Written for UWW 305: Concepts in Learning Integration, taught by Abigail Dallmann
May 2, 2021
Textiles and Digital Technology: The epidemic of mediocrity?
"Like many other things, recent times saw the history of knitting take an unfortunate turn for the worse. Though the popularity of the craft has gone through the roof, we are now faced with an unprecedented epidemic of mediocrity characterized by the ultra-bulky yarn and loosely knit, skinny scarves" (Auerbach, as cited in Searle, 2008, p. 109). There's no denying that the popular aesthetics in the contemporary knitting, crocheting, macrame, and weaving world are quite homogenous, as knitwear artist Lisa Anne Auerbach describes above. Historically, this has been blamed on the long tradition of copying in the fiber arts world, made possible by the medium's implicit capability for written and diagrammatic representation and therefore mass reproduction and distribution of said patterns-- all of which has been exacerbated by technological advances. The crafts have been barred from the "high art" world due to this perception of unoriginality, not to mention their historic placement in the domestic, feminine, working class realm. But I'd argue that this "epidemic of mediocrity" should not be blamed on the technological reproducibility of textile arts, but rather the corporate interests that have inserted themselves into fiber art mediums. Furthermore, the characteristic reproducibility of textiles can be a great asset: this is demonstrated here by two projects that intentionally weave together computer and fiber arts. Ultimately, in this paper I'm rejecting the idea that the "copying" practices involved in textile production make the mediums unoriginal, and advocating for an enthusiastic embrace of digital and traditional art practices in all their entanglement.
In G. Kenning's (2015) paper "Creative craft-based textile activity in the age of digital systems and practices," she reflects on the ways that domestic textiles have been viewed as limited in their creative potential, since they reproduce preexisting templates and patterns. In general, "processes and products that eventuate in values that are widely shared as innovative or novel are considered more broadly creative" (p. 452), and the tradition of pattern sharing in knitting is viewed as neither innovative nor novel. It's in fact frowned upon for supposedly encouraging mere imitation of other's work.
But while textile mediums have been accused of being unoriginal due to this reproducible nature, others-- myself included-- would blame the "epidemic of mediocrity" on the corporate interests that have suffused the domestic art world. Crochet lace patterns were published by thread companies in the late 19th to early 20th century to expand sales of their products, a practice that yarn companies continue today (Kenning, 2015, p. 453). And the patterns they produce are those that offer instant gratification-- as contemporary knitwear artist Lisa Anne Auerbach writes: "Yarn companies are laughing all the way to the bank as they introduce more yarns and patterns that will satisfy knitters with a "scarf in an hour" or a "sweater in a day" (as cited in Searle, 2008, p. 109). Independent designers are similarly incentivized with views and likes to offer tutorials on reproducing trendy items seen on celebrities (see fig. 1 at end).
Technology both new and old has been the great facilitator of this reproduction. The aforementioned crochet lace patterns sold by thread companies were made possible by the rise of printing technology. In fact, they were also frequently published in women's magazines that were becoming more widely available. Now, in the era of digital technology, patterns are limitlessly proliferating throughout the entire internet-- making them all the more "uncreative."
The ability to represent complex textiles as easily reproducible diagrams at all comes from the "spatial, iterative, modular, and/or informational characteristics" (Kenning, 2015, p. 454) of fiber arts. Stitches and/or knots and their relation to one another can be easily represented symbolically or in the written word, or even in computer code! Zeroes and ones, knits and purls, warp and weft: fiber arts are extremely compatible with digital technology. In fact, even the earliest computers have their foundations in weaving technology, specifically the Jacquard loom. The punch card of the loom directly inspired Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine, which then gave rise to IBM's first computers (Plant, 1999) (see fig. 2-4 at end). The inter- twined nature of textiles and computers are not a recent development.
Rather than dismissing the entire medium as unoriginal, it's worth considering what opportunities are afforded by the code-like structure of textile arts, and ways it can be utilized for novel, creative ends. Auerbach herself encourages us, "Do not be shy. The time is now; there will never be a better one. Use technology if you have to. Computers are your friends" (as cited in Searle, 2008, p. 109).
Here I turn to two examples of beautifully novel computational textile projects that embrace the strangeness of the artistic playing field.
SkyKnit is a recurrent neural network that learned to generate knitting patterns from the 5,228 example patterns its human collaborators gave it (SkyKnit, 2018). As you'd expect, the patterns are fairly nonsensical and require some interpretation on the part of the artist in order to turn them into tangible textiles. Even the titles are odd: "basic beeper- muster," "man leaf cross," and "squishy are shit." are some of my favorites. But when you look at the things people have made from these scrambled patterns, their apparent uselessness is really charming (see fig. 5 at end). It's interesting to consider these items in the context of originality and reproduction. The patterns that produced them were not written by the thoughtful hand of a craftsperson with an intended outcome, or a company pandering to the trendiest styles. They're a curious amalgamation-- a naive algorithm's interpretation of what a knitting pattern should be. These patterns aren't copies of the patterns they were based on. And the textiles people make of these patterns aren't just direct representations of the pattern because they require some personal interpretation, given the syntactical and logical errors the AI overlooks. This need for improvisation while knitting, as you come across a line that just doesn't make sense, is significantly mentally liberating. By using a machine learning algorithm as a mediator in the artistic process we can embark on a playful new way of creating that has no truck with notions of originality.
Kenning made a similarly innovative digital art project: a digital environment that gave rise to a series of crochet lace simulacra (see fig. 6 at end). The code-like structure of textiles and their diagrams, as discussed earlier, are extremely conducive to digital simulation: in particular, the "spatial, iterative, modular, and/or informational characteristics" (Kenning, 2015, p. 454). What are the implications
of such a project? She argues that "By translating patterns into the electronic digital environment and engaging with the pattern forms at their systematic core, I was able to examine whether the patterns' developmental paths could be altered to create new, evolutionary or emergent pattern forms" (Kenning, 2015, p. 453). Rather than shy from the digital reproducibility of crochet and other textiles, Kenning shows that computational tools can be used to actually explore the possibility of new designs.
Both of these projects show what is possible when craftspeople intentionally engage with the overlapping worlds of digital computation and fiber arts. I don't dispute that there is something disquieting about the dominant mundane knitting aesthetics-- but let's not get confused: the reproducibility of textiles in not necessarily the source of this "epidemic of mediocrity" (Searle, 2008, p. 109). Rather, the corporate interests that have inserted themselves into the production process are to blame. In fact, the reproducibility that is often scoffed at can be a great asset to the medium, allowing for the remarkable intertwining of computers and fiber arts. Rather than relegating textile crafts to "low art" we must recognize the ways that (traditionally female) makers have demonstrated incredible creativity. I for one warmly welcome this collaboration, and look forward to seeing what's in store for fiber arts as digital technology develops more and more.
Kenning, G. (2015). Creative craft-based textile activity in the age of digital systems and prac- tices. Leonardo, 48(5), 450–456. https://doi.org/10.1162/leon_a_00907.
Plant, S. (1999). The Future Looms: Weaving women and cybernetics. In J. Wolmark, Cybersex- ualities (pp. 99-118). Edinburgh University Press.
Searle, K. (2008). Knitting art: 150 innovative works from 18 contemporary artists (K. Cornell Ed.). Voyageur Press.
SkyKnit. (2018, February). SkyKnit: The Collection. Ravelry. https://www.ravelry.com/patterns/ library/skyknit-the-collection.