The Know-It-All Bag in a GreenhouseAwesome! The winner of Knitty’s contest for the Know It All bag kit (provided by SparkFun) is a local! It’s a very, very small world. Congratulations to Stephanie B, who’s going to teach her son how electronic circuitry works.

And now it’s my turn. SparkFun provided two–yes, TWO!–Know It All bag kits for Knitty readers to play with, and now that Knitty’s given theirs away, I’m going to give mine away.

To enter, leave a comment on this post [below, where it says "Leave a Reply"] and tell us what you’d like to program into your Know it all Bag! I’ll pick the one I like the best and send out a kit, lickety-split!

(One comment per person. Contest ends April, 15 2010. Approximate value of prize: $65.90. Winner will be contacted before their name is announced.)

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.

The project?

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 and then come back to for the custom-code and row-counter generator.

See The Know-It-All Knitting Bag in action!

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.

Felted Baguette Bag

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.

The Know-It-All Bag felted grid and LEDs

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).

There are lots of things my Mom did intentionally, to model proper behavior for my sister and I. Share! Be nice! Eat your cheesecake parallel to the crust! I’m not sure either of the following two things were intentionally done on her part as examples for my sister and I, but they sure stuck.

When I was in seventh grade, my Mom got my sister and I a puppy. A tiny, squirming too-smart-for-her-own-good mutt who knew when it was a friend coming up the walk, effectively blocked a 250-lb repairman from coming near anyone in the family despite her less-than-imposing 7-lb weight and instantly became one of the family. Turns out D.J. was the model by which I now judge all dogs (and to be brutally honest, people), but it was a difficult adjustment to learn how to take care of her, to integrate her daily needs into our lives when we were just kids who wanted to go play.

Right about the same time, my Mom brought home a “laptop.” A huge, hulk of a machine that weighed as much as I did, had a tiny 7″ orange-type screen and a detachable keyboard that formed part of the hard outer-shell case. It ran DOS and made sad little beeping noises when you accidentally typed “D:\” instead of “C:\” at the > prompt. She used it to create really complicated documents, muttering the whole time about “reveal codes” and how she always had to fix other people’s stupid formatting mistakes. But it had Q-Bert and that made putting up with her muttering and carting its bulk up and down the stairs to my room worthwhile. Turns out that big, giant hulk of a machine was the model by which I now judge technology. And–let’s also be brutally honest here–some people (especially the ones who make sad little beeping noises when you make tiny mistakes. Sadly, these people tend not to pass the dog-yardstick test or come with the redeeming Q-Bert install).

Thankfully, the model the dog provided and the model the computer provided serve very different purposes. I know now that dogs and people often live up to the admittedly-high D.J. yardstick, but computers will forever outpace my ability to measure them. And I learned that we add things to our lives because, even if they complicate life in some unpredictable ways, our lives get better. Easier. Faster. More rewarding.

I am who I am–a geek with a willingness to accept that things can’t stay the same forever and a great longing for both fountain pens and bleeding-edge technology–because my Mom brought home the dog and then the computer. Because Mom always questioned her environment and looked for the right thing to change. She got the fantastic dog who added so much responsibility and joy to our lives. She used reveal-codes when most people just selected text and pressed the “bold” key regardless of what might happen.

That means Mom has the longest-running geek-grrl influence in my life, making her my Ada Lovelace Day/Women in Technology/Let’s Honor The World’s First Programmer role model, whether or not that’s what she intended. Instead of hanging back and staying in the typesetting field with which she was so familiar, she taught herself how to code and now runs Web sites. She is–and she will kill me for saying this–nearing retirement age, but instead of coasting and doing stuff that makes her comfortable, she pushes boundaries, tests herself. She’s learned HTML, CSS, and basic scripting in 2 different languages, all in the last 2 or 3 years, and mostly on her own, and that list doesn’t include all the things she’s taught herself beyond the scope of that 2-3 year timeline.

Still, the most important thing I learned from her about technology is even more fundamental: she never uses technology solely for the sake of using technology, and she never sticks old methods solely for the sake of comfort. It’s easy to do both. Newspaper closures all over the country suggest how difficult it can be to break free of an old model, in much the same way that every failed new-new-thing product demonstrates how stupid it can be to do something bleeding-edge solely for the sake of doing something new.

What I learned from my mom is that wisdom applied to technology is the real key. Changes in paradigm that use technology can, when they’re done right and for the right reasons, make life better. Easier. Faster. More rewarding.

And let’s not forget: more fun….

Two wrongs–or in this case, four similar wrongs and a screwy cast-on–finally make a right.

The slouchy hat that tortured me last week is, this week, my willing accomplice in knitting success.

A good oops

I struggled with what to do with this bulky yarn and like the results enough that I’ll be putting together a pattern. When I have pictures that do the finished product justice, that is.

Now I just need a camera capable of capturing the saturation of Alchemy’s Koi Pond colorway, because my little guy just can’t handle reds and oranges. There is, however, hope on the horizon. A digital SLR body awaits, though it will be delivered by dog-powered sled from the far reaches of snowy Alaska.

Not really, but saying my mom and sister will have it in their carry-on luggage when they visit from Portland doesn’t quite evoke the same dreamy visions of a young Ethan Hawke frolicking with wolves in White Fang.

After months–months, I tell you!–of hemming and hawing over what I would do with the fabulous, beautiful skein of hand-dyed merino/bamboo Celebration (from Briar Rose Fibers), which I bought at the Greencastle Fiber Event in early April, I have at long last cast on for a project. At least a project that I didn’t immediately rip back.

The good news is that this project suits the yarn (and my available yardage) exceptionally well.

The bad news? Well, the bad news is that I swore I’d never knit this pattern again. Why, you ask? Because I’ve knit it 6 times already, and so has every other damn knitter on the planet.

You’ve all seen Clapotis a hundred million times (because you already have one you wear regularly around your neck, right?), so I focused on the yarn instead of the pattern.

Clapotis Closeup

The shift in focus away from an overview of the pattern also let me play with the settings on my camera, which I’ve been futzing with for the last few weeks in order to figure out what its limitations really are. (Yes, yes, I should have done this before, but my natural instinct to rebel against everything my parents–all three of them–love led me to avoid anything that resembled an interest in photography.)

Clapotis Closeup 2

The only difference between these two shots–I didn’t even move the camera–is a toggle between the camera’s auto-focus on standard macro and the camera’s “Digital Macro” setting. In any case, it’s clear that “focal length” is the key phrase here. Very interesting. Instructive, even.

But I still probably need a new camera, because it frustrates me that I couldn’t control the focal length effectively. (There, I said it. I’m becoming my mother, my father and my stepmother, and all in one single evening of innocent photography. I’m doomed.)

I love my camera. My Canon SD1000 is a tiny thing of limitless wonder, and I have spent the last year finding ways to use the Canon camera hack to make my life as a graduate student better after reading a post about it on Lifehacker.

To wit: A 10″x13″ piece of half-inch thick plexiglas and a bendy tripod coupled with the camera hack that takes automated interval shots gets me an upside-down scanner that can shoot high-quality OCR-able scans of a 250 page book in under 20 minutes. Voilà, an electronic book in PDF format that I can use with Skim to double my reading speed and still take good notes. Truly a life saver when I have a big chunk of reading to do.

But the qualities that make my little point-and-shoot darling a fantastic scanner sometimes get in the way of real photography. Unless you’re made of stone, the camera sometimes doesn’t focus properly, and trying to get a nice photo that’s well lit under any circumstances is a near-impossibility. Even with a decent flash and good ISO control, no photo taken in normal lighting will ever be a great photo because the optics aren’t the best.

Lifehacker to the rescue again. This time, they pointed me toward a DIY photo studio in a box designed to create near-professional lighting and backdrops. I still need to get a better camera, but this will tide me over for the time being…

Macro Photo Studio

The subject? A new pattern, a baby set that’s been turned on its head. The knitting, testing and pattern editing are nearly complete, and it should be out tomorrow. Today. At some point in the next 24 hours. Whatever…. Clearly I need to re-regularize my sleep schedule.

It’s not my hard drive. It’s not my RAM. It’s the logic board…. Oops.

So no blog posting of any significant value. (This post courtesy of my iPod Touch.)

The socks continue apace, so hopefully by the time the computer returns from the land of misfit computer parts, I’ll have photos!