On any typical day in the MAKESHOP at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, kids and families are woodworking, tinkering with circuits, and crafting cardboard swords and shields. But nestled in the corner of the bustling workshop is the trusty stalwart of the space: the four-harness floor loom.
Rebecca Grabman, MAKESHOP manager, said the loom is an “eternally popular” among all ages. Even adults are amazed to see one outside of a museum.
Meanwhile, a group of older kids have repeatedly come to the workshop for hours to figure out how to manipulate the harnesses to build complex patterns, which feels a bit like solving a puzzle.
And for younger kids, using repetition to weave new shapes is a full-body experience: The loom is much bigger than they are.
Donated about four years ago, the loom has four sets of “harnesses” that can be lifted independently, allowing weavers to build all sorts of patterns. As long as the loom is “dressed,” or prepared, any visitor can weave with it after learning three simple steps. Other materials get thrown into the mix, too. For years, visitors have woven long “scarves” with plastic bags, 8-track tape, and a pile of old Dictaphone wire.
Although looms like the one in MAKESHOP have been around for hundreds of years, in many ways the loom perfectly embodies the ideas of the ever-growing maker movement. In case you haven’t heard, the maker movement is an expanding community of DIY aficionados making everything from enormous electric giraffes to no-heat lava lamps. It’s a movement teaching people how to ask questions about how things work and, in turn, become creators—not only consumers.
“For a lot of kids, clothing is a given. Fabric is just something that’s a part of their lives,” Grabman said. “Being able to point out to them that this is directly applicable to the things they’re very familiar with is often kind of mind blowing to kids.”
It’s mind-blowing for adults, too. There’s a reason the show “How It’s Made,” which essentially chronicles how everything from nail clippers to bagpipes is born on an assembly line, is running strong with more than 300 episodes in 14 years. We don’t know how it’s made, and seeing an everyday object put together and packaged is mesmerizing.
When kids get to assemble simple materials with their own hands, like a mechanical bug with flapping wings or a Play-Doh circuit, it can spark a whole new level of imagination and problem solving. In other words, once you see the potential for plain threads to slowly become cloth, it might be easier to imagine how pieces of raw technology might become a robot; an inflatable, solar-powered light; or a pancake 3-D printer.
“It seems so abstract because it’s string, and then it becomes an object and it could become a shirt, a coat, or a couch,” explained Grabman, who has been with MAKESHOP since its prototyping days and calls the loom “beautiful and amazing.”
“It opens up a lot of possibilities because it’s so simple but slowly becomes more complex.”
Grabman said after working with the loom, staff members and parents often point out the different threads in kids’ own blue jeans. They teach them how all fabric they’re wearing is woven differently, and they show them the seams, hems, or different fibers in their T-shirts.
“Usually they’re like ‘Whoa, I had no idea,’” she said. “Sometimes they react like it’s some kind of conspiracy—like, ‘Who put this in my world!?’”