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Thinking with Care

Unraveling and mending in an ethnography of craft embroidery and technology
Penser avec soin. Effilage et raccommodage dans une ethnographie de broderie artisanale et technologie
Pensar con cuidado. Destejer y remendar en una etnografía del bordado artesanal y la tecnología
Tania Pérez-Bustos
Traduction de Chantal Quassolo
Cet article est une traduction de :
Penser avec soin [fr]


Cet article réfléchit aux pratiques soigneuses d’effilage et raccommodage comme parties intimement constitutives de processus de raisonnement incorporé. Mon point de départ est une ethnographie de dialogues entre la broderie calado et la conception technique. D’où, tout en décrivant l’effilage partiel des tissus destinés au calado et leur raccommodage postérieur par le tissage, j’interroge la double action de ces pratiques : d’abord sur l’ethnographie qui les aborde ; ensuite au sujet des effets de l’ethnographie – elle-même influencée par les pratiques du calado – sur les imaginaires et les attentes des ingénieurs à propos de la conception et du contexte de cet art manuel. Tout au long de cet article, je mets l’accent sur le fait que ce genre de processus d’effilage et raccommodage est constitué par le soin (care) en relation aux corps et aux matérialités. Je prête donc une attention particulière à la manière dont ces processus, traversés par la question du genre selon des manières bien spécifiques, entrelacent histoires d’apprentissage incarné et domestique et formes d’invisibilité ambiguë.

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Like many of the things that have been cast aside with our society’s love affair with technology, embroidery is a practice often relegated to nostalgic hobbyists … hand stitching is rarely acknowledged in our contemporary culture. Not only have we built industrial factories to replicate embroidery … We seem to have little in common with those who stitched through centuries for reasons of economic or marital security. So, why is hand embroidery important now? Leanne Prain (2011: 17)

  • 1 Among other examples, some references, not all of them feminist, which explicitly use the metaphor (...)

1Embroidery represents a rich ethnographic site to understand care as constituted by entangled practices of unraveling and mending. The use of these practices, and others related to them, as metaphors to understand social processes of different sorts are common in social science literature, and especially in feminist studies.1 However, that use is not usually sustained by an empirical comprehension of what these practices imply, in terms of both human and non-human actions. This brings with it a particular contradiction. On one side, to carefully embroider something is seen as a powerful trope for knowledge. On the other, its ontological existence is not taken seriously; in the sense that the making processes, labors, embodied learnings and materialities which constitute it are not studied. One could say that this contradiction is somehow sustained by the trivial and invisible status that textile craft activities, such as mending, have in the social order (König, 2013), which in turn is shaped by the fact that they are culturally constructed as feminized (Pérez-Bustos, 2014a).

  • 2 The research group was composed of five engineers and three social scientists in charge of the ethn (...)

2So what are the implications of thinking through and with these practices? In this paper I attempt to give a partial and concrete answer to this question by analyzing the double agency that careful unraveling and mending have in the study of a knowledge dialogue between calado embroidery, a particular embroidery technique performed in Cartago, Colombia, and engineering design. The funding for this study came from a grant called Knowledge Dialogues, which was provided by the Colombian national science, technology and innovation agency. The main intention of the project was to analyze the knowledge dimension of calado in order to foster knowledge dialogues with engineers who, in turn, had the goal of thinking about how to design technology inspired by that encounter, while learning from caladoras know-how.2

  • 3 Care here refers to a knowledge produced reflexively, critically, embodily, responsibly, and with a (...)

3In this context, when I say that unraveling and mending have a double agency, I refer to two issues. In the first place to the agency that the reality of calado embroidery has on ethnography; especially when this methodology is used with care, to understand the knowledge dimensions constituting this craft –that is the knowledge emerging from the intimate relation between caladoras and calado materialities.3 Secondly, I also refer to the agency of an ethnography affected by calado, to the development of an engineering design which is meant to be inspired by this particular craft.

4Here I follow the reflections of science and technology scholars such as Donna Haraway (1988, 2004, 2013), John Law (2004), and Maria Puig de la Bellacasa (2011, 2012) who have argued that beyond producing data, methods have the power of enacting the reality they study. Thus, taking a critical and reflective stand towards this premise can contribute “to develop keener sensitivities to the effects of our methods” (Müller & Kenney, 2014: 5) as a mechanism to situate and embrace our projects differently. This means that at the same time that ethnography makes relations, it makes realities (Law, 2004: 29). This is a premise that has to be taken in symmetric terms, since practices of ethnography are embedded into reality; they are themselves realities. Thus, the methods we use to comprehend the world affect the world itself; they constitute it, and simultaneously are shaped by it. Now, becoming aware and understanding the agency of methods can be a speculative commitment towards our research doings and that is, in itself, a caring impulse: to become accountable not just to what our practices are, but to what they might become (Galloway, 2013). Accountability is a caring practice (Pérez-Bustos, 2014b; Singleton, 2011) in the sense that it makes us responsible and attuned to what our methods do to generate more livable worlds (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2011, 2012). In the case described in this paper, accountability refers to how ethnography challenges and shapes what engineers do. But more precisely, how that shaping is configured by the way calado becomes ethnography, a particular embroidery technique in which careful unraveling and mending are key components. I come back to this in the following section.

5The paper is structured in two parts. In the first one I give an ethnographic account of careful unravel and mending in calado, which will be used as background to analyze, in the second part, their effects on the ethnography itself and in engineering.

Unraveling and mending in calado embroidery

6My aim, with the following ethnographic vignette, is to describe some key elements of unraveling and mending practices, which are constitutive of calado embroidery. With this, I want to highlight, later, how those elements become the core of a particular ethnography and how that ethnography has affected engineering design in special ways. There are three aspects which I would like to emphasize in the following description: the embodied and domestic dimension of unraveling and its learning, the structural but also invisible role of mending in embroidery, and the fact that these aspects are somehow correlated to the gendered place of embroiderers as menders.

7Calado is a particular kind of embroidery mainly performed by caladoras, women embroiderers in Cartago Colombia. Different from other types of embroidery, which consist of decorating a given textile surface, without modifying its original structure, calado is based on the partial unraveling and subsequent mending of specific types of fabric. Thus, calado decorates textiles by initially modifying their structure. It is in this sense that it is conceived as a form of weaving (Cunha & Vieira, 2009). The unraveling of the original cloth takes care, time and knowledge, a process which is learned bodily, but that is usually invisible to admirers of embroidered products, an issue that contributes to its neglected status.

8I started to know more about calado embroidery when we invited Mrs. Elsa, an 80-year-old woman from Cartago to Bogotá, to teach us the technique. I remember telling her we only had three full days for her to explain us the generalities of what they did in Cartago. She was skeptical about the possibility for us to grasp the intricacies of the technique with that little time. “We do not need to learn calado embroidery, we only want to understand its basics,” I told her, but we were about to learn that basics in calado was a very complex matter.

9With me, there were a group of engineers who had accepted my invitation to learn about this craft, in order to gain inspiration from it to think about the design of a communication technology and to let themselves be accompanied in the process of design by my ethnography. The first day of our learning encounter, Mrs Elsa started by explaining how to unravel the fabric. We all had little pieces of very coarse linen. “Not fine at all”, she would say, “in Cartago we only use it for learning”, and these were tightly inserted in plastic round embroidery hoops. She asked us to mark a square on the fabric using the original warp and woof of the cloth as borders, taking out two threads horizontally and two vertically to define the shape of the square. After that, she made us de-thread the cloth inside the square. “Depending on the size of the unraveling you want to make, you take out or leave threads in each side, 2 by 2, 3 by 4, 4 by 5, it also depends on the thickness of the threads, because sometimes threads of one side are thinner than those of the other and so you have to take out more or less”, she would say this while performing the task herself and making us imagine it was an easy first step.

10The purpose of this first step is to unravel the original warp and woof of the textile to be caladoembroidered afterwards. This generates a bigger grid, which is the base of the subsequent stitching design. Fabrics weaken in this process of unraveling. Then, calado stitches mend the partially destroyed cloth, weaving new threads within the holes of the generated grid, and so creating a new pattern in the structure (see picture 1). In König’s words (2013: 578) this process modifies the original identity of the fabric, reworking it in a way that changes its meaning.

Picture 1. Calado in process: it shows a partially unraveled coarse linen (4 by 4) and the production of a stitch called Punto Espíritu

Picture 1. Calado in process: it shows a partially unraveled coarse linen (4 by 4) and the production of a stitch called Punto Espíritu

Source: T. Pérez-Bustos

11In that first half day we did not even get to the weaving part of the calado. We spent almost four hours just unraveling the square in the little piece of cloth. Some of us hardly managed to finish, in part because our linen was coarser, others quit halfway through the process because we got bored of taking out threads and thinking we had not learned a single stitch. Our minds were silenced by counting threads one by one so the grid would be symmetrical, our fingers were sore from feeling the tension of the threads before being pulled out of the linen and from fighting with single threads that were not willing to be unraveled and broke into little pieces in the process. Mrs. Elsa would encourage us to finish by helping us with the task, a labor that her expert hands did carefully and quickly.

  • 4 Ectamina is a delicate type of linen which is used to calado embroider cloth for newborns, especial (...)

12To carefully unravel the fabric is a matter of patiently learning how different warped and woofed fabrics behave when stretched across the embroidery hoops: fabrics cannot be too dense (too much threads) neither too coarse; the tension of the hoop has to be measured in relation to that density; and threads have to be taken one by one. “If you try to de-thread two threads at a time, they do not allow you to take them out, they stick together” (Olivia, 65-year-old caladora). All these are embodied perceptions that embroiderers learn to appreciate with their hands through the intimate and sometimes painful interaction with calado embroidery materialities; a learning that takes time and practice. Once in a while this intimate learning has to be relearned or forgotten when fabrics disappear from the market because of the decline of the Colombian textile industry and the arrival of new lower quality fabrics from unknown lands, “you cannot find good cloth any more to calado embroider; the ectamina4 is gone. Instead, there is this other fabric [showing it to me] which is too stiff to de-thread or this other one in which threads come out easy but you cannot count them, having to guess where the holes should go, and so it takes ages to unravel, the thing is that people do not pay for this kind of labor” (Celmira, 60-year-old caladora). In this context caring is not a desire, neither a norm; it is the learning of an embodied skill, a silent and slow becoming with the fabrics and the threads. As Prain (2011: 17) mentions, the silent and quiet body disposition of embroiderers shall not be confused with subservience. Indeed it is an active and concentrated state in which relationalities between human and non-human actors are interwoven.

13Mending is a central part of this careful unraveling process, as much as it is of calado stitching. When unraveling, embroiderers sometimes err and take out threads that should not be removed, and this affects the symmetry of the grid which is being created. This puts caladoras in the need to repair the unraveling. For this they either move threads within the fabric to fill the extra space created by the wrongly removed thread, making it smaller, or reweave this space, adding a new thread to the fabric. In any case, the purpose of mending is to cover the error, and to create an illusion of symmetry and perfection (König, 2013) which somehow also hides the hand labor of mending, “you do not want it to look mended” (Olivia, 65-year-old caladora).

  • 5 This reflection on the values embedded in mending are in close dialogue with the emergent work on r (...)

14To mend something, and to do it well, implies the skill and knowledge to make invisible the hand of the mender (Maycroft, 2015), which means that the careful mending of a mistake is in itself an invisible labor. Thus, when the damage of the cloth is too extensive (too many removed threads where there should be less), there is no use in mending; it becomes an impossible task. So, careful mending in unraveling processes implies developing a very close knowledge of the life cycle of materialities and its transformative power, a “cognitive mindset of being able to assess a problem with the material object and identify an appropriate remedy” (König, 2013: 580) as much as to decipher when no remedy is viable.5

15As stated above, calado stitching is also a way of mending in the sense that it repairs the unraveled fabric through weaving new designs in its structure: the stitches strengthen the fabric, while decorating it, but also frame the design while mending its contours, creating a counterbalance to the unraveling process, carefully stopping the destruction (see picture 2).

Picture 2. The square frames the result of calado stitching as a mending process that creates designs through weaving.

Picture 2. The square frames the result of calado stitching as a mending process that creates designs through weaving.

Arrows point at the mending which frames the design and contains the partial unraveling of the fabric

Source: T. Pérez-Bustos

16Contrary to mending errors through invisible labor, the result of calado stitching is the most visible part of this type of embroidery and so it helps us grasp more openly other values embodied in mending, beyond invisibility. Among others: soothing (of the weakening process), engagement (with materialities), and creativity (of the structure aesthetic). Values that in turn are very close to other caring practices oriented towards the sustainability of life (Fischer & Tronto, 1990; Precarias a la Deriva, 2005).

  • 6 To calado embroider a guayabera, a traditional male shirt, with a sophisticated stitch in fine line (...)

17The above-mentioned visibility of calado stitches highlights the designed structure that they produce, but does not understand them as mending processes. In this context the labor-intensive practices of repair which are co-constitutive of careful unraveling in calado, are neglected both by caladoras and by admirers of this technique. Thus, the time and care that are required to perform these processes is not counted when a price is given to calado pieces.6 When caladoras are asked to embroider a particular design they are not paid any extra money for unraveling the fabric. The conditions of the material and its potential complications in the unraveling do not matter, neither does it matter if the fabric is damaged in the process and it needs to be repaired; everything is expected to be done within the same price. When caladoras do not manage to cope with the labor of both unraveling and stitching, because they usually are in charge of other caring and domestic tasks at their home, they train their children to pull out the threads and afterwards they mend their errors. On other occasions caladoras outsorce the task of unraveling to other embroiderers, normally of lower class or status than them, and pay for this labor a small part of what they receive for the final embroidery. Outsourcing is then a way of dismissing mending, its affective, mundane and embodied cognitive dimensions, and so of casting aside its caring nature. The situation of this labor in Cartago resonates with the historical and gendered status given to mending in general: an unpaid job that is expected to be performed by women, or other feminized subjects, within the domestic sphere (Edwards, 2006; König, 2013). Hence, when invisible mending remains out of sight, its preserving and transformative power are also devalued (Babcock, 2008; König, 2013; Middleton, 2012). This is also a devaluation of its material, emotional and reflective dimensions, and the embodied nature of its learning, which makes this craft both a collective and emotional endeavor of mediating touching intimacies (Kearney, 2015) between humans and non-humans actors.

18What does this ethnographic approach to careful unraveling and mending do to the ethnography of technology design? How is ethnography affected by these touching and ontological tropes and, in turn, how does it affect design processes interwoven by human and non-human actors? I attempt to give a response to these questions in the following section of this paper.

Knowledge dialogues between calado, ethnography and engineering

An ethnography affected by careful unraveling and mending

19As mentioned in the introduction, the main goal of the research project which frames this paper was to analyze the knowledge dimension of calado in order to foster knowledge dialogues with engineers, who, in turn, had the goal of thinking about how to design a technology inspired in caladoras know-how. In these knowledge encounters embroiderers and engineers explored materialities and techniques and learned, through use and contact with them, how to dialogue with each other and how to mutually recognize each other as valid agents of knowledge. Ethnography was a central agent in this process: it had the role of accompanying the encounters and becoming responsible for them.

20To give account of the knowledge dimension of calado implied for the research team to learn the craft. This started by taking classes with master caladoras who traveled from Cartago to Bogotá to teach us the technique. After that, the ethnography team and Laura, the woman engineer of the group, traveled several times to Cartago over a period of 18 months –between January of 2014 and July of 2015– to be part of the context of production of calado. Taking lessons was not enough to learn this embroidery technique, we had to move inside caladoras households and be part of their domestic life to understand its complexity.

21As happens with other mending processes (Maycroft, 2015), knowledge about calado is embedded in the hands of caladoras, as a highly tacit knowledge which has been acquired throughout practice and repetition. The transmission of this knowledge is done throughout personal encounters, which mainly happen in the domestic sphere and are characterized by the sharing of hand movements, which implies the development of visual and tactile skills. The domestic sphere of this learning is central to calado because caladoras perform the craft in parallel to being in charge of domestic chores and different caring labors –such as cleaning, cooking and looking after children or elders–, both in their houses, when caladoras are of better economic status, and in other people’s houses, when caladoras are also domestic workers. In this context, to learn about embroidering was to become ethnographers with the domestic sphere of caladoras. That was also the place where the most fruitful knowledge dialogues were performed.

  • 7 Older caladoras in Cartago were taught to embroider by European nuns at religious schools. This was (...)

22One could say that the main way in which careful unraveling and mending affected ethnography was precisely because they introduced the ethnography into a domestic domain, which had at least two implications. On one side, it highlighted the feminized nature of the craft. Both mending and embroidery have been constructed as female activities (Edwards, 2006; König, 2013; Parker, 2010), between other things because they happen at the private domain of households and are expected to be performed by women as part of their labor;7 an unpaid labor or, as it happens in Cartago, as a very precarious form of labor.

  • 8 The households in which we stayed included the presence of men of different age and status; some ca (...)

23To face this gendered dimension of calado implied that we had to question the fact that all of us were also women. Even if we wanted to contest the idea of femininity that this technique embodied, which we did in tune with a long history of female resistance to needlework (König, 2013: 576), we had to do it acknowledging that we also saw ourselves as women, and that it was that standpoint which allowed us to do research within households, in the domestic sphere: learning to embroider, as caladoras did, in between other domestic chores, and to insert those dynamics in the core of our research agenda, an issue that co-constructed careful unraveling and mending as gendered.8

  • 9 We reflect upon these characteristics while analyzing the learning processes embedded in calado in (...)

24On one occasion one of my research assistants thought she could learn about the technique just asking questions about it and so she resisted grabbing the needle and learn it with her hands. Even though she admired the caladoras and felt empathy towards them and their reality, initially she did not want to embrace the idea of femininity that they embodied –domesticity, purity and decorum9–, and so she would say “I am not good at it, I rather do interviews or observe them doing it”. However she would not find answers doing this. Besides resisting this ideal she also did not have the patience of taking the time to understand that calado was a learning process that has to be embodied. Thus, the second implication of letting ethnography be affected by the domestic domain of calado was to embrace its temporality. As a very old caladora once told me, guiding me with her hands while I was trying to do a calado stitch, thinking aloud with my hands that it could not be done in the way I thought it could be done, “keep on doing it, keep on doing it [hágale, hágale], if we get it wrong, we just undo it and start all over again.”

25In this context the main interference created by careful unraveling and mending in ethnography was to acknowledge that these practices were not a norm, neither a desire; rather, they were learning processes that went back and forth. This idea of interference is taken from the work of Müller and Kenney (2014). These authors suggest, following John Law (2004) and Donna Haraway (1992), that interferences are small, mundane and unintended disturbances, through which research practices create moments of reflection. Referring to the interdependency between interviewers and interviewees in context of critical STS studies, they propose the idea of agential conversations that disrupt into routinized ways of thinking about living and working, and that do it in hopeful ways; that is, in ways that breakdown the smoothness of the established system, generating mechanisms for collective belonging, for pausing the system’s temporalities, for reconnecting with the possibility of choice (2014: 10-15).

  • 10 This affective, mundane and domestic dimension of research practices has been researched by Davies (...)

26In this context, to learn and unlearn to perform calado was a form of an agential conversation, a conversation with materialities through which we were able to unravel certain imaginaries about women embroiderers and knowledge temporalities and mend others with our hands (and theirs). First, unraveling allowed to dimension that, as a domestic knowledge, calado was not just useful knowledge, but relevant knowledge as well (König, 2013: 577), one that these women used to subvert in subtle and mundane ways, their given status as household workers, generating pauses for them to retire from domestic routine and think creatively with their hands (Edwards, 2006). Second, as a learning process, these practices also contributed to unravel the temporality of ethnographic knowledge production in itself. It allowed us to imagine that there is ethnographic knowledge beyond observing and listening, where touch and feelings have a saying in the domestic realm and constitute crafting processes, but that they evolve at a different pace than that of articulated speech and rational listening and so they were harder to comprehend and very difficult to translate into design practices and science metrics (Pérez-Bustos, Tobar Roa, & Márquez Gutiérrez, 2016).10

27Unraveling gendered embroidery and knowledge production temporalities was not absent of frustration since it meant facing, in the domain of daily life, two very powerful systems of oppression, womanhood and androcentrism in knowledge production, but also meant re-signifying them. However, the fact that these mending practices took place at the domestic level also implied that those learning processes were as much embodied as they were invisible. I will come back to this last point in the final part of this paper.

Careful unraveling and mending affecting engineering design

28As in calado, the main effect of careful unraveling and mending in the interaction between ethnography and engineering design was modifying the structure of engineering processes. In particular, I refer to the structure embedded in problem solving and prototyping paradigms. This was possible by collectively generating a very concrete new horizon and practices for engineering purposes –a bigger grid to be rewoven creating a new pattern in the structure–, at least for those involved in the project.

I was thinking that whatever we did had to help caladoras solve their economic situation … that calado does not give them enough to live and they have to work very hard. It was hard for me to think that we were “invading” their domestic spaces and that that was not going to help them deal with that situation. That caused me frustration and sadness, especially because Tania has told me that the intention of the project was not in that line, that the technology could be exploratory without attempting to solve the precarious economic situation of embroidery. I thought it was not “just” to explore without “helping them” in their economic difficulties. I was a little stubborn thinking about this, but then, when we started exploring with them their craft, recognizing the knowledge that is in calado and experimenting with them on prototypes, I began to understand that while they participated in these exercises and received us at their homes, they also began to recognize the value of their knowledge differently, to understand that what they did was beyond moving a needle repetitively, and that that could change their precarious situation in other ways. (Laura’s reflections upon the engineering process accompanied by ethnography)

29Following Laura’s thoughts first came unraveling of the idea that engineering design was meant to solve caladoras’ problems. Then, this unraveling was mended by approaching calado as knowledge through embodied process, which implied learning the technique and experimenting with it and with caladoras in their domestic space. But, why was there a need to carefully de-thread a particular solving problem paradigm? If caladoras are in a precarious economic situation, why not focus in that condition to design a particular technology? As I have reflected somewhere else (Pérez-Bustos & Márquez, 2016), precariousness was indeed a starting point of the research, but a starting point from which to think about knowledge with caladoras, not an end itself.

30In her reflection about the role of care in knowledge production Puig de la Bellacasa (2012), invites us to conceive this process as a collective act in which thinking becomes within relationalities. An intention that, however, might be naïve when one ends up assuming the voice of the others to think for them; instead of with them and from their particular situation. In the case of the engineering team this meant assuming, initially, that economic precariousness was not a knowledge condition with which they could dialogue but a know-how about a problem that engineering had the tools to solve by itself. This implied a particular hierarchical distinction between knowing about a problem and knowing about the solution to it, and so embracing the modest and heroic status of those who can change this situation (Haraway, 1996), designing a solution from nowhere (Suchman, 2002).

31In this context engineering is thought for solving problems, not thought with those problems. This “thinking for” is characteristic of particular standpoints that assume themselves as caring while “using marginalized ‘others’ as arguments… fetishizing ‘the experience of the marginal’ as inspiring … Care can extinguish the subtleties of attending to the need of an ‘other’ required for careful relationality. All too easily it can lead to appropriating the recipients of ‘our’ care, instead of relating ourselves to them” (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2012: 208-209). Yes, indeed, as I have presented here caladoras know-how is invisible and that contributes to the precariousness embedded in their products. However, focusing on this precariousness deviates attention to the invisibility of the knowledge that calado performs and represents. Thus, precariousness is not a problem to be solved, but a condition of possibility with which engineering has to deal with in order to become through this encounter.

  • 11 This balance between care and destruction that unraveling has embedded, resonates with the work of (...)

32Removing the threads of economic precariousness from the focus of engineering implied starting to recognize that calado had something to teach engineering, not about the political economy of the craft, but about a special sort of invisible knowledge that was sustained by that condition. This recognition brought with it a subsidiary careful unraveling to the one just mentioned: assuming prototyping as a learning process in itself rather than an authoritative production process. Traditionally, the experimental nature of engineer prototyping is oriented to achieve the functionality of that which is designed to solve a problem. So, when this intention is contested, carefully unravel, prototyping evolves as a process in which engineers and others, ethnographers and caladoras, are more imaginatively and equitably incorporated towards speculatively exploring calado knowledge.11

  • 12 I am referring here to the idea of becoming with and worlding proposed by Donna Haraway (2008, 2013 (...)

33Thus, as in ethnography, engineering had to learn embroidery by embroidering, and this implied facing the embodied nature of the technique. While recognizing calado knowledge, engineers thought they could ask caladoras to abstract some calado patterns that afterwards could be translated into the language of design. However, the embodied nature of embroidery (unraveling and mending) is shaped by a tacit knowledge which is not easily articulated into words, but only through hand movements. Caladoras say that if they rationalize what they do then they cannot do it, so to think about the technique implies making it. Calado comes with its world; that is a silent and slow worlding, a becoming through touch.12

  • 13 I borrow here Marcus (2013) proposal about ethnography as prototyping, but with the difference that (...)

34As I have said this brings forward ways of thinking that go beyond articulated theory and speech. In this context abstraction about the technique had to be carefully unravel through learning calado so we could learn to think with the technique, its possibilities and limitations for the design process. Here prototypes worked when they allowed the team to think with them bodily, rather than when they were used correctly as mimicking final products. This touching knowledge encounter, brought with it the exercise of an experimental ethnography in a very concrete context which was more interested in accompanying the creative process and becoming with it than to giving a contemplative account of it from a distance.13

Learning to dissent-within as a way to carefully unravel engineering paradigms

  • 14 Here I follow Haraway’s ideas about how death and destruction are not sites of complete detachment (...)

35To carefully unravel the imaginary about the purpose of engineering design in a knowledge encounter with calado, implied recognizing that ethnography was also part of the designing process; even though it initially did not endorse its orientation. Thus, as much as engineering had to become with calado, ethnography had to become with engineering. This, not in the sense that it was an instrumental knowledge for the engineering process which was initially oriented towards solving problems through a particular form of prototyping, but, in the sense that it had the responsibility to dissent-within that logic to make possible the coming to life of a different standpoint for the design. Like in the unraveling process, unmaking a particular imaginary leaves space open for the design of a new structure to be possible. In relation to this, Puig de la Bellacasa (2012: 204, 207) says: “knowledge-making based on care, love and attachment, is not incompatible with conflict or dissention… Dissenting-within speaks of a way of living, hand to hand with the effects of one’s thinking”. In the context of the effects of ethnography in engineering design, dissenting-within implied numerous touching and daily encounters between ethnographers, caladoras and engineers which interfered with the design process without completely destroying it.14

36Some of the encounters between ethnographers, caladoras and engineers were propitiated mainly through agential conversations, that is mundane dialogues that constituted moments of the ethnographic process and which came to act as sites of modest transformation and resistance (Müller & Kenney, 2014: 11). Dissenting-within was then a matter of informally talking about those things about which we did not agree. That meant bringing forward the conflict between differing points of view about the purpose of engineering and through it trying to generate, literally, contact zones between us and with calado materialities. Talking through these materialities make us think together about the technology. Many design ideas emerged from our informal talks about calado while we were embroidering or as a trigger to then go and see with our hands and with caladoras hands if what we were thinking could work:

The most enriching part of the process was learning to embroider, so technology itself could be embroidered (and not just as a metaphor), and that Mrs Elsa made an embroidered circuit, which meant to see embroidery itself as technology. This daily contact with the practices of others (how they are made, but also their materials and tools) allowed us to think of engineering in other ways. (Laura’s reflections upon the engineering process accompanied by ethnography)

37So careful unraveling and mending was not just about arguing with engineering on how problematic it was to try to assume a problem- solving-standpoint towards design, but dissenting-within this by fostering a different form of dialogue, a more tangible and touching dialogue. Coincidentally these informal ‘talks’ happened around a dinner table; they were inserted into the domestic scenario of the caladoras’ houses, which implied that they also participated in our discussions and helped us think with their craft. It was this domestic setting which allowed dissenting-within to be caring, in the sense that it sustained the lives of the knowledge encounters, the interdependency between each other, its worlding effect.

  • 15 This idea of creating a pause stands in the reflections of Müller and Kenney (2014) about the inter (...)
  • 16 This dichotomy is shaped by particular gender ideals about what engineering is and what it is not. (...)

38These interferences generated by informal ‘talks’ and making practices in the domestic space also engendered little pauses within the system of technology design.15 As Laura says “I had never had the time to get involved directly with the practices and daily life of the communities involved”. Never having the time meant that in her education as engineer she was expected to focus her attention on other “less social” practices: producing algorithms, validating models, writing code, but not talking to people and, even less, spending large amounts of time getting involved in their daily life.16

39Thus, participating in the ethnographic fieldwork allowed Laura to unsettle the expectations posed upon her and reflect upon their implications, for example on how they were centering design in the products but did not see design as an embodied learning process, did not see it as a craft (Davies & Horst, 2015). Taking the time to become with caladoras, pausing within the system while deviating her attention towards embodied learning, was in any case potentially dangerous for her; especially considering that she was within a deadline to produce a MSc final capstone project.

40However, contrary to what Müller and Kenney (2014) have found in relation to the pausing effect of their interviews on junior scientists, the fact that these reflective pauses of engineering were embedded in an ethnography entangled with the design, made them less disruptive. Thus, the danger these pauses brought of falling out of the system expectations was stitched and mended, by the entanglement of engineering with the fieldwork; as when the contours of unraveling in calado are contained in order to stop the careful destruction of the fabric, ethnography becomes accountable of those pauses and speculatively thinks with them and with the making and doing encounters with embroidery about how to become legible for engineering education (González Rivera, Cortés-Rico, Pérez-Bustos & Franco-Avellaneda, 2016).

41In both cases, tangible-touching dialogues and creative-disruptive pauses, frustration was a central element. These daily encounters and discontinuances unsettled the ethnography and the design process. They generated deviations of original plans and expectations, and were a continuous process of doing and undoing: “doing and undoing is tiring” (Junior ethnographer, reflecting upon her learning process), “it was interesting to think with them, but sometimes it was frustrating as well, to undo and rethink the design every time we went to fieldwork” (Informal conversation with Laura).

42As in calado, these interferences made ethnography and design become mended processes themselves, and this is not an easy thing to accept. As when caladoras do not want calado to look mended. As I have said, desiring the invisibility of mending shows the expertise and skill of the mender, but it also is a way of turning invisible the labor and knowledge of this practice (Maycroft, 2015). Thus, the embodied learning of calado and its effects in ethnography and in design were a way to deal with frustration. Dissenting-within throughout these mechanisms allowed us to become expert menders and so, to sustain the ecology of the knowledge dialogues. This, however, did not always contribute to making careful unraveling and mending as central components of the ethnography and design, at least for those who were not part of the process.

A brief epilogue

43As I have shown here, one central aspect of careful unraveling and mending is their creative potential but also their invisibility. These practices are creative not just in the sense of what they do to calado materialities –modifying the structure of the cloth, unraveling it, to use this as a base to create a new structure, mending it. They are creative also in the sense of what they do to ethnography –introduce it in a domestic domain allowing to unravel and to mend ideals of womanhood and of temporality in knowledge production–, and to design –generating touching mechanisms of dialogue and pause which sustain processes of dissenting-within engineering logics. Following Law (2004) I saw these as examples of the multiple agency of these practices: an agency that affects methods and in turn the agency of those affected methods over design processes.

44Methods affect the realities they study and so they are world making practices; developing a keener sensitivity to those interferences, is potentially a way of embracing its political and ethical worlding effects. In the case of careful unraveling and mending it implies embracing care as part of our research ethos, not as a moral statement, but as a learning practice, as a craft. This is recognizing its mundane life-sustaining power. Here, I refer to the life of knowledge dialogues and research teams (Davies & Horst, 2015), and to the mending power of invisible seams and stitches; both as metaphors and material practices, to repair the clash between conflicting standpoints and to foster relationalities.

  • 17 I want to thank one of the reviewers of this paper for challenging me to explain, in a nutshell, ho (...)

45The fact that this power is mundane and so in many cases invisible is both a material and ontological fact and a given status. As I have said throughout this paper, careful unraveling and mending –in calado, ethnography and design, and their interactions– constitute and are constituted by a particular gendered and domestic domain. They are feminized practices. On one side because those who practice them –caladoras and researchers– are mostly women. On the other, because the places where these practices are situated –domestic scenarios– and that what they produce –calado embroidery and intimate and creative relationalities between women and embroidery materialities– are historically constructed as feminine (König, 2013). But they are feminized as well because they are perceived, by those who are not bodily involved with them, as irrelevant and not entangled in the production of knowledge and craft, of craft as knowledge (Davies & Horst, 2015; Gregorio Gil, 2006; Pereira, 2012). This is the case of how Laura’s research was perceived by some of her professors in her MSc in Computer Engineering. But it was also the case of the other men engineers who did not participate in the domestic space or the ethnographic practice. Even though they were open and curious to Laura’s embodied learning of calado and the ways in which it was shaping the engineering design process, for them it was difficult, or even impossible, to recognize and embody themselves the value and transformative effects of all those invisible caring gestures that sustained these epistemic practices.17

46Though invisible, careful unraveling and mending are structural to the production of embroidery, and so they are structural to the production of ethnography and design; they shape these knowledge practices as embodied and engaged accounts of the world in particular ways. Having this in mind, to embrace their mundane and invisible status, to write about them and to open pedagogical spaces for them to be experienced bodily, is in a way a speculative and material commitment towards other reparative practices and their potential to understand human-nonhuman relations in a torn world.

The research in which this paper is based was funded by The National Colombian Agency of Science and Technology (Colciencias) and by the National University of Colombia. The author thanks Chantal Quassolo, for her translation of the original paper in its English version, Dominick Vinck for his revision, and the reviewers selected by the Revue d’Anthropologie des Connaissances for their careful reading, which nourished the argument presented here.

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1 Among other examples, some references, not all of them feminist, which explicitly use the metaphor of embroidery or related techniques to refer to knowledge production include: Haraway (2013) and Literat & Balsamo (2014), Chirán Caipe & Burbano Hernández (2013), and Izquierdo Pacheco (2011). Others which refer to these crafts but focus on analyzing their content or social dimension, yet do not delve into the making process and how it is connected and co-constitutes its social dimension include: Babcock (2008), Johnson & Wilson (2005), König (2013), Parker (2010), Phillips (1995), Prain (2011).

2 The research group was composed of five engineers and three social scientists in charge of the ethnography. In the engineering team there was one woman (an electronics engineer), who took the lead in designing the technology as part of her MSc final capstone project in Computer Engineering and was an integral part of the fieldwork in Cartago. There were also a group of four men in the engineering team (two more electronic engineers, one mechanical and one computer systems engineer), who all participated more in the conceptual aspects of the design, and also took part in some workshops that did not take place in Cartago. The ethnography team was composed solely of women, including myself, an anthropologist with a PhD in education, who was the principal investigator of the whole research project, and two research assistants that contributed to develop the ethnography as part of their undergraduate (Anthropology) and MA (STS) final projects.

3 Care here refers to a knowledge produced reflexively, critically, embodily, responsibly, and with accountability, as Vicky Singleton (2011) would say.

4 Ectamina is a delicate type of linen which is used to calado embroider cloth for newborns, especially to be ware for their baptisms.

5 This reflection on the values embedded in mending are in close dialogue with the emergent work on repair in relation to technological artifacts. In particular, the collective piece by Houston et al. (2016) highlights how values in repair are seen as in a permanent process of becoming. This echoes the temporality and spatiality of mending values in embroidery, which, as I argue here, are embedded into gendered bodies.

6 To calado embroider a guayabera, a traditional male shirt, with a sophisticated stitch in fine linen, an expert caladora can take about 4-5 days of work (4-6 daily hours). Without counting mending processes, the unraveling of the fabric can take a third of the time of the whole embroidery process. Caladoras are paid in average 10 US Dollars for the final embroidery.

7 Older caladoras in Cartago were taught to embroider by European nuns at religious schools. This was part of an education for women to become proper housewives.

8 The households in which we stayed included the presence of men of different age and status; some caladoras lived with their husbands, others with their sons and grandsons. In any case women were always in charge of looking after, of caring, for the daily maintenance of the households and in particular in charge of keeping the wellbeing of the men they shared their lives with. This gendered reality shaped our place as women within the household and could have affected the role of men ethnographers if there were any in this same scenario. I am not arguing that there is a particular identity of women that configures the role of women ethnographers, I am saying that our identity as women enters in dialogue with how a context is gendered and it affects our role as ethnographers. To see more in relation to this discussions of the role of gender in ethnography see: Gregorio Gil (2006) and Pérez-Bustos, Tobar Roa, & Márquez Gutiérrez (2016).

9 We reflect upon these characteristics while analyzing the learning processes embedded in calado in Pérez-Bustos & Márquez-Gutiérrez (2015).

10 This affective, mundane and domestic dimension of research practices has been researched by Davies and Horst (2015), in a study about principal researchers performing care in group management. These authors argue that these dimensions are usually rendered subordinate in scientific knowledge production in the sense that they remain as embodied day to day activities, and so are difficult to be measured or articulated to concrete outcomes of research processes. In a previous study about research communicative practices of a woman scientist with non-normative gender positions in Colombia I gave an account of similar findings (Pérez-Bustos, 2014b; Pérez-Bustos & Botero Marulanda, 2013; Pérez-Bustos & García Becerra, 2013; Pérez-Bustos & Marulanda, 2014). The relationalities that performed the scientific status of these women implied caring connections with human and non-human actors beyond the scientific field, but those relationalities were neglected by the field in itself, in the sense that they became with a temporality that was not legible for it.

11 This balance between care and destruction that unraveling has embedded, resonates with the work of Goulet and Vinck (2012). These authors argue, when referring to disassociation and rupture in agricultural innovations, that to generate mechanisms which can sustain rupture without generating complete detachment, is a craft that requires situated knowledge about practices of disassociation and materialities to be discarded or eliminated. Now, to say that this is a craft, means that knowledge is, on many occasions, tacit and learned through tinkering and experimentation (Davies & Horst, 2015); an emotional endeavor that comes with its world (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2012), one that is usually located in the daily life of mundane relationalities –again, relationalities between human and non-human actors.

12 I am referring here to the idea of becoming with and worlding proposed by Donna Haraway (2008, 2013), as practices of world-making that have the power of creating new storylines. Following her words, “It matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what concepts we think to think other concepts with… That’s how worlding gets on with itself” (2013: 138), which highlights the implications of thinking with touch to become with calado in design.

13 I borrow here Marcus (2013) proposal about ethnography as prototyping, but with the difference that I situate the polyphonic thinking process proposed by him in a local and small scale.

14 Here I follow Haraway’s ideas about how death and destruction are not sites of complete detachment (1988) but embodied spaces of wounded blossom (2013). Even though complete detachment, total destruction, or death without life, some would argue, is always a possibility, made viable through neglect, weakening, betrayal and defeating of networks (Galis & Lee, 2013), but this possibility would not be shaped by care. Care implies the complex sustainability of life (Fischer & Tronto, 1990), both human and non-human (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2010), which is a commitment to that which is neglected throughout destruction, to mingle it in the cycle of life.

15 This idea of creating a pause stands in the reflections of Müller and Kenney (2014) about the interferences that critical interviews related to science careers generate in postdocs.

16 This dichotomy is shaped by particular gender ideals about what engineering is and what it is not. To delve into how this dichotomy is shaped by Colombian engineering education see Arango Gaviria (2006).

17 I want to thank one of the reviewers of this paper for challenging me to explain, in a nutshell, how to make visible the political and epistemic effects of the invisible gestures that shape careful unraveling and mending.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Picture 1. Calado in process: it shows a partially unraveled coarse linen (4 by 4) and the production of a stitch called Punto Espíritu
Crédits Source: T. Pérez-Bustos
Fichier image/jpeg, 48k
Titre Picture 2. The square frames the result of calado stitching as a mending process that creates designs through weaving.
Légende Arrows point at the mending which frames the design and contains the partial unraveling of the fabric
Crédits Source: T. Pérez-Bustos
Fichier image/jpeg, 60k
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Tania Pérez-Bustos, « Thinking with Care »Revue d’anthropologie des connaissances [En ligne], 11-1 | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2017, consulté le 02 juillet 2020. URL :

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Tania Pérez-Bustos

Professor at the School for gender studies at the National University of Colombia, she is membre of the Counsil of the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) (2014-2017) and of the Asociación Latinoamericana de Estudios Sociales de la Ciencia y la Tecnología (ESOCITE) de 2016 à 2018. She studied the popular circulation of technoscientific knowledge from a feminist theoretical perspectives.

Address: Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Cra. 44 # 45-67, Bloques B5-B6, oficina 612, Bogotá (Colombia).
E-mail: tcperezb[at]

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