PhD in Crafts

Since changing my research focus, I’ve been doing a lot of reading, speaking with people, and musing on ideas. Tomorrow I owe Michael a draft of my research questions. Join me on my journey of stitching everything together!

The process going forward will (should) look something like this:

  1. Pick a sub-community to assist
  2. Determine unique contribution to that sub-community (a plan/goal)
  3. Determine the questions to be answered (that address/form the unique contribution)
  4. Find answers to those questions (making some unique contribution a reality(?))
  5. Evaluate the answers to show that they sufficiently answered the questions (\o/)

A paper reports on parts of those steps, but also aims to tell a mini version of that story.
For example, I just got finished reading “Reflections on Craft: Probing the Creative Process of Everyday Knitters” by Rosner & Ryokai. Their (1) was knitters, their (2) was adding media recording/tagging throughout the knitting process. Their goals were more exploratory in this stage — “…elicit their reflections on their craft practices and learn from their interactions with material, people, and technology.” Because of that, it’s hard to find any clear (3) that isn’t trivially restating their exploration goals. Their (4) involved building Spyn, a set of hardware that enables recording of image, sound, and video and tagging it in a specific location on the garment via yardage-use detectors and infrared ink marking on the yarn. (5) They then taught 7 knitters how to use the hardware and left them to their own devices to knit various garments for various recipients. The knitters engaged with the technology very well, using it as “a little time capsule,” “emotional blackmail,” a means to “write a story” and “embed memories.” One knitter sung a lullaby to the future baby recipient, another documented the recipient’s favorite foods/places as a kind of scrapbook. Overall, it was a very effective ethnographic paper/technology.

So yeah, I thought that paper was pretty cool >.> <.<

More to the point, it’s a great working example of the kind of stuff I’ll be aiming to do. Probably less physical-technology based, and probably not in the domain of knitting (since it’s not my particular favorite), but close. That begs the question…

(1) What is my domain?

My inability to pick things led me to consider a broad approach… but I have been leaning away from that since talking to more folk. It’s much easier to do deep dives and push on the PhD blip of progress and ‘new knowledge’ with a specific domain.
I used to do crochet — see Pattern, my crochet pattern generator, and my ideas to make a 3D crochet pattern modeler. Doing crochet OR knitting would help me leverage the Ravelry community. But that hasn’t been what’s captured my interest as of late.

My blackwork embroidery generator has gotten quite a bit of interesting push and was the closest to being polished. However, blackwork is TOO limited of a domain… in style and color. Both hand and machine embroiderers work in many colors and stitch styles. It’s part of what helps make the possibilities so broad and vibrant. But the two (machine vs. hand) domains are also possibly very different. Hand embroidery deals much more with fancy stitches/shapes/inclusions (like beads), while machine embroidery has more restrictions on stitch type/size and its application. Websites like UrbanThreads provide primarily machine embroidery patterns with hand-embroidery patterns as large-scale black-and-white line images for users to do with as they wish (like the old days of iron-on black-and-white embroidery patterns).

Do I have to pick? And if I do, which one? The only embroidery machine I have to use and test is a little cheapo… that may restrict the claims I can confidently make in the future. On the other hand, websites like UrbanThreads may be a really great resource. Automatically digitizing images is a well-known problem to make progress toward… although seeing/testing those other super expensive softwares is, again, frightening.
*phew* okay, I just sent off an email after reading one of their articles on digitizing. That sounds like an interesting enough domain with the right balance of need, community, and potential computer science magic.

(2) Unique Contribution

I admittedly don’t know much about digitizing because of the price requirements for many of the software packages out there. The links below are some I’ve gathered to help me patch up that knowledge. As far as I can tell, most tools allow you to edit individual stitches. Some offer higher-level tools like “fills” which are dense satin stitches along a particular direction. These can work to fill large spaces or be used as thick lines. I’m not sure if going over an area multiple times is something done for coverage or puff (like in hand embroidery). I also know there is a particular knack for making a ‘free-standing lace’ design — something that won’t fall apart when you use water-soluble stabilizer. There are other steps involved for doing applique, reverse applique, and alignment marks (for too-big designs).

SO, there are lots of different things to keep in mind depending on the end use of the design, the size of the design (things can’t easily be ‘resized’, they need to be re-filled with proper stitch densities/distribution), the fabric it get stitched on, the potential thread being used… These are all things a tool can help with, even if it’s just reminding the user about common pitfalls.

There are also other things. Digitizing generally means taking an existing image/idea and making it into a design. But what about designing digitally from the beginning? With the under-the-hood stitch representation keeping up with the design? Blackwork is one style of embroidery this could work for. Arbitrary SVGs… cross stitch designs (pixel images)… these would certainly be newer options escaping the standard definition of “digitizing.”

Other resources describing digitizing (and its challenges/needs) is convinced software cannot replace humans

Other resources providing tips on digitizing setting up expectations recommended software by UrbanThreads Link says it all

Other resources on ((embroidery) community magazine magazine craftster needlework

(3) Questions — my current goal

Alright, so, we have some ideas of the solution space and the problems. We need to form research questions that are evaluatable, well-defined/unambiguous, and that are answerable by the kind of work I want to do. Totally easy. >.> <.<
After some offline scribbling and brainstorming in the dentist’s office, I have my first draft for Michael:

  1. How can we design intelligent digital authoring tools that enable artists’ traditional craft practice?

  2. How can the application of AI techniques in the form of mixed-initiative craft software support the ideation and creation of traditional crafts?

  3. How can we evaluate the contributions of AI techniques to traditional craft practice in the context of mixed-initiative craft software?

Expanding on them a bit…

#1 is the main, short, sweet goal. Intelligent implies artificial intelligence. Authoring tools is a blanket term for crafting software, although I realize that the concept of a tool is misleading, since there are many non-digital tools involved in craft practice (*goes back and adds term*). The concept of “experience” (ie novice v. expert) in crafting is so muddy, I dodged the term altogether and just labeled my users artists, which implies a probable novice-to-tool approach but a probable non-novice background in the craft itself. I use the term traditional craft as a well-known label for physical handicrafts. While I’ll likely be focusing on one craft heavily, this makes room for mentioning other crafts.

#2 is a much more specific and expanded version of #1. Instead of intelligence, I use the term AI techniques because I will likely be using multiple… grammars, machine learning, maybe even more general AI stuff like behavior trees. I am not pigeonholing into a specific technique here because different techniques may be useful in different contexts or for different crafts. I specifically drop in the term mixed-initiative here to imply that my crafting software, which includes intelligence, will also be interactive. Finally, the aforementioned “craft practice” is expanded into both ideation and creation, which touches upon the creativity support tool approach (of ideas and exploration) as well as my more unique approach: that there is a component of physical making that occurs after design with the tool is complete.

#3 is primarily to address the ill-defined area of both evaluating machine “creativity” in regards to design, as well as the effectiveness that the software has on the actual user. This is a two-pronged problem without clearly defined solutions. Previous work in the area of evaluating crafts take, at best, an exploratory ethnographic approach, and, at worse, attempt to measure creativity in an utterly too-narrow definition. I’m not quite sure how yet, but I expect there to be some research contribution on trying to measure the outcomes of the tool and the crafters (if they make the items designed in the tool).


About robbierabbit

As of the making of this account, a 1st year phd student in computer science with a focus in computer games and intelligent agents.
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2 Responses to PhD in Crafts

  1. Anne says:

    What did Michael think of your research questions? Or am I being ambitious in thinking he’s responded? 🙂 I worry that #1 and #2 are going to be really hard to evaluate. #3 is about evaluation so that’s pretty awesome. But basically how will you know if you’ve won with #1 and #2?
    Also writing research questions is ridiculously hard, especially when most of the time, let’s be honest, we just wanna make cool shit.

    • robbierabbit says:

      He actually didn’t say much about the questions themselves. Just confirmed what I meant by mixed-initiative (that I really want the AI to be more proactive than your standard tool) and moved on to grasping the digitizing angle. So I guess for an early draft, they’re pretty fine.
      I’m contacting some professional digitizers to get an idea of what specific tools/techniques to aim for, then I’m imagining some iterative ethnographic-like trials where I make sure those tools are actually useful. Maybe an A-B study between a version of the tool with the mixed-initiative part ripped out and one with it in and see if/how the designs differ. Michael and I talked about building up a corpus of ‘expert moves’ that make up existing embroidery designs/styles and brainstorming what manners of machine learning can help learn, recognize, and suggest those ‘expert moves’ to users.

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