Textiles are technology

I hung a quilt in my office yesterday. It was not sewn by any of my ancestors, but a great-great-aunt did have the good taste (and fortune) to buy it. Here’s a detail:

Quilt detail

The quilt not only brightens the room, but also brings a feminine touch to what is, yes, the office of the first woman to be Chief Technology Officer at HHS.

It also reminds us that many hands on a project — such as a quilting bee — can create a beautiful whole, just as many eyes make all bugs shallow (a principle of open-source software development).

A hand-pieced quilt is also a nod to the maker movement. Home health hackers craft solutions to problems that they or a loved one may face, often using only the materials they have on hand. They are one end of a wide spectrum of inventors, developers, and entrepreneurs which I believe is poised to have a significant impact on health and health care.

Technology has become a muddy term, interpreted through the sometimes narrow lens of the beholder, like the parable of the blind men and the elephant. It’s not just software and IT. It’s also hardware, devices, and textiles.

Just as we need to open the aperture of health care to include patients’ views, we also need to step back and see the whole picture of technology. And we need to remember our history, even (especially) when it is painful.

For example, the largest quilt in the world — the AIDS Memorial Quilt — was begun during a dark time in health care:

The Quilt was conceived in November of 1985 by long-time San Francisco gay rights activist Cleve Jones. Since the 1978 assassinations of gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, Jones had helped organize the annual candlelight march honoring these men. While planning the 1985 march, he learned that over 1,000 San Franciscans had been lost to AIDS. He asked each of his fellow marchers to write on placards the names of friends and loved ones who had died of AIDS. At the end of the march, Jones and others stood on ladders taping these placards to the walls of the San Francisco Federal Building. The wall of names looked like a patchwork quilt.

Inspired by this sight, Jones and friends made plans for a larger memorial. A little over a year later, he created the first panel for the AIDS Memorial Quilt in memory of his friend Marvin Feldman. In June of 1987, Jones teamed up with Mike Smith and several others to formally organize the NAMES Project Foundation.

I remember walking along the narrow paths between sections of the quilt when it covered the entire National Mall in Washington, DC, in 1996. Hand-made squares, each one memorializing a life lost.

We cannot forget that chapter of health care. And we cannot forget the prehistory of modern technology, as Virginia Postrel recently wrote in Aeon magazine:

In today’s popular imagination, fabric entirely belongs to the frivolous world of fashion. Even in the pages of Vogue, ‘wearable technology’ means electronic gadgets awkwardly tricked out as accessories, not the soft stuff you wear against your skin – no matter how much brainpower went into producing it. When we imagine economic progress, we no longer think about cloth, or even the machines that make it.

This cultural amnesia has multiple causes. The rise of computers and software as the very definition of ‘high technology’ eclipsed other industries. Intense global competition drove down prices of fibres and fabric, making textiles and apparel a less noticeable part of household budgets, and turning textile makers into unglamorous, commodity businesses. Environmental campaigns made synthetic a synonym for toxic. And for the first time in human history, generations of women across the developed world grew up without learning the needle arts.

As understandable as it might be, forgetting about textiles sacrifices an important part of our cultural heritage. It cuts us off from essential aspects of the human past, including the lives and work of women. It deprives us of valuable analogies for understanding how technology and trade transform economies and culture. It blinds us to some of today’s most pervasive innovations – and some of tomorrow’s most intriguing.

She goes on:

Weaving is the original binary system, at least 9,000 years old. Warp threads are held in tension, and weft threads go over or under them. Over-under, up-down, on-off, one-zero.

What do you think? What do you keep nearby to inspire you? What aspects of technology are you most excited about these days?

21 thoughts on “Textiles are technology

  1. This is a “Proust’s madeleines” moment for me – the first tech that I learned how to use was a Singer sewing machine, with my mom, when I was about 7 years old. I still have that machine, although I haven’t used it in a long time.

    The arc of history is draped in textiles. Ancient tech that’s still in use today, albeit with machines weaving instead of the hands that first figured out warp + weft = warmth and strength.

    Thanks for this. Made my Saturday.

  2. Susannah Fox, your post fills me with optimism. Please continue to lead technology applications that will serve our human needs for beauty and love. I recently took a tour of the DC Air and Space Museum and the male guide praised the women of NASA for their spacesuit solution that used light textile materials. Thank you for being a female pioneer on a mission!

  3. Thank you for leading with wisdom, Susannah. I’m proud to notice that both of our children (girl, boy) have learned to weave in various ways. Mostly accidentally, this happened before they got into computers.

    The way your words here project through me: creating with our hands and hearts brings the story to the center. Technology should be a method of helping more people tell their stories in increasingly impactful ways.

  4. thank you for this thoughtful post, and for thinking to honor the feminine in a tech-world that has yet to embrace diversity in the workforce (e.g., Google, Yahoo). I was watching “Crimson Fields” last night, thinking of all the labor that went into a task as basic as doing laundry in a war zone. People often scoff at domestic things, but they are the stuff that enables us to thrive.

    So, thanks for giving me pause to reflect.

  5. Love the way you thread these thoughts together! Making, innovating, inspiring!

    My beloved mom sewed a lot of our clothes when we were kids. I have her Singer featherweight sewing machine, and still use it occasionally — memorably, actually, to make Halloween costumes for my kids. My daughters sew, too, though it is increasingly a lost art.

    Other technology that excites and inspires me: a worn wooden spoon in the kitchen for making food for loved ones, and the internet for knitting us all together in a community that could not have existed just a few short years ago, affording the opportunity Roni describes for us to share our stories and make the world a better place.

  6. Before digging into the textile motif, let me first congratulate you on your new role at HHS. Although it would have been wonderful to see the impact you might have at RWJF, we are fortunate to have you in this critical role as CTO for HHS. Your time there will be invaluable.

    I love the textile motif. In fact, I love it so much, I started using it several years ago as the foundation for understanding CLOUD, CTML and how this new architecture will weave together our information in a new Internet. Much like a browser is to HTML, a Digital Weaver™ will be to CTML. I talk more about all of this in my TEDxAustin talk from 2011, “Reweaving the Fabric of the Internet to Transform Humanity.” It can be found here, along with the other TEDx talks I gave in Malaysia, Rome and Dublin in the fall of 2013:


    Warm regards and happy summer… we’re off to the beach for a week… and hopefully, lots of sand and good times with my kids and our extended family… and very little technology for a few days… 🙂

    All the best Susannah!!

  7. Where to start??

    First, anyone who didn’t click through and read your linked Postrel article MUST. DO. IT. NOW. What a banquet of illumination! Just the intro section left my jaw dropping!

    So I can at last put a name on what’s distinctive about interacting with you on your blogs. Lots of people leave links, as you do, but with you no reader gets to go deep without digging (clicking) to find out for themselves the spin and implication you saw in the linked writing.

    In light of this, what a conversation starter your office’s quilt can be.

    My brilliant dead friend Dorron Levy was a student of Gutenberg’s impact, in a way that crosses paths with Postrel’s point. He said everyone knows Gutenberg let many copies of the Bible be printed; but that only accelerated something that was already being done – copying a text (by hand or machine). The bigger, broader cultural impact of the printing press was the unprecedented ability, later, to make identical copies of images – never before possible. It was another new technology, which gave rise to the fashion industry, as people all over Europe could rapidly see what people were wearing elsewhere… which in turn created unprecedented markets for new textiles.

    You could say an ecosystem was born and evolved that would have been impossible to anticipate before “image liberación” had arrived. Before then I imagine it was impossible to imagine a vast continent-wide market (even demand) for a new style of garment. So it is with the spread of an unprecedented idea, yes?

    I imagine the same thing impedes our imagination of what citizen-patients would do if they knew what was possible if they had all their health data and innovators (like the early fashion merchants?) could connect people with what they want. Today earnest skeptics say “My patients aren’t asking for their data,” and I’ll bet centuries ago merchants would have said “My patrons aren’t asking what’s being worn in Paris.”

    Boy, I hope I’m not getting too thick about this. 1 a.m. is not my best time for writing gracefully, but I know something valid is in this.

    All from a quilt tale.

    p.s. Casey gets deft points for “warp + weft = warmth and strength.”

    p.p.s. > first woman to be Chief Technology Officer at HHS
    Can we find out if there have been women in other Federal CTO posts??

    • One reason I share my ideas publicly is so they can be built upon. As I was writing this post, I thought, “There are even more aspects to this — I can’t think of any more myself, but I know my community will.” LOVE the amplifications you and others are bringing to this.

      As for other women in federal CTO posts, I haven’t seen a list, but of course the U.S. CTO right now is Megan Smith and the VA CTO is Marina Martin.

      • Well, there you go – I had no awareness at all that we had women in those positions, or even that they existed. Are they comparable to your post in mission and being staff-free? 🙂

  8. Susannah, reading your posts is a true pleasure, as always! I love technology and I LOVE working with textiles, yarns, string, beads, leather, metal, it’s what I do to relax (and also keep my dexterity ahead of my Parkinson’s). The analogy with programming is of course very apt and I think being used to combining different stitches in knitting or crocheting or keeping track of complicated patterns of embroidery is good for the agility of the brain too.

    You are inspiring us all with your work Susannah!

  9. Wow! I love the conversation that we’ve started here. I hit publish and then left for an all-day hike in the Blue Ridge Mountains to get away from the heat of DC. I am honored by the ideas and illuminations you have all shared.

    Who knew so many of us work with textiles? I learned how to sew in a very rudimentary way, from my mom and both grandmothers, and I learned how to knit in college, but haven’t touched my needles in years. Knitting was therapeutic, a way to sit and just chill with my friends while doing something productive (even if I was only making a scratchy scarf that nobody would really want to wear). A Zen practice, almost.

    I was reading about a big Alzheimer’s research meeting being held in DC this coming week. The kicker quote reminded me of what Sara just shared about how working with textiles is therapeutic for Parkinson’s:

    Another Einstein study suggests that psychological stress can elevate the risk of developing dementia — or, more precisely, how one handles stress. Higher “perceived stress” is associated with cognitive impairment, the study shows. But that also suggests that better managing stress might be beneficial.

    “As we started doing this work, I started doing yoga,” Lipton said.

    Lots to mull over in these comments — and I’d love to hear from more people, too. Let’s keep the conversation going!

  10. Susannah – thank you first for the insanely articulate and accessible and yet also wildly fresh perspective. What you said – to a googleplex!! And then, again, thank you for teaching me to read the comments – because each of the above is only more delicious – and itself a reflection of why we are all so lucky you are in this role…because you can’t help but inspire – nay, COMPEL – us all to think bigger, broader, happier. The above was a great reminder to me to lead with the tactile recognition that we are not the first to experience problems, nor to find genius ways to solve them…with comfort and sensuality and the sometimes most important reality of beauty against our skin. Yes, that too can be technology, and can reflect the very greatest of our innovation.

  11. Wonderful blog 🙂
    Am married to a historical costume designer so am surrounded by beautiful fabrics!

    But your question at the end made me think….. I am surrounded by beautiful paper; notebooks and pens, they feed my soul in a way technology doesn’t seem too. They are tactile, smell beautiful (who doesn’t like opening a new book and smelling the print!) and allow me a freedom of expression.
    I’d never thought how ironic this was before 🙂 but my Mum was a librarian 😉
    Anne x

    • Annie, your comment reminded me to post a link to my friend Julia Brennan’s site:

      Caring for textiles

      She has worked on five of my family quilts over the years, some of which needed significant repairs. When I brought her this one and told her where it would hang, she shared that she restored the two gigantic textiles that hang in the atrium of the Humphrey building (HHS headquarters). One was designed by the building’s architect, Marcel Breuer, the other by the artist Jan Yoors.

      Here’s an image of the Breuer tapestry and here’s one of the Yoors tapestry.

      Julia also told me that the original design for the building including a soaring atrium above what is called the Great Hall — an open courtyard in the middle of the building. There was no security desk, no dropped ceiling of ugly tiles. Instead a visitor would have walked into a Brutalist cathedral of clean planes and light from above, with these two epic tapestries hanging in the back of the Great Hall.

      For those who haven’t visited 200 Independence Ave. SW, well, let’s just say that it is not an inspiring experience. The building has been voted the second ugliest in all of Washington, DC. Apparently the Department realized that they were going to need more office space than allotted in the original design so they filled in the middle of the building.

      • Are there drawings of the original design?

        p.s. Who KNEW all this could come out of a post about a quilt? Somehow you sense these things and tap into them. (Maybe you’re a dowsing rod for hidden flows – of ideas.)

  12. Wonderful post and great comments from so many here.

    Susannah, thanks for bringing me back to our conversation at lunch a few weeks ago. I’m not sure I mentioned this at the time but I’ve long been a collector and user of vintage textiles, trims, buttons and most anything related to the art of sewing – a skill I picked up from my mother as a kid.

    In the early 2000’s when I was doing a lot of community-based work I was often “weaving” together and creatively “stitching” diverse combinations of resources with people to help them live as well as possible at home. My practice and consulting firm was called Caretography (a spin on the idea of map making for care). One day I was working with my textiles making purses for friends as gifts and realized I was also bringing together diverse combinations and juxtapositions of fabric, lace, buttons and notions that were never meant to be together but as a new whole were incredibly wonderful, beautiful, quirky, unique, even sometimes tacky – not unlike each of us as we make our way through the world.

    I started using the bags as conveyors of Caretography information and brochures about CareChats – what I called my work with patients and families. They became a way of talking about the complexity of creative collaboration – putting together all the pieces needed from lots of different sources to support their ability to live as well as possible in the setting of their choice with serious illness, complicated aging and the challenges of caregiving.

    Ah the lovely symmetry of creativity, curiosity and the art of possibility!


  13. What a wonderful post. Congratulations on your new position!

    I love quilts. They are made with care and filled with patterns, geometry and color . I do not take needle and thread to fabric but I have painted quilt patterns in cancer awareness colors and designs. It was my way of creating a story.

  14. Susannah, were you inspired by a certain mother investigating how a piece of fabric might solve her child’s problem? Because when she and I talked, I was left with the inspiration to build an etsy for health…

    • Natasha, I’m searching my brain for a conversation that fits this description, but I’m coming up short — no doubt due to my own sieve-like memory. Remind me?

      LOVE the idea of an etsy for health.

  15. Susannah, how wonderful to read a stimulating conversation revolving around ‘textiles’.

    The intersection of woven dyed hand made textiles and fast evolving technologies (high tech fabric production as well as IT communications) today is a fascinating addition to what appeared to be ‘old ladies work’ and a nearly lost segment of our history. Aah, to read Postrel’s provocative article, reminding us of how it ‘all began with textiles’ is a celebration for humanity. I’ve always given lovely hand made textiles as wedding presents – for the past 25 years – since going back to Pheonecian and earlier times they were the most illustrious and luxury gift possible, and maybe now some of the recipients will actually begin to make the connection to the importance of hand made cloth and their own long thread tying them to textiles. I work with my hands everyday, with cloth everyday, mostly old, and use a combination of old traditional stitching techniques and modern scientifically based methods to clean, repair, stabilize, and extend the life of many textiles – from American quilts and samplers, chinese embroideries, indigenous appliqué, monumental Flemish tapestries, tiny voile christening dresses, beaded purses and flapper dresses, military uniforms, and contemporary fiber art pieces.

    Working on the 2 fiber art pieces at HHS Hubert Humphrey building was a testament to just how important fiber art was in the 1960’s and early 70’s. (I think this is in a revival now) Those 2 pieces, now a bit worn and faded, still are commanding pieces of ART, designed for what was a stark, modern interior. They shone like beacons at the back of the once huge grey atrium, like stained glass windows. It was wonderful working with the buildings facility team at HHS. They so appreciated our care for these textiles; we cleaned them, and then re positioned the Breuer tapestry right in the lobby! Yes, there are drawings and photos of the original interior and architect design – GSO keeps these records and we referred to them during our conservation campaign.

    So thread by thread I attempt to preserve our collective textile heritage, around the world, and particularly in places like Bhutan, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, where the tradition of textiles is so rich and abundant. I’m on a ‘crusade’ to teach local stakeholders how to care for their own textile heritage and make this visible for young people today. A challenge in hot sticky humid climates. So from Taiwan, where I am at this moment working on a 1926 temple dance troupe banner 5 x 6 metre with 3 dimensional embroidered dragons and creatures of the sea, all copiously encrusted with gold paper foil metallic thread couched embroidery – I start a new chapter training the first group of young heritage professionals in the treatment protocol for one of their country’s magnificent textile pieces.

    Can’t wait to come see your quilt in situ and say hello to my old friends Breuer and Yoors. Please keep posting about textiles! And thank you for your important work for our nation’s health!

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