Looking Like An Engineer (Part 1)

"Hey, guys! Does this sundress make my brain look small?"

I attended my first Maker Faire in Detroit, at the Henry Ford Museum, with my colleague Ben (who, like me, is a professor at Columbia College Chicago). We drove out in Ben's car, and got hotel rooms so we could attend both days.

The first day was sauna-hot, even in my faded denim skirt and old t-shirt. Most of the Faire was on the blacktop of the museum parking lot, and bottled water was a poor substitute for shade. Still, we had fun and were able to see a lot of very cool stuff.

The second day I opted for a simple cotton sundress, the most comfortable thing I owned for hot weather. I'd found it on sale at a stylish boutique, and received compliments from other women every time I wore it.

My experience the second day of Maker Faire was waaaay different.

For example: a man was displaying a mechanical contraption he'd fabricated with a metal lathe. I was just getting into "making" at the time, and was fascinated by machining. Tell me more, I asked. He started to, and then, Ben wandered up. Clearly we were at the Faire "together" (actually, we're work colleagues and friends-- we both have significant others). And so the gentleman stopped making eye contact with me and started talking exclusively to Ben, who had little interest in the subject, but listened politely.

I guess the exhibitor assumed that if I was interested in machining, my "date" would be fanatical about it. Or maybe some men feel it's rude to talk to a woman if her "date" is present. Even if her "date" has zero interest in what the guy is saying.

This threw me a bit, and I started noticing it at other booths. If Ben was with me, guys made eye contact with him, and ignored me. Every time I noticed it, I shrank a little bit more in my cheerful yellow sundress, and felt a little less included.

We made our way to several tables covered in old circuit boards and half-dismantled appliances. What fun! A man stood behind the table, handing screwdrivers to children engrossed in the dead hardware. As we walked up, he looked at Ben and said, "This is a teardown table. You can take apart anything here to see how it works." And then he made eye contact with me and added "You can also make jewelry with the resistors." 

What did he just say? I honestly thought I misheard him so I asked Teardown Guy to repeat himself.

"You can make jewelry with the resistors," he repeated and walked away. (I think the expression on my face right then told TG to find somewhere else to be.)

"I'd like to make jewelry with the resistors," Ben called after him.

Despite TG's comment, I couldn't resist the offerings on the table, and grabbed a screwdriver to play. Ben eventually moved on, and I turned my attention to the guts of a sewing machine (I'd been reading about cams and gears recently and was fascinated). The gears were greasy though, and I was making a mess. So... I asked Teardown Guy if I could take it home, as it was nearing the end of the Faire and the crowds had waned.

"Why do you want to take it home?"

"I want to take it apart to see all the gears and cams, but it's greasy and I don't want to ruin my dress."

"Well..." he looked skeptical, "I want to make sure you don't think you could use it as a sewing machine. It won't work."

No kidding.

I assured him that that was not my intention. I added that I was an artist (which generally gives me a free pass for all sorts of strange behavior) and that I wanted to make a kinetic piece using gears and cams.

He conferred with another guy running the booth (who'd been watching from a lawn chair and seemed very amused that Teardown Guy was making an ass of himself). TG returned and said, "You can take it, but only if you email us a photo of what you build with it." TG handed me a card for the local business that was sponsoring the table. 

I pulled my business card out of my purse and handed it to him.

"My website is on there. Check it out if you want to see what I build."

He examined the card like a bouncer checking for fake IDs.

"You look really young for a college professor." 


After I dropped the box of machine parts at the car, I moved on to the indoor booths, which included a table selling piezo contact mics. I make these with my students, so I asked the seller about the housing they were using. The guy took that to mean I needed an lesson on how contact mics work. I started to protest, and he enthused, "It's really simple! Let me show you!" convinced he was proselytizing to someone who thought science "was hard."

If I hadn't been worn down by the heat and all the other weird encounters already, I might have explained but it was too much. That was it, I was done. I left the Maker Fair area and wandered into the museum exhibits.

I found myself in an exhibit on Amelia Earhart, complete with a plane, a mannequin in her likeness, and a plaque.

The plaque had a quote from her on it. It said,



Amelia was right. I needed a change of wardrobe. 



7/27/14 The plaque did not actually say this. But it really should have. (Please note that the quote was not intended to mislead anyone, rather it was an attempt at magical realism. Said attempt apparently failed given that several people have asked me if the plaque did in fact advise against yellow sundresses.)

6/1/14 Edited to add links and the last sentence of paragraph 2, which was left out of the original post. For the male perspective on some of these awkward exchanges, see the next post in the series. The entire series is available here.

Fun with RGB LEDs

Knitted circuit: 5mm RGB fade LEDs, 8mm blue LEDs, battery and switch.

The LEDs (both the blue and the RGB fade) are wired in parallel, soldered in place. Fun fact -- red draws the most current. So, when the color-changing LEDs turn red, they draw so much current they starve out the big blues. The result -- the blues fade in and out, no micro-controller needed.

Two knitted circuit boards, with iron-on backing.

My first gif. (The color changes are actually very slow and gradual, not blinking.)

Craft/Work Show

My paper speaker was included in the show, "Craft/Work," which opened at Beauty and Brawn Gallery, April 18. 

The show's organizers, Nora Renick Rinehart and Rachel Wallis, were fantastic to work with, and immensely patient with all my technical issues (more on that below).

Photos of the opening

This poignant quilt, embroidered with the names of Chicago homicide victims, was detailed in the press.

My speaker

I actually had a slightly different speaker intended for the show, but I had to swap out because the epoxy glue-down was too thick, which ended up muting the sound. The original is such a lovely object, though, with beautiful handmade paper from my former student, Alex Borgen, that I'm contemplating other uses for it. Perhaps a paper lantern?

Why Knitted Circuits?

(a knitted circuit board, ready for soldering.)

The short answer is, I can't sew.

The long answer....

E-textile platforms are based on designing materials to fit textile fabrication methods, resulting in conductive thread and components mounted on PCBs designed especially for sewing (for example, the Flora platform).  Perfect for experienced sewers interested in soft wearables.

However, the conductive threads often used for e-textiles can be unstable as conductors. Silver-plated thread oxidizes over time and becomes non-conductive, something I discovered after buying a large spool and leaving it out for months. (If you have some, store it in an airtight bag.) Stainless steel thread does not have this problem, but it does have higher resistance.

Creating solid connections with the thread presents another challenge.  It requires hand-sewing skill, stitching the thread through the component lead multiple times, knotting tightly, and adding glue for security. The whole process makes me want to reach for my soldering iron.

But... the conductive thread widely available in the US is not solderable. Conductive threads made with polyester or nylon wilt or melt under heat. Solderable conductive thread is available in Europe, made with Kevlar. The minimum purchase, a kilogram, starts around 60 euro, from the company, Karl Grimm & Co. With shipping, you can expect to pay over $100. One of the creators of the phenomenal e-textiles resource, How to Get What You Want, Hannah Perner-Wilson, sells small spools of the Karl-Grimm conductive thread reasonably-priced on Etsy, but it's still not cheap enough for me to create artistic-experiments-with-abandon.

Additionally, conductive thread introduces resistance to the circuit-- it just doesn't conduct as well as the copper wire used in conventional circuits. Arduino-based circuits can compensate for this, but I'd like to build circuits using conventional components, as well.  So I'm investigating how to apply textile techniques to conventional electronic materials. After much research, I've developed a tool-box of methods around my favorite skills of soldering and machine knitting. I'm documenting my methods here, as they evolve.

This approach is not for everyone. I've taught a number of basic knitting machine workshops at Pumping Station: One, and some people love it, some people, not so much. Even if you can machine knit, machine-knitting wire is an advanced technique.  I don't recommend trying it until you're comfortable working with "difficult" yarns like cotton and silk. But once you do get the hang of it, knitting PCBs is soooo easy.....

March Madness

March was a crazy month-- I opened shows in three galleries! One of them was the work of my students, and it came off beautifully.

Chicago Curates Columbia: Audio Arts and Acoustics is at the college's Arcade Gallery. The reception was April 2; the show runs through May 2.

Both of my classes created group projects. Inspired by visiting artist Eric Leonardson, students in one class made interactive sculptures which they amplified with hand-made contact microphones. The other class built small synthesizers that reacted to light, installing the circuit boards in a dark room with video projections to trigger the photocells.

Installing electro-acoustic sculptures:

Opening Reception

Knitted Circuit: Cuff

I'm experimenting with machine knitting 2-color patterns with wire and cotton to create "pads" for direct soldering of components.
This simple circuit uses 5 leds, a switch and a battery, all soldered in place.
The wire looks great, and the circuit held up fine during a day of wear.

Knitting Wire Swatches, Yarn Burn Tests

I'm developing a method to machine knit and solder copper wire, resulting in a flexible and conductive textile. Here are some of my test swatches, all knitted on my Brother 940 knitting machine in my new studio space. The swatches are knitted with 3 strands of 34 AWG wire, held together as a single strand.

In order to mix non-conductive fibers with the wire, I've conducted heat tests on traditional yarns like acrylic, wool, silk, and cotton. I'm interested in finding textiles that can withstand the heat of a soldering iron for the 2-3 seconds necessary to make a solid joint. So far, silk and cotton are the clear winners (and now I have a great excuse to buy luxury yarn!).

Security Blanket

I'm showing work in the "Concealed Carry" show at Experimental Station this month.
The show is a response to the new Firearm Conceal Carry law that went into effect January 1.

My work, "Security Blanket", features a knitted image of a gun, embedded with conductive fibers. Touching the trigger "triggers" a (very loud) audio recording of a gun shot. The piece uses capacitive sensing with an Arduino, and I'm excited to be working with this technology, as my students have expressed interest in it, and I plan to introduce a unit in my class on it soon.

The show opening is tonight from 5-8pm. Experimental Station is located at 6100 S. Blackstone Ave, at the edge of the Univ of Chicago campus.
The exhibit will be accompanied by two public conversations on the new law, led by former Chicago Public Radio host Steve Edwards.

Embedded Speakers

I've been working on a design for simple, efficient speakers that can easily be embedded in textiles. Pictured are two of my working prototypes. The one above is knitted, and uses hand-made paper. The one below is a no-frills version that I'll use to illustrate the design concept here.

[ETA 6/4/14  Here is a video of several speakers in action, taken at a speaker-making workshop I led in March.]

This speaker consists of four pieces of magnet wire, glued between two pieces of paper, positioned precisely over a magnet from a hard drive. The 4 pieces of wire are soldered together at both ends so that they carry audio signal from a small amplifier in parallel. The wires are placed just over the mid-section of the magnet. 

This creates an effective speaker because hard drive magnets are dipolar. The broad face of the magnet has both a north and south pole. (Most bar magnets have just one pole per side, and aren't as effective for a flat speaker design.) Additionally, hard drive magnets are extremely strong.

When the wire is placed directly over the boundary between the magnet's two poles (i.e. the red line on the paper rests on the red line on the magnet), it produces a clearly audible speaker.

How and Why It Works

Electric current running through a copper wire produces an electromagnetic field. If this wire is placed in a magnetic field, it experiences physical force.

The directions of the current, the magnetic field, and the physical force are all perpendicular to each other. A good way to remember this is Fleming’s left-hand rule, which uses your left hand as a mnemonic.

image: Jfmelero

The thumb, forefinger, and middle finger are held perpendicular to each other, forming an x, y, and z axis. The first finger is the magnetic field (B), flowing from north (knuckles) to south (the fingertip). The middle finger is the electric current (I) traveling from positive (the knuckles) to negative (the fingertip). The thumb is the physical force (F), the direction the wire moves.

You can see this principle at work in a conventional speaker:

image: Tony DiMauro

The coil of wire (“voice coil”) fits into a circular slot, the sides of which are a magnet.

The middle piece is the north pole, and the outer ring is the south. So the magnetic fields run perpendicular through the coil, with the result that it pushes out, in the direction of the cone. Very efficient!

Flattening the Speaker

A coil is great for speakers, but not particularly flat, as it sticks out perpendicular to the resonator.

So I started with a straight length of wire, glued between two pieces of paper. I centered it between the two very powerful poles on the face of the hard drive magnet. I attached a resonator, the paper, so the wire vibrates the resonator, which vibrates the air much better than a piece of wire. The result is an audible speaker. (The wire-between-two-magnetic-poles will look familiar to those who know the work of sound artist Alvin Lucier.)

However, one piece of wire doesn’t move the paper very much. To increase the volume, I attached several pieces of wire, glued parallel to each other across the paper. I also sent the current running through the wires in parallel (this is very important for increasing volume). Now all the wires vibrate the paper in sync.

My development of this design is on-going, and I am currently refining my knitting machine fabrication techniques. Stay tuned for more documentation.


Hannah Perner-Wilson's Kobakant - resource for e-textiles

Karla Spiluttini and Piem Wirtz at V.2 - a previous knitted-speaker project

Jess Rowland -  foil-and-paper speakers using parallel wiring

Dr. Dominique Cheenne - my Columbia College colleague who suggested I look at planar speakers as an alternative model for embedded speakers

LaFolia Loudspeaker Project - a site for diy planar speakers

Magnepan - manufacturers of the first planar speaker, Magneplanar, invented in 1969 by Jim Winey