Textile as Algorithmic Computation

Data materials, from fibrous media to tools to (un)intentional additions, are gathered and disciplined into being through an algorithmic protocol called a pattern.

At a base level, there is a kind of structure to any textile, be it stitching, knitting, or weaving. Fibrous media must come together to compose the textile. Tools such as the hands and needles command the output of sizes and textures. Ancillary materials such as other fibrous media (including that of unintentional dog hairs) or other embellishments may be developed into and onto textiles. This results in different sizes, colors, and shapes, and are used to determine the foundation of a piece.

In cross-stitching examples, Mai Nou used an Aida style fabric, which is an open and even weave cotton fabric specific for cross-stitching. This cloth is often white in color, but can be found in various colors. Aida cloths are mesh and stiff, which allows for you to not have to use a hoop to hold the material taut. To develop geometric visualizations, an Aida fabric allows for the output of straight lines and shapes through counting. In Mai Nou’s cross-stitching, there is a strict pattern, or script, to follow (see Figure 1). When there is a misstep, the medium allows you to participate in undoing your mistake. What’s materialized in the end speaks to the traditional Hmong patterns that communicated information about clan affiliations, genealogies, geographies, wealth, and sometimes with some recognition of plants and animals—and it also speaks to how the fibrous media have been manipulated. For example, you can see this in the stretching of the fabric as a result of tension.

A cross-stitch using a pattern in blues, greens, purples, and pinks
Figure 1: A rectangular piece of cross-stitch on Aida style fabric using a Hmong pattern in blues, greens, purples, and pinks.

As Annette Markham (2013) asserted, data always tells more one than one story. In the needlework, the materials tell a story about the situation in which they were made, but still communicate about the set of instructions involved. In this sense, textiles are algorithmic computations because they call for automated reasoning followed by action steps to produce recognizable information. For example, the white Aida is the beginning of a money belt that would be further embellished with beads and coins (Figure 1). In the black Aida, there is a sense of play (Figure 2). The rules of shapes and figures are followed, but its arrangement and style deviates from the more traditional white Aida version. The floss colors are varied, whereas in the traditional version, the colors are strictly defined and specifically meaningful.

Black fabric featuring multicolored and differently sized squares of cross-stitch
Figure 2: A black piece of Aida fabric that features multicolored and differently sized squares of cross-stitch in a variation of a Hmong pattern.
The Hmong belt from above with a series of green x's circled in yellow
Figure 3: The Hmong belt from above with a series of green "x"s circled in yellow.

Yet, despite this variance between the black and the white versions, the shapes that emerge are recognizable. At its foundation, the shapes, figures, and lines emerge through a series of spatially controlled “x”es. Some Hmong makers might stitch an entire zone (requiring them to switch in between multiple colors of floss) before moving on to the next. For example, in the black version, Mai Nou is working on one zone at a time (Figure 4). Some might calculate the exact space and distances and focus on the shapes of one particular floss color. In the white version, Mai Nou is working on the color green (Figure 3). The latter would require understanding and isolating one segment of the pattern. One might even say that this is a function of a randomized algorithm that incorporates random inputs for a finite outcome because the pattern allows for more than one path towards completion.

In the same way one language or software will structure how data can be visualized differently from another, the data materials of textile are gathered to create different possibilities for structuring material information.

Close up of black textile with a cross-stitch pattern in progress
Figure 4: The black textile from above shows how the maker works on one zone at a time.