RAQ: rarely asked questions

As you may imagine, I read a lot about product development, much of it from the software industry. I found a site by hacker, painter and essayist Paul Graham. In Hiring is Obsolete, he revived my faith in entrepreneurial 20-somethings but there’s lessons there for more than me and they. He’s authored 3 books, one entitled Hackers & Painters , a collection of essays. While I have no doubt you’ve run off to buy this book based on my say-so, those who have not may want to read someone described boringly enough as an essayist. Reading Graham is experiencing genius; that genius means knowing your topic so well that you can explain complex ideas in simple language to simple people who know absolutely nothing about you or your topic and worse, probably could not care less. He’s a prototypical genius-writer with a gift of idea expression in the manner of Feynman -although he writes mechanically speaking, far better than Feynman ever did- his words appear effortless, the timeless test of a master of anything.

Other than to encourage your intellectual curiousity, I mean to ask you your RAQ -as Graham has done- or Rarely Asked Questions. This is a most provocative thought. What are the questions we ask rarely? What questions are we not asking about ourselves, our businesses, each other and this industry? What are the questions we rarely ask and what are the costs and consequences of our failure to do so? How would we live or act differently if we delved into what we’ve denied needing to know? What would our future be? Knowing the answers to questions we rarely bother to ask could change everything.

What’s your RAQ? I can think of a lot of questions that people should ask but don’t. I’m starting a list. You can add to it here.

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  1. kathleen says:

    I realize now that I slightly misrepresented the concept of RAQ as used by Paul Graham. Graham has an RAQ on his site based on questions others have sent him which he felt were of sufficient merit to include separate from the FAQ because of course, those didn’t fit there. His RAQ is a point of interest.

    It was the _concept_ of an RAQ that I found compelling. My attitude is, why wait for a Rarely Asked Questions to happen, collect and pool over time? Why not create one? I think there’s a lot of wisdom in knowing answers to things that you didn’t think you’d need to know. If one built an RAQ, the wisdom would be closer.

  2. kathleen says:

    My rarely asked question (to myself):
    I do not believe there are more than 10 people alive today who think more about fitting, sizing, weight and consequences of excess weight among the american populace than me. Call it intuition. I’m obsessed.
    My RAQ: Why aren’t I writing about it?
    Most obvious answer: I’ll piss off a whole lot of people and for a whole lot of reasons (cognitive dissonance mostly), the rest I’ll confuse, and the last will hopefully prod me along with questions so I can refine my points and clarify my thinking.

    Another obvious answer: I’m not getting the reciprocity of stimulation that would encourage me to do so. You’d think that the internet would be big enough to attract such arcane interests but it hasn’t developed here, much to my dismay.

  3. Josh Latham says:

    Here is omething that you said in your book that has continued to creep up in my mind. I’d have to reread the book to find your exact qoute but it was something about apparel always needing human hands. There is currently no automated system that could sew peices together. Unless you want to include how T shirts have become somewhat automated but still they need human hands to aid them. And that there has been little advancement in apparel and there will continue to be little advancement. So I’m thinking about this and trying to picture the year 3,000. And the idea that we will be sewing apparel together or constructing it the same way in 1,000 years sends a shiver up my spine. So my thoughts turn to the rarely asked question “How are we not looking at how garments can be constructed in a revolutionary way?” “How can we eliminate the need for cutting out and sewing?” Then my thoughts turn to how that would be possible. Fabric itself is the problem. The revolution will begin with how fabric is made. If we could create molds (for instance a pair of pants) that fabric is poured onto or woven directly onto the mold with the aid of precise lasers or something. Then I’m stumped at how the pockets are created without sewing and cutting peices. Also a zipper? If some how it could be included in the mold.

  4. MW says:

    They are making great innovations in seamless knitwear in Japan and Europe (forgot which country). The issue is that the machines are so incredibly expensive, and timely (costly) to program a style, that the economies of scale have not kicked in yet as seamless knitwear is still expensive and mostly confined to high end marketst. Google wholegarment if you need more info. The items they produce are breathtaking.

    But many items still need some finishing on the sewing machine, things like closures, buttonholes, straps and reinforced areas still need to be sewn. Also, when pieces require darts or contoured shapes (like a 2 pc bra cup), these complexities still require sewing.

  5. kathleen says:

    This is from the chapter entitled “The Big Dirty Secret” pg 206, under the subheading Inappropriate technology:
    The most fundamental fact is this: The sewing trades are labor intensive and they always will be. This will never change. Sewing will always be labor intensive because cut fabric pieces cannot be smelted out like metal rods. Garments cannot be cut like sheetmetal and welded by machines. Fabric is flimsy; it must be handled by hands. No amount of technology will ever change this. Denial of reality creates more problems.

  6. susan McElroy says:

    This is a comment on Josh’s suggestion/concept, though we might be getting away from Kathleen’s interesting RAQ on weight, which I want to get back to later. And I like your slightly different use of this term–the questions we ought to be asking but aren’t.
    But on the future of garment production: If you read between the lines when you surf the web about nanotechnology and new textiles, you get the idea that eventually textiles will be “grown” not woven; I don’t know where or how I ran across this idea; maybe in the area of artificial tissue (skin) production at the nano level. At any rate, when I ponder the far future of garment construction, I wonder if we won’t grow garments the way we grow our skin or a plant grows bark or leaves…fun to think about.

  7. susan McElroy says:

    More on the future of garment construction:
    What really turned me on to this site as I found it today (looking for links to the book, which I and my aspiring DE sister own) was the fact that the concept of “lean” manufacturing is understood and respected here. Something that has always bothered me about garment construction, though I love style and fashion as much as the next guy/gal, is the way that modern Western (as in non-Asian or African) sewing is so based on cutting out pieces from flat rectangular lengths, which wastes so much of the textile. Traditional garments were draped and folded and joined in a way as to not throw away weaving that had taken endless hours of handwork to spin and produce. What if our modern ability to weave non-squared fabric (we do lace by machine, right?) could be used to make pieces that are more mathmatically sophistocated, such as I see Kathleen working on…it’s late, and I’ll get back to more practical things tomorrow, but this site is just too cool!

  8. kathleen says:

    Susan, boy, you punched some of my buttons. I can’t even start talking about lean or I’ll never stop. I have so many ideas to make it work, much of them are old ones that were taught to me but refined, redefined and recontentextualized -is that a word? When I wrote my book, I didn’t even know what “lean” was although I recognized the business model and knew it was the best. I called it ‘the traditional’ model (because it had been the tradition in our business until recently) and Push manufacturing I described as ‘the new model’. I even qualified my names with caveat lector: “these models probably have names but I’d be lying if I said I knew the proper names”.

    And I’m very interested in the math-shaping thing. I’ve been doing some experimental pattern drafting, it’s all math, I really don’t understand it myself. This sort of stuff just sets me off in a tizzy because I can stim all day on shapes alone.

  9. Marie-Christine says:

    Kathleen, a small bit about why you may be more obsessed about weight than other people? In my family, we can spot the ones who’ll be truly autistic right at birth, because they’re born without an appetite. Breast? Eeck. From what I’ve read, it’s not that unusual an association. So you might consider that you’re more willing to limit food for yourself because of built-in leanings, with a rationalization built in by the current scientific/social climate. And that would be also why you don’t understand why the rest of the world can’t resist say a greasy pizza smell? Which doesn’t mean you’re entirely wrong, rationally, just that your point of view might be a bit skewed :-).

  10. Suzanne says:


    My son has Aspergers Syndrome/is autistic and he was born with a huge appetite. Even now he eats a lot, though he is thin as a rail. Most autistic people limit food because they are sensitive to certain tastes and textures and also may have food allergies either known or unknown driving them to either eat things they shouldn’t or keep them away from other things they shouldn’t eat. I would say your no appetite theory is false, at least in the general population. Now it is true that many on the spectrum have different reactions to strong sensory input, and for Kathleen that may be grease.

    Also, I think anyone who has been obese and lost a lot of weight can be considered “obsessed” by the general public. I say tis better to be obsessed and fit than unaware and fat.

  11. kwame says:

    i recently learned how to sew a blazer and judging my performance i think i still need to know more. i will appreciate it alot if you could enligthen on how to go about the cutting and the stitching.

  12. Jo says:

    Kathleen I am one of those 10 people….unfortunately I don’t yet have the professional opportunity to use my obsession for the greater good. In my small world, there is a link between obesity and education or wealth. The people who could afford to create a market in custom fitted clothing don’t need to as they fit into the mass market stuff. The people who could benefit from custom fitting can’t afford it. So as mass production follows the mass market and plus sizes become the norm will it then turn on its head so that the perfect size 10 will have to have her clothes specially made?

  13. Miranda says:

    First off, I just want to say that I am so happy I found your site, Kathleen. I can’t really describe to you in words how much it is teaching me and how thankful I am that you take time out of your life to do this. I’ve been reading the archives starting at the beginning.

    Second, on the topic of human hands always being involved in sewing, I was wondering what you thought of 3D printing. I read about it every now and then on npr.org. I can’t find the specific article at the moment, but I was reading not to long ago about eventually being able to print out a perfectly fitted pair of pants straight from the computer. Of course this sounds absolutely crazy to me but apparently, soles and insoles of shoes are already being done as well as a whole slew of other things.

    Here is the most recent relevant article I can find on the topic:

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