Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Technology and Fiber

Generally speaking, folks don’t associate spinners, weavers and knitters with any technology more sophisticated than a small calculator – and indeed, you can easily practice these crafts with merely a piece of paper and a pencil as long as you possess arithmetic proficiency on a par with that of a third-grader. Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division will get you through.

But the deeper you delve into designing your own weaving patterns, knitting patterns and yarns the more useful you will find various mathematical tools and concepts – and the more sophisticated your tools for manipulating the variables involved become. This is where computers came in handy.

That’s the most common reason given for the early presence on what is sometimes called the ‘pre-internet’ of the weaving and knitting lists, bulletin boards and discussion forums. It’s also a common reason given for the relative sophistication of fiber artists’ usage of computer-assisted or computer-driven tools like computer-dobby looms and computer-assisted knitting machines.

Fiber folks entered the computer age early on. I’ve never thought of myself as a mathematician, and if I had any early urges or talents in that direction Mrs. Grubb, my sixth, seventh and eighth-grade math teacher back in the late 1960’s, quickly dissuaded me. She implanted quite a math phobia in at least two generations of female students! Yet I unhesitatingly utilize mathematical concepts in my weaving and knitting as well as my spinning. Fibonacci series for stripes both vertical and horizontal, undulating curve design, color progressions according to mathematical calculations of hue and shade – I don’t think twice if I want to use these and other concepts, happily utilizing algebra and calculus to help me design. Computers seem at first glance to have little to do with the ‘fuzzy’ arts. But look a bit deeper. We have programs to help us plan colorways, design three-dimensional constructs, determine warp and weft patterning and more.

We also have helped to drive the social networking parts of the modern world-wide web with our inclusive tendencies toward other fiber artists. We like to learn; we take classes within our geographic regions, but we also take classes virtually – and we discuss them! We discuss the classes, what we’ve learned from the classes, how we think we might modify what we learned, and where we think the teacher is full of baloney. We also travel the world for classes and frequently post photos, descriptions and videos of what we’ve learned – both about fiber arts and about the culture in which those arts originated.

Today the necessary computing power for much of our design work and social networking can be held easily in one hand. My current smartphone has more processor power than did any two of my first four computers. And thanks to the fact that only an extremely small percentage of the population had Mrs. Grubb for math, even over the 25+ years she taught, there are more and more applications (we seldom use the word “program” for these gems) available for these hand-held processors. I no longer need to sit at a desk, lug around a notebook or laptop computer – I can simply use my phone as a design tool!

Given that all of this has occurred within the last generation (counting a generation as 25 years), I’m awaiting the next 25 years with bated breath! As a long-time fan of Star Trek, I can easily visualize myself, within the next 5-10 years, simply talking to or showing my smartphone/pad (which in my imagination now looks something like the pads from Next Generation) to get a weave pattern, curve calculation, or knitted sample gauge and knitting directions for a specific garment to size. Is there a connection between fiber artists and computers? You bet there is! And this connection will only become more pronounced as time goes on.