Review: Fashioning Technology Embraces the Fusion of Craft & Tech


By John Baichtal

August 20, 2008—A new book from O'Reilly is positioned on the leading edge of the DIY movement: Crafters turned hardware hackers. (Think knitting plus LEDs and microchips.)

It's the logical evolution of a trend that's been shaping up for a while. First there was a growing boldness of hobbyists to explore the guts of their electronic products. Maybe they were hesitant at first, waiting for the gadget to break or the warranty to expire. Then, as their confidence grew, they willingly voided their warranty or user agreement. Some even took it to the next level, learning how to mod their hardware to add capabilities and alter existing ones.

As a parallel development, crafts -- particularly knitting -- began to rebound in popularity after a multi-decade slump. First it was a hipster phenomenon, then you started seeing knitting classes offered in park buildings and craft stores. Then something really cool happened: the two phenomena, tinkerer and crafter, converged and became the DIY movement. These days hacker collectives double as knitting circles: Recently, NYC Resistor offered a marshmallow-making class along side courses on PHP and soldering.

Fashioning Technology: A DIY Intro to Smart Crafting is the logical result of this convergence -- a guide that helps crafters develop hardware hacking skills. With big photos and sensible instructions, even the most unhandy craftsperson can learn enough electronics to start dabbling.

The first chapter describes "smart materials" that can be used for projects ranging from conductive velcro to memory alloys and fiber optics. Each description includes the advantages and properties of those materials. The next covers more traditional electronic components such as resistors and capacitors, describing them in a manner clear of technobabble (as much as possible!). Even a subject as self-evident as switches gets a full page, covering more obscure variants such as tilt and trip switches.

Of course, no DIY book is complete without a listing of required tools. Wire cutters, obviously. Electrical tape, sure. But a lot of the suggestions are nonintuitive like solderless breadboards and third hands. It is also a very nonegregious list with a mere twelve suggestions, all relatively inexpensive.

OK, you're set on materials and tools, now to get your feet wet with some exercises. Author Syuzi Pakhchyan calls them technical primers, and they're basically tutorials on stripping wire, soldering, and measuring voltages -- things you need to do actual projects. My favorite was the five-page segment describing basic screen printing but there were many more great ones. The description of sewing "soft circuits" -- where the circuitry is incorporated into clothing -- is another standout. All of these skills are needed to complete the projects at the end of the book.

The projects section comprises three main sections, Wearables, Home Accents, and Interactive Toys. While maybe less informative than the how-to sections, the projects are the fun part of the book and give the reader the opportunity to stretch his or her wings with actual hands-on activity.

Here are my favorites: The LED bracelet -- light up jewelry! Then there's a Solar Crawler that converts light into sound, a luminescent tea table, a LED chandelier and electronic finger puppets!

Fashioning Technology gives neophyte DIYers the tools and skills they need to expand their tinkering capabilities, but it's also a lot of fun and very educational for people who've already got their feet wet. And for those of us who are competent with electronics but interested in expanding our crafting skills, the dual craft-tech projects are a great help.