March 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Craft Work: the value of making by hand | The Maker Issue


Photo from iStock/Thinkstock

Youth services librarians in public and school libraries have long relied on arts and crafts as a staple of storytimes and other programming. These activities keep kids engaged, help develop fine motor skills, and are usually pretty fun. Crafting in groups adds a deeper dimension. Just like the quilting bees of old, a knitting or other handcraft group brings people together to share what they know. In such a collaborative space, teamwork and co-learning happen naturally.

Crafting, or manipulating physical materials by hand to create something new, is as old as the hills—which is about how long children have been doing it, too. It can be as simple as gluing pieces of paper together or as complex as building a miniature city from recycled materials. It acts as a creative outlet where a child’s imagination comes alive. Guided by a supportive teacher or librarian, children will feel pride in what they have created, whether or not it looks like the adult’s example. We all know those kids who strike out on their own during craft time and those who feel more comfortable with guidelines. The adult in charge should model the attitude that process matters far more than product.

Participants at NeedleReads, a craft program at the Madison (WI) Public Library. Photo courtesy of Carissa Christner

Participants at NeedleReads, a craft program at the Madison (WI) Public Library.
Photo courtesy of Carissa Christner

Lots of libraries host successful sewing or knitting programs for youth where this dynamic happens on a regular basis. Carissa Christner, a youth services librarian at the Madison (WI) Public Library, runs a monthly crafting program called NeedleReads for teens and adults combined. The library provides all of the materials for a quick, simple project (taken from a sewing book in the collection), and everyone usually walks away with their own creation.

“My favorite classes are those where a participant arrives feeling apologetic for their minimal sewing skills and leaves triumphant after the two-hour class with an object they have sewn themselves from the design phase through finished product,” says Christner. “It may not be perfect, and it might even look kind of wonky, but the glee, pride, and amazement they feel, along with their sense of accomplishment, that elated ‘I did it!’ is why I teach the class.”

In a crafting environment, kids, teens, and adults can become experts through their own experiences and share their tips and tricks. You don’t always know where you’re going, but try things until something works. Making by hand is inherently autodidactic—it involves learning by doing. Crafting in a social setting creates natural opportunities for peer-to-peer learning.

Our Making Mentors

Photo by Sebastiaan ter Burg

Photo by Sebastiaan ter Burg

Ken Robinson 

Sir Ken Robinson is a leader in the fields of creativity and education. Widely recognized for his books (Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative [Capstone, 2001] is wonderful) and his inspirational TED talks, Sir Ken sees creativity as instrumental to the human person and society at large. He makes us ask, “Why isn’t dance taught every day in school?”

Photo by Guillaume Paumier

Photo by Guillaume Paumier

Lynda Barry

Well-known as an artist and cartoonist, Lynda Barry’s What It Is (Drawn & Quarterly, 2008) could be recommended reading for all artists. She urges her students to dig in and get their hands dirty making art. It won’t always be pretty, but it will be good.

Photo by Uncle_Shoggoth/Creative Commons

Photo by Uncle_Shoggoth/ Creative Commons

Adam Savage 

Savage, of Mythbusters fame, is an outspoken advocate for the maker movement, especially crafting things by hand. Before he started blowing stuff up on cable television, Adam was a model builder for the film industry, and he has a passion for creating intricate cosplay costumes. Adam’s number one piece of advice? Start by building with cardboard.

In libraries, we’re quick to put on workshops and invite an expert in to share their knowledge, but that doesn’t have to be the model with handcrafting. Let’s say you want your young library patrons to sew a quilt together as a community project. Perhaps one adult explains the concept and teaches a basic sewing stitch the first week. The children take over the responsibility of piecing the quilt or individual blocks. They try different things, some of which work, others of which don’t. They show their friends what they’ve taught themselves and pass on the learned knowledge. They all work independently—and together, toward a single goal. By the end, they’ve made a quilt and taught each other to be better quilters.

Busy hands, easy conversation

When American pioneers gathered to make a quilt or raise a barn, it wasn’t just to accomplish a huge task or improve their skills—they gathered for the sake of gathering. This social aspect of crafting is extremely valuable. Something magical happens when you get a bunch of teens or adults in the same room and give them a project: people forget to be awkward when their hands are busy.

Last year, my colleague Laura Damon-Moore began a book club that also included a craft or art project inspired by the text: the Book to Art Club. Meetings are held in the Madison Public Library’s Bubbler Room (the name of its maker space), though no staff member has to be present. Members are encouraged to bring along a project that somehow extends the themes of the book to work on during quarterly meetings. During the sessions, members discuss the book’s plot and characters and how it relates to their lives, along with what they’re making and why they chose it to “bring to the table” for that title. People compare techniques and share supplies; some stick with their original project idea, while others adapt theirs.

Conversation is lively, but there are breaks in the discussion, too, as everyone works on their project. During a discussion of I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai (Little, Brown, 2013), one twentysomething attendee mentioned how much she enjoyed working on her project—drawings inspired by Pakistani truck art—during the meeting, because it removed the awkwardness of discussing a book with people she didn’t know very well. She could focus on the artwork and feel less scrutinized by other attendees. The pressure to be “on” and constantly contributing to the discussion was eased by the art focus.

Since we started promoting the Book to Art Club concept (, other library chapters have sprouted, including those at the Lawrence (KS) Public Library and the Rocky River (OH) Public Library.


The library is a place literally filled with knowledge and inspiration for crafting, and I’m not just talking about the 700s in the Dewey Decimal System. Jessica Pigza, rare book librarian at the New York Public Library, combined her passion for old books and crafting in 2009 to start Handmade Crafternoons. This DIY series for adults seeks to share the library’s unique resources with artists and community members. Each event features a guest artist, a hands-on project, and a variety of books and materials for inspiration. The guest artist may speak for a few minutes, but the rest of the time is spent perusing books and playing with materials. Many of these projects are in Pigza’s book Bibliocraft (Abrams, 2014).

Art inspired by I Am Malala created by  an attendee at the Book to Art Club held  at the Madison Public Library’s Bubbler Room. Photo courtesy of Laura Damon-Moore.

Art inspired by I Am Malala created by
an attendee at the Book to Art Club held
at the Madison Public Library’s Bubbler Room.
Photo courtesy of Laura Damon-Moore.

“Handmade Crafternoons may not be lush and polished theater, but neither are they dry instruction classes,” Pigza says. “They live in a happy middle ground where users discover what the library can offer in a welcoming environment.”

Though Handmade Crafternoons were designed for adults, the approach works for all ages. Pigza leverages the library’s materials to tie crafting to the library itself, delivering content that only the library may have. Few of us have access to collections like NYPL’s. But you probably have interesting design and art books. Or, consider bringing in beautifully illustrated natural science titles: the natural world has been an inspiration to artists throughout the centuries, and children today are no different. Don’t forget about the wealth of amazing digital collections available through libraries online. The Directory of Digital Collections and Content in Libraries and Museums ( is a good place to start.

Whether you’re tackling a huge, collaborative craft project or hosting an open craft time where young people can craft in tandem, the library is an ideal space to encourage making things by hand. Old-school, traditional crafts absolutely have a place in the library, education, and the maker movement. So stand tall with your scissors and hot glue guns in hand—the world needs crafting.

Based in Madison, WI, Katie Behrens is a project manager for the Library as Incubator Project, along with her teammates Erinn Batykefer, Laura Damon-Moore, and Holly Stork-Post, who contributed to this article.

Five Outstanding Crafting Programs

SLJ1505-Craft-Alien-SBThe Keene (NH) Public Library offers a weekly “informal knitting circle” for children. Its website has a wonderful booklist and online resources for people who are interested in kids’ knitting projects.

The Visitacion Valley Quilting Project at a branch of the San Francisco Public Library combined community pride with this old-school collaborative quilting project. Multiple quilting techniques were taught, with no sewing experience needed. A good example of a library partnering with a local crafters group to bring hands-on opportunities to their users.

The Fairfield (CT) Public Library hosted a weaving program that used old CDs as the loom. The finished pieces could be taken home or included in a group project displayed at the library.

Heidi Gustad, a teen librarian at the Chicago Public Library, shared her tutorial for Permanent Marker-Dyed T-Shirts on the Library as Incubator Project website. This very accessible craft for children and teens requires minimal cleanup and results in a great product.

Amy Koester at the Skokie (IL) Public Library held a Design Your Own Alien program that invited kids to build a creature from craft bits and pieces. This allowed total creative freedom and opened discussion about basic biology—a bit of a STEAM hack.

Image above: Alien that communicates via radio waves sprang from the
Design Your own Alien program at the Skokie (IL) Public Library.

This article was published in School Library Journal's May 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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  1. Kathleen Batykefer says:

    This is a wonderful article! Lots of the things that I have been thinking of doing seem possible now.
    MANY THANKS to you smart young librarians for putting a new face on some time honored activities. I feel empowered!
    Kathleen Batykefer Teacher/Librarian Pine-Richland Middle School, Gibsonia, PA.

  2. LOVED seeing my hometown of Keene, NH cited here! Wish I still lived there! :)

  3. Dawn M. Zillich says:

    So funny that I see this article today because I’m teaching an arm-knitting class at a public library after leaving my day job as a high school librarian!