CASE STUDY: Stephanie Bunn and colleagues – Forces in Translation

This case study, which explores a participatory textile making research project, is written by Stephanie Bunn and colleagues. To see more case studies or find out how to contribute one yourself, click here.

Title of case study project or workshop

Forces in Translation

Name(s) of researcher(s) and university affiliation, if any

Left to right and top to bottom in image above: Mary Crabb – Basketmaker and Textile Artist, Dr Stephanie Bunn – University of St Andrews, Professor Ricardo Nemirovsky – Manchester Metropolitan University, Hilary Burns – Basketmaker, Geraldine Jones – Basketmaker and Sculptor, and also Professor Cathrine Hasse – University of Aarhus.

Context for research

Collaborative academic research project

When did the research take place?

2019 ongoing until 2021

Disciplinary background(s)

Social anthropology; basketmaking, textile art and sculpture; robotics and education; mathematical education. 

Aims of research

Forces in Translation works at the interface between basketry, mathematics and anthropology. We see basketry as a fundamental textile form in terms of technique, both historically and contemporarily, from the overlap between stitching, knotting and looping, to the use of twining in both basketry and loom weaving, and parallels between plaited basketry, cordage and braiding. In our research, we aim to explore how the bodily knowledge in basket-work enhances spatial and geometric understanding through the gestural moves we make and bodily skills we use. We are also concerned that the social aspects of learning together are fundamental, whether for craft or more academic subjects.  The making process, from material to artefact, from plant to basket and from being a ‘lone scholar’ to learning together, further reveals important links with innovative and design thinking, from planning and problem-solving, to dexterity, attention, rhythm, focus and creating narratives. This has relevance for education and learning, spatial awareness, geometric understanding, and creativity.

While we support all forms of learning, from the hands-on to the digital, a growing concern, especially since the outbreak of Covid-19, is that developments in the digitization and stream-lining of education parallel a view that many hand-skills and person-to-person relationships are no longer relevant for human learning and cognition. We aim to examine how hand-skills and working together in person are an essential complement to other forms of learning, of value for future work in design, engineering and maths. A further aim is to understand how our human responsiveness challenges and differs from the kind of responsiveness we find in machines (reacting on stimuli without understanding what follows) – and how these reactions precisely may not involve memory, ideas, rhythm, constructive hand-work engagements and material-conceptual developments. 

Current themes include the relationship between form and material; curvature and line; diagramming; skewing; tension and friction; techniques and perception – from weaving and looping to plaiting; understanding difference; and rhythm and narrative. We are holding practical public mathematical basketry events during 2020 and 2021, currently through online platforms, but watch this space for events in person. 

This is a Royal Society/Apex funded project. 

Description of research method

We are a core group of 6. Our methodology is centred around studio trials developing practices for much larger public events. 

Our methodology has been somewhat emergent owing to needs to respond to and transform our project following the Covid-19 outbreak. We currently conduct our research through weekly online studios where, linked through an online platform, we purely work on basketry forms – developing both pieces of personal work, and of thematic interest such as looped cylinders and spirals, or mad and hexagonal weave. Our week-long studio trials extend over the length of the project, working in person where possible, but online if necessary. We happily conducted our first studio trials in person, where we developed work on several themes, most particularly exploring plaiting, skewed cubes, materials and plaiting round corners. Due to the outbreak of Covid-19, our first planned, public event., scheduled to take place in St Andrews’ unique 19th century Bell Pettigrew Museum, initiated by such eminent scholars as Darcy Wentworth Thompson for teaching natural history, was postponed and instead held online. Going forward, we hope to be back to working in person in 2021. We also hold fortnightly, semi-practical reading groups, bringing in students and other scholars.

Specific methods include qualitative research methods, following fore-shadowed problems and intuitions rather than beginning with a hypothesis that we set out to prove. This requires a methodological working process similar to that of the artist rather than the hard scientist. Our work is emergent, practice-led and interactive, but also reflective and rigorous, triangulated by multiple methods. We keep journals and record the trials, filming where possible, and keep written notes of all sessions. All material is being stored online, and key sessions are uploaded to our website. 

Current methodological themes for our website are ‘Conversations-with’ and ‘From the Studio’.

Why did you choose to use this method?

We take a qualitative, closely focussed approach, dealing with real-life situations rather than experimental, testable ones. Our aim is to understand mathematics in social and interpersonal contexts, and through material practices, thus exploring processes of learning and understanding through hands-on experience rather than through formal abstraction. Thus, our concern is with the nuances of practice, rich descriptions, conversations, and is also in some aspects, auto-ethnographical.

What did you learn from the research process?

The project is very much in process, so we still have a lot to learn. But first and foremost, due to the impact of the pandemic, we have learned to adapt and to approach our methodology from the very perspective we were so concerned about, namely the limitations of online learning and the technologizing of skill for human development. This has been important because it means we have carefully explored those technological processes that replace human skill, as well as those interpersonal, hands-on practices we consider an essential, but undervalued aspect of learning.

We understand that basketry, anthropology and mathematics are three very different subjects, but are also concerned to understand their convergences and ‘hot-spots’. In the process, we have come to focus on how mathematics is a profoundly material subject; that pattern, rhythm and understanding are closely associated; that making and constructing ‘the whole’ of a process gives an overview. Also, that of its nature, scientific method does need to be studied ethnographically as well as quantitatively.


Past experience working as an independent textile artist and community practitioner for the Company of Imagination and Horse and Bamboo Theatre; work with Tim Ingold’s Knowing from the Inside Project at the University of Aberdeen; mentoring by Eduardo Paolozzi and his approach to ‘cutting-across’ the mythical or ritual and the everyday. Also, the ideas on learning and experience of John Dewey, philosophers William James and Henri Bergson; educational psychologists Leo Vygotsky and  Barbara Rogoff; Bauhaus weaver Annie Albers and artist Paul Klee. Notions of collaboration of Tomasello, Caroline Humphrey, Paloma Gay y Blasco and Amanda Ravetz. And of course, the ever-present insights of Tim Ingold, Ricardo Nemirovsky and Cathrine Hasse.

Related projects

The Woven Communities project laid much of the groundwork for this project. Woven Communities was a Scottish basketry heritage project. The project took basketry as a lens through which to explore Scottish social history. Again, working with three basketmakers, Liz Balfour, Julie Gurr and Dawn Susan, we worked with Scottish museum collections using public engagement, such as public workshops, skills-gatherings and reminiscence events, to draw the public into telling us their stories and memories, inspired through basketry, and to learn more about past skills and artefacts. We developed this further through working with Jon Macleod and Paula Brown of An Lanntair on the Isle of Lewis, exploring the value of craft for the hand memories of people living with Dementia. We also worked with the Stroke Recovery Unit at Raigmore Hospital in Inverness, with Tim Palmer, Monique Bervoets and Ashish Macaden to develop basketry activities linked to occupational therapy for use in stroke recovery and acquired brain injury. These latter two elements of the Woven Communities project formed the groundwork and touch stones through which we developed our ideas on mathematical learning. 

Further information

Forthcoming book, (eds. Stephanie Bunn and Victoria Mitchell), the Material Culture of Basketry, Bloomsbury, out November 2020.

Stephanie Bunn (ed.) 2016 Anthropology and Beauty, Routledge

Stephanie Bunn 2010 Nomadic Felt. British Museum Press

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