Conversations I’ve Had: A Hand-Sewn Data Viz

Inspired by Dear Data, I created a personal data visualization charting conversations I’ve had with different people over the course of a week. The visualization uses thread from my mother’s collection, most of which dated from the 1970s or early 80s, which was left to me when she died in the summer of 2011, at the age of 61. I first wanted to use her sewing machine, which I learned to sew on, but there were…problems. The meditative act of hand sewing turned out to be a perfect process for documenting the silences of a week.

To begin, I started keeping track of the conversations I had–text didn’t count, nor did one-off conversations with salespeople, and haven’t talked on the phone to another person in some time. These are all either zoom or face-to-face conversations.

I initially thought I would color-code the chart by person, but even though the list is pretty small, I quickly ran out of ideas for colors–there were more people to encode! It would have easily become cluttered, as I saw when I pulled this data into Ilustrator to create a template. I ultimately settled on two colors only.

My initial desire was to use the sewing machine–a 1960s Singer Rocketeer, given to my mother by my grandmother–to create the chart, because I wanted a mechanical element to contrast with the handmade paper I had left-over from years and years ago, just waiting for a chance to be reanimated. I actually think I bought it in Paris, circa 1997, when I went abroad as a research assistant after college.

Using the sewing machine, however, proved more challenging than I’d expected, because the thread was old, the stitches not tight (because they’re going into paper, and very short), the paper deliccate, and the template paper a lot tougher than I thought possible! Here’s my attempt at a draft using the machine….

After this mess–though in retrospect, it still looks interesting to me–I elected to go the hand-sewn route, which enabled me to remove the template paper more easily. The final piece took about two hours to create, from start to finish.

I was struck by the meditative quality the medium afforded. Because the stitches were so simple, I was able to relax into the process, remember my mother, think about my partner, and notice both the friends I spend time with and those I haven’t reconnected with. I spend a lot of my days in silence, and though the long red thread–which represents my partner, Steve–is more constant, one doesn’t have deep, intimate conversations every hour of the day. Much of the positive space here is also composed partly of silence, which is I think effectively represented by the openness of the stitch and the space between paper and thread.

Overall, I’m very happy with this, and I was pleased to get back to some hands-on, tactile creative expression. As an opportunity for reflection, this project also taught me that slowing down can be creative in and of itself, and that I need to build time into my days and weeks to engage with that side of myself.

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