Tag Archives: machine embroidery

Teaching kids to code with cultural research and embroidery machines

Caption: University of Washington researchers taught a group of high schoolers to code by combining cultural research into various embroidery traditions with “computational embroidery.” The method teaches kids to encode embroidery patterns on a computer through a coding language called Turtlestitch. Here, a student stitched plants with code, then hand-embroidered a bee. Credit: Kivuva et al./SIGCSE

Textiles and computing are more closely linked than most of us realize. It was a surprise (to me, anyway) to learn that the Jacquard loom was influential in the development of the computer (see this June 25, 2019 essay “Programming patterns: the story of the Jacquard loom” on the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester [UK] website). As for embroidery, that too has an historical link to computing (see my May 22, 2023 posting “Ada Lovelace’s skills (embroidery, languages, and more) led to her pioneering computer work in the 19th century“).

The latest embroidery link to computing was announced in a March 14, 2024 news item on phys.org, Note: A link has been removed,

Even in tech-heavy Washington state, the numbers of students with access to computer science classes aren’t higher than national averages: In the 2022–2023 school year, 48% of public high schools offered foundational CS [computer science] classes and 5% of middle school and high school students took such classes.

Those numbers have inched up, but historically marginalized populations are still less likely to attend schools teaching computer science, and certain groups—such as Latinx students and young women—are less likely than their peers to be enrolled in the classes even if the school offers them.

To reach a greater diversity of grade-school students, University of Washington researchers have taught a group of high schoolers to code by combining cultural research into various embroidery traditions—such as Mexican, Arab and Japanese—with “computational embroidery.” The method lets users encode embroidery patterns on a computer through an open-source coding language called Turtlestitch, in which they fit visual blocks together. An electronic embroidery machine then stitches the patterns into fabric.

A March 14, 2024 University of Washington news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the research in more detail, Note: Links have been removed,

“We’ve come a long way as a country in offering some computer science courses in schools,” said co-lead author F. Megumi Kivuva, a UW doctoral student in the Information School. “But we’re learning that access doesn’t necessarily mean equity. It doesn’t mean underrepresented minority groups are always getting the opportunity to learn. And sometimes all it means is that if there’s one 20-student CS class, all 3,000 students at the school count as having ‘access.’ [emphases mine] Our computational embroidery class was really a way to engage diverse groups of students and show that their identities have a place in the classroom.”

In designing the course, the researchers aimed to make coding accessible to a demographically diverse group of 12 students. To make space for them to explore their curiosities, the team used a method called “co-construction” where the students had a say each week in what they learned and how they’d be assessed.

“We wanted to dispel the myth that a coder is someone sitting in a corner, not being very social, typing on their computer,” Kivuva said.

Before delving into Turtlestitch, students spent a week exploring cultural traditions in embroidery — whether those connected to their own cultures or those they were curious about. For one student, bringing his identity into the work meant taking inspiration from his Mexican heritage; for others, it meant embroidering an image of bubble tea because it’s her favorite drink, or stitching a corgi.

Students also spent a week learning to embroider by hand. The craft is an easy fit for coding because both rely on structures of repetition. But embroidery is tactile, so students were able to see their code move from the screen into the physical world. They were also able to augment what they coded with hand stitching, letting them distinguish what the human and the machine were good at. For instance, one student decided to code the design for a flower, then add a bee by hand.

“There’s a long history of overlooking crafts that have traditionally been perceived as feminized,” said co-lead author Jayne Everson, a UW doctoral student in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. “So combining this overlooked art that is deeply technical with computing was really fun, because I don’t see computing as more or less technical than embroidery.”

The class ran for six weeks over the summer, and researchers were impressed by the interest it elicited. In fact, one of the main drawbacks researchers found was that six weeks felt too short, given the curiosity the students showed. Since the technology is affordable — the embroidery machine is $400 and the software is free — Kivuva plans to tailor the course to be approachable for kindergarteners to 5th-grade refugee students. Since they were so pleased with the high student engagement, Kivuva and Everson will also run a workshop on their method at the Computer Science Teachers Association [CSTA] conference this summer.

“I was constantly blown away by the way students were engaging when they were given freedom. Some were staying after class to keep working,” said Everson. “I come from a math and science teaching background. To get students to stick around after class is kind of like, ‘Alright, we’ve done it. That’s all I want.’”

Additional co-authors on the paper were Camilo Montes De Haro, a UW undergraduate researcher in the iSchool, and Amy J. Ko, a UW professor in the iSchool. This research was funded by the National Science Foundation, Micorosoft, Adobe and Google.

I wanted to know a little more about equity and access and found this in the introduction to the paper (link to and citation for the paper follow or there’s the PDF of the paper),

Efforts to broaden participation in computing at the K-12 level have
led to an increasing number of schools (53%) offering CS, however,
participation is low. Code.org reports that 6% of high school, 3.9%
of middle school, and 7.3% of primary school students are enrolled
[ 4]. Furthermore, historically marginalized populations are also
underrepresented in K-12 CS [4 , 9]. Prior work suggests that there
are systemic barriers like sexism, racism, and classism that lead to
inequities in primary and secondary computing education [9].

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Cultural-Centric Computational Embroidery by F. Megumi Kivuva, Jayne Everson, Camilo Montes De Haro, and Amy J. Ko. SIGCSE 2024: Proceedings of the 55th ACM [Association of Computing Machinery] Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education V. 1March 2024Pages 673–679 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1145/3626252.3630818 Published: 07 March 2024

This paper is open access.

The Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) 2024 conference mentioned in the news release is being held in Las Vegas, Nevada, July 16 -19, 2024.

Embroidering electronics into clothing

Researchers at The Ohio State University are developing embroidered antennas and circuits with 0.1 mm precision—the perfect size to integrate electronic components such as sensors and computer memory devices into clothing. Photo by Jo McCulty, courtesy of The Ohio State University.

Researchers at The Ohio State University are developing embroidered antennas and circuits with 0.1 mm precision—the perfect size to integrate electronic components such as sensors and computer memory devices into clothing. Photo by Jo McCulty, courtesy of The Ohio State University.

An April 13, 2016 news item on Nanowerk describes an advance in the field of wearable electronics,

Researchers who are working to develop wearable electronics have reached a milestone: They are able to embroider circuits into fabric with 0.1 mm precision—the perfect size to integrate electronic components such as sensors and computer memory devices into clothing.

With this advance, the Ohio State University researchers have taken the next step toward the design of functional textiles—clothes that gather, store, or transmit digital information. With further development, the technology could lead to shirts that act as antennas for your smart phone or tablet, workout clothes that monitor your fitness level, sports equipment that monitors athletes’ performance, a bandage that tells your doctor how well the tissue beneath it is healing—or even a flexible fabric cap that senses activity in the brain.

That last item is one that John Volakis, director of the ElectroScience Laboratory at Ohio State, and research scientist Asimina Kiourti are investigating. The idea is to make brain implants, which are under development to treat conditions from epilepsy to addiction, more comfortable by eliminating the need for external wiring on the patient’s body.

An April 13, 2016 Ohio State University news release by Pam Frost Gorder, which originated the news item, expands on the theme (Note: Links have been removed),

“A revolution is happening in the textile industry,” said Volakis, who is also the Roy & Lois Chope Chair Professor of Electrical Engineering at Ohio State. “We believe that functional textiles are an enabling technology for communications and sensing—and one day even medical applications like imaging and health monitoring.”

Recently, he and Kiourti refined their patented fabrication method to create prototype wearables at a fraction of the cost and in half the time as they could only two years ago. With new patents pending, they published the new results in the journal IEEE Antennas and Wireless Propagation Letters.

In Volakis’ lab, the functional textiles, also called “e-textiles,” are created in part on a typical tabletop sewing machine—the kind that fabric artisans and hobbyists might have at home. Like other modern sewing machines, it embroiders thread into fabric automatically based on a pattern loaded via a computer file. The researchers substitute the thread with fine silver metal wires that, once embroidered, feel the same as traditional thread to the touch.

“We started with a technology that is very well known—machine embroidery—and we asked, how can we functionalize embroidered shapes? How do we make them transmit signals at useful frequencies, like for cell phones or health sensors?” Volakis said. “Now, for the first time, we’ve achieved the accuracy of printed metal circuit boards, so our new goal is to take advantage of the precision to incorporate receivers and other electronic components.”

The shape of the embroidery determines the frequency of operation of the antenna or circuit, explained Kiourti.

The shape of one broadband antenna, for instance, consists of more than half a dozen interlocking geometric shapes, each a little bigger than a fingernail, that form an intricate circle a few inches across. Each piece of the circle transmits energy at a different frequency, so that they cover a broad spectrum of energies when working together—hence the “broadband” capability of the antenna for cell phone and internet access.

“Shape determines function,” she said. “And you never really know what shape you will need from one application to the next. So we wanted to have a technology that could embroider any shape for any application.”

The researchers’ initial goal, Kiourti added, was just to increase the precision of the embroidery as much as possible, which necessitated working with fine silver wire. But that created a problem, in that fine wires couldn’t provide as much surface conductivity as thick wires. So they had to find a way to work the fine thread into embroidery densities and shapes that would boost the surface conductivity and, thus, the antenna/sensor performance.

Previously, the researchers had used silver-coated polymer thread with a 0.5-mm diameter, each thread made up of 600 even finer filaments twisted together. The new threads have a 0.1-mm diameter, made with only seven filaments. Each filament is copper at the center, enameled with pure silver.

They purchase the wire by the spool at a cost of 3 cents per foot; Kiourti estimated that embroidering a single broadband antenna like the one mentioned above consumes about 10 feet of thread, for a material cost of around 30 cents per antenna. That’s 24 times less expensive than when Volakis and Kiourti created similar antennas in 2014.

In part, the cost savings comes from using less thread per embroidery. The researchers previously had to stack the thicker thread in two layers, one on top of the other, to make the antenna carry a strong enough electrical signal. But by refining the technique that she and Volakis developed, Kiourti was able to create the new, high-precision antennas in only one embroidered layer of the finer thread. So now the process takes half the time: only about 15 minutes for the broadband antenna mentioned above.

She’s also incorporated some techniques common to microelectronics manufacturing to add parts to embroidered antennas and circuits.

One prototype antenna looks like a spiral and can be embroidered into clothing to improve cell phone signal reception. Another prototype, a stretchable antenna with an integrated RFID (radio-frequency identification) chip embedded in rubber, takes the applications for the technology beyond clothing. (The latter object was part of a study done for a tire manufacturer.)

Yet another circuit resembles the Ohio State Block “O” logo, with non-conductive scarlet and gray thread embroidered among the silver wires “to demonstrate that e-textiles can be both decorative and functional,” Kiourti said.

They may be decorative, but the embroidered antennas and circuits actually work. Tests showed that an embroidered spiral antenna measuring approximately six inches across transmitted signals at frequencies of 1 to 5 GHz with near-perfect efficiency. The performance suggests that the spiral would be well-suited to broadband internet and cellular communication.

In other words, the shirt on your back could help boost the reception of the smart phone or tablet that you’re holding – or send signals to your devices with health or athletic performance data.

The work fits well with Ohio State’s role as a founding partner of the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America Institute, a national manufacturing resource center for industry and government. The new institute, which joins some 50 universities and industrial partners, was announced earlier this month by U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.

Syscom Advanced Materials in Columbus provided the threads used in Volakis and Kiourti’s initial work. The finer threads used in this study were purchased from Swiss manufacturer Elektrisola. The research is funded by the National Science Foundation, and Ohio State will license the technology for further development.

Until then, Volakis is making out a shopping list for the next phase of the project.

“We want a bigger sewing machine,” he said.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Fabrication of Textile Antennas and Circuits With 0.1 mm Precision by A. Kiourti, C. Lee, and J. L. Volakis.  IEEE Antennas and Wireless Propagation Letters (Volume:15 ) Page(s): 151 – 153 ISSN : 1536-1225 INSPEC Accession Number: 15785288 DOI: 10.1109/LAWP.2015.2435257 Date of Publication: 20 May 2015 Issue Date: 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.