the fleece to foot challenge

Karyn sent me the following text from the Sock Summit in Portland, OR this morning:

I’m sitting here @ the “fleece to foot challenge” where 6 teams are going to race to card, spin, and knit a pair of socks. They’re getting ready to shear the sheep now! 🙂

There’s so much there to take in and unravel, I barely know where to start. First, “Sock Summit” is a conference/gathering/convention for knitters. You’re only laughing if you aren’t married to a knitter. One look at the classes and other offerings and you realize that this is serious business, yet in the same context these summiters stage an unapologetic, mass flash mob dance with skeins of yarn. The entire event, started in 2009, brought network servers handling registration to their knees, because I.T. people didn’t understand the popularity of knitting and the zeal of these craftspeople.

But back to the fleece to foot challenge. So many questions come to mind: where do the sheep come from? how long does this take? what kind of person signs up for such an ironman (or woolenman?) competition? and why? Most of the answers are probably simple, and the hardest part of this is probably in the coordination of it all (as with most things). I figure the reason one would want to race to see how quickly you and your teammates could go from unshorn sheep to wearable sock is simply because you can, added to some whimsy and the honing of skills. I’m sure there’s also a purpose in this that goes beyond the individual, the team, and even the audience. There’s the community to think about, and an event like this must do something to rally, build, and sustain it.

This made me think of how much better knitters are at most things than other groups, and it’s just something they do naturally with the gumption and de facto leadership of a few individuals. It’s inspiring, especially when you think about what something like the “fleece to foot” would look like in another setting. Take a science education conference, for example. What would be the equivalent competition?

In my mind, we would bus in a couple of groups of kids, maybe a group from the inner city and another from the suburbs. The science ed folks would be grouped and would need to complete a research project from start to finish, using the kids stumbling out of the yellow vehicles with their sack lunches. (I can’t even begin to imagine the complications with human subjects approval from an institutional review board, but I’m going to ignore that detail for the purposes of this fantasy.) Do you show the kids a video? Teach them a lesson? Have them manipulate a couple of balls to emulate the phases of the moon? And then how do you decide if this is a quantitative or qualitative study? Do you study all the kids, or focus on a case study of a couple of them? And what exactly are you searching for? Self efficacy? Conceptual change? A piece of some learning progression? And how will you present the results, especially as there’s an audience of cheering peers on the sidelines? As I write this, I know there are knitters who are nodding off and fading away; but I’m all sorts of excited. It’s some combination of fantasy, whimsy, and serious potential. Think of how much there would be to learn from the experience and through watching the experience of others; and imagine all the twists and turns that could be part of a storyline that might take place over the course of a day. I suppose that, if I were hosting a group of graduate students at a summer institute, this is the kind of format I’d want to entertain. (It’s probably best that I’m not hosting such an institute, though I know Trouble and I have had long discussions about doing similar things, sans the competition, at national meetings.)

The point: Generally speaking, getting a bunch of PhD’s and PhD candidates together in a grand assembly results in a bunch of PowerPoint presentations, each lasting about 15 minutes, with peers facing forward in chairs so that they can face the screen of a windowless meeting space. This is in sharp, embarrassing contrast to a group of folks who are meeting together annually for the sake of a hobby (although they’ll fillet me for trivializing knitting as a “hobby” — rightly so). The knitters craft a community, a purpose, and an enthusiasm that few others have the know-how to reproduce. I suspect we would be wise to think about gathering the equivalent of some sheep and some shears, hosting a dance, and generating a real sense of common purpose and reflective practice in our non-knitting communities.

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