Wonderful Engineering

Engineer Hacks A Retro Knitting Machine To Create A Giant Stellar Map

An Australian software engineer has spent many years hacking a knitting machine to create an excellent work of art and also an advanced knitting and science education project. Sarah Spencer has played around with hacking and programming an old 1980s knitting machine for a while before seriously turning her attention to a task which was to create a giant equatorial star map in tapestry form. Spencer said in a statement, “As a woman in tech, I wanted to create something which would engage young minds in an area of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).”

To complete this project, Spenser had to figure out how to hack the retro knitting machine to make it produce a map of one knit per pixel in three different colors. This was a significant achievement and opened doors to complex tapestry design. Spenser gave herself the deadline for presenting the work at Electromagnetic Field Camp, which is a tech festival in the United Kingdom that explores the collaboration between art and science.

Spencer revealed her work on 31st August 2018 with the name “Stargazing: a knitting tapestry.” The giant tapestry piece featured all 88 constellations as they were seen from the Earth. You can also pick the equatorial line with the zodiac constellations running along it, and the stars are scaled according to their real-life brightness. All the major players are represented such as the Milky Way galaxy, the Sun, Earth’s moon and all of the planets within our solar system. The planets, moon, and sun are strategically located to accurately represent a real date in time which coincides with Spencer’s visit to the UK. Spencer’s project is made from locally produced Australian wool in deep blue color.

The piece is almost 2.8 meters tall, 4.6 meters wide and weighs 15 kilograms. The astronomical tapestry took her more than 100 hours to complete it. Spencer has done other space-themed knitted works in the past as well including a set of scarves that feature the Milky Way. However, the Stargazing is the most ambitious work to date. Spencer has shared her code on GitHub as well. She sold some of her spacy creations on Etsy. She has also written about her adventures in hacking and knitting in her blog ‘Heart by Pluto.’ In the blog, she described her journey to become a ‘maker’ by accident after feeling too lazy to water her vegetable garden, so she designed a self-watering system. From there, she decided to take up making and developing things. Spencer also collaborates with her husband who is also a self-described maker and hacker.