Materials have an impact everywhere
But why on earth should you actually stick your hands in the dirt? Why is it so important to touch materials?
Bilge Aktaș pauses to think before replying.
‘Materials, and especially the experiences we gain through touch, can be shared with everyone. There’s lots of potential for communication and shared experiences there. You yourself are currently in touch with the clothes you’re wearing,’ she nods from across the table.
Aktaș also thinks that the experiences derived from touch provide an excellent avenue for opening a discussion.
‘Even though I myself might not be able to talk about information technology, an IT expert can experiment with and talk about what touching wool feels like. Working with your hands, the information touch and other sense yield opens up possibilities for a new kind of dialogue with your own self as well as with materials, other people and the whole world.’
As an example, Bilge Aktaș tells me about a student who had a strong background in materials research. Even though they had, as part of their basic studies, worked in a lab researching and precisely measuring materials, their experience of processing a material manually was minimal. The student worked with clay on the course and noticed that pottery always requires water as well.
But what about the looming global shortage of clean water?
The student started developing a hybrid liquid that would enable the working of clay also when there was no clean water.
‘This is an excellent example of how a student’s prior knowledge started to engage the material at hand in a dialogue.’
In her doctoral thesis Entangled Fibres: an examination of human-material interaction (2020), Aktaș examined materials as an inseparable aspect of humanity’s everyday experience. Approaching the subject through sheep wool and felting, Aktaș found drawing diagrams and charts via a software to depict the research process sufficiently well as a particularly difficult part of the dissertation process.
She solved this conundrum by felting.
‘I created my visual material out of wool. Once this was done, I drafted new diagrams. Clarifying the matter to myself through felting opened up a fresh perspective on my study, even to myself.’
Aktaș says working with wool forces you to think differently than when working with a pen, for example. You can’t draw straight lines when felting.
‘Different kinds of materials and working them by hand can, in a sense, provide the maker with a new language. We get to express things that are beyond the reach of words.’
A meditative, multisensory experience
Bilge Aktaș has also studied industrial design.
‘I assert that designers who work in close contact with their materials understand and observe them very differently from designers who do everything on computers. Touching a material with your own hands yields a huge amount of information.’
So, what knowledge do we gain from rolling the wool on the table in our hands?
‘Some researchers talk of muscle memory, but to me, touching a material is something much more than that. It is a multisensorial and multidimensional experience packed full of information.’
Touching wool might bring to mind the earlier times you did so. This is accompanied by smell, and sound – rubbing wool produces a sound. Your mind may wander to places where you have used wool, or you might recall that childhood sweater that itched so annoyingly.
‘Or you may start to think of the specific sheep from which the wool was sheared. Among the very wool on the table right now you can spot some straws,’ says Aktaș.
‘Wool is a part of a sheep’s history, a memory of the meadow on which the animal once roamed.’
English has an expression about sticking your hands in the dirt. In this case, my hands dive into light-grey sheep wool, and examining it reveals that each hair is one of a kind.
‘Every sheep grows unique hair. One’s hair is thicker, another’s thin.’
Working with material manually is slow. And it requires repetition, which makes the process even calmer.
‘The material requires attention, it forces you to slow down and focus on the moment.’
Bilge Aktaș recounts another example from her own life. One stressful research project had her working on a loom.
‘Repeating the same movement over and over calmed me down. Since the materials were catching all my attention and I was letting myself be with the material. I started to think about other things in pace with the weaving, more peacefully than before.’