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An Old Craft for New Times

  • News Image
    History Professor Elizabeth Green Musselman has combined her love of knitting with her teaching (Photo by Carlos Barron)
  • News Image
    Students in Elizabeth Green Musselman's First-Year Seminar class on knitting visit with some young llamas at a fiber mill east of Austin. (Photo by Erika Sells)

History professor combines love of knitting with her teaching

Attend any meeting with Elizabeth Green Musselman, and you’ll probably see her knitting.

It’s a hobby she first picked up from her mother as a young girl, and got serious about in graduate school because it provided a much-needed break from her academic work.

Recently, Green Musselman has combined her hobby with her teaching at Southwestern, where she serves as an associate professor of history and chair of the history department.

Last fall, she offered a First-Year Seminar titled “Knitting: Not Just for Grannies” in which she used knitting as a way to introduce students to a wide range of subjects, from art and history to math and psychology. In history, for example, she incorporated the history of women’s labor. In psychology, she incorporated the effects knitting has on the brain and how it can be used to help people recover from loss and grief.  

And she told students about how in recent years, some people have even used knitting to explore mathematical concepts such as what a hyperbolic plane looks like. A hyperbolic plane is the geometric opposite of a sphere – in other words, it curves away from itself at every point. No one had ever been able to come up with a physical model of a hyperbolic plane until someone discovered that one could be crocheted. Margaret Wertheim, an Australian science writer and craftsperson, used the technique to create a room-size crocheted coral reef that has been travelling around the world.  

“There is much more to knitting than the historical stereotype would suggest,” Musselman says.

As part of the class, students visited the Texas Fiber Mill in McDade, Texas, which is one of the few remaining mills in the United States. In addition to processing fiber, the mill raises angora goats, alpacas and llamas for their wool. They also attending the screening in Austin of a new documentary titled “Handmade Nation.”

Students also had to complete two knitting projects − a hat and an artistic knitted object such as a flower. The class was offered as a Living-Learning Community, so students could work on their projects together in the evenings.

“It was the most close-knit community on all the floors,” she says, joking that there was no pun intended.

Green Musselman plans to offer the First-Year Seminar again this fall, and is also trying to develop an Environmental Studies class in which students would learn to sew, knit and crochet their own clothes.

“This would be a hands-on class that would give students a way to express their political activism,” she says.

In addition to the hands-on work, students will read texts from a variety of disciplines on issues like consumerism, environmental waste, sweatshop labor, the decline of the American textile industry, and the recent revival of handicraft in American culture. At the beginning of the semester, students will sign a contract stating that they will not purchase any new clothing for the duration of the class; they will only be allowed to purchase and modify used clothing or make their own clothes from scratch.  

Green Musselman is currently trying to gather the equipment and supplies she will need to teach this class, including old sewing machines, fabric, fabric scissors, yarn, knitting needles and crochet hooks. Anyone with items they are willing to donate may contact her at greenmue@southwestern.edu or 512-863-1595.

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