Sewing Circuits, Part 2

On Tuesday, Pei and I hoped to replicate the success of last Sunday’s workshops. We soon realized, however, that it was a beautiful day outside — after so many unpleasantly hot and sticky ones — and the attendance rate of the museum was therefore lower than we had anticipated, as all of Pittsburgh was busy enjoying the novelty of not having to swim through the humidity in the air. By the time 1pm rolled around, there wasn’t a single name on our workshop sign-up sheet. So we decided to hold open soft-circuit making instead, and teach visitors as they wandered in.

The previous workshops had centered on wrist cuffs that made use of a metal snap to complete a circuit, so that the LEDs are only lit when the bracelets are worn. With the walk-in format, we weren’t sure that visitors would be willing to spend as much time with us, so we created more simplistic examples, without any switching mechanisms: if the battery is in, the light is on. These projects take less sewing and pre-planning, so can be completed more quickly and with less troubleshooting.

Throughout the afternoon we had a small but steady steam of visitors coming into the MakeShop. Not all of them approached us (choosing instead to use the create-your-own-pinball table, build with cardboard, or look at the fish) but everybody who did was intrigued by the idea of sewing with electronics, and almost all of them sat down to try their hand at it.

One major difference between Tuesday’s open shop and Sunday’s workshop format was the demographic of the visitors we engaged. The workshops, which had an age minimum and required parental accompaniment, resulted in an activity that was clearly treated as something for the children to participate in, while the facilitators guided the entire process. With the open format, however, the making opened up the experience to parents wishing to make one for themselves. Some adults with very young children became extremely engaged in the sewing aspect of the project, while the kids were awed by the novelty, and allowed to choose the colors and aesthetic elements while the parents demonstrated sewing techniques (we still helped figure out the circuit aspects). We did, of course, still have kids who were willing and able to construct their own projects, as well.

Despite having options available for simpler, easier-to-sew projects, nearly everybody who sat down to make something ended up making a snap-switch bracelet. Nearly everybody finished, and the two or three who didn’t took some supplies with them to finish later. Nobody flat-out gave up because it was taking “too long” or because it was “too hard” — a problem that cropped up occasionally during workshops, even among those who knew the commitments and requirements before beginning.

Having a walk-in experience also eased some of the bottlenecking that we had experienced in explaining the steps to people during workshops. Teaching about sewing, electricity and circuitry all at once can be confusing or overwhelming for both the facilitator and the visitor. Giving each visitor one-on-one attention, instead of issuing advice or directions to the whole group as they simultaneously reached the same step, was actually an easier method to deliver information and seemed to be understood much quicker, as we could adapt our speaking points to suit their knowledge.

Obviously, for all of the benefits of presenting soft circuits as an open experience, it would not have been possible or nearly as successful on a busier, more demanding day. Ideally, I would love to see the option to always offer soft circuits as an open activity, because the creativity just seemed to flow so much easier. I believe we would still have to limit the number of makers at one time, however, as we did with WoodShop, in order to provide a rich and fulfilling experience for those participating. Hand sewing and electronics spur a lot of questions that need answering, and we need to be sure there’s somebody available and able to assist in the process of discovering how these things work. As we move forward with our current ElectricShop theme, we will undoubtedly be trying new and different arrangements for how to present our programming in the most engaging and beneficial way. In whatever way we end up running soft circuits in the future, however, I’m confident it will be a big hit with those brave enough to spend some time trying it out.