Real. Not Virtual.

Loom with work in progress
Originally uploaded by anselm23

On Sunday this past weekend, I went over to my friend Matt’s house, and we built this loom. He had the carpentry tools and skills, and I had the need and desire for a small hand loom (the one in the second grade classroom was broken). We decided we couldn’t fix the broken one just yet, but we could replicate (more or less) the design.

A beater stick, four framing posts, two shuttles and a heddle bar later, we had a working loom. It’s not very big, and our heddles are rubber bands instead of wires or bits of stiff string. But it works, and we know how to build Loom 2.0, and Loom 3.0, and … in fact, we know how to build pretty much every model of loom up to about AD 1720 now.

It started out as a virtual project. We both spent a bundle of time looking at YouTube videos, Google Images, and library books.

But it didn’t stay virtual. We didn’t think about building a loom. We actually built one. Real, not virtual. It involved a lot of mathematics — measuring, angling, squaring, work with rulers and compasses, geometry. No computer bits were altered in the process of building the loom, though. It was genuine work — getting hot and sweaty in a workshop, as power tools turned wood into sawdust, and a power drill whined its way through maple, and a belt sander scraped down the points of the beater-stick. We committed at least one blatant act of outright reverse-engineering: a quick-and-dirty assembly of a pro manufacturer’s model on display in a video, and then using that assembly to plan out our next iteration.

It’s certainly not perfect. It’s not even great, or even anything resembling awe-inspiring. But we used a bunch of tools to build another kind of tool. By the end of the day, we were literally giddy with excitement. Matt borrowed some old yarn from his wife, and we strung up the loom to see if it worked. It did, after a fashion. We hurried back to the house to show it off.

Matt’s wife was unimpressed, and hauled out some pictures from her homestay in central America more than a decade ago… and the rug she had learned to weave while there. “This, and this, and this, will have to change in the next design.” Chastened, we learned our flaws as workmen building tools for someone else — consult with living experience, as well as with existing reference materials.

Again, though — Real. Not virtual. Not exclusively. As TeachPaperless says regularly, “Maybe it’s really not either/or. It’s really, Both/And.”

A loom is a great example of this — each thread is a binary expression. The weft can be over, or it can be under. O or I, 1 or 0. But it doesn’t produce virtual answers — it creates real product. Our loom won’t make anything larger than a sheet of 8.5×11″ paper.

We needed to know how to use digital tools to build the loom. We needed to know how to use real tools to build it. We needed to know how to ask real questions of real people to use it, though… and then we discovered an underlying digital reality.

Or to rephrase this post’s title,
It’s All Real. Nothing is Virtual.

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