my fourth grade elementary teacher, not my art teacher. Got into weaving when I was in college and it was a medium that just unlocked so much for me and ended up really launching me into becoming an artist. And I started a textile business and ran a gallery. And it was all because that was the medium that I really connected to because I like making functional things. So when I started to introduce it to my students, I saw a really similar thing happened, that all of a sudden all of the students were learning how to crochet.

They were really interested in the fact that they could actually make something functional. And suddenly I had students that weren’t even in my class coming down during lunch and study hall and it was like, “Whoa”. This all happened because of the nature of the material. That it was something that they could really just connect to. So I think whether it’s fibers or any materials, that understanding they do have different qualities and so it can be that thing that suddenly makes a student excited about creating that before just sat in your class and didn’t do anything.

Tim: Yeah, for sure. Well and I think the teacher’s passion can get passed to the students as well. If it’s something that you’re excited about, kids are generally going to be a little bit more excited as well. And like you said when you are so passionate about something, kids can pick up on that. But unfortunately that’s not the case for me. There are a lot of people who struggle with teaching fibers. They don’t have the experience, they may not have the materials or maybe it’s something they’re just afraid to try. So my question would be what advice would you have for teachers in my position or in that position? How can people change their mindset and try and bring some more fibers’ experiences into their curriculum for their kids?

Amber: Sure. So I think the first one, and in some ways it sounds simple and in others I know it’s kind of complicated, is taking the mindset of learning with your students. And so I’ve had to do that when it came to teaching jewelry, but it also started to happen, ironically when I was teaching fibers. Something about me when it comes to fibers is I’m actually terrible at reading patterns and I don’t even have a strong interest in understanding how to read them. I like making up my own designs. And so as I introduced this to students, suddenly they would come into my classroom with these patterns and instructions that they found online of I want to make this dress, I want to make this sweater. And I was like, oh gosh, I don’t even know how to really read this pattern that you’re showing me.

So we had that open conversation of this is really interesting. I’m so glad you’re excited about this. This is not a strong area for me. Let’s go ahead and see how we can figure this out together. And so it really became a back and forth of how could we look up different directions and how could we problem-solve together? And so if you have already built relationships with your students, it’s a powerful thing for both of you, and your relationship will just get stronger and you’re really learning new skills. The other part of it, if you’re thinking, oh my gosh, I can’t imagine actually admitting to my students that they know more than me, or I don’t even know how to do what they’re asking. Another way to flip it is… So when I first started teaching, my very first year, I was assigned to teach a jewelry class and I had never made any jewelry before in my life.

Especially now we’re using torches to do soldering. And so that was a time where I didn’t feel comfortable telling students, I don’t know. You know more than I do because I didn’t feel like we had established that relationship yet. And so I really approached it in a couple of different ways and I think you can transition this to fibers or absolutely anything, is one I would still continue to encourage the students to do a little bit of additional research of “Okay, that sounds really interesting. Why don’t you see what else you can find out about and then bring that back to me.”, and we’d kind of work through it together or I would tell them that’s a really interesting idea, concept . We’re not quite ready to get there yet. If I explain it to you right now, you’re going to be confused, but we can get there.

And so the honest answer is yes, if I explained it to them they were going to be confused because I had no idea how to explain it.

Tim: Yeah.

Amber: And then I would in the evening go ahead and figure that out and the next class then we would work on it. So you only have to be one step ahead of your students. And I think that’s really important to remember. Even if you’re not an expert in a particular medium, you already have a much stronger foundation of thinking about design and aesthetics and where to find information. You don’t have to be light years ahead of your students. You have to just be slightly ahead of your students. And then the other thing to think about whenever you’re trying a new medium is then try to stick to basic techniques. So don’t try and do everything that’s new at once. So you might, if you’re going to explore fibers, then really think about how can you actually connect that to something where you feel like an expert. If you feel like an expert when it comes to drawing, then maybe the first thing you’re going to try is embroidery and you’re just trying to draw by sewing so that everything is not brand new to you at one time.

Tim: Yeah, that’s some really good advice and it’s a tough way to live just being like a little bit ahead of your students all the time. That’s a constant source of stress. But it is doable, especially if it is just a couple projects. You can get through that. I want to ask you though, a little bit more about finding information, looking forward at things. For you personally, when you’re going into creating fibers, whether it is embroidery or going further with some of the things you do. Where do you find inspiration, where do you find resources, where do you get your project ideas that you want to share with your kids?

Amber: I’m going to give you some, a broad perspective and then also try and give everybody some really specific places they can look as well. So I do this personally and then I also do it with my students. I try to find inspiration that is actually in a different medium. And the reason for that is I think it helps to avoid the nature of copying. So if I’m working on fibers and looking for inspiration, I don’t tend to actually look at a lot of fibers specifically. Or if I was going to do a weaving, I might look at rugs, but I won’t look at something that is the same technique. A lot of my inspiration actually comes from researching and looking at abstract painters, simply because I have a strong love for abstract art and I think that translates really well to fibers. As you can start to study that, to look at the color combinations and look at the different types of textures and then really start to play around with how does that actually translate into fibers. That’s a broad perspective of where you could search. I think it’s helpful to realize you don’t always have to just be looking for other fiber artists because sometimes, especially if you go to Pinterest, you’re just going to get whatever is popular at the moment.

So other places that I like to look and even have my students look is going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art webpage and there is a section where you can look at current exhibits and also past exhibits, and if you go into that past exhibits section you can search fibers or textiles, any of those key terms and it will start to bring up exhibits for you that are related to that. So you can also easily tie in that art history perspective and you’re getting really interesting pieces that aren’t this is the current trendy project that you might get if you’re searching on social media. And then probably one other place that I actually feel like I get a bigger range than Pinterest is if you just search the hashtag on Instagram, you can find some really cool things and some interesting contemporary artists actually follow. When it comes to project planning and I’m a scatterbrained project planner to be honest with you, but I really approach it like I would approach coming up with a project in any other medium.

And so whether I’m doing it myself or I’m working with my students, we’re really thinking about what is the problem that we’re trying to solve. That might be one thing we’re trying to figure out. We might be trying to explore what do I actually want to communicate? So how do I want people to feel when they see this piece? How do I want people to respond? Or it might even just be, what am I really curious about? Do I have some materials in front of me?

And I’m super curious about how they can start to work together. And so I start to build a project off of that. I tend to be not much of a here are step-by-steps to a project. It’s more brainstorm, explore, experiment and continue to revise and adjust. Another question that I like to ask and I love to have my students ask is what would happen if, so we will often just do a big class brainstorm of anything you could think of. What would happen if around the idea of fibers. So we might limit it to these are the type of materials that you’re going to be using, do a big brainstorm on the board and then go through and start to circle what are the ones that they actually want to try. And we go ahead and try it and reflect on how did that actually work, what needs to be adjusted? Is this still actually interesting and then start to transition that into a finished piece.

Tim: That’s really, really good advice. And I know we’ve talked about that what would happen if idea before and there’s just so many good things that can come with that, whether it’s fibers or not. That’s a great thought exercise that is really, really good for kids. But I want to talk a little bit more about the exploration idea because that’s something that I always encourage my kids to do in their sketchbooks. No matter what medium we’re working in, that is a great place to explore ideas. And I know you do it yourself, but you also encourage your students to do a lot with their sketchbooks. I think people are a little bit skeptical when they hear fibers and sketchbooks coming together. But you have a lot of incredible ideas. So can you share a little bit about some of the ways you work with materials and techniques with fibers as part of your student’s sketchbook work?

Amber: Sure. So this was a real “aha” moment for me because I realized as a teacher, I kept asking my students, or I should say not even just asking, I was requiring them to work in their sketchbooks and do thumbnails. And then I would look at my sketchbook and it looked nothing like what I was requiring them to do. I don’t like to draw in my sketchbook. I don’t like to actually draw out patterns for fibers. That doesn’t help me when I’m planning. And so I was like, geez, this is really unfair and I should probably start to really reflect on my own practices and think about how I can bring that to my students. And so it was really just a mindset shift in how do we actually define what a sketchbook is. Who says that you can only draw and paint in a sketchbook? No one or at least no one that I’m going to listen to.

And so I started to think about what are all the things that are really interesting and helpful to know when you’re dealing with fibers and what are the limitations? Why couldn’t I do that in my sketchbook? And so we know a big part of fibers, we think of weaving and paper weaving is one of the first things a lot of students learn and it doesn’t need to be, it can be super simple of just over-under, but it can also be really complex and our sketchbooks are full of paper. So I just started cutting into it and making my own warps within my sketchbook. And it really started as paper weaving in my sketchbook. And then I went to an AP art training and I had not received the email that we were supposed to bring supplies along because we were going to make our own mini concentration.

And so I had nothing and we had these big chunks of time each day that were supposed to be making art, and there was not an art store anywhere close by. I had to figure out how can I create with what’s around me? And I had paper and then there was a coffee shop that had all these different types of coffee stirrers. So I just started collecting all these random things and because I like to weave, that was the natural thing of how can I weave these things together. And so I realized I’m sitting in my sketchbook and I’m weaving with straws and all kinds of weird things. But it was turning out to be really interesting and really informative. And so just continue to do that in my practice. But sharing it with the students as well of if you’re dealing with weaving, you just need a basic structure and you can make that in your sketchbook.

You can sew in your sketchbook. You can hand sew, you can also put pages through your sewing machine. And so taking everything that I wanted to do on a large scale and asking why can’t I do this in my sketchbook? And the answer was always you can, you’re just not. So started doing it and realizing for students as well that not all students love to draw in their sketchbook. That’s not how they like to think and process. And so when it really opened up to so do different things in it. You can put yarn in your sketchbook, you can cut your sketchbook apart. It was so much more fun for everyone. So even a really simple thing would just be thinking, from fibers, what are you trying to teach them on a large scale and how do you make it smaller? That’s what a thumbnail sketch is essentially. They’re going to be doing a drawing or a painting. So they’re doing some small versions of it. They’re just doing small versions and the materials are only limited if you limit them.

Tim: Yeah, that’s a good point. Can we reverse that thinking for a second though? How does that sketchbook practice transfer back into bigger projects or bigger ideas? Do you want to bring in techniques or experiences or other ideas? How do you transition back to working on bigger projects?

Amber: Sure. So a lot of what I would encourage students to be doing if they’re doing paper weaving in their sketchbook, is really thinking about the type of patterns that they’re designing and helping them to understand that the different patterns that we actually see in textiles, they emerge because if you go over three and under two, that’s going to look different as if you go under two and over four and so this way they can really quickly make up little patterns and start to see what that actually looks like. They can start to understand the structure of things. If you’re going over a whole bunch of your warps, your structure isn’t very strong. That’s going to show up in their sketchbook and as they get an understanding of that, a paper weaving in your sketchbook can either turn into a larger, more complex paper weaving, once you have a solid understanding or they can also take that same thing and then they can use it to create a fiber weaving.

They’re just following the same pattern and now have a general understanding of what that’s going to actually look like or if you’re working on understanding mark making with embroidery, it lets them really practice the different types of stitches that they can make. There are traditional embroidery stitches that you can teach them. I also like to let students just like, how can you make up your own stitches? That’s how we got all the ones that we already have. Somebody sat down and started doing stitches in different directions and tying knots and then once they have some really interesting stitches that they’re excited about and looking at the different types of textures they can make, then they can go ahead and now turn that into a bigger piece and that could be an entire embroidery piece or what I find a lot of students find really helpful is just incorporating it into something they’re already doing.

So they might have done a drawing and realize it’s lacking contrast or realize they’re terrible at drawing hair. Okay. So why don’t you stitch the hair in and see if that becomes more interesting. Or maybe you went ahead and were trying really hard to create the fabric of someone’s shirt but it still is falling flat. So that’s a new problem you have to solve. And you experimented with paper weaving. So why don’t you think about, can you actually cut a little mini warp into the shirt that you just did and start to paper weave into it. So it just continues to be that platform for problem-solving and then thinking about how you keep moving that, translating that into what you were actually working on.

Tim: Yeah, those are some awesome ideas. And I love the specific examples so people can see exactly what you’re trying with that. And then I guess just one last question for you before we go here. You had your pro learning pack on advanced fibers come out earlier this month. Can you tell us a little bit about what you cover in that learning pack? Maybe some highlights or some of your favorite resources or favorite ideas that you’re sharing in there.

Amber: Sure. So we do talk a lot about sketchbooks in that pro pack and also show a lot of examples so you can take what you’re hearing today and actually go into the pro pack and see it, which I know is always really helpful. And then I think one of my favorite ideas and resources is helping students understand what a repeat pattern is and how to use it. And that gets me excited because it’s another one of those things, when I taught it and I’ve taught it to every single grade level and it works for all of them and gets them all excited. So that always makes me really happy as well. When there’s this concept that I can translate to a lot of different grade levels. I realized no one was really teaching students what repeat patterns were and they’re all over the place in life and it’s also this thing that can be very functional.

So if you’re like, “I, too, do not know what a repeat pattern is.”. The general idea is if you have wallpaper in your house that is, if it’s done well, that is a repeat pattern so that you can just keep on going and going and going and the pattern will line up. If you have patterns on your clothing that is most likely a repeat pattern because it was made on a huge, huge roll of fabric that then the designer has to cut apart and line up so that when they stitch your patterns actually match. It’s the same thing that you would see in wrapping paper. And so that gets students really excited and it’s a great way to, one, they’re going to be doing some drawing and designing. It helps them to get a better understanding of what pattern actually is.

They have to do some planning so that it actually repeats and you can do it with a copy machine. So you can do it super, super simple or you can go ahead and start to have them do it digitally on the computer. So it’s also fun because you can transition that. And I’ve had students then make these huge sheets of repeat patterns that then they actually made paper outfits out of it. I’ve had people then go ahead and put it online and get it printed as their own roll of wrapping paper. And so that’s super exciting for students. And the other one that I showed, and this is more just because it’s a large scale and so then students tend to find that interesting. Doing a really giant cross-stitch, so you can get pegboard at Home Depot or anything like that.

It’s rather inexpensive. But because it already has all the holes in it, it works perfectly for cross-stitch or just doing embroidery stitches in it. And it can be a really fun interactive group project as well as you can make it as large or as small as you want so you can also turn that into another form of doing a mural. So it’s another way to get students involved and excited in a medium that might make them more comfortable to actually work. And just because it’s so big it tends to be really fun for them.

Tim: Yeah, that’s really cool. No, I love both of those ideas and definitely worth checking out. So cool. Amber, thank you so much for joining me. It’s been great to talk to you. It’s been great to get all of these ideas from you and hopefully we can have you back on again sometime.

Amber: Yeah, thank you. I can’t wait to see all the fiber projects you’re doing on your own.

Tim: I will make sure I share those with you once I am done, so that’ll be good.

Amber: All right.

Tim: All right. Conversation was a little on the longer side so I will wrap things up quickly. Just so you know, we are taking off the next two weeks for the holidays, so you will not hear from me until January. But in the meantime, feel free to take another listen to that CJ Hendry interview from last week. She was just incredibly entertaining and it was fascinating to hear from her about everything that she does. And I would encourage you to take Amber’s advice and start exploring fibers. Try out some of the techniques she talked about, some sewing in your sketchbook or some small scale weaving, or maybe even going to your local coffee shop and threading those stirrers and straws together. A little bit of creative practice can go a long way, especially when you, over the next couple of weeks, have a little bit of time away from the school. So good luck with that. (music)

Art Ed Radio is brought to you by the Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you as always for listening. Enjoy your upcoming winter break and I will talk to you again in January. (music)

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.