Interview with Veronika Irvine: Amazing Patterns

Written by Katherine McManus

Veronika Irvine lives in Victoria, British Columbia, and is currently a student at the University of Victoria.

Veronika sees the patterns used in lace-making as mathematical problems to be solved. Because of her continuing work focusing on the geometry of basic lace patterns, she has found that by using computer algorithms she is able to make new lace patterns. Patterns we have never seen before.

Patterns

At the age of 11 Veronika decided to learn “tatting” which, according to Wikipedia, is a technique for handcrafting a particularly durable lace constructed by a series of knots and loops. Her grandmother had been a tatter and, although she died 25 years prior to Veronika’s birth, her tatted lace remnants remained in the home. Those pieces fascinated the young Veronika so much that by the time she was 11 she decided she had to learn tatting. She borrowed a book from the library and worked out how the patterns were made. Her determination to learn inspired Veronika’s mother to find someone who was a tatter in order to help her daughter to put it all together.

For the next many years Veronika happily tatted.

Fast forward: with her Master’s Degree in Applied Mathematics in hand, Veronika found work in Ottawa as a computer programmer. For fun she decided to take a course in bobbin-lace making through an Ottawa Lacemaker’s Guild. She describes bobbin-lace as being like braiding-but with 4 strands. It’s sometimes described as “off-loom weaving” or “freeform weaving.”

As she learned bobbin-lace, what struck her was that “It felt mathematical.” She explained: “You have to figure out all of these little puzzles of logic.” Unlike knitting or crochet, which is worked one stitch at a time, bobbin-lace isn’t linear.

“With bobbin-lace you have multiple choices simultaneously. You can do several things at the same time. The pattern is worked by choosing which threads to work in which order and how to bring them all together to make the pattern. You have to figure out how to position the threads and there is a logical way to proceed so that you get the right threads in the right place at the right time. It’s a logical puzzle and it is very mathematical in nature.”

After 17 years of working in the computer industry and indulging herself in her interest in bobbin-lace making, Veronika’s next step was to begin a PhD program in Computer Science. Rather than pulling her away from her ‘hobby,’ it brought her further into it.

As a part of her PhD program she enrolled in a course in Computational Geometry. The course was about using computer algorithms to solve geometric-related

problems and there was a mandatory project to be done. For her project, she decomposed the way that bobbin-lace was made. She reduced the lace patterns to basic blocks. Through this project she was able to test and verify her theory about the mathematical nature of lace-making.

In a second course on the combinations and permutations of geometry she was able to extend her ideas further to look at all the different possible ways that something could be done. By blending mathematics and computer science, Veronika is exploring the design side of lace-making. The computer is her design tool and her pieces are worked by hand from her unique designs.

When asked what intrigues people most when they see her work, she responded with what is, to her, a surprising assumption that some make about her lace pieces: that they are ‘machine made.’

“When I say I am making lace using computer science, people often jump to the conclusion that I am using computers for the physical production of the lace—like 3D printing. Actually this would not be new research because programmable machines to make lace have existed since the early 1800s. They used punch cards to program lace machines to create elaborate designs—in many ways these lace machines were more advanced than the extrusion printers currently available for 3D printing hobbyists.”

Veronika acknowledges the jacquard loom and “lace machines inspired by the first mechanical computer designed by Charles Babbage and programmed by Lady Ada Lovelace paved the way for later computer designs. What excites her is continuing to explore hand made lace designs using computer science.

During our conversation I raised a question regarding whether her research interest was taken seriously by the computer science department and her response was:

The thing that surprises me most in conversation is that non-mathematicians always want to know whether mathematicians think my research is valid because the application is not practical. This is where I think the similarities between Math and Art are most clear to me. Just as Art exists for its own sake, so does Math. If a problem is challenging and leads one to explore an idea in a new way, then it has value from a mathematical perspective.

If you are intrigued by her work and her on-going exploration of bobbin-lace design, mark your calendar for Sept 26, 2015. Veronika will be a keynote speaker at the BC &Yukon Craft Conference, 2015, at the Granville Island Hotel on Granville Island.

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