Crocheting together – an example of social learning

My most popular blog to date has been  on the combination of crochet and climate change data, but crochet is relevant to the teaching and learning side of my working world too. Having taken part in a variety of Crochet ALongs (CALs) in recent years, and having interest in the broader issue of social learning as educationalists, Professor Shirley Williams and I reflect here on the history of craft-alongs, and  their place in the evolution of learning towards becoming more informal and more social.

Crochet’s resurgence crochet1

Crochet has undergone a revival recently, especially in relation to the benefits of crochet (and knitting) for relaxation. There are even books and articles on mindful crochet and crochet therapy. However, there is no clear evidence of the origins of crochet (Marks, 1997), although there are a number of theories of origins ranging through developments in Arabia, China to South America. Certainly crochet came to popularity in Europe during the nineteenth century, Potter (1955) cites Caulfeild and Saward’s “Dictionary of Needlework” dating its popularity to 1838, with even Queen Victoria crocheting (Canadian War Museum, n.d.).  


One of eight scarves Queen Victoria crocheted for presentation to members of her forces fighting in South Africa. This is the scarf awarded to Private R.R. Thompson on display at the Canadian War Museum. Photo from Canadian War Museum Ottowa

Developments in various countries have led to different ways of identifying hook sizes, and to multiple names for the same stitch, including some terms used in both US and UK crochet referring to different stitches. There is no worldwide standard for abbreviations of crochet terms and  corresponding symbols (Hazell, 2013).  Thus the world of crochet has its own terminology and “jargon” that needs explanation to the beginner similar to academic disciplines, and perhaps lends itself particularly well to social learning.

Crafters, the internet and the birth of online Craft-alongs

A Craft-along is a group of crafters working, initially simultaneously, on their own realization of the same piece of work. Facilitated by the internet, participants work together on their own instantiation of an artifact (such as a crochet blanket), following instructions available online and sharing their experiences across an Internet platform such as Facebook, many participations start as soon as an along is launched, but completion times vary.  Craft-alongs are usually called by the name of the craft involved; crocheters join crochet alongs (CALs), while knitters join knit alongs (KAL).

In fact, crafters in general were early adopters of  the Internet, establishing and using Usenet groups, with lists such as alt.sewing and rec.crafts.textiles in the early 1990s (Rheingold, 2000). In 1998 a book was published “Free Stuff for Quilters on the Internet” (Heim & Hansen, 1998) and subsequently revised in a second and third edition, variants of the books were produced  for other crafts (for example a version for a range of needlecrafts (Heim, 2003)). By 1998 it is reported quilters were using the Internet to collaborate on designs (Williamson, Glassner, McLaughlin, Chase, & Smith, 1998), while the Knitting Bloggers NetRing was established in early 2002 (Wei, 2004). Kucirkova and Littleton (2015) use the term “Community-Oriented Digital Learning Hub” (DLH) to describe online communities such as the yarn based Internet site Ravelry (Humphreys, 2009; Ravelry, n.d.) where members share their guides and patterns (“how to guides”) before and after the production of the artifact, and the community can “like”, comment and develop supplementary materials.

Many of these communities are examples of technology-enabled communities of practice (Le Deuff, 2010; Wenger, White, & Smith, 2009) using varied Internet-based resources and products as the home for individual communities; these technologies have changed considerably over recent years and some of the products used by early communities are no longer available (Wenger, 2001; Wenger et al., 2009). In one of the few texts combining craft and the digital world, Gauntlett (2011) suggests both that: Web2.0 offers a platform on which to share creative artifacts, and that creative projects are invaluable for human happiness.

Within the literature Brown and Brown (2011) dated the emergence of the term “knit along” to 2003/4:

“The term knitalong emerged out of the Internet knitting culture of blogs and discussion groups around 2003 and 2004, when it was used most often to describe the practice of knitters in different place working on the same project during the same time period.” (page 7)

While Wei (2004) identified the term as in use by bloggers in the period 2002/3. The emergence of the term in relation to other crafts is not possible to establish from the literature, but within social media hashtags including quiltalong, knitalong, crochetalong are now in widespread use.

We should also note that some people (Brown & Brown, 2011) use the term knitalong to refer to events which are purely physical, such as meetings of knitting groups in cafes and pubs; elsewhere (Minahan & Wolfram Cox, 2006) the term stitch’n bitch is used to describe physical and virtual groups in which knitters exchange ideas, resources and chat, while other authors (Kelly, 2014) use this term for only physical groups. The term stitch’n bitch was used as a title for a book (Stoller, 2003), some credit this as the origin of the term (Minahan & Wolfram Cox, 2006), however the use of the term pre-dates the book, for example Castleton (1990) mentions:

“…a monthly “Stitch ‘n Bitch” get-together with friends…” (page 95),

but the term became more widely use after Stoller’s book was published. However, we focus on internet based alongs in our consideration of the social learning aspects.

Crochet alongs as mass social learning. 


Completed Dances on the Beach CAL involving learning several different types of stitches. Completed by Ellie Highwood, 2017 

At any one time there are many “alongs” in various stages of maturity on the internet. Ravelry (Humphreys, 2009; Ravelery, n.d.) lists over 2500 Alongs (562 of which are classified as active), with 1484 knitalongs (467 active), 302 crochetalongs (95 active), and a small numbers of other crafts. A study in 2012 (Orton-Johnson, 2014) noted that amongst respondents each  belonged to an average of 2 CALs on Ravelry. The closed Facebook group: CAL – Crochet A Long (n.d.) has some 45,000 members and lists about one new CAL a month, each with hundreds or a few thousand “guests” registered, many of these CALs also have a presence elsewhere on the Internet. This group serves as a focus allowing people to continue following CALs, and crucially learning from the CAL, outside the official time period. At any one time, people on this group are working on both current CALs and those from several years ago.

Learning takes place usually after provision of initial material (pattern) which is sometimes released in sections, and usually involving the course initiator(s), and a much larger group of participants. Learning includes not only the techniques and terminology, but colour combinations and yarn choice. Participants often provide translations of patterns (officially sanctioned or otherwise), and some provide videos of particularly challenging sections. Very rapidly, learning and teaching is spread across a vast group of participants.

Interestingly, this type of relatively informal, social, learning also occurs in Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs) which cover a wide range of subjects, and usually involve awareness raising, knowledge and skill transfer, but rarely involve the production of a physical artefact. CALs and MOOCs share some characteristics, but also can learn from each other. We are writing a more academic comparison of crochet-alongs and MOOCs for publication in a social learning journal.


Brown, L., & Brown, M. J. (2011). Knitalong: Celebrating the tradition of knitting together: Open Road Media.

CAL – Crochet A Long. (n.d.). Facebook [Group]. Retrieved from

Canadian War Museum. (n.d.). Canada & The South African War, 1899-1902 : The Queen’s Scarf of Honour.   Retrieved from

Castleton, A. (1990). Speaking out on domestic violence. Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 23, 108-115. Gauntlett, D. (2011). Making is connecting: Polity Press.

Hazell, S. (2013). 200 Crochet Stitches: Search Press.

Heim, J. (2003). The Needlecrafter’s Computer Companion: Hundreds of Easy Ways to Use Your Computer for Sewing, Quilting, Crossstich, Knitting, And More! : No Starch Press.

Heim, J., & Hansen, G. (1998). Free Stuff for Quilters on the Internet: C & T Publishing.

Humphreys, S. (2009). The economies within an online social network market: A case study of Ravelry.

Kelly, M. (2014). Knitting as a feminist project? Paper presented at the Women’s Studies International Forum.

Kucirkova, N., & Littleton, K. (2015). Digital learning hubs: theoretical and practical ideas for innovating massive open online courses. Learning, Media and Technology, 1-7. doi:10.1080/17439884.2015.1054835

Le Deuff, O. (2010). Réseaux de loisirs créatifs et nouveaux modes d’apprentissage. Distances et savoirs, 8(4), 601-621.

Marks, R. (1997). History of Crochet. Chain Link Newsletter, reproduced at

Minahan, S., & Wolfram Cox, J. (2006). Making up (for) society? Stitch, bitch and organisation. Paper presented at the ANZAM 2006: Proceedings of the 20th Australian and New Zealand Academy of Management Conference.

Orton-Johnson, K. (2014). Knit, purl and upload: new technologies, digital mediations and the experience of leisure. Leisure Studies, 33(3), 305-321.

Potter, E. (1955). English Knitting and Crochet Books of the Nineteenth Century. The Library, 5(1), 25-40.

Stoller, D. (2003). Stitch’n bitch: The knitter’s handbook: Workman Publishing.

Wei, C. (2004). Formation of norms in a blog community.

Wenger, E. (2001). Supporting communities of practice. Retrieved from

Wenger, E., White, N., & Smith, J. D. (2009). Digital habitats: Stewarding technology for communities: CPsquare.

Williamson, M. B., Glassner, A., McLaughlin, M., Chase, C., & Smith, M. (1998). Constructing community in cyberspace. Paper presented at the CHI 98 Conference Summary on Human Factors in Computing Systems



Getting engaged via a diverse curriculum

“The one thing we all want to do is to engage our students”.

So began the Teaching and Learning Showcase on Diversifying the Curriculum that I attended at Reading yesterday. If my experience of this showcase of 5 different curriculum development projects across campus is anything to go by, the speakers know a lot about engaging students. Personal experience tells us that we learn more when we are engaged, and we engage when we can identify with what we are seeing, hearing and reading. Thus the recognition that diversifying our curriculum in terms of race and ethnicity is a natural conclusion in the light of the much publicised BME attainment gap in HE  and the increasing diversity of the students in our global university.

Dr Rebecca Harris from the Institute of Education kicked off the session relating their personal experience teaching secondary school teachers to deliver a diverse syllabus in their schools.  The issues raised by trainee teachers such as fear of offending no doubt also ring true for many of us, but can lead to “colour-blind” curricula which merely avoid the issue – often not successfully. Dr Harris also considered the concept of a “balanced” syllabus. As a climate scientist, I am used to talking, or indeed ranting, about the importance of a balanced approach in dissemination, but as was pointed out yesterday, even balance is a relative term and depends on the individual.

Dr Nicola Abram and Dr Nicole King from the School of Literature and Languages also talked about the importance of starting with a key part 1 module, in their case “Research and Critical methods”, so that students learn to challenge the classical canons of English Literature from the very start of their university career. This was achieved by adding new texts, for example essays by Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. As this module involves around 200 students and therefore lots of staff, a happy by-product is that this redesign has also influenced other staff across the School.

Did you know that, as far as we are aware, Reading was the first UK University Department to hire a specialist lecturer in non-Western Philosophy? Nope, me neither. Dr Shalini Sinha now offers lectures and modules on Indian Buddhist and non-Buddhist Philosophy at a variety of levels, and crucially, includes 3 lectures on non-Western Philosophy in the first year module Human Nature. Western Philosophy has traditionally been very white male dominated and highly theoretical, but the non-Western view offers students the chance to consider the big questions such as who we are, how we should live, what it is to suffer, from very different perspectives. Again, the approach is to introduce a diversity of views early on in the programme, to contemporise the issues, link to students values and embed throughout lectures, seminars, essays and exams.

The sole STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) offering was from Mrs Cristina Duckett from Construction Management (note to self… talk to STEM schools!) who neatly demonstrated that even the (ahem) driest of subjects, building regulations, can be a vehicle for diversifying the curriculum. Design and construction of buildings with ostensibly similar functions in different societies will reflect differing history, values, religious practices, climate and customs. Asking students to compare, for example, two house designs or two buildings for worship in different countries can bring in many aspects of diversity.

The final project returned to the importance of diverse curricula for prompting students to question their own sense of identity and values. Dr Julia Waters from Modern Languages and European Studies runs a Part 3 module on French Caribbean Literature which attracts a high proportion of BME students, including overseas and visiting students. French Caribbean literature is a relatively young literature and students have to confront assumptions not only about identity, European supremacy, language politics, post-colonial theory and black consciousness movements. Dr Waters finished with some very valuable reflections on her experiences, including her honesty about her own discomfort teaching this subject as a “white, middle-class woman” and incorrect assumptions that Black and Caribbean students would have insider knowledge about slavery, colonisation and contemporary world politics.

From history and education, English and French Caribbean literature, philosophy and construction, the common thread yesterday was that diversifying the curricula we teach begins with reflecting on our own practice, experiences and values, and how these colour (word chosen deliberately) our teaching. Finding ways to engage students with this thought process for themselves needs to  be embedded throughout our programmes, not just in a “Diversity silo”, and to start in Part 1, so that it carries through the rest of a student’s learning experiences.  This is a prime example of exploiting the so called “habit discontinuity hypothesis” which  states that when a context change disrupts individuals’ habits, a window opens in which behavior is more likely to be deliberately considered. Going to University is a major context change – giving us an exciting opportunity for all our diversity and inclusion work.

Second year blues…

Much has been written about the  dip in confidence and perhaps achievement commonly felt by PhD students during their second year . Apparently there is a now evidence for a similar problem in the second year of undergraduate degrees. An article by national teaching fellow Claire Milsom from Liverpool John Moore’s University in the Guardian Higher Education Network  reveals that many second year undergraduates experience a period of increased dissatisfaction, confusion about academic achievements and disengagement.

In 14 years as a personal tutor I have lost count of the number of times that I have provided tissues and sympathy to distressed second year tutees. I use the phrase “well, the 2nd year IS much harder than the 1st year because we spend the first year partly bringing everyone up to the same level”, but I’ve also heard colleagues say “the real work starts in the second year”, which is a slightly different way of presenting it! Whilst this offers an explanation, it doesn’t really deal with the complexity of the issue and nor does it offer constructive suggestions to the students.

Thinking back to my own second year as a physics student, and drawing upon many conversations with tutees, it is clear, as the Guardian article points out, that several things are at work. The assessment rate and frequency and complexity tend to increase. These assessments often become more discriminating (i.e. bits of them at least are harder) in order to provide more opportunity for all students to be challenged and this can mean that differing abilities within the cohort become more apparent to students as well as staff. On top of these thoughts surrounding your academic subject and progress, well meaning tutors start to ask questions like “what you want to do when you graduate?”. We do this out of concern for the future of our students, to prompt them to make the most of the university environment to develop “employment skills” (although it is also true that rates and destinations of graduates are an important metric used in league tables etc).. Finally, budgetary concerns may well be kicking in and the need to work part time in order to eat reduces “free” time. It is easy to see how this combination can lead to a feeling of being overwhelmed even before you add in any social or familial issues.

I don’t like seeing my students in this state, but apart from listening and providing tissues, it’s certainly true that I haven’t done much to be more constructive. The Guardian article suggests three ways that Universities could better support second year students:

  1.  an induction week for second years
  2. market the second year appropriately particularly over the long summer break in order to enthuse students towards upcoming content
  3. Ensure consistent academic support in terms of personal tutoring throughout the second year.

Whilst in my Department, we are still thinking about items 1 and 2, we have already made some changes to our personal tutoring system, primarily to improve effectiveness and consistency of support to all our undergraduate students. Of course every student needs a tutor, but not every academic necessarily need be a tutor. The default has been that tutees are spread out so that each academic staff member has only 1 or 2 tutees. But this year, staff were given the option of being a BSc or MSc tutor (admittedly we have very small numbers of students and so have a lot more flexibility here than many places). Those that expressed preference for tutoring undergraduates were then allocated a group of 4 or 5 students in each of year 1 and 2 and the meeting schedule changed to include both an opportunity for one to one meetings and termly group tutorial sessions facilitating peer support. Indeed these group sessions can be combined with other tutor groups.

A further opportunity to make these group sessions more meaningful has been provided by a change in the term structure at my institution this year to introduce “Enhancement Weeks” in the middle of the two long 11 week terms. The 6th week of term is now free from standard lectures and filled instead with opportunities to develop study and employment skills. On offer are activities such as: a software development course for environmental scientists, sessions on industrial placements, an entrepreneurship competition, leadership skills sessions and many others from both Departments and the University centre. Some students are obviously taking advantage of this week to develop such skills, although I have also heard much talk about recharging the batteries via sleep and catching up on assignments! Formally measuring the success of enhancement week is likely to be a non-trivial issue.

However, my most recent experience of enhancement week was positive. On a sunny Tuesday morning, our programme director and undergraduate tutor team provided a tutor facilitated session on Skills for Employment. The introduction talked about the kinds of skills that key employers in our field are looking for, and the importance of being able to provide evidence of these skills from a range of activities. The students, a mix of part 1 and part 2, then congregated with their tutors and discussed the kinds of evidence they could use in future job applications. It transpires that the current cohort of students are perhaps much more used to doing this than their lecturers were when they were students – after all personal statements on UCAS forms require much the same type of effort.  Particularly relevant to the “year 2 dip”, the group I was with discussed how even “failures” could be turned round to demonstrate positive qualities (self-development, persistence, reacting to feedback).

None of these actions are particularly profound or novel, but sometimes they don’t need to be. What made me most happy to see was the willingness of students to talk about their current and past challenges, the first year students seizing the opportunity to ask advice from the second years (how do you stop yourself getting stressed out by assignment deadlines), and the second years passing on tips to the first years (pay attention to vector calculus even if you can’t see the point – you need it next year). Building a strong community of students willing to engage in peer support, will offer another way of smoothing the lumps and bumps of student life, whether that happen in Year 2 or at any other time.

Arran 2013 Part 1: Why I like teaching on fieldcourses

This week I have left the family and the office behind to teach on the joint Leeds and Reading Atmospheric Science field-course on the Isle of Arran. This course has been developed jointly over the past few years and has come to be one of the highlights of their degree for many of our students. This is my 5th year as a module co-convenor, and despite the organisational and logistical stress, and being away from my family, it is one of my favourite teaching activities. Here are the reasons why:

Total Weather Immersion: These days, I get all too little time to really get “into” the weather during office hours. On Arran, we are governed to a large extent the evolving weather situation. The main issue is scheduling the walk up the 875m high Goat Fell. Whilst we don’t wait for blue skies and sunshine, it would not be sensible to go up on days with high wind and torrential rain, so for the first few days we have to keep a very close eye on the forecast.  In 2011 we just about made it up there before we were all confined to the classroom during the passage of Hurricane Katia. The students take a range of measurements on the walk and at the field-centre, probing the local boundary layer and linking local observations to forecasts and balloon launches. A key educational benefit of this course is the opportunity to integrate knowledge and skills from the previous 2 years of work. Although I have email access and will clear the inbox daily, there is little time, energy or inclination to do anything else resulting from my role as Head of Department .

Prolonged contact with students: We take a maximum  of about 30 students drawn from the final year  of BSc and MMet Meteorology degrees at Reading, and the final year of BSC Meteorology, BSc Environmental Science and BSc Climate and Atmospheric Science from Leeds. These are split into small groups of 4 or 5. This year we have 5 teaching staff as well as 2 technical staff, so there’s a really good staff:student ratio. We (and the students) work 7.30am to 9.30pm for 6 days solid, and it is fascinating to watch how the groups and individuals develop over that time. To have the time to sit down and really explain a bit of theory, get the students to draw out the key results and see them have a “discovery” or “realisation” moment is a rare treat in our (and their) busy learning journeys. I *think* the students appreciate this too.

Teaching collaboration: My involvement with this course, came about largely because the current Leeds convenor @JimMcQuaid and I were on a research detachment with the FAAM aircraft in Treviso in August 2004. I routinely collaborate with colleagues at many institutions on research projects, but collaborations in teaching activities, particularly those that contribute assessment towards undergraduate degree courses are much rarer. There is much we learn from each other, not just concerning our subject, but also teaching and communication skills, assessment ideas and feedback methods. I really value this time to reconnect with my teaching skills.

Simplified work-life integration: As well as the total immersion in the weather compared to other “work activities”, Arran is undoubtedly a chance to immerse myself in work compared to the rest of my life. I cannot deny that this is in part at least pleasurable. I feel very guilty leaving my young family for an extended period of time, and my 3 year old at least will take a while to forgive me, but it is a pleasant break from the constant plate spinning and transitioning. Any down time can be spent writing proposals or blogs or reading papers and manuscripts without feeling guilty that I’m not doing “domestic management” tasks. I am fortunate indeed that my support network at home accepts and understands this part of my job.

Expect some more field course related blogs in the next few days…