So, first, let’s get the most important part out of the way.
That’s what my Horrible Sister* calls a “dolphin squeal of joy,” and it is what I did when a certain someone at the awesomest online knitting destination (that would be Knitty) sent me an email that I’d gotten a project accepted to Knitty’s Spring 2010 issue.
A bag that knows your knitting project as well as you do. The Know-It-All Knitting Bag actually has a computer chip built into it in the form of an Arduino LilyPad. The LilyPad connects to a push button and 10 LED lights–each one a stitch in a knitting-chart grid. I’ve done all the coding for you, so it’s just a matter of plugging the LilyPad into a computer and syncing it, much like you would an iPod or cell phone. For the full pattern and instructions, go visit Knitty.com and then come back to hapagirl.com for the custom-code and row-counter generator.
Of course, the bag itself isn’t the whole story. It never is, at least for a good historian (which I am hopefully becoming). Context makes the object, after all, and in this case, I mean that quite literally.
I spent the summer and fall of 2009 cramming the last 100 years worth of scholarship on medieval history into my head en route to a 3-hour oral exam aimed at a PhD in Medieval History.** It turns out that when you empty your head of 6 months of reading in 3 hours, some equally complex problem-solving challenge has to fill the void, or you’ll go crazy. So in the two weeks after my qualifying exams, my fevered brain made a connection between a past computational textiles workshop I did with Dr. Kylie Peppler at Indiana University and a future Knitty deadline. In a timely stroke of serendipity, this Knitty submission was exactly what I needed to wean my brain slowly off of the academic adrenaline high I’d been on for six months.
All of that extra energy that suddenly had no academic outlet went into scheming. About the functionality of light-based chart patterns, about the possibility of row counting, about the conductivity of puffy paint. And so, I knitted and felted and learned about electronic circuits and programming (badly) in C. And screwed up. Quite a bit.
The first felting attempt not so much in proportion, no?
It may very well have been the screwing up that really helped in the post-exam decompression phase. It was refreshing to know that I could screw up as many times as I wanted to without any significant consequences (Knitty deadline notwithstanding). The stress of connecting that much scholarship and keeping it ready for instant recall actually created the environment necessary to pull such a broad variety of untested skills and unfamiliar components into what ultimately (after all of the problem solving was done) is a very simple project.
I wanted every single element of this bag to be entirely functional. The pins in the bottom right of the LilyPad don’t control any components, so they’re not sewn down with thread, conductive or otherwise.
And yes, it really is simple. This was my first time working with needle felting, electronic circuits, computational textiles, and C programming. The instructions are really detailed, but the level of competency required for each skill is very low. That means a low barrier to entry for any knitter who wants to try a whole bunch of new stuff and still produce a really spectacular Finished Object.
The Know-It-All Knitting Bag is (like the Arsenal gloves after it) a very collaborative effort. I had help working through the project at each step, so props must be given where props are due. Inspirational thanks to Kylie A. Peppler from Indiana University’s Learning Sciences program, Leah Buechley from MIT Media Lab’s High-Low Tech Group, and their teams for holding the computational workshop that started this project. The workshop and Arduino LilyPad materials for the prototype bag were funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation to Kylie A. Peppler (NSF-0855886). Particular thanks are due to Joshua Danish for helping solve several of the engineering and design obstacles that helped make the Know-It-All Knitting Bag a practical possibility for any knitter instead of a specialty toy for a few select geeks. If Joshua provided the geeky perspective, The Best Knitting Group Ever provided the knitterly perspective, helping me translate electronics-speak into language knitters can understand. Finally, Nathan at Sparkfun put together a special kit for Knitty readers that contains all of the components necessary to make the bag and then provided two kits as give-away prizes (one here, one at Knitty, we’ll keep you posted).
*I’m “Terrible,” she’s “Horrible,” and Mom is “No-Good” thanks to Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
**No, I don’t have the PhD yet. Qualifying exams first, then a dissertation proposal (also done), and then the dissertation and earning of degree (so very, very far from being done).