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Fashioning Flora to Fiber

Originally appears in the Winter 2008-2009 issue

Many youth today spend most of their time indoors, immersed in an electronic world that engages them in using technology, often with little understanding of how that technology works. They are far removed from the fields and forests so familiar to their ancestors and they lack experiential engagement with natural materials and traditional technologies.

To address this imbalance, a team of Cornell University educators and undergraduates designed Plants & Textiles: A Legacy of Technology, a series of hands-on activities that focus on past and present technologies that convert plant materials into fibrous products. The program gives students opportunity to grow plants, make tools and create useful textile products of their own design. They access online resources to compare the traditional technologies to modern production methods and are encouraged to share what they have learned with others in their communities. Manipulating raw materials to create useful items gives students a great sense of satisfaction, a connection to technologies that we may take for granted, and a new way of looking at the world around them.

This article describes the Plants & Textiles program and presents one of the five activities.

Program components

The five activities in the Plants & Textiles program focus on products that were once made by hand and are still used today. They include mat weaving, indigo dyeing, rope making, net knotting, and papermaking. The process of each activity has the following components, which together provide an integrated experience and many opportunities for interdisciplinary study.

1. Assemble materials. Activities may require a variety of supplies, and at least one of the raw materials should be from a plant. Students may purchase plant materials, harvest items from their gardens, or grow their own. By using plant materials, students will develop an appreciation for local plants and an enhanced environmental awareness.

2. Build tools. Tools are the hallmark of civilization, but they are usually purchased and then stored away, hidden from view. Some tools in these activities are simple to make; some require carpentry skills. These activities aim to educate students about the value of tools and to help them understand the engineering principles behind tool development.

3. Use technology. Technology is the method of applying technical knowledge to tools. Students develop manual skills, practice safe working habits, gain practical knowledge and connect with history and culture.

4. Produce textile products. The term textile is often interpreted as fabric or cloth. A broader definition includes all fibrous products, including paper, nets, rope and mats. Youth enjoy the creative expression of their own designs and develop independence by making their own items. They also should understand how the fibrous nature of the product contributes to its character. For example, ropes made from different fibers or different sizes of yarn will demonstrate different strength, flexibility, resistance to mildew, etc.

5. Use the Internet for further research. Students research the contemporary manufacturing processes of the product that they made using traditional tools and technologies. They may also research the historical, scientific, agricultural, economic and social implications of the product’s manufacture. The purpose of this research is to increase students’ knowledge, to encourage computer use and to demonstrate the continuity of human experience.

6. Expand experience. Use local resources, such as museums, gardens, artists, factories, farms and fairs, to help students connect what they learned to real people’s lives. These field trips, demonstrations, lectures and interviews are also excellent opportunities for social interaction and just plain fun.

7. Community outreach. Reinforce what students have learned by providing them with opportunities to share their knowledge with others. They might use their new knowledge to teach younger students, mount an exhibit at the library, write newsletter articles, volunteer at a local museum, organize a community technology day, plant a community garden, or design a group science experiment. The best educational outcomes are observed when students experience this complete process, from assembling the materials to reaching out to community.

Weaving a mat

Weaving is said to be the most ancient of the arts. Some say humans mimicked the intricate nests of the weaver-bird or the graceful patterns of a spider web. Others credit the combination of human ingenuity and needs. Whatever its origin, textile production is so essential that it has a significant presence in our language, customs and literature.

Mats are one of the earliest forms of textiles, having been used in wattle windbreaks and stick blockades to trap fish. Early Native Americans used mats woven from cattails as walls and roofing materials. Today, mats are used as construction materials for fences, screens and walls. Sleeping mats, beach mats, placemats, floor mats, wall hangings and doormats are familiar items found in most homes.


Assemble materials

• smooth, tightly-twisted cotton or linen warp yarns

• garden shears

• tape measure or meter/yardstick.

• one loom for every 2–4 students (the mat loom described below is recommended, but other types of looms may be used)

• bobbins (two for each notch on the loom)

• plant materials cut the length of the loom width

Any firm-stemmed plant material works well. The woody stems of willow, ornamental grasses, cattails and dogwood are easy to find. We have harvested goldenrod stems and “weeds” from backyards and fields when the plants are in abundance. Students might also grow their own plants from seed or purchase dried materials from craft shops.

Build a loom

Looms vary in structure from simple bundles of sticks to highly elaborate machines, but all perform the same function of interlacing yarns to form a web. Mats can be woven on frame, backstrap, table and floor looms. For those who wish to build their own looms, Marc Keane, a garden designer, has designed one specifically to make mats for the construction of an outdoor structure.

This strange-looking loom, which resembles a sawhorse, offers many advantages for working with youth. The mat loom is simpler than most, as there are no heddles, harnesses, spacers, beaters and reeds, as are found on some other looms. It is sturdy and all one piece (no small parts to misplace). It is quickly dressed for weaving (no special preparation of warp yarns is needed). It accommodates materials of irregular shapes and it folds flat for transport and storage.

The loom is easy to build, and can be used to give students practical experience and a good general understanding of loom weaving. (Complete instructions for building the mat loom can be found here.)

Weave a mat

Simple woven items such as mats have two structural elements, warp (lengthwise) and weft (crosswise).

The warp and weft interlace to form a web. The mat that students make in this activity uses a strong yarn of small diameter for the warp and straight plant stems for the weft. These materials interlace in what is known as a “plain weave,” the most basic fabric structure. Students can express their individuality by selecting the color and size of the yarns and the types of plants they wish to use. As a variation, students can make a hot pad using long cinnamon sticks as the weft.

The over-under technique used in weaving this mat is simple enough for elementary students. The following instructions are specific to the mat loom described above. If you use a different loom, refer to the instructions provided by the loom manufacturer.

1. Wrap the yarn around bobbins. The yarn length should be twice the length of the finished mat.

2. Knot the yarn ends of two bobbins.

3. Place this yarn into two parallel notches of the loom so that the warp lies across the loom and the bobbins rest on either side of the loom.

4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 until all the paired notches are filled.

5. Place the first weft (plant stem or stalk) across the warp yarns.

6. Working with paired bobbins, pass the warp (yarn) over the weft (plant stem) so that the two bobbins exchange places.

7. Repeat step 6 until all warp yarns across the loom have been used.

8. Repeat steps 6 and 7 until your mat is the desired length. Note that on the mat loom the finished mat will grow from the middle of the loom toward the floor.

9. When the mat is complete, wrap the warp ends around the last weft a couple of turns and tie a secure knot.

10. Cut the warp ends to release the mat. Leave extra warp length if you want to finish the end of your mat with fringe.

Use the Internet for research

Have students research other plants, looms and mat structures that have been used in the past. For example, students could research the use of mats as protective armor. They might discover that some Native Americans covered their bodies with mats made from dogbane. Today, police officers and military personnel who have a similar need for body armor wear protective vests made from Kevlar.

Expand experience

• Visit a weaver and ask him/her to explain different fabric structures.

• View a film about how plant fibers such as cotton and linen are extracted and made into yarns.

• Make a mat using both fresh and dried plants and observe what happens as the mat ages.

Community outreach

• Construct a playground maze using mats attached to upright poles.

• Build and donate looms for the use of younger children enrolled in summer camps or after-school programs.

• Plant a garden of ornamental grasses.


To view the photo-rich magazine version, click here.


Marcia Eames-Sheavly is a Senior Extension Associate in the Department of Horticulture at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Charlotte Coffman is a Senior Extension Associate in the Department of Textiles and Apparel at Cornell University.

The five activities in Plant & Textiles: A Legacy of Technology are available online at <>