With a plethora of knitting patterns already on the market, you’d think there’s no room for anything new. However, it is entirely possible to invent your own knitting pattern—and it’s easier than you think. The following steps, similar to the process of invention used in Spark!Lab, can jumpstart your journey to create a piece of fiber art that you’ll be proud to make and wear.
1) Find Your Inspiration
Look at your inspiration; what will translate well into a piece of fiber art? Perhaps the building you work in has interesting architectural detail—you could pick some lines from this detail to base your pattern on. Or perhaps you found a beautiful red leaf in Autumn—the color can be the jumping off point. Maybe you love zombies? What about them could inspire a piece of knitting? The world is full of interesting possibilities; all you have to do is observe. I keep a little notebook with me at all times so I can jot down inspiration when I come upon it.
A zombie dishcloth from digknittydesigns.blogspot.com.
2) Determine Your Skill Level
Do you know how to construct sweaters, or are you just learning to knit and purl? Figure out what your skill level is, and attempt to create a pattern that aligns with the level of knowledge and expertise you already have. If you’re just starting out, a simple scarf or washcloth could be great, while an intricate pullover, maybe with colorwork, would be fun for those more advanced.
Cary Grant trying to knit in the movie Mr. Lucky. From the Lion Brand Yarns blog.
3) Draw It Out
Going from inspiration to finished product doesn’t happen directly. Drawing your pattern idea, based on your inspiration, is a crucial step in writing a pattern. Sometimes when we envision a finished product, it doesn’t turn out exactly how we thought. Sketching out a picture of what you want to create will help you make early decisions about the final product.
4) Write It Down
If you have a pattern with more intricate designs, you might want to use a chart, especially when working with lace. If it’s something easier, you can simply write out the directions. Always start out by writing what kind of fiber you chose (the kind of yarn and the brand), the size of the needles, the gauge, and how many yards you used.
An American flag knitting chart from VickiDesigns.homestead.com
5) Test and Tweak
It’s not uncommon for a pattern to have errors in it. Don’t be too proud to admit a mistake—even professional pattern inventors with many years of experience have patterns with errors in them! Give your pattern to friends or fellow knitters on Ravelry.com to test. Use feedback to correct any problems, and update the written pattern.
6) Decide What To Do With Your Pattern
Many people invent patterns to be given away for free and the enjoyment of all. You can do this, or keep it to enjoy yourself. You can also choose to sell your pattern on many different websites, including Ravelry, Etsy, at farmer’s markets, or through a personal blog.
Over the past two years the Lemelson Center team has been working diligently with exhibition designers at Roto and museum evaluators at Randi Korn and Associates (RK&A) to develop and test our next exhibition, Places of Invention(POI). If you’ve read previous Bright Ideas blog posts, you may know that this exhibition is scheduled to open in the Lemelson Hall of Invention when the National Museum of American History’s West Wing reopens in mid-2015 after extensive renovations.
The POI exhibition will take visitors on a journey through time and place to discover the stories of people who lived, worked, played, collaborated, adapted, took risks, solved problems, and sometimes failed—all in the pursuit of something new. POI features six American communities—Hartford, Connecticut, late 1800s; Hollywood, California, 1930s; Medical Alley, Minnesota, 1950s; the Bronx, New York, 1970s; Silicon Valley, California, 1970s-80s; and Fort Collins, Colorado, 2010s—representing a surprising array of people, places, time periods, and technologies. The exhibition examines what can happen when the right mix of inventive people, untapped resources, and inspiring surroundings come together.
In July 2012 and then again in March 2013 I wrote blog posts reflecting on how our exhibition development process mirrors the inventive process. Continuing the series, I’d like to share more updates here about recent POI project activities, particularly about our latest round of evaluation with visitors.
By May 2013, we completed the exhibition’s conceptual design phase (known at the Smithsonian as the 35% design phase). Roto submitted renderings and design specifications for official review by various Smithsonian departments regarding accessibility, security, lighting, electrical needs, conservation issues, and more. Museum director John Gray and senior staff members reviewed and approved the exhibition content and conceptual design, giving us enthusiastic thumbs up to proceed.
Since then the design development phase (called 65% design) has been underway. During this period the Center’s exhibition team has been collaborating closely with Roto to hone the look and feel of the POI exhibition, focusing on design details, developing more interactive elements, finalizing objects and images, creating exhibit case layouts, and writing exhibition labels.
We conducted round two of formative evaluation with RK&A at the Museum on July 8-10, 2013. Evaluation is funded by the POI project’s National Science Foundation grant. Following up on similar testing done for other interactives during round one in January 2013, the objectives of this evaluation were to explore:
how visitors use three prototype interactives;
how visitors interpret these prototypes;
whether there are any barriers to visitors’ use of the interactives;
whether visitors understand the relationships among people-place-invention and 21st century skills (e.g. collaboration, creativity, communication, flexibility, and risk-taking); and
how visitors interpret what this POI exhibition is about.
The introductory panel at the entrance to the POI prototyping space in the Museum’s first floor east corridor.
Roto set up three stations of prototype interactives, with minimal contextual materials, in the first floor East corridor of the Museum. Stanchions and moveable wall panels demarcated the small testing area, with an introductory panel about the exhibition displayed right outside. RK&A evaluators recruited walk-in adult visitors who were alone or in groups of adults and children to participate in the study.
Inside the prototyping area on day one of testing.
The activities we tested were:
an interactive about how early pacemakers worked for the 1950s Medical Alley, MN case study about the invention of the external, wearable pacemaker;
an activity to try out DJ scratching as part of the 1970s Bronx, NY case study about the birth of hip-hop music;
an activity for the exhibition’s Hub called Build Your Own Place of Invention, where visitors were encouraged to think about the conditions needed for their hypothetical place of invention, such as what people, spaces, or resources they would need.
For three days, the RK&A team observed and interviewed 48 groups of visitors (78 adults and 55 children ages 6-17) as they tried the different components without any coaching. Roto and Lemelson Center staff members were on hand to fix any mechanical issues and generally observe visitors as unobtrusively as possible. At the end of each testing day, we met with RK&A to debrief about visitor actions and interview responses and then made tweaks to the interactives for the next day’s testing.
The DJ scratching interactive on day 3 of testing.
In August, RK&A produced a final report based on the data they collected, providing information about their interviews and specific recommendations for further interactives development. The report addressed both successes and challenges, including what visitors considered the most enjoyable, least enjoyable, confusing, and intriguing aspects of the exhibit interactives, and their understanding (or lack thereof) of the exhibition messages. Finding that “place” is still conceptually difficult for many visitors, RK&A shared recommendations about how and where to define and visually represent place in the exhibition to reinforce our interpretation of “place” and its relationship to inventors and invention.
Visitors trying out the pacemaker interactive on day three of testing.
The evaluation process has been extremely informative, productive, and—for me as the project director—essential. Although the exhibition budget is tight, the money spent now on formative evaluation means the designers and fabricators will need less time and money to tweak and revamp the exhibition components in the future. Observing and talking with visitors on the Museum floor really pushed the Lemelson Center and Roto to rethink assumptions about how they use and interpret our creations. The resulting tweaking process—incrementally during the testing days and ongoing since then as we continue to build upon the report’s recommendations—will make the final exhibition much more meaningful and engaging for our visitors.
The Build Your Own Place of Invention activity on day three of testing.
Last month, I had the opportunity to meet Chase Lewis, another amazing inventor. Part of what’s so impressive about Chase is the fact that he’s just 13. But perhaps more notable is his invention, the Rescue Travois. Chase describes the inspiration for his invention on his website:
“During the 2011 Somali famine, hundreds of children who were too weak to walk were left by the roadside to die when their parents could no longer carry them on the two to three week trek to a refugee center. When…Chase Lewis read this in the newspaper, he thought no parent should have to do this. He wondered why they did not have a simple transportation device, like a little wagon, to help them carry the children. After speaking with experts, Chase learned that there is a dearth of simple, wheeled transportation in Africa. Most of the simple transportation people had, if any, were wheelbarrows. Yet most of the Somalis who had to make the treks to the refugee centers were too poor to even have wheelbarrows.”
So Chase set out to invent a new kind of vehicle that would be inexpensive, simple to put together, and easy to operate. He was initially inspired by travois used by Native Americans, but like any good inventor, he thought about how he could improve upon the existing technology and make it even more effective for the people he hoped to help.
Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
When we met, Chase talked about how his idea evolved from initial concept to end product. He described testing different designs for load-bearing capabilities and exploring various materials from which to build the travois. While he initially considered a wooden frame, he eventually settled on bamboo: it’s lightweight, readily available, sturdy, and sustainable. He also modified the existing travois design by adding wheels to make it easier to pull and a “belt” that can be worn around the operator’s waist, leaving arms free to carry a child. Finally, Chase tested his idea by having both children and adults pull the travois to ensure ease of use. Hearing Chase talk about his work really underscored one of the Lemelson Center’s main educational messages—that invention is a process. He conceived an idea, researched possible solutions, and created, tested, and tweaked a prototype until he came up with a workable design.
Testing the travois. Photo courtesy of Chase Lewis.
I first learned about Chase and his invention through the Spark!Lab Invent It Challenge, which the Lemelson Center has hosted the past two years in conjunction with the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access and ePals, an online global community for teachers and students. Chase’s was one of 300 entries in the 2012 contest and garnered the top prize for his age group, including the services of a patent attorney. (Chase doesn’t want to profit from the Rescue Travois, but wants to patent it so that no one else can make money from the design either. He hopes to make the design of the vehicle free and available to all.) But Chase’s work didn’t stop when he entered the contest. He continues to work on the travois, and is currently trying to identify suppliers and manufacturers. He has also met with government and non-profit leaders who he hopes can help him make the travois available to those who need it most.
Chase with Lemelson Center Director Art Molella, his friend Janvier, and his mother Michelle Lewis.
As my Smithsonian and ePals colleagues begin to plan the next Spark!Lab Invent It Challenge, scheduled to launch in early 2014, I am already looking forward to seeing the next round of inventions. I know there are other young inventors out there who, like Chase, have great invention ideas that can make the world a better place.
When I was a child, my father was nearly always working on a home improvement project of some kind. My dad refinished basements, renovated bathrooms, erected walls, and once even put in a new staircase where one hadn’t been before. I liked to help him with these projects (though, truth be told, I’m not sure if I was a help or hindrance in those years), and often took on the role of “scribe,” taking notes for my dad, writing down measurements, making shopping lists. Growing up in this kind of DIY household engendered a definite “can do” attitude in me, so when I bought my first home, it seemed normal to take on projects myself.
Every spring I tackle a different home improvement project. To date, I’ve repainted the entire interior of my house, replaced all the closet doors, refurbished a fence, installed new light fixtures inside and out, and renovated two bathrooms. Some of these projects (the bathrooms) have been more challenging than others (the painting), but all of them have required more creativity and innovative thinking than I would have imagined at the outset—something I didn’t really take away from the home projects of my childhood. My father is very analytical and logical, and from my perspective, his home improvement projects were too—well planned, well organized, and completed without a hitch. It was only when I started my own projects that I realized that for all the logic and thought these things require; they need an equal amount of creative thinking and problem-solving.
When I decided to renovate a bathroom last year, I was pretty confident I knew what to expect since I’d redone the master bath two years before. But, the project didn’t go quite as I planned: I discovered moldy drywall, a hole, and a bare, concrete floor when I removed the old vanity. I also found out that most contemporary vanities don’t work with my 1984 plumbing. So I put my inventive thinking cap on and got to work.
I eradicated the mold, replaced the drywall, and patched the bare hole. Those were pretty basic repairs. The bigger challenge came when I had to figure out how to cover the concrete floor so that it would match (or at least blend with) the existing tile. After scouring every home improvement store and flooring outlet for a match—and coming up empty—I decided I’d have to come up with my own solution. Using a combination of paint and tile I was able to create a patch of flooring that blends beautifully with what was already there. My most creative solution, though, came when I crafted my own flexible, leak-proof plumbing contraption to make the new sink and vanity work with the old pipes. I felt a little like MacGyver, using traditional plumbing supplies, hardware, auto supplies, and some super strength putty.
Though I thought this renovation project would take just a weekend, it took nearly a month, and was by far the most frustrating of all my home improvement projects (so far, anyway). But it’s also been the most satisfying and most creative. I encountered unexpected problems and developed innovative solutions, bounced back from what I originally thought might be insurmountable challenges, and ultimately came up with a beautiful end result. Since I’ve become my own contractor, I’ve realized that the projects I witnessed as a child weren’t perfect. Like me, my dad surely encountered problems and came up with solutions, switched gears, and found creative ways to use materials and tools. And though I’m not inventing something when I take on a new project at home, I often follow a process similar to that of an inventor—coming up with a new idea, sketching out a plan, creating or building something, and then tweaking it make it better before arriving at the final product. (My projects seem to be especially heavy on the “tweaking” part of the process.) Though sometimes lengthy and frustrating, it’s exactly this creative and innovative—and messy—process that I find so rewarding about working on my home.
Last summer I wrote a blog post about the 10% preliminary design phase of the Lemelson Center’s Places of Invention project and how exhibition development often mirrors the inventive process. In those early days of working with our exhibition design firm Roto we focused on the “Sketch It!” step, relying on their expertise to bring visual life to our highly researched, content-rich, but conceptually abstract topic. At the end of this official 10% design phase we had an exhibition floor plan, artistic renderings, and fun art direction boards for a concrete and colorful manifestation of our exhibition that we could share with project stakeholders and potential funders.
The “Create It!” step of the invention process next came into play. The second official phase of Smithsonian exhibition planning is called “35% conceptual design,” and for Places of Invention this phase began in October 2012 and runs through the end of March 2013. Now the Lemelson Center/NMAH-Roto team is collaborating to hone details of the design, including detailed floor plan, object layouts, graphics, typography, colors, lighting and acoustic-abatement needs, and specifications for mechanical interactives and multimedia. This is also the time for preliminary estimates for how much all of these elements are going to cost, which is where the proverbial rubber meets the road for decision making as we move forward.
The exhibition team was thrilled to see a version of “Places of Invention” come to life.
During the 35% design period of any exhibition’s development, I believe it is very important to conduct formative evaluation, which Randi Korn & Associates (RK&A) defines as testing “interpretive ideas and components for their functionality and ability to communicate content.” This could be termed the “Test It!” invention step. Fortunately, the National Science Foundation grant for Places of Invention supports three stages of evaluation: front-end (which RK&A conducted in summer and fall 2011); formative (two phases during 2013); and summative (at the end of the project).
The prototyping process featuring two case studies–Hartford, CT, and Hollywood. The Hollywood story looks at the development of Technicolor.
So, we brought Roto and RK&A together and came up with a plan to do a first round of formative evaluation prototyping at NMAH during late January. Although this is generally a slower time at the Museum, with fewer tourist traveling to the nation’s capital between the winter holidays and spring breaks, we had the advantage of two major events coinciding—President Barak Obama’s second inauguration and Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday—that attracted many thousands of visitors. We figured enough people would hang around afterwards to visit the famous local sites, including the Smithsonian museums on the Mall, to garner walk-in visitors willing to participate in our evaluation.
In the Hartford section, visitors were tasked with using a jig to twist wire into a business card holder–or whatever else they could invent!
Over three days, January 23-25, staff from Lemelson Center, Roto, and RK&A collaborated to conduct formative testing. We mocked up two exhibition case studies—Hartford, Connecticut and Hollywood, California— and also the “Interactive Map,” a participatory exhibit that asked visitors to share stories of their places of invention by writing comments to post on a U.S. map or by taping short videos on a laptop computer. The basic evaluation objectives were to explore general usability and understanding of intended exhibition messages. RK&A recruited walk-in adult visitors who were visiting alone or with children 10 years and older. RK&A then observed these visitor groups while they used the exhibition elements, including reading labels, looking at images, trying out interactives, and watching videos inside the case study areas and at the Map. Finally, RK&A interviewed the visitors and recorded data in handwritten notes. At the end of each day of prototyping, folks from the Lemelson, Roto, and RK&A teams gathered to discuss visitor feedback and interactions in order to “Tweak It!” for the next day. It was a fun, constructive, and exhausting process.
On the interactive map, we asked visitors to leave stories about their places of invention, either through Post-Its or videos.
We recently received the final report from RK&A, which includes careful analysis of the visitor observations and interviews and very constructive recommendations. This document has already helped us focus on key changes and improvements to the exhibition (the “Tweak It!” stage) while also provided us with enough objective information to know we are headed in the right direction. So onward we go through the final weeks of conceptual design, and then we can look forward to the “65% design development” phase through fall 2013. Keep an eye out for more reports from me along the way!
Editors Note: This is a follow-up to “It’s in the Details,” Anna’s recent blog about fiber artist Timothy Westbrook and his use of repurposed materials. Originally from upstate New York, Westbrook has enjoyed becoming part of Milwaukee’s robust arts community, itself at the center of a vibrant place of invention.
Donated audio cassette tapes in Westbrook's studio
Westbrook's "The Unicorn Maiden" comprised of woven cassette tape with cotton, blue velvet curtains, bed sheets, a Victorian hand-embroidered curtain, and a Victorian unicorn button. Modeled by Raquel and styled by Alexis Rose. Photo by Gerard Heidgerken at BarelyPractical.com.
that’s the color/
of my room/
where I will live— /
These lyrics from David Bowie‘s “Sound and Vision” have been lolling through my mind ever since I began thinking about the hand-woven cassette tapes in Timothy Westbrook‘s
designs. If it wasn’t for Bowie, after all, or the Clash or the Ramones or Troublefunk (you get the picture), I might not have felt such a familiar and sentimental pull towards Westbrook’s use of crinkly, sparkly, magnetic cassette tape. Who knew that old cassettes full of hiss could LOOK so good. Recognizing the tape in Westbrook’s jackets, dresses, and scarves was like seeing an old friend in a new context. In Westbrook’s Pfister Hotel studio, once-loved tape was woven into shimmering new life with pearl cotton, wool, and blended silk bamboo.
For those who remember, cassettes were high-maintenance friends: easily degraded by heat and humidity, often stuck in Walkmans, and with a tendency to spew ribbons of crumpled tape that had to be carefully rewound with a pencil. (This was best-case scenario: more often, the tape was mangled.) You work with what you have and I loved that technology. Soundtracks, mix tapes, and “cassingles” got me through.
Where do all the old “new technologies” like cassette tape go, though? I often think about that here at the Lemelson Center where we study innovative technology that supplants the old. While collections documenting the history of invention are carefully preserved by the Smithsonian and its counterparts, cassettes mostly go from shoe boxes to giant landfills where they degrade and leach pollutants into our water table and get into our food chain.
Details of Westbrook's woven cassette tape
Thankfully, artists like Westbrook are inspired to re-think this cycle and imagine how materials can be repurposed. Each of his gowns, for example, use between 6 and 12 yards of cassette tape. He makes it a point to never use virgin materials: “The goal is zero-waste which is often confused as ‘take this rectangular fabric and make a muumuu wrap dress.’ I simply mean do not throw anything away that is not biodegradable.”
Naysayers who think eco-friendly/sustainable fashion means burlap and muumuus will be more than surprised when they see Westbrook’s holiday dress. Made from a combination of gospel and holiday tapes, wire hangers, roses, grommets, and a Mrs. Claus costume, the materials inspire humor and play a metaphorical role in the visual story of the dress. Varying tape colors add visual depth.
The "Alexis Rose" holiday dress made of gospel and holiday-themed audio cassette tapes, red velvet from a Mrs. Claus costume, wire hangers, and donated grommets filled with roses. Sue Lawton's "Willow Tree" is in the background.
The relationship between sound and vision is not only a constant in Westbrook’s work—it also is the inspiration for his experimentation with audio tape. As a child, time spent listening to books-on-tape with his blind grandfather made him think about ways that sensory experiences could be translated. What if the books they listened to could be transformed back into something visual that could be understood through touch?
"The Stripe" (right) with woven cassette tape and a cotton and vintage chiffon curtain. Modeled by Michael and styled by Alexis Rose. Photo by Gerard Heidgerken at BarelyPractical.com.
Asked about the challenges of his medium, Westbrook muses, “I don’t really have problems with the cassette tapes—only inspiration. The story is in the wording: cassette tape is a kind of ribbon. So where else do we hear ‘yarn, thread, string, rope, ribbon’? Fabric. Weaving. What are other related things? Line, floss, string—violin string!—electric wire, silk. All of a sudden new materials make themselves available.”
His ability to look at things differently—to see all of the preceding materials as monofilaments to be woven, for example—keeps Westbrook’s work evolving. Strong mathematical ability and a fertile imagination stoke this fire, even allowing him to think about similarities between the sensorial process of weaving and playing audio cassettes reel to reel.
"The Femme Nouvelle" made with woven cassette tape and wool and a scarf made with woven plastic bags and cotton. Modeled by Layna and styled by Alexis Rose. Photo by Gerard Heidgerken at BarelyPractical.com.
So what next? Coming off a successful final gallery night show at the Pfister Hotel, Westbrook is winding down his time as Artist-in-Residence. He plans to stay in Milwaukee where he will continue to explore new ways to create sustainable, low-impact works that challenge established ideas about luxury and beauty in our disposable culture. He is innately good at connecting different people, ideas, and industries together—an important figure in any thriving place of invention—and I expect we will hear remarkable things about the community-focused projects he and collaborator Alexis Rose have on the horizon.
Alexis Rose and Westbrook at his final gallery night show. Rose styled the show and was its creative director. Photo by Gerard Heidgerken at BarelyPractical.com.
Earlier today, New Yorkers had a chance to hear Westbrook speak at the GreenBizForum about every object’s potential reuse.
We think a lot about sequins here—about their care and conservation—the history of their invention and evolution—and they ways their sparkle conveys the magic and glamor of performance.
From the Hollywood movies of Judy Garland to the honky-tonks of Patsy Cline, sequins have played an important role in audience enchantment. Their very glimmer is a kind of short-hand for magic—the magic of a fantasy world conjured upon a screen or the magic of a voice stirring powerful emotion. It was the marriage of sequins, intense light, and Technicolor, after all, that gave those slippers their ruby glow in The Wizard of Oz and conveyed their inner power. 
Dorothy's ruby slippers from "The Wizard of Oz," 1938, designed by Gilbert Adrian, NMAH
“The iridescent glimmer of sequins are essential elements in the larger-than-life persona of many a performer. It’s as if the shimmer allows them to bring their own special lighting to the stage.”
—Dwight Blocker Bowers, Entertainment Curator,
National Museum of American History
PBR shoes made from over 2,000 hole-punched aluminum circles; woven white plastic bags in background
Sequins—whimsically employed—are what first drew me to artist Timothy Westbrook’s Pabst Blue Ribbon shoes. They were posted on Facebook by Milwaukee’s Pfister Hotel where Westbrook is Artist-in-Residence. Online, the shoes were gorgeous and charming—their blue bows and red ribbons lining up just right—but it was the sequins’ brilliance and texture that put them over the top. I have two-stepping friends who would die to dance in them.
My cousin Rebecca’s wedding brought me to the hotel soon after, and in a quiet moment I discovered Westbrook’s studio just off of the hotel’s ornate 19th-century lobby. An odd place for PBR shoes, you might think, but this is Milwaukee, home of the Pabst family of brewery pioneers. Pabst Blue Ribbon is about as iconic as it gets in this place of invention.
I spotted the shoes right away—twinkling amid mannequins, gowns, and sparkling fabric being woven on a giant loom. I moved closer. I had never seen sequins like these—like round pieces of confetti arranged as if scales on a mermaid’s tail. I couldn’t stop looking.
Timothy Westbrook in his Pfister Hotel Studio
“Please touch!” enthused a voice from behind a non-electric treadle sewing machine. The kind and welcoming artist himself. Even with permission, I was hesitant to touch, but I’m so glad I did. Those weren’t sequins at all! They were red, white, and blue aluminum circles hole-punched from PBR cans! I loved the shoes even more for their surprise—for the inventive way that they not only celebrated an iconic American product—they were the product, recycled back to life.
Each shoe, Westbrook explained, was covered in over 2,000 aluminium circles hole-punched from used PBR cans. Separated for color and pattern, the “sequins” were then meticulously glued to a pair of vintage shoes over the course of 32 hours. Next to the PBR shoes were the latest entries in what Westbook calls his, “Drinking Shoe” collection: “Strongbow shoes” made from the hard cider’s distinctive yellow and black cans.
The “magic” of the PBR shoes, I told Westbrook, made me think on some level of that most celebrated pair of sequinned shoes in the Smithsonian’s collection. Funny I should say that: Westbrook recently created “Ruby Slippers” for a project commissioned by Misha Rabinovich.
Westbrook's glistening red "Ruby Slippers" made from another American icon—the Coca-Cola can; photograph by Alison Barnick www.alisonbarnick.com
The result is a spectacular pair of shoes that would make the Wicked Witch of the West take notice: a sparkling duo made of thousands of aluminum “sequins” from another American icon: Coca-Cola. The project was difficult on several levels—the heel, for example, is often wrong in reproductions—but Westbrook’s greatest challenge was creating something that evokes the public’s powerful memory of the shoes while providing a 21st-century twist.
Model wearing Westbrook's "Ruby Slippers"; photograph by Alison Barnick www.alisonbarnick.com
“The closer I get to garbage the more interested people are, ” Westbrook said. ”When they don’t know what they’re looking at, when they have to look closer and differently to figure it out, they see the innovation—that it’s not garbage at all—it’s something beautiful and a piece of Americana.”
Turns out, there was more to see, including other pieces made from recycled materials such as audio cassette tapes, MRI film, scrap yarn and fabric, umbrellas, medical splints, electric wire, and those ubiquitous white plastic bags. Even retired sheets donated by the Pfister get a second life as gowns.
Since that meeting in Milwaukee, I’ve enjoyed an ongoing conversation with Westbrook about his work and commitment to using re-purposed material. So much of what he talked about resonated with conversations the Lemelson Center has had with the many creative and innovative people that come through our doors. In my next post, I will talk about the work Westbrook is doing to transform discarded audio tape into shimmering textiles that challenge one’s definition of luxury.
 Blocker Bowers, Dwight (Entertainment Curator, National Museum of American History). 2007. From the Smithsonian Channel’s America’s Treasures video.
A souvenir "Chistery," the original flying monkey, soars on the breezes in my office, above a sign that reads, "Don't make me get the flying monkeys! — The Wicked Witch" (a gift from my sister years ago!). Photo by Joyce Bedi
OK, let’s get the confession out of the way. One of my favorite movies of all time is The Wizard of Oz. I know, I know. I should pick something more edgy, or more indie, or even something French. But I am an unabashed fan of the Emerald City gang. Even though I grew up in the era of black-and-white television, a local station showed Oz every year around Easter. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it was the Easter-egg hues of the film’s sets and costumes (even though we couldn’t see them). Maybe it was to mark the beginning of tornado season in the Midwest. I honestly don’t know. But my Mom and I looked forward to that broadcast each Spring. And when I finally saw the film in color in my college years, when I opened the Kansas farmhouse door and stepped into the Technicolor world of Oz for the first time, my addiction was complete, undeniable, and irreversible.
A year ago or so, I discovered a new dimension to the Oz story. I had seen Gregory Maguire’s book, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, in bookstores but never quite brought myself to buy it. I guess I could have gone to a public library, but that never happened, either. Then, I got an iPad and started delving into e-books, and one of the first I read was Wicked. What a great complement to the story I know so well. It had more in common with L. Frank Baum’s original book published in 1900 than the classic 1939 MGM film, and added new plot points from Maguire’s imagination. I really enjoyed this deeper glimpse into the history of Oz, if you can call it that.
So recently, when my husband and I saw an ad for performances of Wicked, the musical, I mentioned that I would like to see the play. Being the best husband in the world (no exaggeration), he announced a few days later that he planned to take me to a performance as part of our anniversary celebration! I wasn’t sure what to expect, and that turned out to be a good mental state to bring to the theater. The show was amazing. But my historian-of-technology’s eye couldn’t stop seeing the inventions and innovations that appeared as uncredited actors throughout the production.
Jeanna De Waal as Glinda and Christine Dwyer as Elphaba in Wicked. Photo by Joan Marcus
For example, in one scene, it begins to rain. It truly looked like rain, but it was all done with lighting and projections. The vaguely steampunk, clockwork design of the sets also displays innovative techniques, like the bicycle brakes and bass drum pedal used to manipulate the enormous Wizard’s-head puppet. Of course, there is the makeup that makes Elphaba (the alleged Wicked Witch of the West’s real name) her signature green. Makeup designer Joe Dulude II tweaked a commercially-available product from M.A.C. to give Elphaba a complexion that, as he put it, looks like skin, not makeup.
Mandy Gonzalez as Elphaba. Photo by Joan Marcus
Then there are the costumes created by Tony-award-winning designer Susan Hilferty. She calls her concept for Wicked “twisted Edwardian,” taking inspiration from Baum’s book and from the characters themselves. For Elphaba, a character she sees as rooted in the earth, she created a variation on the stereotypical witch’s black dress and hat, designing an asymmetrical costume of many dark colors, reminiscent of the hues found in coal, mica, and other minerals. Glinda the Good’s costume is the opposite—light and airy and “of the sky.” Then there are the flying monkeys, whose hand-painted costumes must allow them to move like, well, monkeys, but also to “fly,” with integrated mechanical wings.
The National Museum of American History recently collected Elphaba's dress, hat, and broom, a donation from Susan Hilferty. As soon as it went on display in the American Stories exhibition, I dashed up to see it. As great as it looked on stage, it was even more impressive up close. Smithsonian photo.
As I did a little research into these behind-the-scenes features of the show, I found that, not surprisingly, the creative process of the designers isn’t all that different from the inventive process that we document and teach at the Lemelson Center. In our Spark!Lab, we break down the invention process into a number of nonlinear steps:
Identify a problem or need (Think it)
Conduct research (Explore it)
Make sketches (Sketch it)
Build prototypes (Create it)
Test the invention (Try it)
Refine it (Tweak it)
Market the invention (Sell it)
Susan Hilferty articulated a number of these same steps in talking about her design for Elphaba’s costume. “First of all,” she said” “I do a sketch and I have a very clear idea about what I want it to look like. And there is a draper who interprets my sketch. So we first look at in a . . . cheap fabric so I can look at what the draper has put together. . . While we’re doing that step, we’re talking about how it’s going to be fabricated . . . The skirt itself, for instance, takes about 40 yards of fabric where we piece it together. We take yards of fabric, rip it up, and piece it back together again, to make it feel like an organic material, which incorporates many, many different colors. Then they are stitched together by one person and it takes her about 40-60 hours stitching all of those layers on so they’re right up next to and around each other, almost like a topographical map.”
Susan Hilferty's sketch for the Elphaba costume was part of the donation to the Museum.
Imagining, sketching, prototyping, manufacturing, tweaking. These are activities with which inventors are intensely familiar. To modify an old chestnut (perhaps an appropriate thing to do during this holiday season), great creative minds think alike.
Cultures of invention are as diverse as places of invention. One community of inventors’ attitudes toward failure, success, competition, and collaboration during the invention process may differ widely from other inventor communities. An interesting example of this contrast is the pioneering counterculture communities of hip-hop and skateboarding.
Skateboards were invented in California during the 1940s and 1950s by laid-back surfers interested in finding a way to do on land what they did for fun in the ocean. Skateboarding gained wider recognition and popularity in the 1970s and 1980s with the construction of skate parks, improvement in skateboard materials and designs, and an explosion in the invention of tricks.
Stacy Peralta, around 1976. Courtesy Forgetaboutit4000, Wikimedia Commons
Airborne skateboarder. Photo by Bengt Nyman, courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Hip-hop music was invented in the 1970s and 1980s by a disadvantaged community of African American and Caribbean (Jamaican, Puerto Rican, etc…) American urbanites in the Bronx. When the elements of hip-hop coalesced, gang territories became DJ territories and physical fights became break dancing fights, rapping contests, or DJ battles. The community reinvented the turntable as a musical instrument through physical alternations and new techniques of use. In the mid to late 1980s hip-hop expanded both artistically and geographically and around the 1990s became a part of mainstream America.
In both communities, then and today, individual inventors tend to work first in isolation; when they meet with others, the two communities, generally speaking, have different attitudes toward collaboration. Skate culture values humility. Egos are disliked. Many skaters resist skateboarding being labeled as a sport and don’t want skateboarding to be included in the Olympics for fear that skateboarding could become “jockified.” Experimentation in front of peers is encouraged and failure is accepted as an important part of the process. It typically takes a skater many days of attempting the same trick to succeed once. If a guy fails for two hours then does an amazing trick, the community embraces him. It is an open-source community where skaters enjoy sharing their tricks with others. Skateboarders create an environment supportive of failure, and the quantity of failure enforces skaters’ humility.
In hip-hop, ego and competitiveness is valued. As DJ Cash Money says “I’m a very competitive person [and] I wanted to be known as the world’s greatest DJ.” The records from which a DJ samples music is a closely guarded secret. Some early DJs replaced record labels with others and even spied on each other while they were out buying records. Young DJs often learned techniques through observation while “paying their dues” (carting around equipment for more prestigious artists). When two DJs showed up at a venue it was often not for experimentation but competition—a DJ would throw down a challenge to another to meet at a specific time and place for a battle. Some had a crew to give them an aura of power and intimidation (and, because DJ’s had so much large and heavy equipment to transport to and from gigs, crews helped transport it and ensure that it wasn’t stolen). DJs set up their equipment on opposing sides of the venue and the one with the most cheers and dancers won. At first DJs won primarily by having the louder sound system, but later they won more through showing off better techniques. The winner continued to rock the party and the loser went home to tweak their system and techniques then fight another battle. As Cash Money put it, “If someone beats you, you just go back to the drawing board and try to do better the next time.” Ego in the form of a crew, a superhuman DJ name (like Immortal), MC boasts, clothing, and sound volume could all help win battles and respect, or street cred. DJ Immortal describes competing competition the following way: “I saw them going back and forth, fighting each other with the turntables. The crowd was totally eggin’ ‘em on. It was this awesome instrument that I was seeing, the turntable. Plus that competitive element, too, where you could just destroy someone. It was like a real sport.”
From "Yes Yes Y'all."
Competitions and contests exist within the skateboarding community as well. Skaters seek recognition by, say, being featured in magazine articles, garnering lots of positive comments on their YouTube videos, or winning skating contests. But once you have fame, it can often be prohibitive to further invention. As a skater is defending their title or reputation, they may be more likely to keep doing their signature tricks and take fewer risks on new moves, as it becomes difficult to retain an environment where they feel comfortable failing. So while competing well can be a motivating factor it is only one path to the success of receiving credit for inventing a new trick.
Similarly with hip-hop, a skate contest can provide the street cred or name recognition many seek. But hip-hop artists are typically motivated to achieve more than just name recognition, such as a recording deal, commercial endorsements, more money, wider fame, their own brand labels, etc. Cash Money’s DJ name in itself illustrates this focus. Skaters tend to invent for the purpose of inventing and impressing their own community, and many are satisfied with receiving recognition for their inventions in the form of a contest title, magazine photo, or YouTube video.
That these two inventive communities value different means for achieving success emphasizes to me that place matters. A place or environment shapes the values of the inventors that live there, and their values shape their invention process and definition of success. Any place can become a place of invention because people in any community can develop amazing inventions with a mix of creativity, collaboration and competition, risk-taking and problem-solving along the way.
Source for Cash Money and DJ Immortal quotes:Katz, M. (2012). Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ. New York: Oxford University Press.
In the months leading up to our trip to Ukraine, my colleague Steve Madewell and I stockpiled the materials and equipment we would need to operate Spark!Lab for a month. Using an Excel spreadsheet as our guide, we placed orders with school, office, and craft supply companies; we collected tools and materials from the hardware store; and made more than one visit to Target. In May, we shipped 13 crates of materials to the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, but we knew there would be a few things we’d want to get “on the ground” in Ukraine—either because they were difficult to ship or simply to provide some local flavor to Spark!Lab.
When we arrived in Kyiv in late August, our shopping list looked like this: On our second full day there, Serhiy, a member of the U.S. Embassy staff (and a purported DIY-er), collected us from our hotel in a State Department van and off we went. The main focus of our trip was finding supplies to build our Spark!Lab Percussion Sculpture. We needed lumber, buckets of different sizes, rope and string, nails and screws, and a cordless drill that could be charged in Ukraine’s 220-volt outlets. Our first stop on this adventure was Epicenter, a giant Home Depot-Walmart hybrid that’s two stories high and nearly 100 aisles long. Described as a “hypermarket,” Epicenter can be a little overwhelming. Thankfully, Serhiy was there to guide us, interpret for us, and help us navigate the checkout process.
To complete the drum sculpture, we really wanted to add some locally sourced (and surprising) elements. The sculpture we had in Spark!Lab in DC included old reel-to-reel film canisters from the Archives Center, a colleague’s retired briefcase, and a large tin can that once held peaches (donated by the cafeteria workers at NMAH). We wanted to add similar elements to the sculpture at Art Arsenale—items that would reflect the culture and that could be repurposed to make sound. Where better to find some local flavor than a Ukrainian flea market?
Here, we found (and successfully haggled for) an old fishing buoy, the side mirror from a Russian car, metal disks from an old meat grinder, and a small cast iron “door” from a stove. All of these items made interesting (and surprising) noises and found their way onto the percussion sculpture in Spark!Lab, much to the delight of our visitors!
Once Spark!Lab opened, it became clear pretty quickly that we would need to replenish certain supplies on a regular basis. Construction paper, craft sticks, tape, straws, rubber bands, marbles, yarn, and plastic cups were all hot commodities. I made one other trip to Epicenter, but because it was far from the museum and my hotel (and I needed a State Department escort to get there), I had to find other places to buy supplies. My go-to spots became places that were within walking distance: the local pharmacy, Billa (the grocery store), and a stationary supply store in one of Kyiv’s many underground malls.
I managed to find most things I needed, but some items eluded me. While it was frustrating at first, I soon realized that I needed to start thinking more like an inventor. Most inventors don’t have every single supply available to them in their workshop or lab. Instead, they think creatively about how to use materials and are often inspired by what’s around them. As I spent more and more time in Ukraine, I began to be less driven by a specific list of supplies and more inspired by what was easily accessible to me. When we ran out of the gravel we were using to make maracas, for example, I went out and collected chestnuts that had fallen from the trees surrounding the museum. When I couldn’t find craft sticks and rubber bands to make kazoo-like instruments called Sound Sandwiches, I challenged visitors to create different musical instruments from materials we had in large quantity. And when we began to run low on marbles for the Soundscapes activity, one of my Ukrainian colleagues had the idea to use large, round beads instead.
All of these were great alternatives to the original materials and, importantly, allowed our visitors to successfully create, invent, test, and tweak their ideas. The simple challenge of having to find alternative materials for Spark!Lab also made me realize that inventive thinking isn’t just something to encourage in our visitors; it’s something to encourage in myself, as well. If I truly want to “live the mission,” as we often say in the Lemelson Center, I need to think like an inventor. I need to be flexible, creative, and collaborative in my work, and willing to try new ways of doing things. Whether it’s trying out new supplies in Kyiv or developing a whole new Spark!Lab here in DC, there are great benefits and rewards that can come from inventive thinking—for me and for our visitors.