Preparing the Environment for the Work of Wool


Last night I received a message from a dear friend, and much admired Montessorian, who co-teaches a bilingual 6 -12 class in Moscow. I have been sharing all of my Handwork lessons with him as I go along, and he is, of course, keen to integrate more handwork into his learning environment.

His message said:

Please help me with a list of materials and a suggestion for environment preparation for your work of wool. I really want to give to children this gift and opportunity of growth.

The Prepared Environment is an essential element of the Montessori method so when I read his message I all but kicked myself. How could I have overlooked writing about such a key aspect of introducing any curriculum area? It just shows that none of us is meant to work alone – thank you Dmitri for always asking all the right questions!

So, here is a breakdown of how to prepare your environment for The Work Of Wool.

Forgive me for not explaining every term I use here, there is a risk of this turning into a complete handwork glossary if I do. For now I am assuming that if you are putting the materials on your shelf, you know what they are – if not, don’t put them out until you do. I will cover them all on this blog over time!

Fiber Samples

There are more than 1000 distinct breeds of sheep and the wool they produce can vary considerably. In order for the children to experience the properties of different kinds of wool, they need to be able to explore a variety of examples. Your handwork shelf should have samples of wool from several different breeds of sheep with contrasting characteristics – from the very soft merino to the coarse Border Leicester. Ideally samples will be raw fleece (i.e. straight from the sheep, unwashed). More about this in a future post.

I also have samples of other forms of wool:

  • wool knops, which are little beads of wool that has been passed through a centrifuge. These are used in things like pillows, duvets, toys and even the booms that soak up ocean oil spills. You may have to sacrifice a pillow to obtain samples of these!

  • The New Zealand Merino Board we kind enough to send me a sample box of different grades of merino. This is something you could put together yourself just by saving examples of each bag of wool you buy over time just for comparison.

  • I have knit, crochet, woven and felted fabric for children to compare and contrast.

I also have a jar of lanolin, the wax coating sheep produce to make themselves waterproof. Children can feel it between their fingers or use it in experiments around waterproofing. It could also live on your science shelf.

Books

I will discuss my favourite books for the handwork shelf in a future post. To begin with I suggest you choose at least one book to extend the children’s learning in each craft that you have available: i.e. Spinning, weaving, knitting, crochet and felting. You might also like to have information about the latest charity drive in your area that children can make items for e.g. blanket squares for the homeless, hats for premature babies.

Hand Carders

If you plan to carry out the whole process of preparing wool yourselves, you will need some handcarders. As washing the wool is quite an involved task, we tend to do it in a big batch on a sunny day. After the wool is dry it will need carding (brushing to untangle it). I keep the washed wool in my store cupboard and just put small amounts out in a basket on the shelf for children to card.

Dyestuff

Dying is one of the few areas of wool work that I do not have as a permanent shelf activity. Depending on what dyestuff you use, it can be quite a lengthy process which may involve some unpleasant chemicals (even the natural dyes can require some nasty mordants). We have a large-scale dying session when the mood (and the weather) is right but also buy pre-died roving for our projects.

Roving /Sliver

Although we do process the wool from the raw fleece ourselves, I also buy roving or sliver. This is wool that has been cleaned and carded (brushed) and possibly died and is ready to spin or felt. I have two separate baskets of sliver for spinning and felting and have them on separate shelves to avoid confusion. (The tool on top is a niddy noddy, see below.)

For spinning I buy carded (not combed wool) of just about any variety except merino. Merino is the most expensive of all wool and for good reason. It is very fine and beautifully soft. It can be spun into incredibly fine yarn that can be worn right against the skin without being itchy. This is lovely, but unnecessary for our purposes. Merino can also be very tricky to spin so not good for beginners.

For felting, however, merino is perfect. You don’t need to use very much of it, which helps with the cost, and it felts quickly and easily, giving beginners and experts, satisfying results.

Spindles

I talk more about choosing your spindles in this post so I won’t go into it here.

Find a container that allow your spindles to be stored without damaging the hooks. If a child is working on filling a spindle, I allow them to store it in their project bag or cubby, that way any spindles that are on the shelf are available for use. I have a LOT of them because we do a lot of spinning. If you are just starting out, I recommend buying three as handwork is a social activity.

Spinning Wheel

If you are in a 9-12 class, please consider investing in a spinning wheel.

You can pick them up for a very reasonable price if you know what you are looking for, and whilst I understand that most people don’t, the members of your local spinners guild definitely do and would be more than happy to help you. (If you live in New Zealand, and would like to borrow a spinning wheel for your class before taking the plunge, please get in touch with me, I’d be happy to lend you one).

Our spinning wheel obviously does not live on our handwork shelf, actually it lives nowhere near it as we have a very small classroom and have to squeeze things in where we can, I just couldn’t resist mentioning it. We have had a spinning wheel in our class for several years and there is rarely a work cycle where it does not see use from one child or another, though I can’t remember the last time I gave a lesson on it.

Bobbins

If you have a spinning wheel, you’ll find you can never have too many bobbins. As with spindles, I allow children to keep one in their project bag or cubby if they are actively working to fill it. Spare bobbins can be stored on the shelf on the lazy kate or in a basket.

Niddy-noddy

If you are going to be spinning your own yarn, either on spindles or a spinning wheel, you really need a niddy-noddy, even if it is a homemade/improvised one (very easily done). As these can be rather clumsy and cumbersome, it might pay to find one that is designed to come apart for storage. Mine isn’t – more fool me!

Felting Materials

Along with a basket of merino roving in a variety of colours (shown above) I have materials for wet felting and needle felting. For needle felting I have several sizes of felting needles (and make sure I keep several more in stock as they break easily and it is very frustrating not to be able to complete a project due to breakage) and two or three foam sponges to stab into.

For wet felting I have a grater, soap and sponges, bamboo mats. Bubble wrap, lengths of pool noodle slightly longer than the bamboo mats and plastic sheeting generally live in my cupboard and towels live in the art area. It could all live in the art cupboard but I like it to be visible so children remember wet felting is an option.

Weaving materials

These are another material that break my rule of having everything available, all of the time. I’m happy for children to make their own looms out of cardboard, sticks, paper plates etc. any time, but I do rotate looms. This is partly because they take up so much space and partly because they take so much time, and yarn, to warp.

Yarn

I keep a basket of small balls of a variety of yarns on the shelf for finger knitting, knitting, weaving, crochet. I am never short of yarn as everyone who knows me, knows I NEED it, so they donate all their odd balls. This means I can be very free with it as a resource and am happy for children to use up as much as they need. If you have not yet found a good source of yarn, you may need to find more frugal ways of managing. If children want particular yarn for a project we look through my cupboard together and they can either make do with what we find or provide their own yarn.

Materials to make knitting needles/crochet hooks/spindles

I encourage children to make their own tools as much as possible. Children are much more likely to respect the tools and persevere through challenges if they have already invested the time and effort into making tools. I have a tray with some hand made examples, sandpaper, polish and cloths on the shelf. Sometimes I add sticks if I find really good ones at the beach or in the bush, otherwise children can cut their own sticks from outside or use dowel I keep in my cupboard. I have couple of good pocket knives and a handsaw in my cupboard which children can ask for whenever they need them. Go here to see how we make knitting needles in my class.

Knitting needles and crochet hooks

I have several pairs of commercially made knitting needles and crochet hooks available for children to use. If a child is keen to learn to knit/crochet/spin they can learn from another child without having to wait for a tool making lesson from me. I also like to have several sizes of needle/ hook available as I think it’s going a bit far to expect the child to make every size they might need!

There is also a size gauge in the jar so children can check they have the correct needle size for their project.

The kiwi bird crochet hook holder was made by one of the parents of my class. :-)

Sample Swatches

It is a good idea to have sample swatches of different knit and crochet stitches on your shelf. These should all be made with the same yarn and needle/hook size, and the same number of rows so that children can see the difference the choice of stitch makes.

If you are not a knitter/crotchetier (I might have just made that word up), ask a community member to make these for you. Label with the number of rows and stitches, needle/hook size, yarn size (gauge) and name of stitch.

Phew! That was a lot. There are still more things we could add, but if you get this far, you’ll figure the rest out for yourselves.

Sowing all the Seeds

You may decide not to have the materials for every aspect of every area of Handwork available at all times. Some teachers prefer to rotate materials – this is fine if you are doing it due to space or budget restrictions but I would caution you if you are doing it out of fear that too many handwork options will lead to it taking over the class.

I’ll talk more about what to do if you think children are doing too much Handwork in a future post , for now, suffice it to say, I have found restricting the availability of craft materials, in an attempt to reduce the amount of time children spend on handwork, or the quantity of materials used, has the exact opposite effect. Each time you reintroduce a new craft, its novelty is restored and children rush to use it and satiate themselves before it disappears again. When materials are available all of the time, children are able to use them as and when they need them, not when the adult decides it is time.

(If you want to test this theory, try putting away half of you Geometry or Maths materials for a while and then re-introduce them one at a time with a new lesson and a bit of a fanfare and see how much more excited the children are by them, than before they went away.)

I hope I haven’t overwhelmed you. If I have, just pick one area and set that up for now. If I have sparked more questions than provided answers, please feel free to ask away in the comments below. I would love to hear how you get on with your Handwork shelves and what you have on them.

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© 2020 Carol Palmer   Montessori Handwork