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Teresa Lamb on Tech and Textiles

In the second of our series on everyday creativity, we’re talking to Designlab’s very own Teresa Lamb.

As well as being an awesome front-end developer, she spends a lot of time knitting. Well, more than knitting: she’s been making a name for herself with innovative e-textile wearables and other forms of interactive engineering that connect crafting and tech. 

Hey Teresa! When did you first start knitting?

When I moved from Florida to New York City at age 22! That winter I experienced snow for the first time, and I was trying to stay warm. Knit fast, die warm, they say. My coworker (a programmer) showed me how to knit during our lunch breaks. My first project was a scarf—I just used a bunch of scrap yarn. It was pretty terrible, but I still have it for sentimental reasons.

How did you get interested in the link between tech and textiles?

I started learning programming for the first time at 24 during my first semester in grad school at NYU’s ITP. The class was moving quickly, and the whole experience was quite stressful, so I was knitting as a way to relax and clear my head while I thought through coding solutions. I was even knitting at my computer in class and while doing homework!

Then I suddenly realized the connection! Seeing the relationship made it easier for me to understand some basic programming concepts, because I was already using them in my knitting. 

When you’re knitting a scarf, you’re creating a two-dimensional array. Let’s say you knit 30 stitches to form a row, then you’ll repeat another 30 stitches for the next row, and so on for 200 rows—that’s the equivalent of a loop in programming. Knitting patterns also look a lot like code—instead of writing “Knit two stitches. Purl two stitches. Knit two stitches. Purl two stitches...” a pattern would say “k2 p2”.

We use shorthand to communicate a method in the shortest space necessary—there's a lot of math in knitting. The calculations can become much more complex, but as long as you can follow along the pattern you can create anything from a hat to socks to a sweater. 

A program is just a reusable set of instructions. The yarn is your input, the knitting is your output, and you are the processor. This realization gave me a way to explain knitting to the programmers I was meeting, and to explain my newfound coding skills to knitting friends. 

Knit Like Me, a web project by Teresa

Knit Like Me, a web app that lets you choose yarn and needles to create a "digital scarf", made by Teresa from her first semester at NYU ITP

What project are you most proud of?

Cyberknitics, which was my master’s thesis project. It’s a wearable device that translates the natural rhythm of knitting into music. I designed, fabricated, and programmed the device myself, and displayed it at several tech and fashion tech events.

Teresa’s Cyberknitics device in use. It turns the motions of knitting into music.

I'm most proud of it because it was a combination of all this research I had been doing around tech and craft. Cyberknitics was a tool to present these ideas in an accessible way. People can find the combination jarring at first. When I was starting out in my research people would say “are you going to make a knitting robot?”, but robots have been knitting for decades. If you are wearing a t-shirt, you can thank the knitting robots. That did get me thinking about cyborgs, though. My thesis question was “Will cyborgs knit?”.

I’m a fan of science fiction, especially as a tool for speculative thinking, which is why I wanted to propose that in the future we will still be knitting and making things by hand. My design was inspired by sci-fi, because I wanted to help create a new narrative. The way we envision the future says a lot about what we value right now, and I think we should pay special attention to what’s missing. We see lots of imagery of weapons and soldiers, but what about the makers?

People aren’t crafting because they have to, but because they enjoy the process. It’s calming, and there are actually many health benefits. I wanted to show that, rather than tech just replacing something that we do manually, we can also use tech to enhance work we do with our hands. The principles behind Cyberknitics could be applied to so many of the things we do by hand each day.

Maker Faire Cyberknitics

Maker Faire Cyberknitics

People experimenting with Cyberknitics at World Maker Faire 2016 in NYC

When I get to exhibit Cyberknitics, the project really resonates with other crafters. The generated sound creates a mindful experience that allows the wearer to connect with their work in a new way. Even non-crafters are able to gain insight into the knitting process, instead of just experiencing the end product.

Amongst the people I’ve met, I think it has helped in a small way to change attitudes on who belongs in the tech space and what tech is for. Craft is sometimes devalued in the tech space, so I like connecting with crafters to say, “yes, you belong in tech too!”.

Have there been any other unexpected insights from taking up knitting?

It’s really impressive talking to people who’ve been knitting a lot longer than I have, people a lot older than me who’ve been knitting their whole lives. Many of them have gained an amazing ability to do spatial reasoning and advanced calculations in their head. 

When I talk to those people about the affinity between coding and knitting, they will often come to me and say, “I never realized that’s what I was doing!”. I’ve also seen it give their families a new perspective on what they do. Instead of knitting being just “that thing that mom does”, it becomes, “oh, mom’s been doing this highly technical thing all these years!”. It especially touches me when women tell me they feel empowered to learn a new tech skill—often it’s just that nobody ever told them they could.

What challenges or barriers have you faced?

There’s constantly a challenge to learn new skills and techniques. For Cyberknitics, I learned leatherwork to build the arm-piece. I wanted to embed lights, so I developed my own technique for sewing circuitry into leather. I designed and etched my own sewable boards for connecting my electronic components. I probably spent a month just researching my materials like buttons, wires, connectors, and which board to use. I’d never studied fashion or sound design. I took workshops on garment design and pattern-making, researched music theory, and learned new audio software. 

Teresa's toolbox contains a mix of sewing notions and electronic components

Each part was challenging, but not entirely alien, because during each step I was building on a foundation of what I already knew. And each new skill you learn expands your ability to solve problems, because you can find solutions you would have never known were possible.

Other than that, I guess before grad school I had never really considered that I could code or build electronics. It had always been something that “other people” do—so I had to deal with my own insecurities and anxieties about that. But I was lucky that my grad program pushed me to do it, and that textiles gave me a way into it and allowed me to find my own niche. Most importantly, I’ve just learned how to keep learning.

Cross-stitch by Teresa, 2014

Are there other lessons that you think the tech world can take from crafting?

People like to create and work with their hands, and I don’t think that will ever change. For me what’s interesting is how technology becomes a part of that. 

Crafting tends to be highly social. Throughout history, women in particular have gathered in circles to knit, crochet, weave, quilt, and so on. In my experience in my own circles, we bond, we support each other, and teach each other. That seems just as important as actually making anything.

I wonder how that can relate to how we approach learning and making in the tech space. Also, it’s quite fascinating the way that crafts are passed down the generations. It raises questions like: who are the gatekeepers of information in the tech world? What tech skills and knowledge do we value enough to pass down? 

Watch Teresa’s TED talk on how combining tech and textiles can help us recalibrate attitudes to who belongs in the tech space

When you get involved in craft, you also quickly discover that every culture has its own traditions and textiles, its distinctive styles, tools, and techniques. Working in tech, it does sometimes feel like a lot of natural diversity gets homogenized. So many websites and apps start to look the same. It makes me wonder, can we consciously build technology in a way that is deliberately heterogeneous, accommodating of different cultures and approaches? How do we make sure that the technology really does reflect the people behind it? 

How does your creative process relate to crafting?

When you have a yarn and needles, you can kind of make anything, which can lead to creative paralysis. A project is much easier to define if it’s for someone else—you think about what they like, their style, where they live, what they need, and how and when they could use it. Approaching a creative project as a gift for someone else really changes it. 

There are lots of design usability principles at work on knitting, too. You can make a beautiful sweater, but if it’s too small or super scratchy or missing armholes, it’s unwearable. So as well as how it looks, you have to consider the fit, the functionality, and how it feels. On top of basic usefulness, you can add little touches that make the experience more delightful and unique for that person. 

When I make something for someone, I think it’s more enjoyable for me, and it hopefully makes it more special for them. I try to relate that to everything I build, even websites. One of my favorite quotes is from an essay about knitting:

“...something made with one's own hands says a few things of utmost importance: 
I made this for you.
I thought of you while I made it.
I guess I kind of love you.”

—Elizabeth Berg, The Pretend Knitter

knit hats by Teresa

Collection of hats knitted by Teresa for a local women's shelter in Brooklyn, 2016

What advice would you give to people aspiring to greater creativity?

I’d say look to what you already know and already have. I came into the tech space feeling intimidated, but was able to find a place there by drawing on what I had to offer—my knowledge of textiles. 

Embrace whatever skills and background knowledge you have, and use that to bring your unique perspective to whatever form of creativity you’re trying out. We can’t have innovation without people from different backgrounds and perspectives.

Red Burns, the founder of ITP, said that technology should bring people together, and that really resonated with me. The tech that survives is the tech that manages to fulfill that purpose.

Check out Teresa’s portfolio here!

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