“I like doing weird things with electronics and I like other people to be creative and do strange things,” says Fabienne “fbz” Serierre, a 37-year-old hardware hacker and the founder of mathematical scarf company KnitYak.
Fabienne, who is half American, half French, has spent much of her life moving around. She was raised in California, lived in New York for a time, then moved on to Paris and Germany. After a year-long extended vacation that took them through the US and Costa Rica, Fabienne and her husband have now been settled in Seattle for three months.
“It’s the first time in my life I’ve chosen somewhere specifically because I know I’ll have actual material possessions that tie me there,” she says.
Those “material possessions”—knitting machines—are the basis of KnitYak, which uses computer-generated algorithmic designs to generate textiles. Computer code translates into one-of-a-kind merino scarves, as unique as they are warm and fuzzy. When you order a scarf, you even get the original source code that made it.
Fabienne started KnitYak because she “wanted to produce on-demand knitting for people that was totally custom.” Now she is crowdfunding the purchase of an industrial knitting machine, which will enable her to scale her coded creations.
Fabienne studied mathematics and has spent some of her career working as a systems administrator for large data centers. But she loves hand knitting, and she loves to hack hardware. “Even people who are very talented software hackers [are] usually really, really afraid of hardware,” she says.
That was the reason she started hardhack—hands-on hardware hacking workshops that teach techies how to build circuits or reconfigure devices and change their capabilities. Beginning in her then-home of Berlin, the movement soon caught on and is now a common add-on for tech and security conferences around the world.
Ham radio, antenna-building, and other old-school tinkering has come back into vogue with a smarter, software-defined twist, Fabienne explains, thanks in part to the falling price of circuit boards and the availability of open-source projects. “All the things that were tricky in analog have now become digital.”
It was at a five-day art-based hacking camp in Amsterdam that Fabienne and her comrades-in-hacking first figured out how to modify a knitting machine to create a tapestry based on a video game. After the conference, the arts budget in Amsterdam was slashed and the organizers planned to sell the machine. Instead, Fabienne bought it. “Then I spent six months seeing what I could get the knitting machine to do.”
It turns out that an “out-of-print” knitting machine manufactured by Brother in 1983 could do a lot. She started playing with algorithmic design, making knitting patterns that otherwise would have been far too complicated. Her experiments led her to elementary cellular automata algorithms, which create neat patterns—perfect for scarves.
Fabienne has gone into her business with an eye towards sustainability. The high-quality merino yarn she uses comes from New Zealand, but it’s spun and dyed at one of the last wool mills in the United States. “Especially starting something new, I have the flexibility to be able to make those decisions,” she says.
She also notes that manufacturing has all but completely left the U.S., so her venture is a way of bringing it back onshore in a new, innovative way. Her knits require no hand finishing, so she doesn’t have use cheap labor or send her garments overseas.
Eventually, Fabienne plans to sell sweaters and sweater dress pieces in addition to scarves and wraps, which the buyer will have to finish his or herself (or bring to their local tailor). She may also experiment with bamboo fiber, a low-waste, high-yield material.
Fabienne says she is one of many women who are doing inventive work in hacking. And while she can can remember times when the hacker community got it wrong—like being invited to speak in a panel that had “girl” in the title (“and not grrl. And it wasn’t for girls. It was for women”)—she has always felt welcome in the community that largely values technical prowess over gender divisions. Asked if she thinks more women have entered the hacking scene since she started, she says, “I think people are starting to realize how many women have been in the scene all along.”
Fabienne cites her great-grandmother, grandmother and mother as role models who have inspired her to pursue her love for the entrepreneurship and the hacking arts. “I come from a long line of women who have kicked some ass, so it’s up to me to not let them down.”
Fabienne is a little over halfway to her goal of buying an industrial knitting machine for KnitYak, with just one week left to donate! Visit her Kickstarter and support her amazing work!
Photos courtesy: Fabienne Serriere