Caitlin Bruce, an assistant professor in the department of communication at Pitt, always liked sewing and painting, but had yet to find a suitable space to practice her art in Pittsburgh.
“I haven’t had a lot of experience in makerspaces, but, one that I went to, it felt kind of like very masculine — it was a lot of dudes and it sort of felt like I was a novice at the thing I was trying to do. I felt … kind of uncomfortable,” she said.
She found comfort at Prototype, a new feminist makerspace in North Oakland — where communal “making,” with a variety of equipment necessary for trades including woodworking, sewing and 3D printing, meets intersectional feminism.
Erin Oldynski and E. Louise Larson, who both work full time at TechShop, a DIY-focused space in Bakery Square, opened Prototype in early January.
“I think a lot of people are new to the idea of makerspaces. We happen to be lucky enough to actually work in a makerspace as our day job,” said Larson.
Prototype is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and sometimes partners with local artists and hosts workshops and DIY sessions. The introductory price of admission is $25 for 10 hours of access a week for six months.
The Sprout Fund, a Pittsburgh agency that provides financial support to community projects and programs, granted Prototype $5,000 to engage 100 women in workshops within the first 100 days of the Donald Trump presidency. Artist Jenn Gooch hosted the sewing workshop in her studio called WERK in Lawrenceville Jan. 26.
“It was intentional on our part to start with the sewing workshop, because sewing is historically a woman’s work, but it is very much a technical skill that you have to learn, and it requires an understanding of engineering,” Oldynski said.
Makerspaces evolved from hackerspaces, community spaces where technology was altered or “hacked” to perform alternative tasks in the ’90s. Eventually, the spaces were broadened to include making of any sort.
Hackerspaces originated as male-dominated technological centers, and makerspaces followed suit, particularly when the making involved STEM projects — a field where female participation is already low.
But the “maker movement,” so dubbed in a 2015 Atlantic story on the rise of mini-American manufacturing outlets, has boomed — Prototype joins nine other maker/hackerspaces in Pittsburgh, including Assemble in Garfield and HackPittsburgh in Bluff.
Part of the popularity of “making” stems from the growing availability of equipment such as 3D printers and laser cutters. Prototype opens this accessibility up even further — welding the maker movement with intersectional feminism that includes non-binary people, trans women and women from all races, religious backgrounds and sexual orientations.
“Makerspaces [are] still something that’s like hedging into everyday vernacular, and that’s kind of true with feminism as well, especially intersectional feminism,” said Larson.
Larson and Oldynski want Prototype to be a space for women and feminists of all gender identities to work in a welcoming and opening environment.
“Our definition of feminism looks to work against things like racism and classism and sexism and create an empowering physical space where people who believe in equity broadly want to come together to learn from one another,” Oldynski said. “Feminism is not just something you sit around and talk about, but it’s action-oriented.
Prototype intends to show women that traditionally female crafts, such as sewing, can be technical and precise. Likewise, the creators also want to demonstrate that women can pursue hobbies that are often seen as too technical or masculine.
This resonated with Emmy Volkar, 31, who always yearned to create more with her hands.
“I find a lot of joy in that,” said Volkar. “I knew there were going to be workshops, too, so I was just like yeah, anytime, any place that I can learn — especially a designated feminist space was even more appealing to me.”
The creators encourage member participation. Prototypers can conduct their own making workshops and, at some point, they intend to have an advisory board set up, in which one committee on the board will curate educational experiences and workshops.
“I would love to be open everyday of the week but not staffed by me and Louise — we would be staffed by a number of volunteers and I would hold multiple workshops every week like minimum two workshops a week,” Oldynski said.
Prototype has limited space but partners with a number of organizations in the same warehouse and around the city, including TechShop, Pittsburgh Filmmakers and HackPittsburgh.
“We’re hoping that people who are members of Prototype can take classes and do workshops at all of these locations across the city,” said Larson. “I want it to be what the people want it to be.”
The founders have big goals for their little space, but, ultimately, it’s a place for creation without judgement — or general “nerdery,” as Larson calls it.
“Feminism, to me, means that there are no rules,” Larson said, adding that the ability to change — society, an art project or the community — is going to drive the space.
“We’re prototyping the kind of world that we want to live in,” she said. “Part of that is understanding how this organization isn’t dependent on us but really dependent on the community to be self-driven and to grow and change in the ways that are most appropriate for the people who are operating in the space.”
A full calendar of workshops and events hosted by Prototype can be found on their prototypepgh.com.