I remember being in my electricity lab in college years ago struggling to understand the concepts of electricity and circuitry. Well, I can tell you that today I am enjoying my time “hanging out” with sewing, electricity, and microprocessors. The phenomenon is called e-Textiles.
Yes, I am loving the “crafty” and “technology” aspects of e-textiles (i.e. embedding electronic components in cloth) working on this project: Making a Control Board with an automatic fish feeder, a temperature and water level sensors for an aquaponics project over at the Project School. A few months ago, a couple of teachers approached the Creativity Labs wanting some training on somehow embedding Arduino microcontroller boards in their aquaponics project. Days later, we actually found in their classroom a small bag of forgotten LilyPad Arduino boards for e-textiles and wearables projects, so we decided to go ahead and use them instead of buying more microcontroller boards (sincerely, creating this e-textile control board project was not motivated by breaking any gender gap, but solely on saving some money and readily available Arduino boards).
I found this project to be a relevant and appropriate example of the affordances of materials, specifically of cloth, the conductive thread, the Arduino board, and the sensors, and their interesting interaction to make a sewable circuit with the particular properties of cloth, microcontrollers, and electricity. Who would’ve thought about this materials working together? And yes, I am weaving in the feeling of new material feminism into this blog post. New material feminism is based on works from Dr. Karen Barad (2007), an American theoretical physicist and Professor of Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Taylor and Ivinson (2013) give a good introductory statement of this new theory explored by Barad by saying that
“[i]n ‘new’ materialism, matter is not inert, neither does it form an empty stage for, or background space to, human activity. Instead, matter is conceptualized as agentic and all sorts of bodies, not just human bodies, are recognized as having agency” (666).
Though I do not currently believe materials have the ability to choose to act or to have agency, I have found helpful to “listen to what materials are saying”. That is, paying attention to their affordances and recognizing who they are if we decide to co-create with them. For example, conductive thread has a BIG role in allowing the communication and interface of fabric and electronics for my e Textile project. The conductive thread is the nexus of these two “worlds”, a “dual citizen” that allows the communication among electricity, boards, cloth and myself.
Anyway, it is time to show what is going on with this project. After identifying the positive and negative terminals of each sensor and LED (i.e. small lights), I started sewing with conductive thread to connect each element to the positive or negative side of the LilyPad Arduino board. In Figure 1 I connected a RGB LED (Red Green Blue) to the board. This LED is coded in the microprocessor to respond to the temperature sensor. The LED will turn red if the water temperature of the fish tank goes above a set temperature value or blue if the temperature is colder than another specific value. Also it will be green when the temperature is between the desire temperature range, between the upper and lower threshold values. In addition, for both cases when the water temperature goes hotter or colder than the desired values, an alarm will go off from the small speaker to alert us (see Figure 2).
One “tricky” aspect of sewing circuits is making sure the lines do not touch because that would interrupt the electric current and affect the performance of our system. One helpful material to insulate the area was hot glue. Figure 3 shows the back of the circuit with some examples of how I used hot glue.
The project is evolving now exploring the integration of a distance sensor that will alert us when the water level is low or high (Figure 4). Also I have added what is called a Real Time Clock (RTC) chip that will keep the time even when the Arduino temporary loses power for some reason (Figure 5). The Arduino internal clock will reset after an intermittent power loss, so the RTC is very important to make sure that our automatic fish feeder delivers the food at the specified times.
In closing, I quote a statement from the work of Buccholz, Shively, Peppler, and Wohlwend (2014) on e-textiles, “materials, like needles, fabric, and conductive thread, rupture traditional gender scripts around electronics” (1). Working on this sewable control board is rupturing my traditional techy/engineer script around electronics and technology and showing me a diversity of possibilities.
Barad, K. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. London: Duke University Press.
Buccholz, B., Shively, K., Peppler, K., & Wohlwend, K. (2014). Hands on, hands off: Gendered access in sewing and electronics practices. In Mind, Culture, and Activity. July 2014, 21(4) pp. 1-20.
Taylor, C. A. & Ivinson,G, (2013) Material feminisms: new directions for education, Gender and Education, 25:6, 665-670.