Folk Art, High School

Of Embroidery & Life Skills

I never imagined as a child that the tira de economia I was making would one day become a teaching material in a high school Fibers class.

My “tira de economia” (left) and a quilted pillow I made from a Creative Circle kit (right)
“If you didn’t have to embroider a manta cloth in school…you didn’t have a childhood!” exclaims this macro from an Honduran Facebook group

It had been common in Honduran elementary schools to teach children sewing and basic embroidery. Apparently, the practice has fallen by the wayside, if the image to the right and comments on it are any indication. Although I never got to do it in school because my family immigrated to the US before I got to the grade this was done in, my mother did take it upon herself to teach me how to make a tira de economia.

The tira de economia consists of a strip of manta cloth with rows of the various basic stitches one can use in sewing and embroidery. For example, besides the basic running stitch, there’s the buttonhole stitch (AKA blanket stitch), zigzag stitch, and chain stitch. (Chains were my favorite!) Having made one of these strips, children would then have to use the various stitches to create an image in embroidery, much like that happy strawberry there.

Fast forward to the present day. The students in Fibers class were making “quilt squares” out of fabric they had dyed with shibori techniques. My mentor teacher suggested that I show the students how to do embroidery to embellish their projects. So, I would show them my tira de economia and briefly explain what it was, and that these were the stitches I could show them how to do. I also showed them the quilting project I had done years ago, so that they could see how stitching is used in conjunction with images on fabric. For the most part, students asked me to show them how to do the running stitch and chain stitch.

Click the thumbnails in the gallery below to see some of the pieces I helped students with!

One thing that I particularly enjoyed about this project was the chance to teach students life skills they might not otherwise have picked up. To my surprise, only a few of the girls said they knew how to make basic repairs to clothes, such as mending and sewing on buttons. I saw students doing ineffective things, such as attempting to make a big knot by tying a series of single knots instead of just rolling the doubled-up thread between their fingers to make several knots simultaneously. Most students were taking the needle off their embroidery floss to tie the knot at the end to secure their work. This is much harder than using the needle itself to thread a knot. One student, somewhat to his credit, tried wrapping the thin thread around a pencil to make it easier to knot. I asked him if he was making his life difficult, showed him how to make a knot with the needle, and upon seeing how simple the solution was, he exclaimed, “JESUS CHRIST” in disbelief.

I couldn’t help but think about a video a friend had showed me about how “America should teach basic life skills like Japan does.” While my personal experience in Japan leads me to believe the video paints a very skewed picture of home ec education in Japan (it’s not nearly as gender equal as the video claims, for one), I must also admit that American students, forced to endure an environment that focuses so much on standardized testing, aren’t getting many classes that are hands-on anything. Also, perhaps in a drive to eliminate sexist practices in schools, instead of making shop and home ec classes that all students had to take regardless of gender, such classes were eliminated all together. Funding of course also comes into play. That said, some young people might complain in videos like the one made by ATTN (linked above) about not getting life skills in school, but even when students do get a chance to be in classes such as anything in the applied arts, they’re not necessarily jumping for joy at the chance to learn life skills; they might not realize that is in effect what they’re learning. They think they’re just making an image of flowers in a vase. It’s important for teachers to spell things out for students sometimes, because they might not see how something in the classroom connects to the “real world” outside of school.

Folk Art, Upper Elementary

Collaborative Papel Picado

As a substitute plan and follow-up to the lesson on papel picado, one fifth grade homeroom made huge cut-out designs using bulletin board paper. Each of the six tables of 5 to 6 students became one team. They were instructed to decide on their own what their design theme would be and how they would divide the work.

This lesson was done right before the big Michigan State versus University of Michigan game, so some students incorporated their preferred team into their design.

The center rectangle reads “Go Blue”
Other students got the idea to embellish their designs with shapes cut from construction paper

There was one more group that likewise added construction paper to their papel picado, but they wanted to take it with them immediately so I didn’t get a chance to photograph it. One other group wanted to gift theirs to the school principal, so I don’t have a photo of that one either. Still, the four that were left have been decorating the art room since!

Folk Art, Upper Elementary

Papel Picado

This fall, I’m at Lincoln Elementary School in Warren as a half-time student teaching intern. For the first lesson I designed and taught there, I shared the Mexican folk art of papel picado (lit., “cut paper”) with the students. A second grader had given my mentor teacher something that looked like an attempt to emulate the overall look of papel picado, and given the craft’s association with Dia de los Muertos (“Day of the Dead,” a celebration of ancestors around November 1st), I figured the timing was perfect.

After an introduction to the holiday and the craft, and a brief Math Class Moment as we talked about symmetry, students created their own papel picado designs.

Students hard at work creating their designs. I used the document reader to do a demonstration in real time that all students could see despite the small materials.


The first class that did this was a 4th/5th split. Their work was hung up in the hallway and served as excellent examples and motivators for the other classes.

When are we gonna make those?

Below are some examples I made for the lesson’s introduction.

As Dia de los Muertos spreads out from the Mexican and Latin community, more and more people will see papel picado. This year, the Detroit Institute of Arts even has an exhibit for the holiday featuring ofrendas, altars honoring the deceased. While doing this lesson I was a bit surprised to learn that so many of the young students thought Halloween had something to do with the devil instead of being more closely related, originally at least, to holidays all over the world like the Mexican Day of the Dead, or Obon in Japan, which celebrate the lives of lost loved ones. I would like to do this project again with older students, and with more time, so that we can really dig into the meaning of these types of festivals.