How Knitting Inspires Science and Engineering

Although knitting is a hobby and a relaxing activity, there’s some fascinating science and engineering behind it. Here in this article let’s stretch our minds a bit as we talk about the academic and technical side of knitting.

Structure determines function and properties

Well, this is a heavy start. Anyway, what gives beauty and function to a knitted creation is its material as well as its structure (how it’s knitted and made). For example, when you make a mistake in the stitch notice that the whole creation gets ruined (although you can still correct it). It’s the same yarn and material and yet the texture and outcome are different.

We can also see that in everyday substances and materials. For instance, ice has a crystalline structure with empty spaces. As ice forms, water molecules stick together (similar to knitting) and as the empty spaces are being created, the entire structure becomes rigid and less dense. This property of ice is essential in many natural ecosystems. For example, as the lake’s temperature drops, ice forms and the ice floats (it’s less dense because of the empty spaces and expansion, density equals mass over volume). The ice then forms a protective and insulating layer for the water below. This then makes it possible for the water to remain within a liveable temperature range which allows fish and organisms below to survive.

We can also see the importance of structure in function when it comes to advanced materials such as carbon nanotubes and carbon buckyballs. They have promising properties that can change several industries including aeronautics, electronics, construction, energy storage, optics and automotive. Both carbon nanotubes and buckyballs are made of carbon atoms joined together in a specific manner. Nanotubes are cylindrical while the buckyball’s structure creates a cage inside it. The difference in how the carbon atoms are arranged gives rise to their different properties and potential applications. This works the same way in graphite and diamond which are also made entirely of carbon atoms. In graphite, the carbon atoms are arranged in arrays and layers. On the other hand, diamond’s carbon atoms are arranged tetrahedrally (creating a strong 3-dimensional structure). Both are made entirely of carbon atoms but the huge difference in their properties is due to their structures.

This reminds us of knitting where we use roughly the same material (yarn) but it allows us to create an endless number of clothing and accessories. It even gets more complex and fascinating because of intricate patterns and shapes as being completed by experienced knitters. When they combine stitches in several different ways, this results in new shapes as well as alters the properties of the entire object itself. The “stretchiness” or the elasticity gets different depending on the combinations of stitches. In other words, when we change how the yarn is stitched, we are also changing its mechanical properties.

This has potential applications to materials science and development. Scientists and engineers continuously search for new materials that are strong and lightweight. They also try to design new materials that have certain elasticity or a desired property depending on the specific application. For example, in the aeronautics industry it’s important to use lightweight materials especially in space missions. This way, less fuel will be needed or the freed up weight can be used for other purposes. Each kilogram matters in space missions because of fuel and financial concerns.

Inspiration from nature and hobbies

Many of the future progress in science and engineering might result from knowing how nature works and mimicking its mechanisms and principles. For example, researchers are now looking into termite mounds as an inspiration for designing energy-saving buildings. These termite mounds are built in a way that facilitates ventilation and gas exchange which then promotes effective temperature regulation. If we can apply the same mechanism to our buildings, we could save on air conditioning costs day after day.

We can also witness the wonders of nature by studying the properties of a spider web. The silk itself as well as how the threads are weaved give rise to the excellent strength and tensile properties of the web. Also, notice that even when some of the threads were cut off or removed, the entire web stays intact. It permits localized damage to protect the entire structure. We can apply the same principle in designing earthquake-resistant buildings and damage-resistant vehicles. Instead of allowing the entire building to collapse because of an earthquake, some portions will only be damaged without compromising the building’s entire integrity. The design as inspired by the spider web can help dissipate the earthquake’s energy and keep the entire structure intact despite localized damage.

Aside from nature, some of the scientific and engineering progress might be inspired by hobbies and everyday activities. Perhaps knitting can provide new insights into how materials will be designed. Tweaking the number of crossing points in a material’s molecular structure can improve its mechanical properties similarly to how the number of crossing points in each stitch changes the elasticity of the entire creation. Once we know the mathematical certainties of such changes, we can then apply that to designing new materials and achieving the desired properties.

Indeed, science and engineering can move forward by deriving inspiration from what’s here and now. Thankfully, some scientists and engineers (who knitted at some point in their lives) are already looking into knitting and how it can help with their research and projects. And perhaps while knitting, an insight or inspiration can strike them anytime. It’s like when a random flash of insight comes to us while we’re taking a shower, watering the plants or doing something else aside from work. When we take off our mind from work, useful insights and innovative solutions come to us. Similarly, when we knit, a single insight can come to us and change everything. If we’re stuck with something, perhaps it’s time to focus on something else. When our minds relax a bit, our minds actually become free to connect the dots and arrive at a brilliant insight. Knitting is a good way to allow ourselves to relax and yes, it’s also a good way to accomplish something while our minds are busy at work in the background.