Sunday, September 20, 2009
It’s the morning after attending a one-day event labeled “Whirlwind Textile Workshop” at MIT’s Media Lab and my mind is still racing as I’m trying to synthesize and make sense of my experiences. This was my first hands-on introduction to computational textiles and circuitry in general. Yes, I already knew about the two poles, and that circuits must remain intact (I had thrown circuit breaker switches) and even replaced a lamp switch in a favorite bedroom lamp via instructions, but in my undergrad product design classes, circuits were not on the syllabus. So I went into the workshop with little understanding of the materials I would be working with.
Leah Buechley, the workshop leader not only designed the LilyPad but heads up the High-Low Tech Group at MIT. (see http://web.media.mit.edu/~leah/ ) Her passion & exuberance for computation textiles is abundantly apparent before, during and after her presentation igniting the room into constructing their first circuit, while a bevy of Leah’s students: Hannah (aka Plusea on Instructables) Emily, David & Bonifaz Kaufmann, a visiting student from Austria circled the room to lend their expertise when we faced a brick wall (or in this case a tiny light consumed by darkness).
After gathering at a large oval conference table, introductions were given be each member, including attendees: Yasmin Kafai, Mike & Quinn from Penn State, Nichole Pinkard from University of Chicago, and Kylie Peppler & myself from IU. Leah then presented an introduction to a wide variety of computational textiles like designs on the runway, fabric screen projecting pillows, and a shirt that could gather medical information to be analyzed. Next we looked as some other CT designs, like Leah’s lighting design activated by a breeze, a harp that activates a pyramid of lights, applications embedded into stuffed animals, Hanna’s design using a white body suit and a website entitled “Tentative Architecture of Other Earth” illustrating a knitted white sweater that seemingly breathed by reacting to the wearer’s mood and the ambient temperatures. (It reminded me of underwater sea plant movements – very subtle.)
Next Leah discussed the elements of and layout of a simple circuit: a power source, LED with a negative-shorter pole and the positive-longer pole, and a switch. However Hanna showed us hand made switches, that could be used on designs, like the beaded pendulum (see http://www.instructables.com/id/Fabric_amp_Bead_Tilt_Sensing_Bracelet/ ) which enables a random pattern of sensor responses (which may work for my “twirling” design project). Then it was time to play! Each workshop member designed and constructed a working circuit. Kylie had brought two things to work on, one a cardigan she wore at IU and another a pair of purple fairy wings, both perfect for the circuits. I recently came across a term in a fabric store for the re-purposing of both articles: fashionology. The magazine defined it as “the simple science of transforming purchased clothing and accessories with easy embellishments.” In looking at my closet, I found a number of items that could be redesigned or re-mixed with embedded computational textiles (e.g. a colorful hand-drawn-type graphic Woodstock t-shirt). Therefore, I would go one step further and strike the words: purchased (e.g. you may decide to transform a handed down grandmother’s garment), simple (e.g. science is far from simple), and easy (e.g. CT does involve a learning curve).
Kylie ended up focusing on her sweater so she passed the wings onto Nichole to embellish. I brought a patch to embed with electronics and connect it to a surface with Velcro so it could be placed/removed from anything. I thought it would be best to stitch the electronics on a layer of material behind the patch, or as Hannah pointed out, if I didn’t the stitching would show through the front of the patch…oh yeah! So I used the fabric crayons (yes…we had crayons!) to draw a road map of where the three elements needed to be sewn and a connecting path to sew with conductive thread. This helped me plan it out before I started and layout the parts in the proper direction the terminals were needed to connect properly (e.g. plus or minus) in the loop. I learned this from Yasmin, sitting beside me, when she sewed (quite beautifully!) a positive and negative together. She had to rip the stitching out and flip it. (I noted from her difficulty that the conductive thread is not easy to cut out.)
In my design, the most difficult part of my process was the placement of the light under the patch. I started to cut a hole in the patch, however, now I realize I should have simply used an LED light on the front of the patch (which I will probably change out.) And I may add more lights, although I don’t know if that is possible without using a LilyPad. (As you can see I’m still sketchy on how it all works together and need much more hands on play time!)
Due to the open nature of the workshop, conversations were happening instantaneously. We were learning from one another as we were all constructing our design. At one point in the conversation, Nichole responded to Kylie “You gave me wings!” We all laughed at her response, yet her simple statement was so poetic at the same time. Since we want all children to have wings to explore the possibilities that we were experiencing: to work in a community of learners, in a rich positive environment, be introduced to programming and design while learning valuable skills. In my opinion, the entire world needs to be given wings to experiment and participate as a lifetime learner.
COMING: Part 2:textile fabrication & workshop reflections