Weaving Sense at Icelandic Textile Center – Part 1

“Weaving Sense” is an  itinerant research project I started this summer with the aim of exploring how conductive yarn and fibers can be used in textile machines like traditional or computerised looms to create soft sensors. By mixing smart materials with natural yarns within weaving process is possible to create textile sensors of different shapes and esthetics. The field of smart textile design practices is at the intersection of diverse fields becoming an iconic interdisciplinary bridge between textile design, interaction design, material science and electronics.  “Weaving Sense” project gives me the opportunity to work across craft and technological domains to manufacture textiles that look and feel like fabrics and able to communicate with the digital sphere. This interdisciplinary area, through its artifacts, workshops and installations, allows me not just to raise questions around the impact of ubiquitous computing. Its research questions span social and technical concerns and bring to the surface the roles of textile manufacturing in the history of humankind and its deep relationship with computing.

While craft practices of weaving have been passed down through generations, today manyskills are at risk of being lost and, with them, the cultural meanings embedded in the processes of making. Thanks to “Weaving Sense” project I plan to build a craft-based, tangible design archive which could become a starting point for any institution to involve women’s interest in electronics thanks to the culturally responsive computing aspects of the project and providing familiar points of entry into computing or other STEAM activities.

During August 2021, I  spent a month at Icelandic Textile Center (ITC)  to experiment weaving patterns from their historical archive and other sources thanks to the contribution of iPortunus, a scheme funded by the European Commission that supports the mobility of artists, creators and cultural professionals. The results were  presented with a public event  “Samkoma“: Pop-Up Art Exhibition where, together with 7 other hosted artists,  I showed the swatches I created during the past weeks to foster crafters and creatives in bringing weaving tradition in the digital realm of interaction. During the weekend of the exhibition I run also two sessions of Wool Interactions a workshop to share basic theory and hands-on experience on how to craft soft sensors with wool and smart wool using needle felting, a technique to create two-dimensional and three-dimensional objects by joining wool fibers through the use of a very sharp and notched needle.

Icelandic Textile Center and Digital Textile Lab

Next to the glacial river Blanda, overlooking the North Atlantic Ocean and facing Greenland, there’s a small town with less than 900 inhabitants,  where you can find Kvennaskólinn, a historical building  owned by the local municipalities and the Icelandic State, that from 1879 to 1978 hosted a women’s college with classes in handicrafts and cooking. 

The renovated Kvennaskólinn is today kept alive with community activities and the innovative approach of the Icelandic Textile Center led by Elsa Arnardóttir – director – Katharina Schneider – project manager both working also in EU funded project CENTRINNO which involves my city, Milan.

I consider ITC an example of how it’s possible to bridge textile tradition with the innovative approach of digital fabrication machines. In the past few years Elsa and her team, thanks to national and European funds managed to activate a series of implementations which made this decentralised location, a point of interest for creative professionals and artists from all over the world.
Since 2013 ITC activated a Residency programme  and last May inaugurated a makerspace with different digital fabrication technologies among which an embroidery machine, laser cut, and two TC Looms.

Computerised Loom and digital patterns archive

The former Women’s School in Blönduós donated its unique Icelandic weaving patterns archive and teaching materials from the 19th and 20th century to ITC and in 2016, together with textile artist and weaving expert Ragnheiður Björk Þórsdóttir started “Bridging Textiles to the Digital Future” a three-year project project aiming to analyze, photograph, and digitize weaving patterns, and make them available online to scholars, artists and designers.

The project was approved and received funding from the Icelandic Technology Development Fund (Rannís) and was presented in June 2020 during DesignMarch in Reykjavík. 

All the patterns available in the online archive are compatible to be used on a new generation of digital loom called TC Loom developed by Tronrud Engineering  which make it easier and faster for sampling, rapid prototyping and product development. The loom is computer-controlled and manually-operated because it is designed to be used directly by the designer thanks to its shallow learning curve, especially for people who are used to using a computer with design softwares like Photoshop or the freely downloadable Gimp.

Gagnagrunnurinn – database

I’ve been exploring the potential of the TC Loom since a couple of years and met the company back in 2020 during Premiere Vision in Paris. Finally, during this residency I could start experimenting hands-on and learn how to set it up and use it with the tips and tricks from Ragnheiður Björk Þórsdóttir, but also Hafliði Ásgeirsson of Fablab Reykjavik and textile artist Raina Nief who was doing her residency in the same period using the second loom of the lab .

Weaving capacitive and pressure sensors with Icelandic patterns

During one of the first long late evenings at the ICT, when the sun was still on even around midnight, I explored the collection of textile books in the library and I discovered a publication based on the Ícelandic Sjónabók, a series of manuscripts held in the National Museum of Iceland, which were analysed and converted in electronic format to raise awareness on the cultural heritage of the island. The book “Ornaments and Patterns found in Iceland” is a reference book of the old sjónabók manuscripts and was a joint effort of the Icelandic Handcraft Association, the Department of Design and Architecture at the Iceland Academy of Arts and the National Museum of Iceland.

All the patterns of the book express qualities of proportion, symmetry, repetition often following the rules of holy numbers and divine proportions, a habit which lasted until 17th century before science and religion separated and “mathematics was desanctified”.

Even if for our contemporary taste, these patterns are considered mainly mere “ornaments”, the authors of the book remind us that:

“We must retrain ourselves to think about the ornament as a rule and not as a decoration. We have been taught to make a division between applied arts and fine arts. Thi distinction would have been incomprehensible for the ancients and societies from the Middle Ages; according to their understanding, there were two kinds of art, applied arts and functionless art. The concept of beauty as a unique quality independent of necessity, as well as aesthetics as a special field of study of “functionless art,” developed after the Enlightenment in the second half of the 18th century. This new definition of beauty obstructs our understanding of art of the Middle Ages, where everything was placed within the structure rule that the ornament and pattern obeyed as well.”

The output of my residency aimed at creating some swatches in order to test the performance of a TC Loom in the creation of capacitive and/or pressure sensors using smart threads and mixing it with the local wool. I followed two approaches, on one side I mixed the wool with the conductive thread directly on one of the main shuttle, and using two shuttles I alternated conductive and non conductive weft; on the other side I created a smaller shuttle and used it only on a limited surface of weft in order to create conductive patches on the textile. 

As the warp setup was pretty dense and the warp thead was thick, the resulting textile had the tendency to be pretty flat and strong, making it more difficult to act as a pressure sensor with a good range of response.

That’s why in the second phase of the experimentation I tested a different approach mixing techniques and using hand-spinned wool on multiple warp threads and a less pictorial decorative pattern.

Samkoma – The exhibition

In the collective exhibition Samkoma, which in icelandic means “gathering”, I showed an example of capacitive sensing connecting each pattern to a specific Rune chant, a particular throat singing which connects weaving with magic. I will talk about this topic on part 2 of this post and dive more into the historical part of icelandic weaving heritage.

Sound: „Galdr chanting by Wotan Beißwenger 2017, all rights reserved“

Stay tuned!

The European Commission’s support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents, which reflect the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

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