I’ve been spending a lot of time lately around people who think about creativity and innovation. Actually, it’s hard to avoid these topics. They seem so interwoven with life in 21st century America. But amid the rage for novelty and change, I have to wonder what we are losing. Maybe there were some good ideas that got lost along the way; perhaps part of our job is to reclaim wisdom with which we have lost touch, and try it on again in a new context, a new century.
While spending this time around the creativity and innovation folks, I’ve been thinking a lot about how certain sorts of everyday creativity–and creation–go unnoticed, or at least are undervalued. I’m leading an extracurricular activity, Sewing for Engineers, this year at the Olin College of Engineering, and I’m reminded how much skill and reasoning is involved in sewing. Patternmaking, thinking in 3D, characteristics of materials, order of operations, function, fine motor skill combined with structural knowledge. Sewing is a form of engineering, too, but less respected, perhaps, because of its association historically with women’s work, or because of its literal “softness.”
So how do we retrieve, uncover this sophisticated hidden knowledge?
Although women have made gains in most areas of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) in the US over recent decades, one area where women’s participation has actually fallen is in computer science. Advocates seeking to counter this trend have tried to change the image of computing culture and to convince girls that “robots are cool.”
Our work with Performamatics (http://teaching.cs.uml.edu/Performamatics), which brings together arts and computing faculty for joint undergraduate teaching, suggests an alternative approach with many benefits: bringing the fiber arts together with computing in a deep way that potentially enriches both fields. Quilting is associated with family, security, warmth, tradition, culture, artistry, craft—and women. Further, because so many cultures have rich quilting traditions (in the US, for example, many African American quilts are prized collectors items) underrepresented ethnic groups can also be positively affected by quilting as a gateway to computing. Quilting, valuable for its own sake, is also a potential route to technical fluency and careers.
Quilting and computing have many potential points of contact: like much indigenous and traditional art there are many mathematical ideas embedded in quilts (see for example http://www.ted.com/talks/ron_eglash_on_african_fractals.html.) Similarly, “computational thinking” can be seen in the production even of handmade quilts. Today many quilters are also using computer controlled sewing machines and Computer Aided Design (CAD). Finally, the work on “computational garments” is equally applicable to quilts. There is a wealth of knowledge and engagement here waiting to be discovered.