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High-tech quilting project knits together Westport community

The latest installation at the Westport Library underscores the evolving role of the book repository turned new-media community center.

A "digital quilt" that merges old, hands-on traditions and 21st-century electronic technologies -- a community project that was fashioned in the library's MakeSpace -- went on display Saturday in the Great Hall, where it will remain indefinitely.

Library patrons are invited to press a sensor that sends a wireless signal to the quilt, activating LED light components that were incorporated into the fabric of the 24 squares arranged in three rows of eight. The nearly two-month project was facilitated by Balam Soto, an award-winning new media artist, a native of Guatemala now living in Hartford, and the library's first maker-in-residence.

"This is where the magic happens," Soto said about a month into the project when the digital components were introduced. Participants who designed and sewed the squares also helped to soldered together LED lights and wires and write the computer software program that initiates the sequence of LED colors and patterns on the quilt.

Soto said making the digital quilt was not without its problems. "Everything that could go wrong did," he said. But the completed quilt created a sense of community and "a feeling of creating something new together," said Bill Derry, the library's assistant director for innovation and user experience.

"Often people think of a library as just an information source," Derry said, adding that libraries have evolved to "places of imagination." Library staffers collaborated on a quilt square that features the word "imagine." Others worked on squares individually. Derry called the team "a collaborative village of quilters" and said he hasn't seen a broader segment of the community working together at the library.

The intergenerational quilt project began last November, attracting about three dozen people -- children and adults, artists and teckies from throughout Connecticut and New York.

"We don't have anything like this," said Bernie Menachery of Mamaroneck, N.Y., who worked on the quilt with his son Ian, 8.

Zoe Nunez of Westport used the library's 3-D printer to make multiples of the numbers 1 and 0, which she arranged on her square to create the binary code for the word "love." Even in this high-tech, love is needed to thrive, said Nunez, who was so inspired by Soto and the project that she purchased her first sewing machine and Arduino kit, a micro-controller that was used to program the lights in the interactive quilt.

Orlando Fonseca of Westport created a square depicting a rose and the word "NOW" as a reminder to "stop and smell the roses, especially in this fast-paced world. Appreciate what's going on now."

Soto encouraged people to embrace new technologies without letting go of traditions. "We shouldn't forget what our ancestors have achieved -- carpentry, ceramics, textiles, everything that is low-tech. But we can merge high-tech and low-tech and keep those other traditions alive," he said.

"They have made an impact on our society. It would be a tremendous loss for humanity," he added, if those early traditions were lost.

Meg Barone

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