Ravelry: a knitting community as a site of joy and learning
“That lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne “
The Parliament of Fowls by Geoffrey Chaucer
Evidence that learning starts in the womb is revealed when babies hear lullabies that they will respond to after birth; and learning continues throughout life, as Chaucer says of love. We can all remember from an early age the social nature of learning – learning from family, friends, and subsequently peers from study and work contexts. This is a community perspective, in contrast with a more typical view of learning as being chiefly the outcome of formal education.
Social technologies have focused attention on networks and online/virtual communities. Virtual communities can be traced back to 1985 (and probably earlier) when the WELL started as a dial-up bulletin board. Early adopters of virtual community needed dial-up and later Internet access for their largely text-based communication: initially this was available to a minority, even in the global north. Despite this, bulletin boards existed for a broad range of hobbies and interests.
A parallel stream of development in virtual communication was in formal education: bulletin boards, web pages, and then groupware, and virtual learning environments. Provision of Internet access at universities and colleges meant that students had access in educational institutions before it was commonplace in their homes. The use of digital technologies in education and learning has moved from being conducted by pioneers and enthusiasts to being standardised as part of institutional administration, such as institutional virtual learning environments, and registration and student records systems. Much research effort (some of it to good effect) has been focused on the use of technology within online/offline classrooms and according to approved curricula. This is research that tends to focus on what is provided, rather than how and why learners learn. Even less attention has been paid to ways in which people, who would not identify themselves as students, are learning to do things that interest them with the help of the Internet.
The current context in the global north is of more people, across demographics of age and gender (if not class), having access to the Internet via broadband and mobile services. Simultaneously, the variety of devices that we use to access the Internet contributes to a broader demographic, more people having access, devices and software becoming easier to use – smartphones, tablets and laptops. The combination of faster Internet access and devices with digital still and video cameras has enabled more people to create and consume multimedia – images, videos, audio and text. Internet access then becomes less of an end in itself and more of an adjunct to what we do.
Knitting – Interest-driven learning assisted by social media
People of all ages follow their interests via the Internet – learning cartooning, playing games, studying esoteric topics. Of all of these interests, let’s look at a craft that has material, knowledge and social implications – knitting.
In an era when the local wool shop is becoming rarer, the Internet offers opportunities for purchasing yarns, needles, and patterns but going beyond that, what do knitters do on the Internet? Like other makers, they enjoy the opportunities to celebrate the products of their creativity: garments, knitted moebius strips, artefacts for the home, and public works of art. Such celebrations are visible on photo sites and knitting blogs, often interlinked so that the blogs can facilitate networking of knitters (via commenting, blogrolls and links within posts).
Knitters share ‘how-to’ videos on Youtube and other video-sharing sites. If we don’t have a grandmother to stand behind us, helping our hands learn a new technique, the next best thing is watching a video, and trying out the stitch at the same time. Video- and image-sharing sites become knowledge repositories but not solely dedicated to knitting and crochet.
Knitters have adopted social media with enthusiasm,and experienced unexpected consequences. Mason-Dixon Knitting comprises Kay Gardiner who lives in Manhattan and Ann Shayne who lives in Nashville. They came together via blogging through their shared interest in knitting that has led to a successful book, an iconic dishcloth pattern and a very useful web site.
Knitters have taken their passion to the streets (and piers) by engaging in guerrilla knitting or yarn-bombing to create street art. This may be for self-expression or just fun, or for a reason : often anonymous and cloaked in mystery. One of my favourites is a celebration of London 2012 Olympics at Saltburn pier. There is no obvious activist reason for creating this pier art but the result was joyous, enjoyed by pier visitors and became a tourist attraction in Saltburn, North Yorkshire. Craftivism ( a mix of craft and activism) is about connecting beyond the individual crafter, and acting for broader issues.
When we unpick these achievements, we see that they go beyond the stereotype of the lone, gifted knitter. Knitters, like others, engage in learning networks and communities. One of the places that knitters congregate online is at the knitting and crochet community site http://www.ravelry.com .
Ravelry is free to members, funded mainly by advertising but also by merchandising, pattern sales, Amazon and other affiliate programs. Ravelry also engaged in donation drives at an earlier stage of its community development.
Ravelry offers interesting affordances for becoming and being a knitter, learning in an active form. Members can find patterns and yarns with the help of Ravelry, and create projects to record ongoing and completed knitting projects Figure 4. Ravelry has a highly connected architecture, automatically displaying links to other projects using the same pattern and yarn. This means I can easily click a link to find the pattern, or images from one of the other 13900 projects using that pattern (to give me ideas on other yarns or colourways). Project owners are encouraged to rate patterns and yarns for sharing with other community members; and errors are soon corrected in this open community. Ravelry is an international community with over four million members, who not only volunteer to translate popular patterns into other languages, but also moderate forums and collate help pages on collaborative wikipages within Ravelry itself. The whole thing runs with only 4 staff, one programmer and three editor/moderator/merchandising staff.
The Ravelry shop showcases Ravelry merchandise such as t-shirts and bags; the Marketplace where members offer supplies and services for knitting and crochet; and a Pattern Store where members sell their patterns.
The strong social element to Ravelry goes beyond member profiles and display spaces. Members can organise into groups to have local meetings, swap yarns, engage in knit-alongs (all making the same item), or associate with a particular shop. Other groups are organised around a common interest, say in machine knitting or spinning. Less formal opportunities for conversation are offered by forums, where members can help each other to solve problems or engage in general chat about knitting or crochet.
In our comparison of Etsy.com with Ravelry.com, Gordon Fletcher and I found that Ravelry had strong community aspects and exhibited a permeable boundary compared with Etsy. Ravelry seems to be a community that is happy to acknowledge activity and objects elsewhere, thus increasing its networking and social potential.
This openness and support for the community member makes it a source of good ideas for those wishing to support other learners in a community setting. Facebook, the very successful social networking site (SNS), would superficially seem to support the social aspects of learning, but a learner wishing to keep track of what they and others have created and learned might become frustrated with the ephemeral nature of sharing there. Ravelry exhibits a strong focus on the learning and doing of knitting, where social interaction becomes the glue that helps this happen.
Designers and implementers of learning environments aiming to promote learning community could learn a lot from studying Ravelry, especially if they are tempted to delegate the social aspects to a self-organised group on a general purpose SNS.
Properly practiced, knitting soothes the troubled spirit, and it doesn’t hurt the untroubled spirit, either. – Elizabeth Zimmerman, Knitting without tears.
Many thanks to Suzanne Hardy (Ravelry id: glittrgirl) for improving my interpretation of Ravelry. All errors are mine.
This article, written by Frances Bell, is used under Creative Commons license BBy-BY-NC-ND from ISSUE 10 JUNE 2014
Using Social Media in the Social Age of Learning
Guest Editors Chrissi Nerantzi and Sue Beckingham http://www.lifewidemagazine.co.uk/