Punchcard Economy

Welcome to the Punchcard Economy

Sep 03 2013 · by Sam Meech

Welcome to the Punchcard Economy blog. This site will develop over the next 3 months, collecting data about contemporary working patterns, and documenting the development of the artwork – a machine-knitted translation of the Eight Hour Day movement banner. I really hope I can encourage as many people as possible to contribute by logging their working hours, thus helping to provide detail and texture to the final work.


Why am I doing this?

This project draws upon two aspects of my practise an an artist:

1. A recent shift towards working with knitting machines as a means to reinterpret digital media.

2. My status as a freelance worker (7 years) and the impact this has on my ‘work / life balance’.


On the first pointKnitting Digital – I usually work with video, and only came across a knitting machine for the first time last year, whilst filming a local knitting group in North Manchester. I was struck by the parallels between punchcards and film reels, stitches and pixels, and began to relate to it in terms of digital imaging as much as textiles.  Further to this, I was introduced to examples of other artists who had hacked electronic knitting machines and developed software tools in order to send them digital images. I felt strongly that I could bring something to this field, not as a programmer, but as someone who works with digital tools, moving images, communities and contributions. I have since outlined a series of experiments and works I will undertake over the next 6 months, of which this is one.

Manchester has a proud textile heritage. Bettie at the knitting group worked within the industry as a designer for a firm in the city centre, before overseeing textile printing. Her father also managed the Tootal factory in Newton Heath, making ties amongst other things. Films of Tootal can be seen in the North West Film Archive, along with films from the Machine Knitting School in Bury.

The knitting machine in someways embodies a shift from industry to cottage industry. It’s introduction essentially brought the factory into the home, elevating a money-saving hobby into a time and money saving production line, with many knitters seeing it as a profession. (Magazines such as ‘Profitable Knitting’ helped to frame it as such). Although Brother stopped production of their machines in the 90s, they are still much sought after, thanks to a revival in crafts, and the development  of online communities through forums such as Ravelry, and through tools like Youtube.


On the second pointFreelancing and contemporary working practices –  It is often said that the North West’s key industries are no longer manufacturing or textiles, but the creative and cultural industries, a large proportion of which workforce are freelancers. Whilst being freelance allows a lot of flexibility in terms of choices about work, the lack of stability or contract means that myself and my fellow freelancers (a growing sector), often have to say yes to any opportunity, and to this end, frequently work odd / long hours in the pursuit, practise and administration of ‘work’. I do love the independence this brings, but without the safety nets of sick pay, pensions, established holidays or even weekends, it can become too much at times.

Checking emails before bed is an absurd and compulsive practise, but I don’t think it’s restricted to just freelancers. The flexibility provided by technology, and the competition for jobs within creative and cultural sectors, means that I often receive late-night correspondence from those doing the ‘9 to 5’. Work is mobile, and once again the factory has encroached upon the home. It seems to be taken as a given that there are ‘contracted hours’ and then implicit ‘other hours’ in which people are expected to be available in order to keep things on track for the next day. My freelance colleagues and I often refer to this as “Elf’s Work” – after the tale of the Elves and the Shoemaker – the work that is done when others are asleep.  This project is about auditing that “elfs work” and revealing some kind of shift from the notion of a strict ‘8 Hour Day’