Coding Behind Craft Connects with Computing


In celebration of International Women’s Day 2015, Loves Data team members reached out to esteemed Australian weaver Helen Wilder. There is a historical link between the coding required for weaving on mechanical looms and computing. Think Ada Lovelace, recognised by Walter Isaacson as the first computer programmer in his book 'The Innovators’. Helen Wilder uses a mechanical loom she imported from Sweden decades ago when she began a journey that has taken her to weaving mastery. It is a craft and calling requiring detailed calculations, intricate handwork, endless patience, concentration and stamina.

Watching Helen set and operate her loom moves time back to centuries old techniques and forth to the digital age when you consider the complexities of the numbers she uses to code her designs.

She can spend weeks on a single piece. Her process is all encompassing – she spins and dyes her own yarns. The design stage is a lengthy one involving the transformation of visual design into numbers; in essence coding!

Her loom is driven by pedals which are connected to the threads. She numbers the pedals according to their behaviour. Pedals 1, 3, 5, 7 for instance are responsible for the basic weave. Pedals 2, 4, 6, 8 will drive the other side.

Helen weaves by numbers quite literally. “If I want a different pattern I’ve got 8, 3, 7, 4, 4,” she says. Variations such as this in the ‘coding’ bring to life weaves she uses to produce breathtaking scarves, sometimes combining multiple layers in one piece.

The loom has to be reconfigured for each new design or ‘code’, as with software programming this requires both time and accuracy. Helen then has to physically sit on the floor inside the loom to tie the threads before she can begin weaving. A mistake at any point, in the design code or execution, can leave her scratching her head as she searches for the error. A missing semicolon in coding a computer program has much the same effect.

Helen migrated to Australia from the Netherlands, a country known for its rich heritage of weaving and tapestries. However, it was only after her young children were sufficiently independent that Helen had time to pursue weaving.

She began with a TAFE course at Strathfield. She went on to become President of The Society of Arts & Crafts of NSW. A role which involved managing the association’s gallery at The Rocks in Sydney.

Helen’s formula for administrative success parallels those she applies to her craft. “You have to have endless patience. You have to know who to pick for the right jobs and work hard.” As a mother of three and grandmother of five, Helen’s advice is, “Whatever passion you have, just go for it.”