E=m12: Makers at the Intersection of Craft and Science

Scientists love yarn and crafting just like anybody else, though they might love it in a different way. A few hours of knitting or crocheting can recharge their batteries and shed new light on their research interests. STEM fields and craft share many connections, as Kim Werker explains below. Science teachers even use knitting and crochet to hook kids into STEM disciplines—talk about closing the loop!
Originally published in knitscene Summer 2013.

The rhetoric of knitting and crochet often revolves around indulgence and creative expression. We immerse ourselves in talk of yarns, colors, fibers and needles; tea by the fire; peaceful afternoons with podcasts or television marathons; learning new ways to cast on or off; or revel in the sublime satisfaction of achieving effortlessness with a new way to make cables or lace. There’s much to be said about the flip side, though—the harder edges of yarn craft related to numbers, structures, rules, and mechanics.

Though much has been said about knitting and crochet and their relationship to the sciences (see below, “STEM and Yarn Online”), I thought it might be insightful to explore the more personal side of the story—not as it relates to the exploration of scientific ideas through yarn, but as it relates to scientists’ experience of knitting and crochet. You see, it’s not uncommon to encounter a knitwear designer who has a professional background in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM fields, for short).

For some STEM professionals, the deep satisfaction of handwork is as tightly connected to the science of it as to the art. How and why different fibers behave the way they do, how the proportions of a stitch pattern or sleeve cap affect the overall design of a garment—the tidy math of knitting can be as satisfying as an expertly turned heel. The challenge of designing a garment can tickle the same neurons that solve problems in astrophysics. And it can complement the heady work of strict laws and experimentation and hours hunched over computer keyboards with all the indulgence and creativity I mentioned above.

Before the economic downturn a few years ago, Pittsburgh-based crochet designer Robyn Chachula worked full-time as a structural engineer, fitting in book-authoring and freelance design on the side. She was laid off around the time she was expecting her first child, and since then she’s been designing full-time. She told me, though, that to her, engineering and crochet are exactly the same. “I use the exact same principles to build, say, a sweater as I did to build a structure. I take a project and break it into small pieces and design each piece, then I put them all together and test that they work as a whole. I translate this to drawings as I design, then I build. The only thing that changes is the material used.”

For other STEM professionals, especially those whose work is computer- based, yarn work is a respite from days spent focused on ones and zeroes. Kate Atherley, of Toronto, has a degree in pure mathematics and worked for many years as a software developer, then in web publishing. She’s now working full-time as a knitwear designer and technical editor. She told me that knitting is “a fab combination of both sides of my brain: the creative side, and the logical/mathematical side. I love that I get to indulge my love of playing with numbers for a very creative result.”

“Developing software can be very intangible,” continues software engineer and knitwear designer Debbie O’Neill, “and you are never done. Knitting provides me an outlet for creating something ‘real’ that I can see and that I can finish.” It’s a give-and-take relationship, though, as she goes on to explain. “On the other hand, knitting is very intuitive for me because it is inherently mathematical. Designing patterns is really just doing some math! Very engineer-y.”

And then there’s the sculptural aspect. Connie Chang Chinchio has a PhD in physics and became an avid knitter in graduate school as a respite from the demands of research and teaching teaching. She’s no longer working in physics, focusing on her career in the financial services industry, but she says that “the mathematical and spatial visualization aspects of knitting definitely appeal to the scientific side of my personality, whereas the tactile and pretty-yarn aspects appeal to the more crafty side of my personality. I find the challenges of figuring out how to transform something essentially two dimensional into something that will fit the three-dimensional form a lot of fun.”

Two dimensions meet a third dimension, and science meets art. It’s no wonder, after all, that so many people who enhance our experience of craft come from a tradition of science and math.

STEM and Yarn Online

For an overview of how mathematicians use knitting and crochet in geometry, read “Move Over String Theory, It’s Yarn’s Turn.”
Dr. Andrew Maynard wrote a great piece on knitting amongst academic scientists on his blog.
Woolly Thoughts is a collaboration of Pat Ashforth and Steve Plummer, collecting their math-inspired knit- and crochet-work.

Kim Werker has a background in developmental psycholinguistics and works as cofounder and editor-in-chief of a new digital magazine called The Holocene. She lives in Vancouver, Canada, where she’s writing a book about creativity. Follow along at www.kimwerker.com.

Featured Image: Left, Kim Werker (photo by Pamela Bethel). Top row, left to right: Kate Atherley (photo by Amy Singer); Debbie O’Neill (photo by Joe Coca). Bottom row, left to right: Robyn Chachula (photo by Robyn Chachula); Connie Chang Chinchio (photo by Brian Chang).

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