By Amelia Slater
When people ask my major and I tell them it’s mechanical engineering, they usually cower in fear over the thought of upper-level math and science classes. The next question is typically, “Why would you do that to yourself?” My atypical answer is crafting.
The stigma of engineering is thermodynamics, industrial machinery and complex math. While these things are true for the major, the heart of engineering is problem-solving. For me, my problem-solving experience has come from the timeless domestic hobbies of crocheting, sewing and crafting.
The engineering design process follows a route of identifying a problem, brainstorming, creating a solution and continual innovation. This is true when applying engineering to a car to make it safer and more efficient and to be assembled using machinery. This is also true when applying engineering to a quilt that must follow a specific pattern and is then assembled using spatial recognition and sewing machinery.
Sustainability in design is a new pillar of engineering. Yet, through my crafting, I have already explored sustainable design when I crocheted a plastic yarn bag by creating my own yarn through a surplus of grocery bags.
Another new facet of engineering is the implication of human-centered design. No longer will products designed by one demographic for a diverse population be acceptable. Now designs must be intuitive and full of empathy for all users. Design focused on real humans is a focal point of crafting. When a skirt does not fit right, I measure my waist and hem it. When I need a place to store my yarn, I command-strip a cereal box to the wall with yarn as a make-do hanging shelf. When crocheting a bag, I consider the body ratio of my user to size the correct strap. Crafting has always been about human-centered design.
Engineering is also about understanding a process and materials so well that you can create intuition about problems and solutions. I have seen problem-solving intuition develop in those around me through crocheting. I know several crocheters who have tossed aside their pattern sheet to redesign a piece the way they want. This results in perfectly curated and unique pieces that only someone as tuned into the process as they are could make.
The art of creating is not only a cute skill. It also opens new dimensions in the world of science and math. Daina Taimina discovered this when she struggled to make a visualization of hyperbolic planes for her hyperbolic geometry students. The current models of the planes were fragile and inadequate to describe such a complicated concept. Taimina recognized the pattern of the planes was similar to crochet patterns. She went on to crochet a functional, touchable, hyperbolic plane model. Mathematicians had struggled to create a usable hyperbolic plane model, some even said it was impossible, and here a crafter was the first to be able to solve the problem. The eyes and mind of a crafter open possibilities of viewing problems in a fresh and beautiful way. I personally feel honored to be a part of this crafting legacy handed to me by my foremothers and to be gifted with the eyes of a seamstress and of a crafter.
Despite all the joy I find in the intersection of engineering and crafting, the fact is that engineering is still engineering. It is hard classes that take a lot of work and persistence, but I rest easy knowing the crafting I do is continually building me to be a better designer and engineer as I accept nuance in what defines engineering and problem solving.