In 2012, Melbourne-based software engineer Sarah Spencer came across an item in a charity thrift shop that most people would probably never give a second glance—a 1970s Empisal knitting machine. She bought the machine, which looks like a metal comb that stretches for a few feet, for just $10 because the shopkeeper was so eager to part with it.
Over the past six years, Spencer has conducted ingenious experiments with this automated knitter and a 1980s Brother KM950i knitting machine she picked up in 2013. Using a Raspberry Pi, web interfaces, and Python, Spencer programmed these old machines to knit digital images, like some delightfully twee riff on a 3D printer, documenting the process on her blog. She calls her invention a “Knitting Network Printer.”
Over the weekend, at the Electromagnetic Field (EMF) Camp festival in Eastnor, UK, Spencer unveiled her magnum opus: “Stargazing: A knitted tapestry.” Made with the hacked Brother knitter, the tapestry is an enchanting wool ephemeris measuring nine feet tall and 15 feet wide.
The equatorial starmap includes 88 constellations, the solar system, the Milky Way, and dozens of stars depicted with accurate luminosities. The project follows her algorithmic breakthrough that enabled the machines to knit with multiple colors of yarn per pixel stitch. That opened the door to more complex patterns, some of which are on sale at her Etsy shop and online store.
“Stargazing: A knitted tapestry” wowed EMF camp attendees, and Spencer hopes her efforts will “engage young minds in an area of STEM,” according to Space.com.
“Given it's had such an amazing response from the public I'd like for it to remain in the public domain,” Spencer told me in an email. “Some people have said it's museum quality; with any luck it may end up in a museum. I'm not sure at this stage.”
“At the moment my plans are to get 'Stargazing: a knitted tapestry' safely back home to Australia in one piece and take a short break before I start filling custom orders again,” she added.
At the very least, this gorgeous wool tapestry will entice makers, crafters, and hackers to take a chance on any thrift store “junk” that intrigues them.
Update: This article has been updated with comments from Sarah Spencer.
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