Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

28 Feb 2010, 20:14 p.m.

Sewing, Debian Packaging, DIY Electronics, And My Love Of Old Systems

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2010 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

A few weeks ago I organized a sewing lesson at Ivy's place. A few friends got together and learned some basics of machine sewing and hand sewing. (My family had bought me a sewing machine a few years prior, for which I was very thankful, but which I put away in frustration when I couldn't figure out how to get the bobbin thread to properly get caught by the needle.)

Ivy was a great teacher. Over and over, I was astonished to see the system of the thing resolve before my eyes; millions of people have worked through fiber arts issues before I ever arrived, and have developed tools and practices that make sense. Every button and lever and outcropping on the face of a sewing machine has a function. Starch spray, hot iron, water, pins, spool, bobbin, rotary trimmer, foot pedal to leave both hands free to guide the fabric, and different stitch types for different purposes (like backstitching or stabilizing initial knot) just make me feel so glad to be arriving in a well-explored problem space, in a millenia-old community of practice.

We were all women. We talked about:

  • clothes and crafting
  • apartments and moves
  • dating and partners
  • our friend and how to cheer him up
  • our job histories and the in-retrospect architectures of our careers
  • licorice
  • university architecture and confusing hall/building design

So, in case you're trying to pass the Bechdel test, there you have some suggested topics. I successfully hemmed some raw shirtsleeve edges!

Then the next night I went to a Debian packaging workshop that Richard and Daniel put on. Thanks for the kind and informative instruction! Again, I marveled at how many tools the community had already built to check for traps, format output nicely, and generally smooth the processes of patching and packaging. tree gives you directory listings, formatted as a tree! You can report bugs to the Debian bug tracker from the command line with reportbug! Like Mel says: "It's not that these things are hard, it's that you don't know how they're easy."

I was the only woman. Better than none.

A few nights ago I learned to solder, thanks to Ranjit, NYC Resistor, and BugLabs. (That's me in the background!) I brought some materials and creativity and got free light-emitting diodes, wire, tools, and instruction. Half the participants were women. Everyone's lanterns were pretty.

Wires twist easier with pliers, and hold together with solder. Electrical tape hides ugly wires and prevents short-circuiting (and "circuit" as a noun and a verb makes intuitive sense when you've wired one up). Voltage math on the level of 2-volt LEDs and nine-volt batteries is easy: four 2-volt bulbs in series light up nice, soaking up the voltage appropriately, but five bulbs get pretty dim, and three or fewer bulbs get dangerously hot and might pop.

Pliers, soldering irons, and electrical tape are manufactured to complement the human hand. These are tools we made. They, too, are instantiations of a jillion person-hours of thought and work and discovery. Every complicated system is like a city. It emerges from the work that goes on inside it. We shape it and it shapes us.

That's my awe of makers and making. Reading books, I get to hear from the dead. In crafting, I feel the touch of the vanished hand.


28 Feb 2010, 22:03 p.m.

Crafting + Licorice = yay

01 Mar 2010, 14:18 p.m.

I would so totally love to have followed you around for all of those - and I look forward to seeing pretty lantern-ness when next I visit!

One image I've always liked is comparing the reading of books to stepping through the footsteps someone else has made in the snow - you think the things they thought, see the things they saw, and know others came before you and will come after you, stepping in their footsteps - but now also in yours.