Arts & Minds (Part 1 of 4)

Posted in Vol 12 No 3 by bsaab on August 19, 2009


Profiles in the Creative Economy: An economy isn’t about policy; it’s about people.

I spoke to four people who solve old problems with new methods, who discover old solutions to new problems. They are combining interests and information in innovative ways. In doing so, they are building new communities. None of this work happens in solitude. It all requires a critical mass of resources: intellectual, technical, economic, and artistic. While the reach of these enterprises is international, they are rooted in local communities that encourage cross-fertilization between different kinds of expertise, that find new paths for knowledge and intuition. Art and commerce are once again becoming more comfortable with each other. In this new atmosphere we are seeing the results of a convergence of these two basic human impulses. It is a whole new world.

Tricia Wilson Nguyen: principal of Fabric Works, Thistle Threads, and Redefined, Inc.

Tricia Wilson Nguyen combines an undergraduate interest in anthropology and archaeology, an undergraduate degree and doctorate in materials science and engineering — work on optical devices and high-tech fibers — with a lifelong passion for needlework and a knowledge of historical embroidery. She operates three companies simultaneously: Fabric Works is an engineering consulting company focusing on product design; she has designed textiles for use by the military, and this year collaborated with Polartec to launch a heated jacket. Redefined, Inc. uses current technology to manufacture “sewing cards,” Victorian perforated papers used for crossstitch designs, which became too expensive to produce at the end of the 19th century. In her capacity as the founder of Thistle Threads, she designs reproduction threads and teaches historical embroidery techniques. She has served as a textile consultant to the Metropolitan Museum in New York and is currently working with Plimoth Plantation.

Deborah Weisgall: You seem to combine your interests seamlessly, as it were: your scientific background, your interest in handwork, your historical knowledge. Expertise in one field flows into the other. How did this come about?

Tricia Wilson Nguyen: My lives converged when I was asked to solve a problem of integrating situational awareness systems, which combine GPS, location of squad members, information about terrain, and physiological monitors into an electronic map, a “heads-up display” that can enhance a soldier’s ability to negotiate the surroundings, possibly using the field of electronic textiles. The natural solution was to route the cables through the fabrics they wore, instead of using plastic cables, which would be snag hazards. This is when I discovered the work going on in the not-yet-named field of electronic textiles. It was a natural for me, as I had optics, materials, systems, and high-tech textile experience. It was my knowledge of Victorian-era millinery that gave us the idea of making textile-based USB cables in a ribbon format; this led to my first manufacturing partners.

Because electronic textiles fuses two very disparate fields, everyone involved was at some disadvantage. As both an engineer and embroiderer, I could understand both technology bases. The engineers respected my ability to thread a needle, and people involved with the textile world trusted me because I could speak their language. I was stunned that when we met with the Army, my colleague would bring up my historic embroidery business as a technical qualification.

I’ve realized that to make true progress when you don’t have a great number of resources at your disposal, you have to make art, science, and business coexist.

And my technological edge has allowed me to distinguish my historical research because few art historians would approach the problems in the way an engineer would. I can sometimes clear my head and look at objects from the standpoint of “how and who” because I have both hands-on experience and the technological means to translate that experience into a new analytical technique.

In product development, you look for short-run manufacturing facilities that can make complex metal threads; I do the same thing — work with artisan manufacturers — in the historic threads area. Often the technique or calculations I do for one area can be immediately translated to the other. It’s important to understand product design and the economics of manufacturing. In the historic embroidery or restoration fields, the people who need new threads usually aren’t prepared to help the manufacturer develop a market that can justify the effort involved in making such a thread. I have founded several outlets for that kind of development, though, so I can help engineer the product and market it for hobbyists. Then I turn around and introduce some of them to the e-textiles field.

Deborah Weisgall: You proceed from the premise that art and science and commerce can coexist and reinforce each other.

Photo by Genie Posnett.

Photo by Genie Posnett.

Tricia Wilson Nguyen: I’ve realized that to make true progress when you don’t have a great number of resources at your disposal, you have to make art, science, and business coexist. I don’t see them as antithetical to each other. Let me give you an example: When I have to grapple with the problems of scaling-up and capitalizing a new thread, I start thinking about the inventory costs associated with the range of materials that go into making that thread. Weeks later, I see a piece of complex historic embroidery with as many as eight variants of complex composite threads — threads we have trouble making today — in about 10 color combinations each. Now, historians attribute this embroidery to 12-year-old girls. Knowing that these threads were made of expensive components, I start thinking about a 17th-century mercer [dealer in textiles] and his need to turn over inventory by selling to 12-year-old girls. Something just doesn’t jive. I think, maybe it wasn’t a girl, but a professional. Then I think about manufacturing on demand, and whether a small number of raw materials could be turned into such a large variety by using the spinning-wheel technologies they had available to them. Then I wonder again if we could use such techniques today to reduce the need for a range of reproduction materials by teaching hobbyists to make their own variants from simple components. And that leads me to make short runs of e-textiles threads to try out concepts for antennas in a costefficient manner. So commerce educates history, which, in turn, educates technology development. It’s synergistic, and usually it revolves around the reality of current and past economics.

Deborah Weisgall: How important to the success of your enterprises is the community in which you live — not so much the neighborhood, but the intellectual community?

Tricia Wilson Nguyen: I couldn’t be doing what I am doing if I didn’t live in such an entrepreneurial high-tech area that is also at a nexus of textile history. Many of my clients or producers are remnants of the textile industry in Massachusetts. Living close to them allows me to raise a family while keeping my engineering skills sharp. Also, the two most important collections in the US of the type of embroidery I research are within three hours of home, and England is only an airplane ride away. I often doubleup on business trips; I see a historic collection and research primary sources at libraries when I travel to teach embroidery or visit clients and manufacturing partners. When my husband and I were deciding where to live — we have the dual PhD problem — there were only five places that could support our fields. We chose Boston because we’d both gone to MIT. This fall, I’m guest lecturing at the Media Lab there — talking about 17th-century embroidery to an engineering group. I couldn’t do that type of cross-disciplinary work in most cities. Deborah Weisgall: You have taken what has been considered “women’s work” — though it was not in Tudor England — and added to it a technological dimension. How has that influenced your career? Tricia Wilson Nguyen: Certainly having a PhD from a hardcore engineering discipline has given me a level of credibility when discussing textiles and embroidery — something that has been debased and relegated to “women’s work” in the last 200 years. I try never to apologize for my feminine side. As a young woman, I made it in some of the toughest male-dominated situations: MIT, a PhD program, and leading a grueling military development program. I have my war wounds, and know how to turn someone who makes a snarky comment into an enthusiastic listener by adding just the right amount of serious tech talk. And often the men take my expertise in handwork more seriously than the women.

Photo (top) by Ted Curtin.

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