I’m excited to finally reveal Interleave #6: Porto, which was presented to Ed Frank and Sarah Ratchye at a reception before the Grand Finale dinner of the Carnegie Mellon Inspire Innovation! fundraising campaign last night. I was commissioned to make this quilt to thank Ed for serving as chair of the Inspire Innovation! campaign. (The campaign was incredibly successful, raising well over the $1 billion goal. As a faculty member at a terrific university that has a much smaller endowment than most of our peer institutions, I really appreciate how this infusion of funds will benefit the university.)

I felt truly honored to be asked to make this gift, and somewhat nervous about whether I could produce something that would live up to expectations. Ed and Sarah are art collectors, and Sarah is herself an accomplished artist. The folks who approached me about making the gift were hoping for a piece that would represent the interplay of art and technology, consistent with the mission of the STUDIO. Having spent a good part of the past year working in the STUDIO, I am personally grateful to Ed and Sarah for their financial support of the STUDIO as well.

I did not have a lot of time to produce this quilt, and it involved a number of new techniques I hasn’t tried before. It all came together fairly well until the end. Last weekend I finished the binding, and when I put it up on my design wall for a photograph I realized the corners were not square. Really not square. It was a lovely rhomboid parallelogram. Because I have different prescriptions in each lens of my glasses, when I take my glasses off the world looks a bit un-square (which drives my OCD side nuts). But my glasses were on.  I checked the quilt corners against the grid on my cutting mat, and there was no denying it. The quilt was not square. This was the widest Interleave quilt in the series and I realized that the longer the strips, the more room there is for the fabric to stretch as I sew – and I hadn’t noticed until that point that there was actually quite a bit of skew. I pondered the problem over night and the next day ended up removing the binding and vertical borders so I could square it up. Fortunately, I had used Aurifil 50 weight thread for piecing, which made the un-piecing a snap (my new favorite (un)piecing thread – really nice thin thread with low lint that doesn’t break while sewing but so easy to rip out without tearing your fabric when the situation calls for it). I reattached the borders and the binding and finally could declare it finished.

I already wrote up a little artist’s statement, which the CMU advancement folks had a designer incorporate into a little booklet to accompany the quilt. I will just include the statement here for those of you who want to learn more about the quilt. I’ve also included some bonus images  so you can see how it was made.

Artist’s Statement

At first glance the Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University appears like a good place for a computer science professor, but an odd place for a quilter. I am both a quilter and a CMU computer science and engineering professor who is spending my sabbatical as a fellow at the STUDIO.

While other faculty and students in the STUDIO spend the day creating new concepts from behind computer screens, I set up shop with an old sewing machine, an ironing blanket, a cutting mat and a huge pile of colorful fabric.  At the beginning of my fellowship, I smiled politely every time someone suggested ways of attaching the old sewing machine to a robotic arm, and spent days with needle and thread hand quilting colorful lines.

Hand quilting is a process that offers one a lot of time to think, and I did spend a lot of time thinking about the art and craft of quilting, and how I might use technology in my work. For most of my piecing and quilting, I use a sewing machine, which was fairly sophisticated technology when it was invented about 200 years ago. My most recently purchased sewing machine is actually called a “sewing computer” by its manufacturer, and it has some innovative features such as a sensor that can detect the speed at which the operator is moving a piece of fabric so that the machine can automatically adjust the speed at which the needle goes up and down.

I appreciate the added value that technology can bring to my art, enabling me to create in ways that would be difficult or impossible for me unassisted. But it is not my goal to use technology to eliminate the need for me to participate in the fabrication process. Part of my attraction to quilting and fiber arts is the tactile nature of the medium. For me, part of the fun is manipulating fabric and thread with my hands. I want to use technology to enhance my skills – let me sew straighter, faster, better – or, better yet, to let me create in ways I otherwise could not.

STUDIO director Golan Levin suggested the use of digital technology that was necessary for me to create this quilt. When I started my Interleave series of quilts, I sketched the quilt designs in pencil and did some design experimentation with scissors and paper. As I started to design the third quilt in the series, I began using Microsoft PowerPoint to sketch out some ideas involving sine waves. It was a tedious process as PowerPoint was really not the right tool for the job.

Golan saw what I was doing and suggested I write a program using an arts engineering toolkit called Processing to draw my design. As a computer scientist, I wasn’t previously familiar with Processing, which was developed by artists, for artists, and is taught in CMU’s undergraduate art classes. The program I wrote allowed me to generate the sorts of designs I had been struggling with, and it included sliders to allow me to experiment with sine waves of different frequencies and amplitudes. Using this program, I was able to rapidly iterate through large numbers of design possibilities before selecting one to actually fabricate. I did some engineering to figure out how to actually construct the quilt I designed, and then adapted my program to produce full-scale templates that I could print on paper and use to cut out my fabric.

Each quilt in the Interleave series uses a variation on the technique I described, but each includes a new twist on the approach. For Interleave #6, the new twist was the inclusion of a photograph digitally printed on fabric. After considering a variety of photo ideas, I chose a photo I took in Porto, Portugal in 2009 while on a short trip with some of my colleagues to attend a meeting for the Carnegie Mellon Portugal program. Although I was there for less than three days, I managed to meet the Prime Minister José Sócrates as well as experience the city’s São João festival. Walking around the city, I took lots of pictures with my DSLR camera.

Porto is a wonderfully photogenic city, full of hundreds-of-years-old apartments with bright red-orange roofs. The city also has amazing staircases, some of which appear on maps as roads. The Duoro River runs through the city, with tall bridges stretching across it. The view of the Ribeira district from across the river is particularly spectacular, and affords a view of layer upon layer of buildings built into the steep hillside. It is a photo of this view that I selected for the Interleave #6 quilt.

Full-scale paper prototype to check that everything was in order before printing the fabric.

Before printing the photo on fabric, I manipulated it in several ways, including increasing the color vibrancy and saturation. Additionally, I created three versions of the photo at varying degrees of pixilation. Then I used my Processing program to interleave the three versions in a sine wave formation and to leave space for splicing in batik fabrics. Next, I adjusted the end result so it could be printed on fabric complete with guides for cutting and splicing. Since I wasn’t entirely sure I had calculated everything properly, before having the fabric printed at, I did a trial run with paper to reassure myself that it would work as I envisioned. When the fabric finally arrived in the mail I cut it up and sewed it back together, layered with a foundation grid, batting and backing fabric. The final touch was some hand embroidery for added texture and emphasis.

This was one of the two fabric panels I had printed to make this quilt. I removed the wide yellow and blue stripes and replaced them with batik fabric before making one-inch slices along the white lines.

The quilt is designed to show a view of Porto at various levels of focus, granularity, and abstraction. If you look at the quilt up close the pixelated sections appear mostly as abstract regions of color. On the other hand, you can see the un-pixelated sections most clearly, although they are rippled, as if reflected off water. The ripples are both a design choice, and an artifact of the medium – fabric stretches as it is sewn, so perfect alignment is difficult to achieve.

Step back from the quilt until you are too far away to see the un-pixelated sections clearly, and now the pixelated sections start coming into focus. Step back further and the larger pixelated sections convey meaning. The batik fabric sections appear as regions of color taken from the scene: the most abstract representation, color without meaningful shape. I began playing with pixelated images in my earlier quilts as I explored visual representations of privacy, and have continued to use this technique, even when privacy is not the main focus of a piece.

Interleave #6: Porto
25.5″x31.5″ digitally printed cotton and commercial batik fabric, machine pieced and quilted, hand embroidered with pearl cotton


Sabbatical ramblings

It’s been a while since I’ve posted an update, and I’ve got a bunch of random things to say… so forgive me as I ramble.

I’m working on a quilt that is bigger than I am now, so no, it is not done yet. It’s been in the works for about a month now, and maybe I will tell you more about it in my next post.

I’ve been distracted by some not-so-sabbatical-conducive activities, like start a new masters program to train privacy engineers. Really that is not the sort of activity one should do on sabbatical. But in order to have a new program start next fall, the program had to get approved and we needed to start recruiting now. Besides work on the curriculum and lining up faculty, there was some political wrangling to do. Now all we need is students. Tell your friends to apply.

I’m trying my best to stay out of my office when it is not Wednesday. Unfortunately, that’s not always possible. But my students are helpfully chastising me whenever they see me in my office on a day other than Wednesday.

The STUDIO organized a bus trip to the World Maker Faire in NYC at the end of September. That seemed like a good sabbatical activity, but the thought of an overnight trip (the bus was leaving Pittsburgh at midnight) with a bus full of students was not appealing. Yes, I did a red-eye to Barcelona earlier this year, and a few hours later put on a suit and spoke in front of an audience. But I flew business class. I may be too old to sleep on a bus and end up remotely coherent the next day. So I decided to spring for a plane ticket, two actually… I brought my 11-year-old son with me too. Getting to the airport in the morning turned out to be an unexpected challenge (who knew that busses stop running 2 hours before the Great Race starts?), but after that we had a great day. Maker Faire is full of cool stuff as far as the eye can see. I was on the lookout for LEDs suitable for sewing into quilts, and I did get some good ideas. Shane was enthralled by all the 3-D printers. We watched battery-powered go-carts race in the rain (the rain ponchos I had stuffed in Shane’s backpack came in handy!), and enjoyed a display of dozens of mentos-laces soda bottles spraying their contents high into the air.

I’ve had my big screen movie debut in the feature-length documentary CODE 2600. In October we hosted the Pittsburgh premier at CMU and I moderated a panel discussion with the filmmaker. I actually have a very small part, but the rest of the movie is good, and I’ve got my own IMDb page now.

I ran my second 5k race, Run Shadyside. I’m really not a runner. I don’t run fast. A nine-year-old neighbor ran faster than I did. I don’t run when it is hot. I don’t run when it is cold. But I ran the whole way, and I finished. I even “trained” for a few weeks beforehand. It is cold now. I probably will not run again until Spring.

Eight weeks into my hair dye experiment, most of the blue had faded, leaving me with streaks of greenish grey hair, with a few bright turquoise streaks peaking out. It is a mystery to me why some strands stayed blue while the rest faded. They do, after all, reside on the same head. I wasn’t thrilled with the faded look, so I headed back to my hair dresser for another round of blue. This time there was no need to bleach my hair so she went straight for the dye, and left it in a really long time in hopes that it might last longer this time around. This resulted in turning the bleached hair a very dark indigo blue and the surrounding brown hair a dark navy, almost black. In low light, my hair looks black, but in the sun there are nice indigo highlights. Now almost two weeks into the second round of blue, it is still very dark.

A really good sabbatical activity at the end of October was chaperoning a fourth-grade field trip on RiverQuest. Normally I don’t have time to spend the day on a field trip, but I’m on sabbatical, so why not? It was a beautiful day on the water, the fall leaves were gorgeous, and the trip was really interesting. I took a lot of photos. The kids learned a lot about the health of the three rivers. They collected water samples and ran various test on the water, collected mud samples and looked for macro invertebrates, and collected plankton samples and tried to ID various plankton and microorganism. It was really a fun day!

Another project, nine years in the making, is a new kitchen for our house. I never liked the kitchen from the time we bought the house. But it took a while to figure out what I wanted instead. After much planning, construction has begun. We have now survived 10 days without a kitchen. There’s a lot you can do with a microwave and a toaster oven, but cooking without a sink is kind of a pain. The contents of our kitchen, pantry, and mudroom have been spread throughout the house.  Our old kitchen has been stripped down to its bare studs. Our contractor was somewhat surprised by how the walls are being held up. A beam expert will advise next week….

People often travel a lot on their sabbaticals, but since this is a staybatical, I’m trying to keep travel to a minimum. I actually made it through most of September and October without leaving Pittsburgh. But at the end of October I headed to Williamstown, MA to give two invited lectures at Williams College. I enjoyed my visit, and got back before Frankestorm arrived. Going to Williams was also a good excuse not to go to Uruguay for a privacy conference.




When I applied for my sabbatical, I proposed to explore visualizing privacy concepts through art. It sounded like a plausible way to tie my research interests to my sabbatical plan, but I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to do that. Well, I have now finished my second sabbatical quilt, and it is actually about privacy. And there is a long story to go with it.

When I was at SXSW last spring, I saw a Japanese startup at the trade show that was handing out 30x lenses you could stick on your smartphone. They wanted people to use the lenses to take close-up photos of their skin problems and upload them to a social network called Beautécam. I was somewhat horrified by the concept, but happily accepted a 30x lens and hurried off to another booth. When I got home I stuck the lens on my Android phone and started taking photos. Once I got the hang of using it (it has a very short focal length) I was amazed at the detailed photos it took. I took a bunch of photos of fabrics and flowers with very nice results.

Using the lens made me think a lot about privacy. Given my research area, I think a lot about privacy anyway, but this creepy skin-care lens seemed well suited for visualizing privacy concepts. I tried to understand why the intended use of this lens had such a high “yuck” factor for me. For one thing, 30x closeup photos of skin are actually not very attractive, even if your skin is flawless, which mine certainly is not. But most of us don’t get really close-up views of very many other peoples’ skin, because that usually requires being in uncomfortably close proximity to those people. We all learn to keep a certain distance away from people out of respect for their personal space. Just how far that distance is seems to vary somewhat by culture.

In order to be in focus, an object must be within about a millimeter of the end of the 30x lens. So using this lens to photograph skin requires pressing the lens against the skin. Taking pictures of flowers with the lens requires shoving the cone-shaped lens into the center of the flower, and in some cases, gently prodding the flower into the center of the lens. So, there is no way to use the lens without invading the personal space of the person or object you are photographing. Of course, flowers don’t care, but I like the metaphor.

The flower images and the privacy metaphor especially intrigued me, and I started thinking about how I might use them in a quilt. I assembled a panel of some of my favorite flower images in Photoshop and uploaded them to Spoonflower, a company that prints digital images on fabric. About a week later Spoonflower delivered a yard of Kona cotton fabric with my images printed on it. The images looked soft and lovely on the fabric, although the colors were not as intense as in the original. After I machine washed the fabric a little more intensity was lost. Clearly the images would need embellishment to regain some of the vibrancy of the originals.

After pondering the images on the fabric for a while I decided to take advantage of the lossy images and use the fabric for a study of visual de-identification. I selected nine of the images and set out to create a 12-inch block featuring each one. I went to my fabric stash and pulled out a large stack of fabrics (mostly batiks) that blended with the colors in the flower images. Each block has these ready-made commercial fabrics spliced together with my custom-printed fabric. On some of the blocks I overlaid polyester organza, a shimmery, translucent fabric. In some blocks, I retained large areas of the flower image, with small strips of fabrics spliced between. In other blocks the flower images are chopped into small pieces and interspersed among the commercial fabrics. I put each block together improvisationally, as a mini-quilt unto itself.

I assembled nine blocks and then sewed the blocks together into a very colorful 3×3 square. I pondered what color to use to bind the quilt, and eventually decided it would look better without binding. So I decided to try the envelope method of binding in which the front and back of the quilt are layered facing each other (with the batting layered on top), sewn around the edges, and turned right-side out through a slit in the backing fabric. The slit gets covered over in the end by the hanging sleeve. The result is a nice clean, modern-looking edge to the quilt, rather than a picture frame.

The next decision, was how to quilt the piece. I decided to use a mix of techniques — free-motion machine quilting, straight-line machine quilting, hand quilting, and embroidery –and use the quilting to both add color intensity and to further de-identify the flower images. Each block has its own quilting pattern that spills out into neighboring blocks. There are fun spirals, circles, petals, and stipples free-motion quilted in bright colors. There are yellow, red, and lavender French knots, liberally sprinkled throughout. And lots of hand and machine quilted lines.

Looking at the finished piece, I see a lot going on. There are nine separate compositions that are loosely tied together (not as well as I had hoped, actually, but perhaps that’s part of the point). There are flower images rendered difficult-to-identify by the unusual close vantage point from which they were taken. These images are further obfuscated by slicing and reassembly, overlays, and stitching. The edges of images are mixed with their neighbors so it isn’t always clear what pieces belong with which images. But if you saw the original flowers, you could probably eventually re-identify most of the images. (Perhaps I will do another quilt on “re-identification.”) It is a lot like personal data de-identification, in which data is removed and digital noise is introduced, but in the end the de-identified data might be re-identified given sufficient contextual information.