A Fascinating Melting Pot: Embroidery Meets Technology With TurtleStitch

by | 4 July 2019 | Art, Conferences, Design, Education, Interactive Techniques

Image credit: Andrea Mayr-Stalder, turtlestitch.org

The SIGGRAPH Studio is a place for participants to join together and try out different types of amazing technology as they experiment with the ideas surrounding the rest of the conference. At SIGGRAPH 2019, you’ll have the chance to create something truly special as you collaborate with the team behind TurtleStitch. We sat down with each of the contributors behind the installation to learn more about the project and what we’ll be “making” at the end of July.

SIGGRAPH: TurtleStitch is a tool that not only helps users create beautiful embroidered art, but has the ability to teach programming to the masses. What was the inspiration for the development of TurtleStitch?

Michael Aschauer (MA): Five years ago, When Andrea asked me to implement the first version of TurtleStitch — we had collaborated on other projects, including some works with coded embroidery — I did not know what I was getting into. The most inspiring thing about this project is the community. The community had already embraced TurtleStitch when it still was a half-baked, half-finished prototype, triggered by a tweet from the SNAP! Creator Jens Mönig (below). It was given a warm welcome into the broader, block-based coding family. An enthusiastic community is what inspires and drives this project for me.

Tanya Dixon (TD): Until recently, I had not been involved with TurtleStitch. I work in technology (as a scrum master and QA engineer) and am an avid crafter. I learned about TurtleStitch from Ursula and am very excited about the possibilities.

Andrea Mayr-Stalder (AMS): For a long time, I have been very interested in textiles, in art, and in free and open-source software. But, there was no obvious way to bring these different domains together. This changed when I saw an embroidery machine for the first time. It seemed full of possibilities and also hugely constrained by the proprietary software that came with it. So, I decided to investigate the file-format, how to open it, and to experiment with different approaches to generate new design patterns.

After a while, I decided to use a block-based language, such as Scratch and Snap!, because using the pen tool allows you to draw complex patterns that are both computationally and aesthetically interesting. This easy-to-use but powerful coding environment enabled less technically inclined designers to use the tool and made it a great teaching platform for attracting very heterogeneous users. When we do workshops with kids, we find that some approach it through an interest in coding, while others start from an interest in the visual patterns. Some are even drawn to it because of the textile dimension. The input — code — and the output — textiles — are very different and, thus, appeal to different interests, which is less the case in robotic-oriented approaches, where both the input and the output is similarly technical.

Ursula Wolz (UW): Andrea and Michael can speak to this better than I can, but the origin of turtles in Scratch and Snap! is the Logo Programming language developed in the 1970s at the MIT AI Lab by Seymour Papert. Harold Abelson and Andrea DiSessa wrote a serious math book about it called Turtle Geometry.

SIGGRAPH: Fast Company recently reported on a project called “The Emroidered Computer,” which also combines textiles and technology. What interested your team in this combination? Why embroidery?

MA: There has always been an important link connecting textiles (industry) and technology, as well as the history of computing — at least since the invention of the Jacquard Loom in 1804, if not earlier. The combination of those domains in TurtleStitch, in my opinion, create a fascinating melting pot: Open Source enters proprietary environments, the Arts and Crafts meet Technology, and it prototypically encompasses all fields of STEAM by fostering trans-disciplinary thinking (instead of mere computational thinking). Additional bonus: In the end, you also get a fashionable piece to wear and show off!

TD: Machine embroidery has been computerized for years. The exciting thing about TurtleStitch is that, using code, you can create beautiful designs. This motivates kids to learn how to code and create something tangible. My personal interest in the concept of technology-driven crafts applies to upgrading early electronic knitting machines to interface with a computer. I’m excited to use TurtleStitch to generate designs that can be converted to images to be knitted. I am imagining kids being motivated to learn to code because they would be able to make their own fabrics (and maybe even sweaters!) with their own custom patterns.

AMS: The activity of embroidering — be it by hand or by machine — has always had elements of executing code. And there is this tantalizing history that the first programmable machines were weaving looms. In the case of the “Embroidered Computer” these elements are combined in a more speculative way.

Usually, in machine embroidery, the code is hidden and used to generate very conventional patterns, a kind of application of the computer to do what could be done by hand, but now, much faster and more precisely, but little else.

With TurtleStitch, the code is put into the foreground, but not as text-based commands: as a series of logical steps. In this sense, it’s less about writing code and more about computational thinking. We direct it away from the computer, towards visual patterns and textile creation. It brings computational thinking and the collaborative culture of open source to an entirely new field, and allows to envision things. For example, fractal or randomized patterns that would simply be impossible (and not just impractical) to conceive by hand.

UW: Almost 20 years ago now, the National Science Foundation began an initiative known as Broadening Participation in Computing, or BPC. I had funding from that program to build a middle school curriculum around interactive journalism that included coding animations in Scratch. Four years ago at Grinnell College I was challenged to build an introductory curriculum for non-majors (CS 0). Rachel Schnepper, who was a technology educator at Grinnell, suggested Lily-pads, which are kits to teach people about electronics and computer hardware. I remembered meeting Andrea at a Scratch conference where she demoed an early version of TurtleStitch. I’ve used TurtleStitch as part of an alternative CS 0 curriculum called “Code Crafting,” both as a full semester undergraduate course and in workshops for kid and adult artists. It is a natural fit because you have to solve problems of robotics, path finding, and geometry.

SIGGRAPH: In the SIGGRAPH 2019 Studio, you will allow participants to use the tool and experiment with precision embroidery. What excites you about demoing TurtleStitch at SIGGRAPH?

AMS: We are excited about presenting at SIGGRAPH because we will able to reach new and wider audiences that we think will understand the concepts of TurtleStitch well and are thus capable do doing amazing things with it quite quickly. We are looking forward to being surprised!

TD: I’m excited to see what folks think about programming and how they get excited by it as they create embroideries!

Susan Ettenheim (SE): I am very excited to demo TurtleStitch and to see the wonder when people can touch and feel their code. The first reaction is that of having created, and it is true that, in our day and age, code is a material for artistry and creative endeavors, whether it be in math, science, or art.

UW: I’ve run three-hour workshops and full-semester courses with TurtleStitch. The installation is an entirely different venue, giving us the potential to truly create a “workshop” where people can drop in for a half hour, or come back day after day. I am excitedly anticipating great art and great computing from the participants, taking code crafting to a new level.

SIGGRAPH: You mention in your project description that the tool helps teach math and computer science. Do you offer up members of your team as instructors? If not, how do you work with educators?

AMS: Being an open-source project, freely available online — and with the option to share one’s designs and codes with others — a lively community has formed, with quite a few educators at its core. So, rather than having to send people around, which we couldn’t do anyway as small organization, educators come to us, participate in the community and bring that knowledge back to their contexts. We support them with teaching materials, such as a set of training cards and manuals, and they contribute their own materials and tutorials to the platform. We would love to [eventually] provide more materials to empower educators around the world, but are still looking for ways to finance this.

SE: The NYC [Department of Education] Computer Science for All initiative has put together a number of videos to support educators. This video, “Integrating Art and Computer Science,” is about using TurtleStitch to teach computer science. We in the TurtleStitch community are constantly in touch with each other, sharing ideas and mentoring through the organization’s site, as well as through Instagram and Twitter shares or the Coding and Stitching website. 

UW: Our entire team is comprised of educators and crafters. We have found that a maker approach works best with educators. For example, I introduced Anne Marie Webber to the embroidery machine, then she introduced it to her alternative math class and created her own agenda based on the collaborative quilt activity I developed at Grinnell. Rather than prescribe every step, Anne Marie adapted the general idea for the specific needs of her class. I checked in with her about every two weeks, and was on-call when she got stuck. (She only got stuck once.) This gentle “let the teacher be the guide” is the approach I took in the NSF Interactive Journalism project, and have used in for almost 40 years working with educators. (I was an undergraduate researcher and teacher in the MIT Logo Lab.)

SIGGRAPH: The creations that participants make in the SIGGRAPH 2019 Studio will be added to a collaborative quilt that your team is planning to raffle off. Tell us a bit about how that will work.

TD: I will be one of the folks that helps construct the quilt. I leave it to the team leaders to figure out how that will happen!

UW: The collaborative quilt is a component of the Code Crafter curriculum, and was used both at Grinnell College and Mt. Anthony Union High School, in Bennington, Vermont, to provide students with the experience of developing and implementing a complex software engineering project with minimal coding skills. At SIGGRAPH 2019, we will have the time to offer the experience to participants and will suggest two themes for the quilts we hope to design at the Studio, then challenge the participants to come up with more designs. We will start with a window-pane concept, where each block of the quilt is an embroidered piece, but in the true code crafting, agile design spirit will embrace the creativity of the participants. Through short videos, participants will learn the basic elements of TurtleStitch, and will be challenged to create a block, or two or three. Participants can even collaborate on a block. We will also provide embroidery machines and material, and participants will have the chance to be engaged in the layout of the quilts. Everyone who contributes a block will receive a raffle ticket, too!

SIGGRAPH: Have you attended a SIGGRAPH conference before? If yes, share your favorite memory. If no, share what you are most looking forward to experiencing.

TD: I went to a SIGGRAPH conference in NYC when I was going to NYU in the mid-’80s. I was blown away by computer graphics. I can’t wait to see how things have evolved in the last 30 years!!!

AMS: I’ve known SIGGRAPH since the mid-1990s, but I’ve never attended so I’m very exited to come this year. What I’m looking forward to, in particular, is to see the designs that people come up with during our workshops, but also to talk to diverse and highly knowledgeable group of people about where to take TurtleStitch next.

UW: Yes I have. The first time, in 2006, was to present outcomes from a Microsoft-funded project to develop a multi-disciplinary game development curriculum, and again in 2018 when I presented a paper in the education track on “creative computation” using processing. My very favorite memory is watching [SIGGRAPH 2019 Studio Chair] Chrissy Cain try to figure out why a Brother PE770 embroidery machine wouldn’t render her design. I showed her how to locate the proper file format, and showed her TurtleStitch. That small act of collaboration and information sharing is the reason we are going to SIGGRAPH 2019!

The SIGGRAPH 2019 Studio is open to participants with an Experiences badge and above. Check out a preview of all Studio installations below!

Meet the Team

Michael Aschauer is the lead developer of TurtleStitch. He is a digital artist and software artisan. His works have been shown around the globe and have been awarded with prizes on several occasions, such as Prix Ars Electronica. He also has a professional background working in media, web and software development, as well as in operations for live broadcasts since the beginning of this millennium. Michael currently lives in Vienna, Austria and San Diego, CA.

Susan Ettenheim started her professional life as a visual artist and is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts award in Painting. She worked in libraries and bookstores and created commissioned embroidery pieces for many years before working as director of community for Oxygen Media. She is currently an arts and computer science teacher at an NYC public high school. Susan learned about Turtlestitch and met Andrea Mayr, the founder, in 2013 at the Scratch Conference in Amsterdam. She fell in love with this new, open-source application that would combine lifelong interests in embroidery and coding.

Tanya Dixon works with RiverSound Solutions.

Andrea Mayr-Stalder initiated Turtlestitch.org, a platform to combine computing and embroidery. Since the late 1990s, Andrea has worked on numerous artistic and educational Internet projects. She is an artist and media developer with more than 10 years of experience developing open source software for children and adults. Currently, she is Codeweek.eu Ambassador for Austria. She has worked with textiles since her teenage years and now combines her two passions through TurtleStitch. She studied media art in Vienna and has worked as a system administrator and programmer at ISPs in Vienna and New York.

Ursula Wolz, Ph.D., studies educational informatics, She combines academics and entrepreneurship to develop computer-based learning environments that include non-traditional media for teaching coding. She founded RiverSound Solutions with a mission to empower computer users to become creators with, rather than consumers of, computing. In both formal and informal classrooms, she teaches inner-city and rural students at risk, affluent suburbanites, elite undergraduates, first to college, international students, and their teachers. Her passion is interactive storytelling and games for learning, and her recent work includes “code crafting,” exploring how a range of computer science concepts, from function parameters to path finding can be taught through hand and machine textile production. 

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