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Making Grooves with Needles: Using e-textiles to Encourage Gender Diversity in Embedded Audio Systems Design

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Historically, women have been excluded from engineering and computer science disciplines, and interactive audio is no exception. Relatively few women are involved with the designing and building of embedded audio systems with traditional tools such as microprocessors, but when embedded audio systems are built using e-textiles, much larger proportions of women become engaged with technology. In this paper we review theories for this gender disparity and the barriers women face in working with audio technology, and then present a comparison of survey data between an e-textile audio workshop and an audio platform user group. Extrapolating from the case study and the surveyed literature, we propose that flexibility in learning, communal dissemination of knowledge, and gendering of tools are prominent reasons why women engage with technology via e-textiles.
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Making Grooves With Needles: Using e-textiles to encourage gender
diversity in embedded audio systems design
STEWART, RL; SKACH, S; BIN, SMA; ACM Designing Interactive Systems
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Making Grooves With Needles: Using e-textiles to
encourage gender diversity in embedded audio systems
design
Rebecca Stewart
School of Electronic
Engineering and Computer
Science
Queen Mary University of
London
London, UK
rebecca.stewart@qmul.ac.uk
Sophie Skach
School of Electronic
Engineering and Computer
Science
Queen Mary University of
London
London, UK
s.skach@qmul.ac.uk
Astrid Bin
Adam Lab & Center for Music
Technology
Georgia Institute of
Technology
Atlanta, Georgia, USA
a.bin@gatech.edu
ABSTRACT
Historically, women have been excluded from engineering and
computer science disciplines, and interactive audio is no excep-
tion. Relatively few women are involved with the designing
and building of embedded audio systems with traditional tools
such as microprocessors, but when embedded audio systems
are built using e-textiles, much larger proportions of women
become engaged with technology. In this paper we review
theories for this gender disparity and the barriers women face
in working with audio technology, and then present a com-
parison of survey data between an e-textile audio workshop
and an audio platform user group. Extrapolating from the case
study and the surveyed literature, we propose that flexibility in
learning, communal dissemination of knowledge, and gender-
ing of tools are prominent reasons why women engage with
technology via e-textiles.
ACM Classification Keywords
H.5.5 Sound and Music Computing: Systems; J.5 Arts and
Humanities: Performing Arts; K.4 Computers and Society;
K.7 The Computing Profession
Author Keywords
Embedded audio; e-textiles; gender
INTRODUCTION
Significantly fewer women than men participate in the de-
signing and building of embedded interactive audio systems
[31, 14, 11, 16, 4, 3, 15]. Contrastingly, electronic textiles
(e-textiles) such as the sensor in Figure 1 have historically
attracted the engagement of proportionally more women and
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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/3196709.3196716
Figure 1. E-textile stretch sensor.
girls than men and boys, particularly within hand-crafting
contexts [6, 7].
Despite a lack of women involved in building audio applica-
tions, e-textiles — a practice that includes far more women
— have a long history of being used for building audio ap-
plications. Noting this disparity, we are examining e-textile
practices in order to increase the participation of women in
building interactive audio applications.
This paper is in four parts. First, we explore the barriers to
participation faced by women in audio technology, in order to
understand why this gender disparity exists, and how e-textile
practice has the potential to effectively address it. Second, we
survey e-textile practice, and consider the nature and history of
e-textile practice through a gendered lens. Third, we present
a case study of an e-textile audio workshop, and consider
the outcomes reported through participant surveys. Finally,
we discuss why women may choose to participate in audio
technology through e-textiles due to its knowledge formation,
community, and tools, and how this can inform strategies to
encourage wider diversity of participation.
BARRIERS TO WOMEN IN AUDIO TECHNOLOGY
Audio technology refers to the intersection of computer science
and electrical engineering with sound generation, analysis, and
transmission. This term is also more generally used to describe
all sounds, while music technology usually refers to only mu-
sical sounds (excluding sounds like speech or sound effects).
However, both terms are often used interchangeably to refer
to the same tools and communities, and both denote interdisci-
plinary fields drawing on music and engineering. Examples
include human-computer interfaces for digital musical instru-
ments, the design of algorithms that create sound, and using
software and hardware to control sound. Within academia,
university degrees and research labs addressing the same top-
ics could be found in either music or electrical engineering
and computer science departments [3].
Women and girls are underrepresented in every aspect of audio
technology including academic communities [14, 11], profes-
sional music production [16, 31], students enrolled in music
technology degrees [4, 3, 31], composers utilising music tech-
nology [15] and semi-professional or professional developers
of audio technology outside academia [1].
Audio technology is not immune from the social context shap-
ing the broader fields of engineering and computer science,
and there is a large body of science and technology studies
(STS) documenting ways in which young girls through to
grown women are discouraged from being the designers and
builders of technology. For example, the way programming
is taught can discourage women if they don’t conform to cer-
tain cultural norms [38]. These do not have to be intentional
actions; even the placement of objects in a shared space can
discourage women if those objects are associated with a cul-
ture that women do not identify with or belong to [10]. This
effect remains in place even if there are only women in that
shared space.
As audio technology has matured as a field in its own right,
STS has focused directly on the gender imbalance that per-
vades every aspect of it. Born et al. [4] present a thorough
analysis of music technology within higher education, and lay
out a number of explanations for why girls choose not to even
apply to universities to study music technology (such as the
explicit and implicit messages that girls are less technically-
adept than boys and technology is a masculine pursuit).
Within audio technology culture, there are still gendered cues
that indicate women don’t belong there, from the language
used to describe technical concepts (“punch in”, “kill a track”)
to the violent and sexualized content of advertisements for
audio equipment [17]. Far more overt forms of sexism still
exist, as well such as sexual harassment and assault [16].
ENGAGEMENT WITH ELECTRONICS AND COMPUTING
THROUGH E-TEXTILES
We will first introduce core e-textile technologies along with
the community of e-textile practitioners. We will then look at
the field’s relationship to audio technology.
Introduction to E-Textiles
E-textiles are electrical circuitry made of conductive threads
and/or fabrics. The most commonly used threads are metal-
lized by nano-plating or wrapping non-conductive core threads,
but yarns can also be constructed by spinning staple fibers with
metal fibers similar to how wool yarns are produced. Con-
ductive polymers electro-spun into fibers or used to coat non-
conductive textiles are another method commonly employed
[28]. There are a number of resources that more thoroughly
document the state-of-the-art of e-textiles than is possible here,
including [37, 12, 30].
Conductive textile structures can be formed from these yarns
by undergoing traditional textile processes such as weaving or
knitting. These more complex structures can exhibit particular
electrical properties that mean they can be used as sensors,
such as a change in resistance when a knit is stretched [36].
Capacitive sensing to detect touch or proximity is another pop-
ular sensing technique as it can be constructed using a variety
of textile processes. It is particularly effective when com-
bined with digital embroidery where a computer-controlled
sewing machine can precisely place conductive threads on
non-conductive fabric (see [27, 21]).
E-textiles are more commonly found as sensors or the inter-
connections between components in a circuit, but they can
also perform as actuators. Two such examples are fabrics dyed
with thermochromic dyes that change color when electrical
current heats the underlying conductive yarn [2] and conduc-
tive threads or fabrics acting as voice coils within loudspeakers
[25].
Currently, non-textile components are included in e-textile
circuitry. Components such as batteries and microcontrollers
are not yet available in textile form factors (though there is
ongoing work to adapt electronic packages to better integrate
directly into yarns [29]). As a result, a number of applications
have emerged to make the integration of hard components and
soft circuity easier, such as the Arduino Lilypad, a microcon-
troller that can be sewn into textile applications and runs on a
small 3V battery.
The Lilypad Arduino by Buechley introduced sewable pads
on PCBs (Printable Circuit Boards) for connections to com-
ponents like microcontrollers [6]. Its adaptation of traditional
PCB manufacturing to accommodate sewn conductive thread
allowed it to be produced at scale and be commercially avail-
able to professional and hobbyist embedded electronics en-
gineers, opening up e-textile development to those outside
academic research labs [7]. The core features of the sewable
pads of the Lilypad have been integrated into other e-textiles
products such as the Flora by Adafruit, seen in Figure 2.
E-Textile Practitioners
Women have been active researchers in e-textiles since its
founding, with the research by Orth and her colleagues rec-
ognized as the first publications in the field. They developed
novel applications for textile interfaces embroidered with con-
ductive threads and adapted existing fabrics that happened to
have conductive properties into circuit substrates [26, 27].
Figure 2. Adafruit Flora microcontroller in an e-textile circuit with con-
ductive fabrics and thread. The Flora iterates on the open source design
of the Lilypad using the same sewable connections on the PCB.
Buechley’s pioneering contributions through the design and
sale of the Lilypad greatly expanded the demographics of who
was working with embedded electronics. The Lilypad was
created with diversity, and gender diversity in particular, in
mind [6]. It built on the Arduino platform, an open source and
low cost microcontroller platform designed to be accessible
for those with little or no formal education in electrical en-
gineering. The Lilypad made it simpler for users to connect
e-textile sensors to a microcontroller allowing those who al-
ready worked with textiles such as fashion designers or artists
to integrate electronics into their projects with greater ease
than ever before.
The Lilypad was immediately successful at engaging women
in building and designing their own electronics. Within a few
years of the commercial release, Buechley and her research
team investigated who was buying and using Lilypads. They
found significantly more women were working with Lilypad
than the standard Arduino board [7]. When looking at Arduino
projects documented online, they found that women were the
creators behind 65% of the projects using the LilyPad and
only 2% of the projects using an Arduino board other than
the LilyPad. When looking at sales figures from the primary
retailer of the Lilypad, they found that female customers were
more likely to purchase a Lilypad, when buying an Arduino
microcontroller board.
On the back of the mainstream success of the Lilypad, e-
textiles were quickly becoming a pedagogical tool within
schools for teaching engineering and computer science cou-
pled with art and design. The topic was found to attract more
girls in after-school clubs such as the one described in [6].
The 10 participants that volunteered to take part consisted of 9
girls and 1 boy, with the boy having more previous computing
experience than the girls. This proportion of female to male
participants and their respective prior experiences with tech-
nology were repeatedly found in other workshops, whether
with students in formal educational environments or adults
outside of universities [40, 9, 8].
Figure 3. (Left) Touch-detecting wearable audio interfaces integrated
into dancers costumes and (right) a portion of the embedded e-textile
circuitry from the same interface.
As the Maker Movement grew with technologies like the
Arduino platform and domestic 3D printers, hobbyist and
semi-professional engineers, designers, and artists were shar-
ing their expertise and experimentation with e-textiles online.
Artistic duo Kobakant
1
became significant organizers and
contributors to the e-textile community. Their website "How
to Get What You Want" and their series of eTextile Summer
Camps are resources and networks that are central to the com-
munity [32].
E-Textiles and Audio
E-textiles have long been used to sense, control, and generate
audio. Much of Orth’s groundbreaking work creating e-textile
interfaces centered around musical controllers, most notably
her MIDI jacket which used capacitive sensing to detect when
digitally embroidered motifs were touched [27]. Later work
by researchers at Virginia Tech combined weaving with audio
signal processing to build large lengths of cloth that could
determine the location of passing objects like cars [23].
E-textiles are well-suited for wearable applications as they
can be directly integrated into clothing more comfortably than
PCBs. This makes them ideal for embodied audio perfor-
mances as the electronics can form part of the costumes that
the performers wear. One such example can be seen in Figure
3 where e-textile capacitive touch sensors are worn by dancers
to trigger audio samples [34].
Alongside wearable applications, e-textiles have been a popu-
lar technology for creating malleable objects where the ability
to stretch or squeeze the object controls the generated audio.
Examples include a touch-sensitive embroidered map that
plays sounds from that places the embroidery illustrates [21],
a pressure and proximity sensitive fabric keyboard [41]; and a
multi-touch cloth as a control surface for audio synthesis [13].
WORKSHOP CASE STUDY
Now that we have explored the barriers to participation faced
by women in audio technology and the history of e-textile
practice through a gendered lens, we present a case study of
an e-textile audio workshop, and consider the findings from
a series of surveys. In order to more closely examine the
barriers for women wishing to develop audio interfaces, we
1http://www.kobakant.at
Figure 4. Bela on a fabric breakout circuit board as used in the e-textile
workshop.
examine the responses gathered via two different surveyed
groups. Both sets of surveys look at using Bela
2
in embedded
audio projects [19]. Bela is a computing platform designed
for real-time embedded audio applications. Beginning as a
university research project, Bela has evolved into a commercial
product with a community of approximately 700 developers
[22].
We will refer to as the first surveyed group as the Bela com-
munity. In June 2017 the Bela team conducted an online user
survey to gather data on who was using the platform and how
they were interacting with it. This survey was advertised on-
line through the Bela user forum, mailing list and social media
accounts and gathered 251 responses.
The second surveyed group will be referred to as the e-textile
workshop participants. In November 2017 a one-day work-
shop was held during an electronic music and art festival in
the UK
3
. The workshop was advertised as an e-textiles work-
shop for creating wearable audio interfaces using Bela and
handmade fabric sensors. The workshop had 15 attendees in
total; 11 of those attendees completed an online pre-workshop
survey and 5 completed an online post-workshop survey. The
pre- and post-workshop surveys were structured identically
to the Bela community survey, with additional questions to
account for working with textiles.
Workshop Activities
During the workshop the participants were introduced to some
of the materials commonly used in e-textiles and taught how to
build textile switches, stretch and pressure sensors. Conductive
fabrics and yarns (e.g. silver coated fabrics or stainless steel
fibers), as well as resistive materials were used to make textile
circuits and sensors.
The participants were then shown how to use the data gen-
erated by the sensors to control sounds through editing the
code running on the Bela, using the browser-based integrated
development environment (IDE). Bela was connected to a
2https://bela.io
3http://algomech.com/2017/
Figure 5. Group of workshop participants working together on their
collaborative project.
fabric breakout circuit board so that conductive textile cables
prepared for the workshop could be easily snapped into place
to allow for rapid prototyping. (Figure 4 shows the Bela on a
fabric breakout circuit board; a more detailed technical descrip-
tion of the system can be found in [35]. During the second half
of the workshop, participants designed and prototyped projects
using the provided kit and materials. They were encouraged to
collaborate and to share different skill sets, helping each other
with either textile-making techniques or programming skills.
As there were 5 Bela kits for the 15 participants to share, group
sizes varied from 2 to 4 participants. Figure 5 shows one of the
groups of four. Each group had the same equipment available,
which consisted of fabric snap connectors to link the sensors
to the Bela breakout board, as well as sewing needles and
a variety of conductive yarns and fabrics. There was also a
sewing machine and iron available for use. Participants were
asked to bring their own laptops to work on the programming
sketches that allowed testing of the sensors (these sketches
were prepared in advance and shared with attendees by the
workshop organizers).
Community Demographics
Though the workshop participants are a smaller sample set
than the survey of the Bela community, we are able to compare
their demographic and previous experiences to the larger audio
technology community and to previously documented e-textile
workshops. The age demographics of both the broader Bela
community and the workshop participants were quite similar.
Both ranged from 18 to over 55 years old, with representation
from every grouping of five years. Both groups had slightly
more representation from respondents in their 30s than the
other age bands.
While there were similarities with age distribution, there were
significant differences between the two surveys when com-
paring gender. The respondents to the Bela community user
survey were overwhelmingly male with 92% (232) identifying
as male, 4% (9) as female, and 4% (9) who preferred to not
say. The survey did not ask if their gender matched the one
they were assigned at birth. This roughly aligns with other
measures of gendered participation in the audio technology
community such as 3% of the board members and 6% of the
authors of a prominent conference being women [11], though
is lower than other reported figures of 15% women when con-
sidering audio technology within the entertainment industry
[16].
Of the 11 respondents to the pre-workshop survey of the e-
textile workshop participants, 82% (9) identified as female
and 18% (2) as male with all but one respondent confirming
their current gender is the one assigned them at birth. One
respondent preferred to not say whether their gender was the
same as the one assigned at birth. (Anecdotally, this is repre-
sentative of the e-textile workshops that the first author has led
and is similar to other workshops described in the literature
[6].)
Prior Experience
From the pre-workshop e-textile workshop participants survey
(N=11), no attendees indicated any experience working with
the Bela platform before attending the workshop, but they did
have experience with other electronics and coding platforms:
91% (10) had worked with Arduino and 27% (3) with the
Raspberry Pi. 27% (3) had experience with audio-specific
software, such as Max/MSP or PureData. One workshop
attendee said they had no prior experience with coding or
electronics, while 45% (5) had completed degrees or were
currently university students in computer science or digital
arts courses. The rest had limited experience with coding and
electronics, largely through “tinkering” at home.
Generally, the Bela community had more experience with a
variety of embedded computing platforms than the e-textile
workshop participants, but a similar proportion had exposure
to maker platforms: 80% (201) of the Bela community and
67% (10) of the workshop participants had used Arduino.
There were differences between the groups in self-reported
expertise: 9% of the Bela community who had experience
with Arduino considered themselves to be experts, whereas no
workshop participants with Arduino experience considered
themselves experts. Further, where one workshop partici-
pant considered themselves expert in Max/MSP (out of 10
suggested languages), 54% (137) of the Bela community con-
sidered themselves expert in at least one out of the same set of
languages.
However, the e-textile workshop participants identified their
expertise in e-textiles, with 64% (7) of survey respondents
citing at least some experience. The skill sets that related
to textiles focused on hand craft, such as hand embroidery,
knitting, or crochet.
Even though 55% (6) of the workshop participants had for-
mal educational qualifications in textiles at the undergradu-
ate or graduate level, and an additional 27% (3) participants
had years of experience in pattern making, weaving, printing,
knitting or crocheting, only one person identified themselves
expert in a textile-related discipline. Though this group had
fewer formal qualifications in textiles than in computing, this
was not reflected in their survey responses as their self-reported
expertise tended to focus on textiles and not technology.
Additionally, 3 of the 7 e-textile workshop participants that
confirmed they had previous experience with e-textiles had
also taught e-textiles skills in other workshops.
Motivation
Both groups were asked to identify themselves from a list
of descriptors, including musician, programmer, maker, in-
strument builder, researcher, visual artist, educator, hardware
developers and visual artists. Respondents could select more
than one descriptor.
The Bela community identified themselves as musicians (79%,
198), programmers (63%, 158), makers (55%, 139), instru-
ment builders (54%, 136), researchers (43%, 109), educators
(32%, 80), hardware developers (25%, 62), and visual artists
(18%, 46).
Of the e-textile workshop participants, 33% (8) identified as
makers, 21% (5) as researchers, 13% (3) as visual artists, 8%
(2) as programmers, as well as 1 musician and 1 instrument
builder. None identified as hardware developer. When asked
why the attendees chose to attend the workshop, 90% (10)
cited gaining skills (textile, technical or general) as their moti-
vation for participating.
Workshop Outputs
The workshop’s primary activity was to design sensors for an
embodied sound performance. Most participants worked on
accessories like a headband or glove instead of a larger gar-
ment. Two groups achieved their goal of creating a wearable
sensor network that could be worn on the body, including the
Bela attached via snaps or sewn pockets4.
The sensors that were built on the day were mostly made in
the first half of the workshop, when basic e-textile techniques
were taught. To accomplish these basic skills and techniques
(making switches and pressure sensors, as well as connecting
sensors to Bela), e-textile workshop participants reported to
having needed only little or no guidance. More guidance was
needed when integrating the self made sensors in garments
or accessories and working with Bela code to process the
measured sensor data.
Discussion of Survey Results
There were significant differences in the survey responses of
the two groups, but also notable similarities. Each group had
a similar age distribution, and though the Bela community
had more experience with different technology platforms, the
e-textile workshop participants were experienced with two of
those platforms most commonly used in maker communities.
The most obvious difference was gender, as the Bela com-
munity was predominantly male, and the e-textile workshop
participants predominantly female. This imbalance suggests
that though the outcomes of interactive, sensor-based audio
applications are common to both groups, the Bela platform
does not attract female users in the same way as a craft-based
workshop.
4
Different items of clothing for both upper and lower body were
provided by the organizers.
Figure 6. Visualisation of participant data, Bela community survey vs e-
textile workshop participants. Top: Ages of participants. Bottom: Gen-
der identity of participants. (PNTS = Prefer Not To Say)
The members of both groups also identified their motivations
differently. Though a similar proportion of both groups chose
the descriptor maker, the Bela community also predominantly
identified as musicians and programmers. As well as mak-
ers, the e-textile workshop participants also identified as re-
searchers and visual artists.
Though no detailed conclusions can be extrapolated from this
data given the small sample size, it does suggest that the
female-dominated e-textile workshop participants are moti-
vated by exploration, while the male-dominated Bela commu-
nity is motivated by task. This is not to suggest that music
creation is not exploratory or creative, but rather that the Bela
system is viewed more as a tool that can be used, rather than a
starting point for open-ended exploration.
Overall the e-textile workshop participants did not express
confidence in their expertise in any of the technical platforms
listed in the survey (with the exception of one attendee who
is a professional software developer), while showing more
confidence in their textile skills. This did not correlate with
the professional qualifications of the group as there were more
individuals with university-level computing experience than
textile. This could be indicative of women feeling less con-
fident in expressing technical expertise, though this is again
stated cautiously as this is a small sample size.
An interesting observation of the e-textile workshop partici-
pants is that though learning and skill development was listed
as a motivator, we observed that participants tended to stay
within the fields of practice in which they were already con-
fident (knitters, for example, concentrated on making textile
sensors rather than trying out new software to process sen-
sor data), and few tried out techniques they hadn’t used be-
fore. When experimentation did take place, it appeared that
participants with more technical experience were willing to
experiment with textile and craft related skills and techniques
they had not yet mastered. However, those with craft expe-
rience and technical knowledge did not tend to extend their
knowledge of software or programming.
Expecting to provide the participants with a sufficient ground-
ing in an audio programming language unfamiliar to most of
them is an overly ambitious goal for a single-day workshop,
though this trend is still notable. It may be because those with
craft skills consider technical skills to be intimidating or that
they simply don’t know where to start, and those with techni-
cal skills might consider crafting something that is low-risk
and experimental and are therefore more willing to try. This
is a particularly salient finding that requires more study, as
understanding the perceptions of technical and craft skills by
non-experts in both domains may provide important insights
into how technical tools might incorporate styles of learning
and using that support a user base with a more diverse range
of experiences and abilities. This is examined further in the
following section.
MOVING BEYOND ‘WOMEN JUST LIKE TO SEW’
It has been demonstrated both in the workshop presented here
and the many others that came before it documented in the
literature [6, 9, 8, 40] that women and girls want to learn how
to work with electronics and code to build audio interfaces of
their own design. However, they are not easily found within
the various academic, hobbyist and professional established
audio technology communities. The introduction of e-textiles
to audio technology drastically and consistently changes the
gender representation with women outnumbering men.
In this section we explore why this occurs, and move beyond
overly simplistic tropes such as “girls like to sew” or “women
like knitting”. Further, we examine the opportunities that
textile practice presents and the barriers they may remove
for underrepresented groups within audio technology. We
identify three themes that have emerged: flexibility in learning;
communal dissemination of knowledge; and gendering of
tools.
Flexibility in Learning
Turkle proposes that one of the contributing factors to the lack
of women in computer science is the stringent requirements
in how skills like programming are learned [38, 39]. There
is little accommodation for anyone who does not relate to
computers in a way that aligns with the existing technical
culture, and common pedagogical approaches. We propose
that one of the attractions to e-textiles for women is that field
is still relatively young; there isn’t a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way, as
long as the desired output is achieved.
Turkle and Papert argue for epistemological pluralism where
different methods of thinking and learning are valued [39].
This fights against what is called in technology start-ups as
“culture fit”, where arriving at the correct answer is not suffi-
cient if the steps taken to arrive at that answer did not follow
the accepted model. They propose broadening computer sci-
ence education by encouraging a bricolage approach to build-
ing knowledge by arranging and rearranging well-known con-
cepts. They emphasize “playing around” and treating code ele-
ments as physical materials, sometimes literally by using code
to alter the physical world through robotics. This pluralistic ap-
proach has directly impacted e-textile development, as Buech-
ley et al. [6] reference the modular style of the robotics kit
designed by Papert as a design consideration for the Lilypad,
which brought bricolage to e-textiles and microcontrollers.
Epistemological pluralism addresses how an individual learns,
but McCartney [18] discusses what feminist epistemologist
Code calls “second personhood” within the context of elec-
troacoustic audio. Code proposes that second persons inform
how knowledge is created through empathetic knowledge and
ecological thinking as opposed to “spectator epistemologies”
— colloquially, “bouncing ideas off each other” as a method for
the formation of knowledge. Hand crafting textiles are rooted
in social interactions between women, and, as will be dis-
cussed in the next section, second personhood is a foundation
of e-textile culture.
As women are less likely to pursue formal educations in com-
puter science or electrical engineering fields, they need to use
alternative educational routes to learn programming or circuit
design. Resources like Kobakant’s “How to Get What You
Want” are one option, but peer-led community workshops are
another. We saw this in our workshop attendees with the 3 of
the 7 attendees with previous experience in e-textiles having
already taught e-textiles skills in other workshop settings.
We suggest that women will engage with technology when it
is taught in workshops set within social contexts where atten-
dees are encouraged to interact with and learn from each other.
Workshops should include activities that allow for creative ex-
ploration and which encourage combining presented concepts
in new ways in order to facilitate a deeper understanding.
Communal Knowledge Dissemination
The communal nature of textile crafting is one that has directly
influenced e-textiles. Kobakant have grown the e-textile com-
munity through virtual and physical activities. Their website
“How to Get What You Want” and the eTextile Summer Camps
described above have provided a set of central resources for
both technical and social cohesion [32].
Workshops are an essential means of transmitting craft knowl-
edge while reinforcing relationships, and can be used as a
means to conduct research [33]. They have been used to evalu-
ate e-textiles tools and pedagogy since the development of the
Lilypad and continue to be a core research tool [6, 8, 32, 9].
Workshops also serve as a primary means to disseminate infor-
mation on best practices. In our workshop, connecting with
community was declared an important component and sharing
knowledge, networking and acquiring skills were named by
participants as a motivation for attending the workshop.
In discussing the growth of the Bela platform, Morreale et al.
use the term pluggable communities to describe how the Bela
community has grown by connecting multiple disparate com-
munities already working with audio technology to Bela [22],
and cite social experts as key to transferring knowledge be-
tween disparate communities. We have found this holds true
in this work, and that holding workshops such as ours, where
audio, technical, and textile/crafts experts are brought together,
allows not only for social experts to meet but also for connec-
tions to form and knowledge to be exchanged between their
associated communities, which might otherwise have very
little interaction.
Tools
Pluggable communities, as discussed in the previous section,
center around common tools and toolchains. When those
communities are strongly gendered, the associated tools are as
well. Electrical engineers have a wide variety of tools designed
for precise, specialized tasks. Complex spatial transformations
and in-depth understanding of materials are required to realize
a physical circuit from its abstract circuit diagram. This is true
whether working with fiberglass boards coated with copper
or stainless steel threads embroidered onto fabric. However,
the tools used with each of those materials are associated with
gendered communities. One set of tools and materials are
deemed more “serious” and “scientific” than the other. Even
though e-textiles have only recently given a reason for a sewing
needle or crochet hook to be placed in an electronics lab,
handcrafting textiles have long been qualified as a frivolous
activity because of its association with women [24].
The gendering of tools is easily seen within mixed gender
e-textiles workshops. Buchholz et al. [5] found that during
their after-school workshop that boys and girls worked with
their historically gendered tools: The girls handled the textile
crafting tools like needles and scissors 80% of the time, while
the boys handled the electronics tools like the multimeter 75%
of the time. We also observed this within two of the groups in
our workshop where there was mixed gender collaborations.
The men in both groups performed all programming activities
while the women hand stitched or crocheted. For gender
parity to take place, the gendered nature of tools needs to
be challenged, and space needs to be provided for women to
assert control over electronics and technical tools, as well as
for men to feel comfortable with tools of sewing and crafting.
The tools available to complete a task have the ability to assist
or hinder that task, and embedded audio for e-textiles has been
limited by the available tools. The Lilypad microcontroller
(along with its later iterations such as Adafruit’s Flora) has
limited processing power that is not designed for audio sig-
nal processing. It is only capable of simple tones and beeps
unless peripheral hardware is used that can process mp3 files,
for example, or the application is connected to a a computer
where more complicated processing can take place. This lack
of powerful e-textile platforms greatly limits the embedded
audio technology systems that can be developed using textile
practices.
We addressed this by creating a fabric breakout circuit board
for Bela that was used in our workshop (see Figure 4). This
breakout provided an easy way to embed a powerful system
in a craft application. In this way, we are providing tools
that encourage a wider diversity of techniques to be used
in creating novel interactive audio systems, by providing a
method of interfacing with a powerful system capable of much
richer sound possibilities than those that are currently used.
CONCLUSION
Women have historically been excluded from engineering and
computer science disciplines, including those involving au-
dio. Relatively few women in proportion to men are involved
with the designing and building of embedded audio systems,
whether looking at students within school or university ed-
ucation, professionals, or hobbyists. However, the field of
e-textiles regularly attracts women and girls in disproportion-
ate numbers to other technical disciplines. When embedded
audio systems are built using e-textiles, we see larger propor-
tions of women becoming engaged compared to traditional
code-based methods of creation. This implies that women are
motivated to work with audio technologies, and we suggest
that this is because the methods of working that e-textiles
encourage remove, or let women overcome, the barriers that
would otherwise prevent them from working with audio tech-
nology.
We began by reviewing explanations for this gender disparity
and the barriers women face in working with audio technol-
ogy. The culture surrounding engineering and computing both
subtly implies and overtly states that they are inappropriate
topics for girls. This influences what they choose to study
and how to spend their free time. Outside of education, the
environments where technology is designed and built are fre-
quently unwelcoming — and sometimes hostile — for women.
This is in contrast to textile-based communities of practice
that generally are centered around women’s work, even when
technology is introduced via e-textiles.
We used an e-textile workshop as a case study to examine the
demographics, previous experience, and motivations of the
attendees. They learned how to design and build their own
embedded audio systems with e-textiles, completing surveys
before and after the workshop. We compared these responses
to user survey responses from the Bela user community. Bela
is the same embedded audio platform used in the e-textile
workshop).
We found that the both groups had a similar age distribution,
but that the workshop participants were overwhelmingly fe-
male with the Bela community almost entirely male. There
were also differences in the way the two groups judged their
expertise: the Bela community was more willing to consider
themselves experts, while the workshop participants, despite
significant formal education in electronics and computer sci-
ence, only one participant identified as expert in any of the
suggested programming languages or platforms. Further, the
Bela community was far more confident in their technical
abilities with more expertise in a variety of platforms, while
the workshop participants felt their expertise was limited to
textiles.
We identified three key themes from the observed workshop
and the surveyed literature to aid in understanding what attracts
women to engaging with audio technology within the context
of e-textiles. E-textiles allows for multiple and more flexible
methods of knowledge formation, brings technology to an
already existing community, and utilizes gendered tools that
provide space and confidence for women to exert expertise
over men.
Both Buechley [7] and Turkle [39] discuss creating new com-
munities around building technology that are designed for
women, as opposed to asking women to fit into already es-
tablished environments that work to exclude them. Focusing
on materiality is one way to form these new technological
communities. Paint, paper craft and woodworking can all be
used to build circuitry, and these crafts each have their own
communities and demographics. For example, painting and
quilting workshops involving microcontrollers have drawn in
an older demographic while for paper circuitry attracts women
in similar proportions to e-textiles [20].
Though this study has produced intriguing findings related to
gender, it only examines a narrow demographic. We have not
discussed a multitude of additional factors that shape an indi-
vidual’s lived experience such ethnicity, immigration status,
accessibility requirements, and a myriad of other influences.
Future work should explore how the lessons learned from
e-textile communities might be applied to encourage participa-
tion from other groups marginalised from technology, in order
to increase the diversity of technical practice.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
This research was supported by the Centre for Public Engage-
ment at Queen Mary University of London and by the EPSRC
and AHRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Media and Arts
Technology (EP/L01632X/1).
The authors would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for
their valuable comments, and the Bela development team for
their support.
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