This is a guest post from our summer intern Lucy!
Over the first four weeks of my summer at the Tinkering Studio, I’ve encountered a wondrous collection of new tools, materials and concepts. From the inner workings of bandsaws to the inner workings of terrifying mechanical toys, I’ve been introduced to the underlying skills and philosophies of tinkering in the only way I could imagine: being totally thrown into it. Luckily, I’ve been assured by multiple members of the team that the tinkerer’s best approach is a beginner’s mindset. Since that is (in general) my only mindset, I was happy last week to dive into TurtleStitch, the newest exploration in the TS’s foray into computational tinkering.
TurtleStitch is a program that classically pairs coding with turtles and—you guessed it—embroidery. Through its Scratch-inspired interface, anyone with access to a computer and a computerized embroidery machine can create a design to be realized in just minutes. Quite like TurtleArt, which we’ve been tinkering with over the last few weeks as well, this program blurs the line between the digital and physical world rather seamlessly (heh). But as we’ve discovered with TurtleArt, the digital/tangible switcharoo presents a unique set of challenges as well as opportunities.
The first challenge was simply setting up the embroidery machine. After managing to thread our machine (a Brother SE-400) with spooled embroidery thread, making a makeshift ironing board with my laptop case and shoving a denim fabric in the embroidery ring, I triumphantly set the machine to a preloaded design. And promptly broke the needle. Two more broken needles later and I found success with a thin simple fabric. Rallied by this, I finally connected the machine to my laptop with relative ease.
TurtleStitch is still in the beginning phases of development, but they recently released a new update with integrates more embroidery-specific functions—stitch size and the like. These additions are exciting and important when figuring out how to code your design. I discovered with my first couple of attempts, for example, that a simple running stitch is too thin to show up well on the fabric. The first small, simple flower that I coded looks miniscule compared to the triple stitched designs over it. Also, the remnants of the old system before the newest additions make the interface feel unnecessarily complicated. This is exacerbated by the fact that the translation between the code and the machine can be tricky. While the program allows you to code for color, the only important factor ends up being, of course, the color of the thread you chose. Not only that, but no matter the size of the design you code, the machine will only create a pattern a couple inches wide.
So, the process in itself is exciting and undeniably tinkerable, but also very complicated as an activity on the floor. We’d love to be able to provide kids will all the materials for their vision—colorful fabric of all different kinds, multiple colors of thread, a large pattern—but, as a facilitator, all of those things are complicated to set up efficiently and successfully. At the same time, we have the same challenges that I’ve seen through my whole time at the TS of having to walk the fine line between kickstarting the kids’ imagination and giving them an example which they follow without real engagement. Ultimately, it’s a problem of imagination, either too much or too little. It’s all about finding that perfect balance. Fortunately, we have some time to tinker with it.