My grandmother died this week. Parent to five, grandparent to 14, great-grandparent to 12. After a childhood during the Depression, she went to college to study home economics, but her true passion was fibre arts. She spun, dyed, knitted, felted and wove sweaters, scarves, rugs, baskets, animals, wallhangings, and many and sundry other beautiful things. In middle age she retrained as an art teacher and went back to work – in mid-1960’s midwest USA. She exhibited her work in galleries well into her 80s. Here she is with my daughter, sometime in 2012.
My mother died thirteen years ago this week. Parent to three, senior university administrator, violinist, baker, master fart-joke teller. She achieved a PhD with two children underfoot, then went on to write a book that surfaced women’s histories hidden in archives. She also baked six loaves of sour dough bread every Saturday while listening to the opera, and loved going to garage sales. Here she is, fierce, with her brother at a wedding in the mid-1970s.
I cannot tell you the number of things I learned from these women. Confidence in my intelligence. The truth about ambition and responsibility. A love of family. Generosity.
One thing I learned though that I don’t often think about was a passion for new technology and technical thinking. This, along with everything else has shaped me, and I want to write a little more about it.
Both my mom and my grandma knit. They had bags of wool with needles that they toted around with them to fill up moments of time – watching TV or listening to the radio, sitting in on kids’ music lessons, riding in the car. These bags contained magical charts laying out the stitching patterns needed to make a cable, or a rosette, or a cuff. I didn’t know it then but these charts and their notation are a form of programming – a set of abstract schematics to be followed (and interpreted, within boundaries) that create an entire new product.
I learned to knit (under duress) but what really fascinated me was weaving. My grandma’s looms were enormous and beautiful, with different coloured warp threads controlled by foot pedals. The patterns of these threads, combined with the colours of the other materials woven across them, produced the beauty and complexity of the finished rugs and hangings. I marvelled at how grandma kept the pattern and the process in her head – long before I read about how Jacquard created the first programming punch cards to operate looms, in 1801.
Of course baking and cooking also follow programs, that you can modify within certain boundaries. So you can scale up to six loaves of bread, or modify a recipe when you run out of something.
These are women’s technologies (or at least they are now – weaving and knitting were men’s work in the past when there was money to be made from them, and professional cooks are still mostly men), which means we might discount them when thinking about new and shiny ways to ‘learn to code’ or ‘get women into STEM’. But they require complex, abstract, programmatic thinking. To make beautiful and tasty things. Here I am with grandma and daughter, eating some tasty things.
Keeping this in mind, it’s now less surprising for me to remember my mother’s incredible delight in exploring the early Internet. She’d return from work with amazing tales of information she’d found from far-flung countries. When I was shown the web, I was kind of underwhelmed. It took effort to find information – you needed to type commands, use Boolean logic, and navigate around the databases and usegroups. But now I suspect that the world of tech made much more sense to my mom than I might have expected. After all, her little sister was an educator at the Computer Museum and has developed an art practice that investigates geometry and topgraphy. The more I think of it, the more I can surface the deep roots of my own interest in technology and culture.
I miss my mom and grandma exquisitely. But I know how much they made me who I am. And now I get to think about how to pass on their legacy not just to my own daughter (shown here in a sweater knit by her great-grandma at age 89) but to many women who might not yet have thought about the connection between knitting, cooking, art, and computing.