Monday, October 16, 2006

More on the event at San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles

I've gotten some questions about the event at the museum, so here are a few musings on the reaction of the nonweaving public to the use of modern technology in the pursuit of an "historic" craft.

It was kind of interesting to see who "got" the concept of using the computer to drive the loom. One woman said "oh well, the computer there tells you what to do." I replied, "No, I tell the computer what to do." I asked her if she thought the laptop came with a set of weaving patterns on it, and if not, where did they come from (pointing to my head). She never accepted that reality was actually the reverse of her assumption; that it all starts and ends with me, and the computer's just a memory device to keep track of what I want to weave.

Hell, at my age, I can use all the memory aids I can get my hands on!

The men whose wives had dragged them kicking and screaming to the event were the most fun, because for most of them my demo was the most interesting thing going on, and I had a crowd of spouses gathered round much of the time. The guys "got it" right away and understood the concept of using a modern tool to make my weaving life easier. It may sound like a terribly sexist generalization, but it sure seemed to me that the guys "get" power tools far more readily than women.

Even here in the heart of Silicon Valley, there are a shocking number of people who think it is wicked and unnatural to combine technology and craft. Do they think that a house built without power tools is somehow more virtuous, or that a computer dobby is somehow more unnatural than a mechanical dobby? The latter is especially silly, since the two devices perform exactly the same function, and one is the direct descendant of the other. The only difference is that a digital dobby needs electricity to run and a mechanical dobby doesn't. They both convey information to the loom so the weaver can weave the cloth that the weaver intends, whether simple or complex.

After all, the dobby bar, with its holes and pegs, is the antecedent of the Hollerith card, named after Herman Hollerith (1860-1929). Perhaps better known as the IBM punch card, it was used by early computers instead of memory chips and disk drives to hold program instructions and data. (See here for a picture and more on Hollerith.)

When I first went to work in the high tech industry, back in the late 70s, there were still programmers around who had used punch cards to run programs, and I can remember stories about staffers whose program had failed because of a mis-punched card, who used tape to stick the punches (called "chad") back in the card and ran the deck containing the program through the card reader again. Many a card reading machine jammed because of chad that fell out when the tape came unstuck during processing.

The same sort of thing happens with mechanical dobbies. If a peg falls out of its bar, the programmer(weaver) gets an error in the program(weave pattern). While it may not crash the system, or jam the machine, it's still an error that has to be mended somehow.

Speaking of which, I discovered that the scarf I wove at the demo had a bunch of weaving errors in it (well, duh, not surprising with all the interruptions) so I spent a few hours with the magnifying goggles on, mending floats, which isn't fun at 60 epi with a complex design. I finally decided to go ahead and wet finish it. There may still be a few oopsies in it, but after washing and pressing, I couldn't find them easily, so probably nobody else can either. As soon as I can get photos taken, I'll post them here.

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