Stab Stitch Bindings with XTech

For most of the month of February both of our XTech cohorts have been learning about and making badges and books from a tradition of stitching called Stab Binding. The method dates back many centuries to parts of China, Japan, and Korea and involves using thread to make double-sided images onto a material like fabric or paper. We covered our introduction to these making projects last month, and continued to use an app by a friend of XTech named Natalie Freed.

Having spent our last post discussing the iterations of the warm-up to stab binding with patch-making and mini-book design, we wanted to include some words and thoughts on what the actual book-making looked like for a few of our students. The project for us touches upon the idea of “intuitive mathematics” and sense-making using a linear material like thread to produce intricate and multi-layered designs that also function as book bindings. Clever use of this algorithmic thinking allows even complex shapes to come to life with a single piece of string. But, designs are always at risk of not getting made. Even with forewarning, some students found they had to retrace their steps and remove the string from some of the holes they’d stitched to take a different path. Often, it took actually experiencing these moments themselves in order to fully understand how to troubleshoot and proceed. Through the various ways we introduced stab bindings to the collective challenge of finally constructing books, we’ve been invested in learning how this embedded strategy manifests itself through creative planning and innovative decision-making. We continue to see some real strides in personalization and individualized tracts of methodology in XTech, and it’s incredible to see the students take on this fusion of technology and craft head-on.  


One of our Intermediates, Claire, took on the challenge of making multiple books each with designs of a single word, like “hi,” “cute,” or the names of friends, and even maintained the same typographic style throughout. (Over the two consecutive weeks over the two months we worked on stab bindings with her cohort, she was constructing books quick enough that she decided to gift her second and third to schoolmates.) On Girls’ Day in January, Claire had noticed one of the examples provided by Natalie Freed of a word, and pretty immediately got to work on the laptop to map out, animate, and stitch her own word design. The first book took practically the entire session, and involved some line/geometric work and the word “hi,” as a cheeky nod to the poetic platitudes on some of the example books we had shared and explored during the introduction. (Claire has an incisive wit, and wears it readily during our one-on-ones.) In conversation with her during the process of stitching, she shared that she had to troubleshoot constantly on both the app and in her stitching because the words had to come together in a particular way in order to look complete (since even one mismatched stitching could result in a line of the letter “h” being absent). Her lowercase “hi” ended up not having the dot over the “i” because Claire wasn’t sure how to include it. Still, Claire was visibly relieved that she reached completion of her first book in a day, and was happy with her design - even receiving a few callouts by her peers at her tenacity to do a grammar-centric design.


A comparison between app and book. The double-lines on the app reflect the double-sidedness of the finished book.

When we saw Claire again in February, it was clear she’d digested and reflected on her first project and applied those learnings to her next book design. The words she chose were longer and had letters that were relatively intricate (“t”s and “s”s), the designs larger so that the word occupied nearly the entire space of the spine, and the line work featured curvature. Her confidence with the project was evident, but not without some troubleshooting. When we discussed difficulties she’d run into, the question came up of which letter, specifically, had proven most troublesome to do. Without hesitation she said, “s,” and explained that it consists almost entirely of curved lines, which she determined were necessary to do or else it would look like a “5”. Saying this, Claire and several others chuckled, and it appeared this relieved some of the tensions of having struggled through this. Claire continues to be an awe-inspiring student to see evolve. She is very transparent about her work and willing to share her process.  I anticipate her becoming an even more valuable resource of ideas and support for her peers in Xtech and other spaces.


Notice how Claire decided to leave the “t” unfinished as she proceeded through the word. She finished crossing it on her way back because otherwise the stitching path would have become jammed.


Another Intermediate student, Wai-Kirn, has been developing a wonderfully whimsical aesthetic centered around arcade and old-school games, usually with a twist that conveys his command of scale and space. When we introduced the book bindings, Wai-Kirn spent a great deal of time on his first badge, planning and stitching, even when others had physically moved on to the tables with laptops. This is common for Wai-Kirn. His care and attention with the tools and concepts introduced in our warm-up activities is something to appreciate. Wai-Kirn fully immerses himself with figuring out tool use and tool limitation before starting anything else, and applies these observations into how he maps out his designs to sidestep difficulty later. Its also an area of his process that will be great to draw on once he becomes a Facilitator-in-Training and starts supporting our beginning students.


It is refreshing to see students diverge from expectation, and really exciting when we see deliberate abandonment of our recommendations in favor of risk-taking design. Even though Meg and I had offered mostly examples of stab designs that formed one continuous shape, Wai-Kirn used the laptop app to draw out a schematic with three separate figures that together produced a wink and nod to one of his favorite games, Pac-Man. His design involved the title character front and center along with two of the pellets forming a design that ran across the space of the spine still allowing it to function perfectly as a binding for his book. Wai-Kirn was focused and committed while on his laptop, and when I asked about his design as he stitched, he noted how simple each of the respective shapes was to make despite their collective appearance of intricacy. So simple, in fact, that he ended up making each of the three gaming icons three-dimensionally drawn with lines jutting out from them to give them depth. The approach Wai-Kirn took also seemed to influence others to experiment either with game-inspired designs or with designs that involved separate, distinct shapes. Sometimes innovation requires breaking with recommended pathways.  


Wai-Kirn’s Pac-Man-inspired stab book design, nearly finished.

Natalie’s online app once again proved essential for making these stab bindings and for the stitching process (Xtech used the app for last year’s Girls Day as well). But things could always be improved, and we had several suggestions by students for what could be done to have made their projects come out with greater ease. Knowing how much string to use was one consistently noted wish. When we had more string than we needed, it often became tangled and we had to come up with methods for keeping it tidy as we stitched. Another suggestion offered was to show the sheet of paper as a whole in addition to the available field on which to draw designs. This would allow students to visualize how much space they would take up with thread, and to better map out the design as a whole book cover. Natalie has already told us of her plans to make many of these changes including one that would really help particularly in classroom situations or when a project is worked on over several days. That is the ability to save your design and reload it in the app later, on a different computer or a different browser to be able to continue to use the animate mode until you’re finished stitching.


We have wrapped up stab book bindings with both cohorts and have begun a new project, but one thing I’d like to implement in later returns to this are how other, maybe unexpected materials like wood or conductive thread would do and be utilized in creative and personal ways.




Light Painting at Lighthouse

This semester at Lighthouse Afterschool Program we're exploring light, shadow, and color related activities. After making our journals, the next activity we dove into was Light Painting. We spent two weeks on this activity, with the first week spent exploring the materials and techniques, and the second week refining those processes to make images that convey a message we want to share with our community. One thing I value about our collaboration with Lighthouse is the emphasis they place on student voice and community action. Seeing positive messages around the school inspired us to try this community-oriented spin on light painting.

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Writing with light painting can be challenging - your instinct is to write normally when you face the camera, but that ends up making the words appear backwards. Marcelline came up with a technique of writing with her back to the camera but holding the LED so it pointed towards the camera to form her words. That way she could write normally, and still have the camera "read" the letters the right way. With this technique she could quickly write out a complex sentence without having to worry about the letters being backwards. To describe why this message is important to her, Marceline said, "I think that my message is important because integrity is what most try and work on. It's a difficult value. And when people lie it's not always hidden."


We also had stencils on hand to facilitate incorporating words. Katrina and Sandra collaborated to make images that included the words "respect" and "peace." They used EL wire and an app called Pablo (rather than a digital camera) to make their messages. I like they way their silhouettes are included too. They said they chose peace and respect because those are "what we really need on this planet."

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Rosie, our co-teacher from Lighthouse, worked with Shauna and Rose to create a Tinkering Club light painting. Shauna used a color changing LED to make the designs at the top, and Rose used a green LED to make the swirls at the bottom. They made several iterations of this image to get one they liked, and Shauna used her observations of what they found worked well to help give advice to other groups.


Sara and Yesenia collaborated to make several versions of light paintings with the words "Justice for All." When reflecting on why they wanted to send this message to their community, Sara said, "we chose Justice because we believe that not everybody has justice so they can't be equal. I chose this because we really need justice in our lives."

Although many of the ASP students chose to use words, others wanted to make abstract images to convey an idea. Marguerite, Karla, and Thalia collaborated to make the image below. Marguerite wrapped herself in EL wire and spun around to make the bright stripes, and Karla and Thalia used different light sources to make the subtle patterns across the top and bottom. They decided to call the image "I am Me" and Marguerite said, "this is me because I express myself to be a little bit crazy and like to have fun."


The approach of using light play as a medium for conveying messages was new for us, and I was super happy to see the breadth of ideas the students had for what was important to them and how they wanted to share it. The following week we brought back printed photos of the students images and gave them the opportunity to add a title and description. We then hung those posters on a bulletin board outside of the Creativity Lab so their thoughts could be shared with their school community.

Overdeck Family Foundation

This collaboration is funded by the Overdeck Foundation and the National Science Foundation.


Light Painting with BAME


Earlier this month, the Tinkering Studio hosted our first BAME meet-up of 2017 with a Light Painting activity. Lianna and I had been prototyping Light Painting for an after school program that we teach at Lighthouse Community Charter School and wanted to test out some tools and techniques with the educators in the meet-up group. Light painting is the process of taking long exposure photographs while moving a light source across a camera’s field of vision. A wide variety of effects can be achieved with this method, from spelling out words to creating abstract patterns and colors.


We encouraged participants to iterate on their ideas throughout the evening. When doing this activity, it often requires multiple trials to achieve desired effects. When Lianna and I tested our ideas in the Learning Studio, it was not unusual for us to create two or three images before we were satisfied. We also found that trying an idea easily lead to other ideas, and we wanted the members of BAME to also have these experiences.

After initial experimentations with different lights and effects, we saw the educators test and redesign their ideas throughout the event. They made modifications to the execution and design of their images, and improve on the clarity of their initial ideas. We saw participants find make silhouettes ...


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... create a beach scene ...

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... and discuss with one the way in which they wanted to make their next image. The collaboration and creativity in the room was infectious!

For those who are curious, below are resources for our camera set-up. Generally speaking, we set our aperture (or F-stop) very high and our ISO very low. For our cameras (a Canon Powershot G11 and a Nikon V2), we used the following settings:

• Use the small wheel to change the setting to “M” for manual
• Use the big wheel to set the ISO on “100”
• Set the f-stop to highest number possible, F8
• Change the exposure time using the click wheel and the top right button

Nikon V2
• Change the ISO to the lowest setting, 160
• Set the f-stop to F11
• The top-right click wheel is the length and has a “bulb” setting, or “B”, and will keep the camera shutter open by holding down the button

For BOTH cameras
• Use a HDMI mini to HDMI to attach a camera to a monitor
• To display images on a monitor, click on the play button, symbolized by the arrow pointing right, as images won’t show up automatically

We also used a free app called Pablo that creates long exposure pictures and as well as video capturing the entire process.

Thanks to all who participated! For more information and inspiration on Light Painting, check out this resource. For more information about the Bay Area Maker Educator meet-up, check out the Google+ page.


The promise and the promises of Making in science education

Maker Faire 2011

Bronwyn Bevan (former Director of Research and Learning at the Exploratorium) just published an expanded literature review of the research on Making for the National Academies of Science committee on Out-of-School Time STEM.

Though practice is still way ahead of research in Making and Tinkering, this new paper references 66 different studies, many of them are new ones published in the last 18 months. Recent publications document how STEM-Rich Making supports the development of STEM learning identities, deepens engagement with STEM concepts and practices, and leverages learners’ cultural resources.

The paper was published in the journal Studies in Science Education, and it might be of interest to anyone interested in the connections between research and practice in our making and tinkering programs. You can download it by clicking here.



4 Drafts of a Warm-Up Activity

This post is co-authored by:
Meg Escudé, Jake Montano and Natalie Freed

In our XTech program for Middle and High School youth, we started the year off by revisiting a book binding project. Students explored graph theory concepts and computational algorithms all while stitching bundles of paper together with needle and thread. The project engages youth in the centuries-old practices of Chinese and Japanese stab bookbinding with the assistance of a web-based designing app created by Natalie Freed. Natalie is a long-time friend and collaborator of ours and we invited her back to share her project with our special yearly girls-only XTech session. Since then we’ve done the project with the integrated group of intermediate XTech students and again with the youth at the Visitacion Valley and Don Fisher Boys & Girls Clubs.

The process for designing and making a notebook can be a little long, and the spatial and mathematical concepts embedded are a little abstract. In order for students to have some foundational experience with both the graphing concepts and practices of sewing, we developed a warm-up activity. Actually, we designed four warm-up activities! In the four times we’ve introduced this to a new group of students or facilitators, we’ve made changes to the warm-up activity, adjusting for things we noticed in the previous workshops. In all iterations, the prompt was based on the principles that are present in the traditions of bookbinding, and which incidentally make them a “Euler path.” They are that the design should be one, continuous graph* (a combination of points connected by lines) that can be stitched with one piece of string without doubling any lines and so that the design is identical on the front and the back of the paper.

Natalie: These groups of points connected by lines are called graphs as in “graph theory.” Oddly this use of the word graph is, as far as I can tell, completely unrelated to graphs of functions (eg. plotting X and Y on a grid). Graphs show up in all kinds of places, but a few examples are that you can use them in a more abstract way to model social networks (people connected by relationships) or transit networks (such as train stations connected by routes).


To explain a bit about what you’re doing when you figure out the stitch order for the books, take the train example. Let’s say you want to see the scenery on every single train route, but you only want to see it once. You’re allowed to stop as many times as you want at the same stations, but you just don’t want to travel the same route twice. This is the exact same problem as trying to stitch each connection between holes only once: you can go through the same hole as many times as you want (as long as you’ve punched the holes big enough!), but you can’t go over the same stitch more than once. The path through the railway network or stab book that accomplishes this goal is the Euler path.

Once you start experimenting with a particular train route, you might figure out that some train systems are set up in a way that makes this possible, and some aren’t. You might also figure out that as you plan your trip, sometimes the order you decide to take the routes works, and sometimes you get stuck at a station with no way to return other than paths you’ve already taken. Eventually, you might figure out that there’s a general rule to find out a) is there such a path? and b) in what order should I visit the stations to find this path? Finding that general rule is finding an algorithm (ie. repeatable procedure) to solve your graph.

This activity is perhaps not the most direct way to explain graphs or algorithms, but one thing I like about it is that as you stitch books (or patches or paper), you begin to develop an intuitive, tactile sense of the algorithm.

Warm-up Iteration #1

We came up with a design for a small, 3” square stitching pattern that follows the book-binding requirements above. I tested it to be sure there were several different interesting designs possible when connecting the same dots:

We then made multiple copies of this configuration of dots and handed them out to students. They were asked to draw a design that they liked that involved making a closed circuit of lines connecting all the dots. We purposely didn’t include as extensive an explanation of graph theory or algorithms as Natalie provides above at this point- so that it would be more open for discovery or question-generation. (Natalie did share these analogies and explanations as she introduced the app for the notebook designing after we were done with the warm-up activity.)
They then punched holes on the dots with these great long-reach, tiny hole hole-punches and started stitching the designs with colorful crochet thread and large, leather stitching needles. Many students learned to thread a needle using a needle threader, and the basics of back to front stitching during this time. Once they got going, it sometimes took a couple tries to figure out the order of stitching that would give them an identical design on both sides of the paper, without doubling any lines. This ordering of stitches is an algorithm. The designs turned out really beautiful but Jake noticed at the end of the day that none of the students seemed interested in taking them home. We decided to try and find a way to make the warm-up activity a little more meaningful- both by trying to pull out the math a bit more, or in having the final product be something more useful than a piece of paper with string on it.

So, the following Saturday when our XTech Intermediate group met, we started the day with a meeting of our teen staff and tried out this second iteration with them:

Warm-up Iteration #2

We printed out three different historical bookbinding designs, sized for small, pocket sized notebooks and pre-cut the paper for this size. We asked everyone to choose a design and went over the steps for punching the holes, and trying to figure out the algorithm for stitching the book following those same requirements discussed above. We finished our small notebooks and I asked the group if they thought this was good way to introduce the activity. One of our facilitators who was present in the previous girl’s day workshop said she thought the first iteration was better. She said she liked that students got to choose their own design and that she noticed a lot of them brought elements of those initial designs into their final book design when using the app. This was a very convincing argument! So, for that day, we quickly switched back to iteration #1 and scrapped #2.




Warm-up Iteration #3 

In preparing for the start of our semester of tinkering after-school programming at the Boys & Girls Club in Visitacion Valley, Jake expressed his continued disappointment that nobody took their squares home with them. With the age of the younger, elementary aged youth at the clubhouse in mind, we decided to focus the first day entirely on the warm-up activity and continue into book making the following week. That meant that this warm-up better be something worth investing their time in! I had the idea of preparing colorful felt patches with the same hole configuration instead of zeroxed paper squares. Jake and I laser-cut 4” round patches with the holes in place.We also felt like we could have done a better job naming the mathematical concepts present in the process of stitching these designs. In my introduction, I did some live stitching, asking students to do some group-thinking about which stitch I should make next. After we did a few stitches, I let them know that those decisions we were making were the elements of an algorithm and that there were many successful algorithms possible for most designs.The kids drew their designs on their felt with markers and stitched them in the same way as the papers. When they were finished, we gave them safety pins so they could be attached to clothes and backpacks. This turned out great and several students walked out of the workshop proudly wearing their creations:



Warm-up Iteration #4:

The session at Visitacion Valley (VV) went rather well, so we decided the following week at Don Fisher’s Boys & Girls Club to do largely the same. We brought the pre-laser-cut circular badges for students to draw out their own designs, but also brought along square-shaped pieces that possessed no holes at all. We had noticed only a small smattering of students at VV that wanted to create designs entirely from scratch, and didn’t expect there to be much interaction with the square pieces at Don Fisher because of that. Surprisingly, and gleefully, we were very wrong!

Before we began constructing, I had the group participate in helping me draw a familiar “puzzle” which resembles a house with an x inside to convey the challenge of creating a design without doubling back, then illustrated the multiplicity of designs available on the pre-cut circular badges. Meg passed around the circular badges, thread, and needles and the kids started designing and stitching.

Many of the students had recently taken a sewing class elsewhere, and once they’d finished a first badge - completed in about fifteen minutes - they decided to add their own holes to the square pieces. Generally, their designs were representational - a cat or the insignia for a favorite superhero - and all possessed well more than the eight holes we cut. Other students went straight to the square patches, as some seemed either intimidated or bored by the challenge of drawing lines from pre-made holes.

One aspect I think we could play around with some more is how computational and algorithmic thinking can be intuitive, meaning the students developed ways of troubleshooting the stitching of their patterns as they progressed and regressed (and the process most certainly included a balance of both progress and retracing steps with the needle). Through stitching between a finite number of holes, we’re utilizing mathematics to reach completion, which sometimes means going backwards to a step in order to move forward altogether. To help demonstrate the challenge of creating a pattern in which the thread passes through to create a line only once on each side we started referring to a widely-known children’s “puzzle” in which a house with an x must be drawn without lifting the pen or doubling back with it. With this in mind, figuring out a way to have students describe the stitching of their patches or books using only words might be a great way to further explore Euler circuits and trails and to elicit the steps students took to complete their stitched items.

It has also been mightily impressive to see the wide variety of directions the students have taken to personalize their designs. Some have used multiple strings (sometimes of two or more colors) to stitch with, while others have “stacked” strings and patterns on top of each other to produce an almost three-dimensional effect on their patches. The designs themselves have also spanned a spectrum of styles, from the minimal and abstract to homages to 8-bit videogames like Pac-Man. Other designs have stretched what is possible for binding books, and it’s of great curiosity to see how book-making is pushed into new territories based on their bindings.


Natalie: This is so cool! As a follow up, I’d be interested to ask the students how they decided what step to stitch next, whether they felt like their technique improved over time (in terms of not getting stuck and having to undo stitches), and whether they could put into words some of the strategies they intuitively developed.