Arabelle Sicardi’s Study of Fashion vs. Technology, Weaving and Code
- Text: Arabelle Sicardi
This fall I went to a three-part class on weaving and coding to learn more about the intersection between materiality and cyberspace. I have no recollection of how I found it, specifically–it was part of one of those insomniac k-holes of Wikipedia entries and Facebook “Events You Might Like." I’d never clicked “Add to Cart” so fast on an event before.
It was part of Pioneer Works’ Fact Craft programming, a series of events designed to examine how “facts” are constructed, disseminated, and stored. Other classes included Radical Memes, Rumour Bingo, and The Poetics of Archival Praxis. Weaving to Code stuck out to me because it was a combination of my favorite trades–fashion and technology.
I’m the child of a designer and grew up in engineering summer programs so this kind of pairing feels natural to me, a person who stole from my mother’s wardrobe on my way to build a phone. I always wanted to learn more about fashion design but was never given the support to take classes on the subject, so I learned science by being forced. The great irony now is I love science and technology, for what it can do for fashion and identity—but it is only now, as an adult, that I get to explore both worlds at once.
Fashion and technology are constantly paired–see CHROMAT, Diane von Furstenberg’s foray into Google Glass, Levi’s Commuter Jacquard Jacket which syncs to your phone, and those corny Apple Watches we used to really want. What better way to understand their relationship possibilities than to learn the basic techniques used to create both? I learned a lot about the heritage of technology as feminine labor, about deconstruction and good design, about language as power. You see, we owe the structure of programming to crafts typically assigned to women—women were the first computer programmers. My notes, thematically and summarized:
Right before I started learning how to code I read the academic Carol Cohn’s work about the language of nuclear war and how the world of defense technology is populated by men who speak in tongues. I wanted to learn code as a way of understanding them so I could protect myself from them, from what happened to them. I wanted to take this class to see where their worlds and mine–beauty and fashion–intertwine, and to see if there’s something beautiful and worth working on in their mutual bond. Cohn’s work explained why I felt this compulsion perfectly: “speaking the expert language not only offers distance, a feeling of control, and an alternative focus for one’s energies; it also offers escape–escape from thinking of oneself as a victim . . . one goes from being the passive [sic] victim to the competent, wily, powerful purveyor. The enormous destructive effects become extensions of the self, rather than threats to it.”
So much about programming seems to be about “safety” and control rather than connection now. And one of the failings of code is that too easily you can escape into the belief that you're in control if you know the language of the system. You can delude yourself into thinking you can run ahead of it. But people continuously build systems without realizing all the ethical implications of what can be done with them—they get away from you. In fashion, your body can’t be discounted. You cannot escape the realities of your body, the limitations, the shape of it, the risks it takes and how it reacts to the clothes you put on. Code has no body, can be used by anyone with language of it, but fashion cannot. It will rip, or sag, and you will see the harm even if it is repaired carefully. Clothing is a narrator with limited resilience. In fashion your failings are physical, something I find oddly comforting.
“In fashion, your body can’t be discounted.”
We were given our own 3D-printed looms the first class and set to work on basic weaving routines. Plenty of people got experimental and weird with their first woven square. I did not. I like to perfect a practice before I go astray. One of the reasons I’m so fond of deconstruction as a fashion movement is that I know the pattern makers behind the most bizarre creations know how to execute their creations perfectly in a classic form-they exploit the limits of the rules and blow past them for surprising results. There’s a quote from Ann Demuelemeester that explains this technique pretty perfectly:
“You can meet somebody in one of my jackets and it can all look a bit wrong, but also human and beautiful. Cutting nonchalance into a garment is difficult, because you can’t just make an oversized or an asymmetric garment. It will look ugly. Making it look natural is delicate work. If it’s too obvious, then it looks fake. Balancing the garment is a painstaking task, because you have to keep in mind how the clothes move.”
It’s why I’m not very interested in the newer ‘avant-garde’ designers who make unfinished asymmetrical dresses or absurdist, self-aware commentaries. I’m not at all convinced they actually know how to make their predecessors' work better, and there’s a big difference between incompetence and experimentation. There’s a difference between failing upwards and operating on a bluff.
So while my classmates make admittedly much more interesting designs than I do, they often stop halfway through and have no idea how to replicate their work or fix particular parts. I might start off my patterns and grid very simply but I’m building, learning the structure and figuring out exactly when and where I have to focus when I see an imperfect knot. I learned how to debug by weaving a fabric swatch. In the second class, we began to teach each other tricks we all learned through stumbling and observing each other’s work.
One of my teachers has done work that showed coding and weaving as sisters in translation. Francesca Rodriguez Sawaya’s work translates spoken word into textile by converting audio patterns into weaving designs she then physically wove. She wanted to bring back the human element to textiles that have been lost in automation. She wove cadence and frequency into a pattern; she wove stories into material to hold. I wonder what pattern my favorite Anne Carson poem would end up looking like. I have no doubt designers are poets. Remember the sheer gowns from Ann Demeulemeester? The locks of hair McQueen sewed onto his work? The Junya Watanabe menswear printed with poems? The tags of Hussein Chalayan clothes?
The bridge between material and code isn’t Sawaya’s work alone, or any of these designers. It’s the basis of computer technology itself. This is what we learned the second class. The jacquard loom, you see–the invention our 3D loom was based off of–is also the basis of the matrix of Java. The jacquard loom was the first to store its own information through punch cards strung together used for automatic thread selection. It was the inspiration behind the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage, sometimes known as “the father of computing” for his Difference Engine. He imagined the Analytical Engine as a textile mill; he even had a woven portrait of Jacquard in his studio as he worked on his approach at a computer with the help of his assistant, Ada Lovelace. Ada’s research and proposals on the analytical engine were the founding notes on what would much later be used to create the first American computer–IBM’s Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator. The Analytical Engine was never fully built.
After my last class I went to visit the artist Pamela Liou, a former jewelry designer who build her own open source jacquard loom using IC3 chips and a 3D printer. Fun fact: IC3 chips were first used in guided missiles. A closed loop–from weaponry back to clothing looms. When I asked her about her world of fashion and programming, she crystallized a lot of what compelled me to take classes at all:
“I feel like the fashion world and women at large could benefit from the lessons of open source, the idea that we're greater the more we share with each other. I wanted to do the loom because I was really frustrated with my own lack of access to something that I wanted. And it made me think about craft differently. The jacquard loom is sort of the symbol of displacement of craftspeople, but I see it as an opportunity to upchange craft. Machines can be idiosyncratic, they can have personalities, it can be tooled for one specific weird thing and it doesn't have to be the lowest common denominator appliance. It can be meditative for your own state of mind, rather than eking out every ounce of productivity from you. Having an intimate relationship with tools can and should be part of the craft. Many people want more clinical perspectives but this loom is the opposite: it embraces materiality, chaos and eccentricity.”
Even if our present feels more and more like a dystopia we can’t wake up from, I stubbornly believe in joyful rebellion and collaboration within it, weird deviations from a path we can’t seem to stop running down to our mutual doom. I used to be scorned in engineering classes for caring so much about clothes, and no one in fashion circles cared much about tech unless it came with an Apple logo.
Hybridity is the only form of freedom that I can ever see. I still believe that freedom means sharing everything we can give and make each other, whether that’s in the form of clothing we can wear or in open sourced code. There’s a quote from Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness that is a guiding concept for me, on freedom and possibility: "The future is not given content, it is not the overcoming of misery, nor the future as being happy. The future is what is kept open as the possibility of things not staying as they are."
Arabelle Sicardi is a beauty and fashion writer. They have work in i-D, Allure, TeenVOGUE and more.
- Text: Arabelle Sicardi