“Embodied Data Visualizations” at DH Unbound 2022

Bellum Civile Quilt

On May 17 I gave a presentation “Embodied Data Visualizations: Integrating Crafting into Digital Humanities” at DH Unbound. This post is adapted from the talk – however since I used notes and not a script it may not exactly match. If you’ve been reading all of my updates here some of this might be repetitive, but there are some new ideas. Thank you!

Thank you for having me here today. My talk is “Embodied Data Visualizations: Integrating Crafting into Digital Humanities” and is about a work in progress project I am in the midst of.

This is the link for my slides. I know that if you are watching on a laptop, shared screens can be small and hard to follow. This was you can follow along zoomed in, and you have access to the full references for each slide in the notes, links, and alt text for the images.

Lately I’ve been thinking about what I’ve been calling “embodied data visualizations.” But other have been talking about this idea with other names, like:

  • Data physicalization (Vande Moere and Patel 2009; Johnson 2022)
  • Data materialization (Gollihue and Xiong-Gum 2020; Knight 2018)
  • And data visceralization (Bench and Elswit 2022; Stark 2014)

While I don’t think these concepts are all interchangeable, there is a lot of overlap between them. Essentially, for me, embodied data visualizations are the process of translating data into physical objects. Today I am focusing on sewing/quilting/crafting but there are countless other physical containers, like this TikTok where Humphrey Yang visualizes Jeff Bezos’s net worth via rice where one grain equals $100,000.

While these do not result in digital projects, I think they are still digital humanities.

There is, or should be, space in DH for non-digital projects. Especially if we take a liberal definition of DH. Right now, I am thinking of DH as using technologies to help us answer and think about humanities questions. Technology doesn’t have to be digital. In fact, textiles are one of the oldest technologies out there and could have a lot of potential in a DH context. Textiles allow scholars to materialize data decoupled from screens and interrogate was Gollihue and Xiong Gum call the “arbitrary division between old and new media privileging visualization over embodiment” (2020). This calls for different types of relationships between scholars and viewers and the final data product.

This leads to questions about gender and technology and why traditionally masculine technology, and I apologize here for the gender binary, like coding and software development is celebrated in the academy over crafts, which are traditionally feminine. By opening our focus in DH, we make space for so many others.

Many crafters outside academia are already doing data work, both through making and following patterns but also in the topics of their work, like the crocheters making blankets that visualize a year of temperatures, this councilor who knit a color-coded scarf that visualize how much more men speak then women in meetings (Ryder 2019), and quilters who use their quilts to visualize and track personal data from habit and fitness trackers. We need to learn from them and credit this type of work.

I’ve also found once you start talking about it, you start to see craftwork all over the academy. This is just a snapshot of the projects are articles I’ve been gathering but demonstrates both the rich variety of topics covered and media used . In particular Nightingale, the data visualization journal, has been publishing a number of pieces on this type of data work, I only included a couple here (Johnson 2022; Briney 2022; Gibney 2022) and the #DHMakes (and #DHSewing) tags on Twitter have been very generative for this type of thinking.

I have also been very lucky to find a community of data quilters in my own community at Pratt Institute, where I recently graduated from. First, Deimosa Webber-Bay, a fellow alum of Pratt’s School of Information, who through her Runaway Quilt Project made two quilts, Maker Unknown (2013) and Maker Known (2014), which took data about quilts and embodied them back in quilt form (Webber-Bey 2014). Second, Nancy Smith, a faculty member of the School of Information, who is making quilts that visualize glacier melt and climate change (Smith 2022).

Recently, the three of us were able to speak and we identified a few strengths and affordances of these sort of projects.

The first thing that stood out was the preservation and longevity of these types of projects. While digital DH projects seem to have a shelf-life of about 5 years (Meneses and Furuta 2019)  quilts are artefacts that are traditionally passed down for generations. By making our projects in the form of quilts, we are giving them a longer life than if there was just a digital portal. Webber-Bay even printed code along the edge of one of her quilts since it would last longer than her website.

The act of making abstract ideas physical forces makers to develop a relationship with their datasets, as there is a greater need to critically assess the types of stories it can tell since you can’t just play the same way you can if you just put it in Tableau to see what is there and call it a day. Also as these physical visualizations take more time, the projects become more personal too.

We also anecdotally found that these types of visualization were more charismatic to viewers. People tend to be more curious about the quilts than traditional visualizations, and they spend more time looking at them and asking us questions about them. It creates a deeper relationship between the subject of the quilt and its viewer. Vande Moere and Patel have found this as well with their study of data sculptures and that the “novelty and aesthetic of its sculptural form and its physical affordances often drive the interest of people to attempt to decipher the content” (2009).

This brings me to my project, the Bellum Civile quilt. It feels like there should be a cute portmanteau here, but I can’t make it work in a way that sounds good. I would like the stress that this is a work in progress, so I don’t yet have conclusions or final reflections on this work.

First, a little background. The Bellum Civile (BC) is an epic Latin poem about the Roman civil war that was incomplete at the death of its author, Lucan, in 65 AD. I studied this poem in my Classics MA and we discussed the frequent use of black and red (Tucker 1970) throughout the text in the context of its contemporary literary styles.

Later in an Information Visualization course I took at Pratt I compiled all the references to color in the poem to compare the poem both to contemporary authors and the earlier epic poems that it references.

As I decided to pursue an embodied data visualization project, I thought this would translate well, as it was not a stretch to visualize the use of color through fabric, especially since I already had the dataset. I felt like it was a fitting way to give the data a second, or really third, life. But I didn’t want to simply make a bar chart in fabric. I wanted to translate the visualization into quilt form, taking advantage of all the elements of quilt design.

The elements of a quilt that I identified to work start with a quilt top that is made up of individual quilt blocks. In traditional quilts these blocks are usually uniform in size, but I took each of these blocks to visualize different categories of color use. I went through my data and grouped the objects being described by color into seven categories, like people, physical landscape, and man-made objects. Each block then corresponds to one category with each square of color representing one instance of the color. Each block then varied in size and design. What I like is this turned the quilt top into a physical data dashboard, and I have since labeled each block to help it translate a little more easily as a dashboard.

Then there is the quilt back, which is usually simpler as it is the side not on display. I am planning on making one large visualizing the sequence of color in the text to understand how they colors group together.

Then there is the binding, which goes around the edges of the quilt. I am thinking of using this to show the percentages of the colors in the entire text.

And finally, there is the actual quilting, or the sewing that attaches the three layers (quilt top, stuffing, and quilt back) together. I want to use this to show the number of words for each color in the text. For example, there are eight words for red, so I would have 8 rows of red stitching as opposed to only two black rows for the two words for black in the text.

This is a video I filmed of the process of sewing one of these blocks together, I won’t have time to play the whole video, but it is linked in my slides, so you are welcome to watch it later. What really struck me with this project was how the process of sewing this quilt was so similar to the process of data visualization: 90% of sewing isn’t actually the act of sewing. Instead, it is measuring, cutting, trimming, and ironing fabric, rethreading the machine when it gets stuck, ripping out seams when you’ve made a mistake. Just like so little of the process of making a data visualization is the act of visualizing it. So much of the work is the labor of gathering, tidying, and debugging data. And from this I really think there is potential for a hands-on crafting workshop as an opportunity for teaching about data through making some of the abstract labor physical. It would obviously have to be something smaller than a quilt, but I think the parallels are compelling.

Because this is an experiment, I’ve been documenting the process in more or less monthly updates. This has been so useful because I have been able to gather feedback earlier on in the process when it can actually help guide the project. It also has been great as it gives me some public accountability to finish it. So far I’ve written an introduction to the project, a piece about getting my data ready, and a piece about designing the quilt itself.  And I will be turning this presentation into a post (hi!) that I will hope to have posted in the next few weeks.

So what are the next steps. First my biggest priority right now is finishing the quilt itself, which I am hoping to do this summer and maybe into the fall if need be. While I am working on it I’d like to continue to document the progress and then write some sort of reflection at the end of the project.

But thinking further out and how I want to expand these ideas beyond just this specific quilt, I would like to do something bigger, both in terms of the size of quilt and the dataset. My dataset is about a hundred rows and this quilt is designed to be a wall hanging. Next I would like to make a bigger quilt, probably bed sized, of a larger dataset, maybe from NYC Open Data. There are a number of datasets related to some of my environmental humanities interest, and I’d like to enrich a dataset and turn it into quilt while also thinking about ways to connect to, and visualize, ideas of place. Also, I would really like to design a hands-on workshop, either geared towards students or those who teach about data, using sewing as a way to explain the process of data work.

All of my references are here, but like I mentioned earlier you can see the specific references for each slide in its notes sections.

Thank you, I look forward to hearing your comments and questions about all of this.


I also wanted to take a moment to share some of my reflections after presenting this talk. Someone, I think it was Nikki Stevens, asked me how I was using elements other than color to represent my data. Up to this point I was only relying on color, but since I’ve been thinking about it, I want to experiment with some other types of elements. Right now, I want to try using the direction of the quilting stitches to represent parts of speech, for example all adjectives would be horizontal rows while verbs would be vertical columns.

One thing I loved about some of the sessions I attended was other scholars using craftwork for their research. I really would love to find a community to work with more, such as virtual sewing circles. I would love to establish some more of a community outside of annual conferences.


Bench, Harmony, and Kate Elswit. 2022. “Visceral Data for Dance Histories: Katherine Dunham’s People, Places, and Pieces.” TDR 66 (1): 37–61. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1054204321000708.

Briney, Kristin. 2022. “Crafting a COVID Visualization: How I Processed Pandemic Anxiety and Grief with Yarn, Nightingale.” Nightingale, January. https://nightingaledvs.com/crafting-a-covid-visualization/.

Gibney, Danièle. 2022. “Crossing into Datavis.” Nightingale, January. https://nightingaledvs.com/crossing-into-datavis/.

Gollihue, Krystin, and Mai Nou Xiong-Gum. 2020. “Dataweaving: Textiles as Data Materialization.” 25.1, August. https://kairos.technorhetoric.net/25.1/disputatio/gollihue-xiong-gum/index.html.

Johnson, India. 2022. “The Soul of Data: Data Physicalizations on Fabric, Nightingale.” Nightingale (blog). March 8, 2022. https://nightingaledvs.com/the-soul-of-data-data-physicalizations-on-fabric/.

Knight, Kim Brillante. 2018. “Danger, Jane Roe! Material Data Visualization as Feminist Praxis.” In Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and Digital Humanities. Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota Press. https://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/read/untitled-4e08b137-aec5-49a4-83c0-38258425f145/section/7b65b317-f23a-4f6a-a04a-70f266af7c4e#ch01.

Meneses, Luis, and Richard Furuta. 2019. “Shelf Life: Identifying the Abandonment of Online Digital Humanities Projects.” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities 34 (Supplement_1): i129–34. https://doi.org/10.1093/llc/fqy079.

Ryder, Sherie. 2019. “Councillor’s Colour-Coded Knitting Shows ‘Men Talk Too Much.’” BBC News (blog). May 16, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-48278772.

Smith, Nancy. 2022. “Data Quilts: Visualizing Climate Change.” Some Quiet Future. 2022. http://somequietfuture.com/research.

Stark, Luke. 2014. “Come on Feel the Data (and Smell It).” The Atlantic. May 19, 2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/05/data-visceralization/370899/.

Tucker, Robert. 1970. “The Colors of Lucan.” The Classical Bulletin 46 (4): 56–58.

Vande Moere, Andrew, and Stephanie Patel. 2009. “The Physical Visualization of Information: Designing Data Sculptures in an Educational Context.” In Visual Information Communication, edited by Mao Lin Huang, Quang Vinh Nguyen, and Kang Zhang, 1–23. Boston, MA: Springer US. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-0312-9_1.

Webber-Bey, Deimosa. 2014. “Runaway Quilt Project: Digital Humanities Exploration of Quilting During the Era of Slavery.” The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, no. 6 (November). https://jitp.commons.gc.cuny.edu/runaway-quilt-project-digital-humanities-exploration-of-quilting-during-the-era-of-slavery/.

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