Wool at Reading Geek Night…

Last Tuesday I gave a talk at Reading Geek Night entitled “10 things you didn’t know about Wool.” Much of what I said in my talk will be old hat to seasoned knitters; you don’t need me to point out that shreddies are clearly NOT knitted by Nanas, nor that there are basic differences between woven and knitted textiles. But this talk was dedicated to engaging new, non-knitting audiences with some of the myriad aspects of wool and I hope I did a competent job of dispelling the myth that knitting is some sort of quaint, kooky, feminine past-time. I also hope I clearly demonstrated that a consideration of wool and knitting contains at least as much geekery as other technical topics such as open-source software development, (not really so different from online pattern discussion groups) new tools for Twitter, and the other fascinating subjects that are frequently discussed at these monthly evenings of talks.

I am a fan of Reading Geek Night; I enjoy the idea of individuals congregating in a bar to deliberately share technical knowledge and skills and this constructive use of time reminds me of the many excellent evenings I have spent with my knit-comrades in other hostelries, discussing different aspects of our craft. I am always thrilled by the things that human beings can teach each other when they come together to share what they know. However, I am also infuriated by the way that different technologies have become gendered into divisive male and female categories, as this neither advances our collective ability to solve problems, nor maximises the wealth of the knowledge-sharing which might take place. Reading Geek Night is almost exclusively a male province and the majority of knitters who congregate in the Global Cafe on Tuesday evenings for our knit-nights are female. In both contexts shared passions are discussed; the merits of different techniques are debated; and real-life problems are solved. Curiosity is common to both spaces, yet unhelpful stereotypes persist such as “knitting is for girls, why would I be interested in it?” or “what can I learn from a load of blokes talking about computers?” Luckily, at Reading Geek Night the presence of me and my knitting on several occasions had prompted someone (curious about what I was doing) to ask me if I would consider giving a talk about it, thus giving me the chance to contest some of the stereotypes which surround knitting and to ignore the gendering of knitting technology which means it would not normally be discussed in a male-dominated environment such as Reading Geek Night.

I immensely enjoyed presenting wool and knitting in this context!

I especially delighted in the creation of this chart, (which demonstrates the economic unfeasibility of shreddies being knitted by Nanas) creating a drop spindle from a slice of potato and a crochet hook to demonstrate the principles of spinning yarn from wool, and entering handy #hashtags throughout my slides, to orient my twitter-literate audience through the necessary diversions into #economics, #gender-politics, #technicals and #unique material properties which must attend any rigorous discussion on the topics of wool and knitting. Putting the talk together made me think about the many relationships between knitting and other more widely accepted forms of geekery – such as software development; social media etc. Ravelry is of course one obvious example of where the worlds of knitting and information technologies collide, but I also wanted to discuss how talented designers and forward-thinking shepherds are utilising the internet to educate the world about the value of their produce, and to add value to the things they are producing by adding context and history via the medium of blogs and twitter. I also found myself thinking about the relationship between making and thinking, especially in the context of the last Reading Geek Night talk I attended.

Last month at Reading Geek Night there was an excellent presentation on the BBC Micro; a computer on which a generation of folks learnt in a very manual and hands-on way how to write computer programming languages. Produced by the BBC in order to aid literacy, the computers were installed in schools, while an accompanying series of television broadcasts demonstrated how you could then programme them to do things. From what I could gather, the BBC Micro didn’t have an instantly recognisable Operating System like the machines that we use today, and instigating any operation on it generally required one to physically type in lines of code. I was struck by the relationship between these tactile and mental operations, and the way that we learn how things work. The BBC Micro talk left me thinking about the ways that understanding develops through the use of our hands and our minds; and how relatively impregnable and sealed software systems have become since the era of the BBC Micro. By the time I came to take IT lessons, Bill Gates’ WINDOWS OS had been installed throughout my secondary school. There seemed little incentive to work out how to write programmes from scratch given the diverting possibilities presented by MS Paint.

Martin Noble – who presented “back to basic… 30 years of the BBC Micro” last month – spent the weeks before the talk creating a programme so that he could deliver a slide-presentation à la MS Power Point at the evening. After this prolonged coding exercise, he was able to deliver his whole presentation from a 30-year old BBC Micro rigged up to a contemporary slide projector. He spoke about the manual qualities of the BBC Micro and the fact that in using this tool, he was forced to really grapple with the basic structure and language of programming. Listening to his descriptions of the relationship between one’s tools and one’s learning and understanding, I was reminded of one of the reasons why I knit.

I like to knit a sock because then I can then understand that sock; I am frustrated by the inscrutable nature of a sock which can be purchased on a 3-for-£1 basis from some unnamed mega-chain, revealing neither its economic or technical means of production, nor the province of the materials from which it is made. To refuse this sock in favour of the sock which I can create myself by understanding the basic elements of a sock – a length of yarn, a set of needles, a clear objective, and a chart of numbers – has (at least to my mind) a kinship or similarity with the idea of ripping digital experiences back to their most fundamental elements; lines of code. Knitting my own socks means that I end up with socks which I understand, and whose making has involved solving problems through the performance of both manual and cerebral tasks. It also means I have an adaptable set of tools at my disposal; knowledge which can be then applied to other problems and contexts. Likewise, I imagine that having access to the basics of programming – a machine on which to compute, an understanding of coding principles, a clear objective, the right language – then one can custom-build something such as a programme, for example, which will enable a 30-year-old computer to play a slideshow through a digital projector. I am interested in the idea that programmers have a more tangible and grounded relationship with programming languages than non-programmers who – like the 3-for-£1 sock buyer – are forced to accept computers into their lives at face value, knowing little about their inner workings, internal language, or inherent structure. Exploring the world of software programming and knitting are two pursuits from amongst many which satisfy deep curiosities about how the world around us works.

For me, curiosity is an interdisciplinary element of human nature, which – by definition – is particularly excited by the cross-pollination of ideas between one realm of life into another. To my mind, a geek is anyone who is motivated largely by their desire to pursue that fruitful curiosity. So whether or not I will have converted many non-knitters to the fun that is knitting and the wonderful world of wool remains to be seen; but if I haven’t, then I hope at least that learning about a different, parallel world of making and thinking will have given the Reading Geeks some interesting material to think about. Or that now it is possible to see how one’s socks could be understood.

I didn’t record the talk and the slides are not fully annotated with all the extra points which were made during the talk, but hopefully they can act as handy pointers for the folks who asked me if I would put them up here; the presentation can be downloaded by right-clicking this link.

You will need to install (windows instructions) (mac instructions) the Blue Highway D-Type font in order to see the slides as I designed them – a font which I sought in 2003, back when I made this video piece, which explored the parallel approaches taken by clothes-makers and film-editors (can anyone spot an ongoing theme here…?)

I have also uploaded a couple of clips here for your enjoyment, including 2 features I made for BBC Oxford about 1. spinning a fleece from a Cotswold sheep; and 2. the Oxford Silk Group. These features respectively contain 1. interviews with Richard Martin from Filkins mill and Carol Thorpe from the Oxford Guild of Weavers Spinners and Dyeing; and 2. Chris Holland from the Oxford Silk Group discussing the wonderful world of spider silk and silk research.

4 Responses to Wool at Reading Geek Night…

  1. Pingback: Reading Geek Night 17 roundup

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