How do tools shape our process of making and the objects made? How could new tools give way to new skills and meanings being incorporated into electronic making practices?
My work explores interactions with technologies and their role in our everyday lives, through active engagement in making them. Here, I focus on textile materials and needlecrafts as techniques for making electronic technologies, reflecting on how tools that support a unity of crafting and engineering might contribute to the diversity of processes, outcomes, and practitioners in electronic making.
The main functional task of tools for electronic needlecrafts is to combine the demands of the seemingly opposite areas of textile crafts and electronic making. Compared with textiles, electronic technologies are very new. Making them often relies on the assemblage of ready-made parts, requiring knowledge and elaborate measurement tools. Textile crafts, on the other hand, are among the oldest crafts practiced by humans, having shaped the course of early civilization . They inherently rely on refined constructive tools to form fibers into strings and consequently into two-and three-dimensional forms. The maneuvering of these tools demands experienced hands, practiced in the routines and patterns that bring the textile artifact into being. To give an example, an embroidery needle is used to deftly guide thread through fabric to create a desired pattern. If necessary, poor-quality stitches are undone or dissolved with a seam ripper and then redone until the result is satisfactory.
To include electronic functionality in textile crafts—for example, electrical contact between two points within an embroidery—metallic thread is used to stitch that conductive connection. Once the embroidery is aesthetically complete, a multimeter—an instrument to measure and display voltage, current, and resistance—is used to test the electric qualities of the needlework. If the resistance of the connection is too high, the stitching needs to be improved. If a short circuit is detected, a seam ripper is needed to remove the wrong stitches. The maker must alternate between using sewing utensils and testing equipment until both form and function are pleasing.
The establishment of good contact is essential for a correct measurement process. Test leads, which connect the multimeter to the device being tested, come in different shapes to fit diverse purposes in electrical engineering. However, while some of them can also be used with textiles, none of them were designed for use with the delicate, soft, or fibrous materials used in crafting. As such, existing connectors often damage fine fabrics, and sometimes they also do not attach securely to the threads. Also, connecting test leads forces an interruption of the making routine, separating textile and electrical contributions, even though the material handled represents their combination.
Over the past few years I have been exploring how textile-crafting routines, materials, and knowledge can be used in the creation of electronic and computational objects. Working in collaboration with fellow artist and designer Ebru Kurbak, we have been exploring various textile materials such as conductive threads and yarns arranged into knitting, embroidery, or crochet designs to produce textile equivalents of electrical components like resistors, capacitors, coils, and relays, among others, and combine them into functional electronic objects [2,3]. Through this work we want to investigate the use of textiles to craft electronic artifacts and the competences, objects, and interactions emerging from this practice.
When experimenting with electronic textile components, diverse tools, ranging from sewing utensils to electronic toolkits, are combined to reach specific design goals, aesthetically and functionally (Figure 1). While reaching these goals is often possible with existing tools, tools are never neutral. The decision for one tool over another is also a decision that excludes other options—other experiences, insights, or even the use of certain skills . As “means of production,” they determine control and structure the possibilities for agency in every field of making . Informed and conditioned by our personal practice in the field of electronic textile making, we started questioning the tools in use and investigating new tools that could enable, serve, and advance such practices. The process and outcome create a chance to reflect on the assumptions about the coming into being of electronic and computational objects, and more broadly, on the roles and cultural associations of the technologies, and indeed crafts, that these tools enable.
Figure 2 shows a selection of custom-made tools for electronic textile needlecrafts, such as a bespoke seam ripper, a crochet hook, an awl, a multimeter extension cord to connect them, and a pin probe test lead connected to the multimeter. At a glance, the seam ripper, the crochet hook, and the awl appear similar to traditional textile tools. Looking closer, a plug becomes visible at the rear end of the handle. This plug makes the tool connectable to the textile multimeter extension cord and consequently to the multimeter (Figure 3). While typical test leads have a simple rigid metal tip probe (the part of the tool that establishes electrical contact) at the end, here the probe doubles as a textile tool. Since the tip of the crochet hook, the seam ripper, and the awl are made from conductive metal, the tools can simultaneously be used to manipulate textile material and probe electrical properties such as resistance or conductivity. Crafters gain an electronic tool in a well-known shape to handle familiar materials, rendering their craft expertise and dexterity into an act of engineering.
Electronic measurement tasks always need at least two touching points to measure the electronic properties between them. The pin probe has been designed to fix a probe to provide continuous measuring results, without needing to manually hold the test lead. Pins lend themselves well to these tasks. They are used ubiquitously in needlecrafts for temporary but firm connections that avoid damaging the textile, here becoming a point of electrical contact too.
These tools and their cables are designed with the potential delicacy of the artifact they produce in mind. As such, the cables are made of textiles for increased flexibility and softness, avoiding damage to the craftwork and complying with the material space of the textile crafter. At the same time, an effort has been made to produce high-quality electronic instruments for those engineering with textiles.
The process of rethinking the tools goes beyond pure functionality, though, also provoking prevailing assumptions about the mediums and techniques involved. Traditional needlecraft utensils serve as a visual reference for the set of tools discussed here. Their form is chosen for the comfort of working with devices of a common shape and recognizable form, and the ergonomic and functional qualities embedded therein, as well as for the social and cultural associations evoked. These include being widely recognizable as belonging to an inherently female and often undervalued trade .
Unplugged, the connectable tools are usable as conventional needlework tools. The changes introduced to their form are small but explicit signifiers of electrical function. This physical form, deviant from existing norms, provokes a rethinking of the possibilities and constraints of these tools, especially the materials and skills assumed relevant in the design and development of electronic technologies, and the objects and interactions expected to evolve from them.
I have been using these new electronic textile tools regularly for a few months. Since then, they have taken on an essential role in my practical work. A typical routine would be to embroider a connection, test it with the seam-ripper probe, and if the multimeter indicates a wrong connection, directly cut the sewing, or parts of it, in order to the reach the desired functionality. The seam ripper serves a dual role, incorporating the qualitative needs of a textile utensil as well as those of an electronic probe. This also means that the crafting and testing are no longer separate tasks, but rather combined in a practice that acknowledges the material mastery and electronic functionality as equally contributing elements.
In a different scenario (Figure 4), I use the multimeter with pin probes, affixing them to the two end points of a not-yet-crafted conductive textile connection. While stitching the connection, the multimeter provides continuous information about its current electrical value. The immediate feedback allows instant action, facilitating an aesthetic-driven workflow to reach precise electronic results. Similar scenarios are possible for other textile techniques as well. When crocheting, the multimeter can give direct feedback about what loop the next stitch should go through to establish the correct connection, or when the desired resistance value is reached.
These scenarios reframe the value of textile work as being not purely decorative, but rather fundamental to the engineering of electronic functions. Rather than realizing a technical design and then, in a separate step, adding textiles to it, or realizing a textile design and then adding electronics, they consider both disciplines and their corresponding bodies of knowledge as mutually dependent and simultaneously engaged with.
This process of research through the design, discussion, and active use of these tools is an ongoing inquiry into the relationship with the technologies surrounding us. Tools shape our interactions when making and using technologies, taking a central role in what is considered possible or even desirable. New tools point to new work processes, skills, experiences, and insights, becoming valuable in the context of electronic making. This extends to new potential outcomes regarding the tactile and visual qualities of electronic and digital technologies (Figure 5).
The scenarios of use I have described here demonstrate the potential of blending the tacit knowledge embedded in manual crafts with explicit electronic goals. The tools allow the creation of textile electronics in a process of reflection in action . Responding through genuine craft routines to electrical necessities, they render the making process into an active conversation with the material at hand. They aesthetically and functionally enable us to consider textile crafts as electronic making.
What if electronic textile tools and materials were part of the standard equipment for electronic making? The connectable textile tools do not exclude the electronic functionality expected from multimeter probes, but they are specifically inclusive of textile materiality. While they would still be perfectly usable in most hardware electronic applications, their forms allude to textiles being a legitimate material and process for the creation of electronic and computational artifacts. For engineers this is an invitation to include those new materials and processes in their practice. For crafters it is a potential entry point to electronic making, recognizing their specific knowledge as valuable to the field. For students it can provide a new constructionist approach to technology and engineering. And it is a universal challenge to predominant assumptions about engineering and crafting practices as they symbolically and literally move closer together, making way for diverse materials and knowledge to be incorporated into electronic making and the objects produced.
This ongoing research has been initiated in collaboration with Ebru Kurbak, Hannah Perner-Wilson, and Mika Satomi as part of Stitching Worlds, an artistic research project funded by the Program for Arts-Based Research (PEEK) of the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) at the University of Applied Arts Vienna. I especially want to thank Daniela Rosner and Geraldine Fitzpatrick for feedback on draft versions of this text.
2. Kurbak, E. and Posch, I. The Knitted Radio. 2014; http://www.ireneposch.net/the-knitted-radio/
Irene Posch (www.ireneposch.net] is currently the key researcher within Stitching Worlds, an artistic research project at the University of Applied Arts Vienna. She is also a Ph.D. candidate at the Institute for Design and Assessment of Technologies at the Vienna University of Technology. firstname.lastname@example.org
Figure 2. A multimeter with custom red and black test leads. The red textile cable features a pin probe, the black one a mini banana plug to plug into the connectable needlecraft tools. Pictured are an awl, a crochet hook, and a seam ripper, all with a white handle and mini banana jack on the end.
Figure 4. Multimeter with red and black pin probes. Pins make contact with conductive threads to continuously measure and display the resistance value on the multimeter during stitching. The maker can immediately adapt the routine until the desired value is reached. In this sample, historic metal threads are used to embroider contact between coils to create textile relays.
Figure 5. Crafted Logic: handcrafted textile relays designed to perform logical operations similar to those of early computers. The sample shows the implementation of core mechanics of digital electronics as potentially extendable to embroider complex systems .
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