Entangled Fibres - an examination of human-material interaction
Doctoral Dissertation by Bilge Merve Aktaş, Aalto University, School of Arts, Design and Architecture, 2020.
Defended on 26.10.2020
Opponent: Prof. Elvin Karana, TU Delft, Netherlands
Custos: Prof. Maarit Mäkelä, Aalto University
The dissertation is available for download at https://aaltodoc.aalto.fi/handle/123456789/47034
More information about the event: https://www.aalto.fi/en/events/defence-in-the-field-of-design-ma-bilge-aktas
Since being in the womb and after being born into this world, we are always surrounded with materials. For instance, right at this moment, all of us are covered with textiles. I am covered with a woollen garment that keeps me warm. Only recently, I discovered that wool creates an itchy feeling on my skin. And whenever I wear a woollen garment, I want to move my body, touch my neck and scratch it. This simple reaction of my skin is a result of the dry weather in Finland and can be avoided by applying another material in-between my skin and the woollen garment, a moisturizing lotion.
This mundane and daily experience simply shows that our actions emerge through material interactions and these interactions can emerge differently under various circumstances. Although our bodies and minds react to these experiences, we are not always explicitly aware of how interacting with materials is an embedded and intrinsic part of our every day lives to the extent of shaping us. Perhaps for designers and craftspeople, this interaction is more recognizable since their practice significantly relies on being in contact with materials throughout the process of making. Makers need to understand how the material can behave since only after this realization they can join in the transformative flow of the material to make artefacts.
In this research, I examined human-material interaction in making processes to investigate how this interaction shapes the ways in which we make, think, and experience the world. In order to conduct a meticulous examination of this topic, I worked with felt making. Felting is based on unifying wool fibres to create a textile surface. Through applying friction and warmth between wool fibres, a nonwoven textile surface is created.
Wool fibres can be considered as sheep hair. And just like how all humans have different hair types, different breeds of sheep also have different kinds of fibres, such as long, short, thick, thin, curly or straight. When the maker begins working with raw wool, they begin their interaction with a distinct smell. The thick sheep oil covers the hands and leaves a feeling of heaviness while making them shiny. But if the maker begins by using the treated wool, which is already processed to be applied in felting, like this one here (the fourth example in the image), then they won't be able to recognize the length, curliness, the oil, or even the smell but only the softness and fluffiness.
If touching these different types of wool can create different sensorial experiences, can felting them also create various interactions while making an artefact? Indeed, every engagement with the material is an ideocratic togetherness of the maker, the material and making environment. These distinctive assemblages provide various possibilities of engaging with materials. For this reason, material’s role in design has been studied extensively. These studies identified making as a dialogue, a conversation, negotiation or even dance through which the maker does not force a preconceived idea but let herself and her ideas evolve with the material.
While examining making and designing processes with materials, despite identifying the process similar to a dialogue, the way it was studied often prioritized how this dialogue was perceived from the designer’s or the maker’s perspective. However, a dialogue means that there are at least two participants that make a point or an action and based on what one participant says the other one responds and this continues throughout the interaction.
In this research, the other participants of the dialogue, specifically the material is investigated to empirically outline how making takes place in the intersection of reflective making, material agency, and experiential knowledge.
Bringing the material agency discussion proposes going beyond the experiences and expectations of humans. In this way, the relationship between humans and materials can be understood as an interaction that contests the instrumentalized perception of nonhumans. Through this lens, material agency as a concept enables investigating humans and nonhumans as equally significant partners of making. Acknowledging human material relationship as a dynamic process also enables new proposals about the practice beyond its utilitarian and functional boundaries. Following these ideas, this research tackles our participation in the world through making to emphasise the reciprocal transformations. What is particularly interesting in this discussion is to reveal how human agency entangles with material agency in and beyond making. To answer this question is to understand how we work, learn and live with materials by paying more attention to the embedded vitality of the material.