Gear Threads – Demystifying Digitizing

Gear Threads is the Mr X Stitch machine embroidery column - presented by the Urban Threads team!

Welcome to the first edition of Gear Threads, where embroidery meets the gears of industry!

Well, OK, today it’s more likely the circuit boards of industry, but you get my point. We’re going to be here each month featuring inspiring embroidery created using a machine, either through the more classic handmade style often known as free motion embroidery, to the traditionally more commercial art of digitized machine embroidery.

Digitized machine embroidery is the kind that your machine sews out for you, and though at first glance that might seem to take the “craft” out of the equation, far from it. Not only can amazing things be done with digitized designs, but one must remember that there is in fact an artist behind the creation and the craft of those stitches that your machine is diligently stitching out.  It’s most certainly an artistry, and a bit of wizardry, in itself.

Since we’re going to be sharing the awesomeness that machine embroidery can be, we thought it would be good to understand a bit more about the creation process, know as digitzing, that goes into making this kind of embroidery. That’s why today we’re here to talk to accomplished digitizer Erich Campbell of Black Duck Embroidery about just what goes on in digitizing, so we can peek into the world behind the stitches.

So, let’s ask the question everyone usually wonders of us: how did you get into embroidery, and especially digitizing? Was there something in your background or experience that led you to it?

Truthfully, I am a misplaced academic. My degree is in English with a focus on medieval studies. I started working for a screen printing and embroidery company early in my college career, hucking boxes of shirts around in an old delivery truck. I moved my way up to operating embroidery machines, and it was revealed to me that we had a digitizing system sitting under a dustcover that nobody had been willing to learn.

I decided I had to know how to drive those big commercial machines. I’d been mucking about with graphics on computers since I was very young, plotting them out pixel by pixel in 256 colors (which was amazing at the time). Couple that with the fact that my mother was a seamstress at one time, and I had this package of being unafraid of all of the elements and acquainted with the real, physical properties of the thread and machine, and a fair knowledge of graphics. Within three months, I was a full-time production digitizer.

What was your first impression of digitized embroidery? What was it like to learn?

It was everything I’d wanted from creating digital graphics. Here I was going to create a three-dimensional object from something I’d plotted on a machine. Moreover, I had control over every movement, allowing my “hand” to come out in the work.

Learning was incredible. The truth of the matter is that I had little time to question what I was doing, so I made my best attempt logically to break things down, and it turned out that the way I think is just compatible with the process. I think in layers and sequences, and building up what I consider to be this rather shallow sculptural relief that is an embroidered design made sense.

Don’t get me wrong, I had some of the same difficulties everyone has in my own degree, especially with the disjoint between the perfection on-screen and the distortion that the machine imparts. Once I realized that embroidery was an art of distortion, wherein one plans for the movement, the push and pull of the fabric and thread, the tensions and the overlaps, I started to understand. I studied on my own, performing tests to see what I could achieve — seeing how different fill patterns, methods of color blending, densities and thread types behaved on a variety of substrates.

I felt very much like some early scientist trying to describe a new world I’d discovered. It was, and still is, an amazing and inspiring process.

I’ve heard our own digitizers mumble sometimes that people seem to think all they do is “trace” things. Can you talk a little about all the challenges that go into a design, especially balancing the art with the science?

Digitizers interpret art. What is created after we digitize is not simply a translated version of what was already in the source image — it is an entirely new piece based on the original.

There are scads of variables we have to keep in mind with every element of every piece of art we interpret, and those change greatly depending not only on our artistic considerations, but also on the size of the finished piece, the material on which it will be stitched, the colors involved, and the type of thread to be used. For every area that must be filled with stitches, we must select the type of stitch, the length of the stitches, the angle on which they’ll lie, how close together the stitches will be placed (known as density) and account for any distortion that will take place in the sewing of the design, not only in the element itself but in all elements with which it will interact, all while we take into account the limitations and strengths of our machines and our materials. Machines do not perfectly recreate what we draw in stitches on-screen, and it must be known by experience what will happen when the machine starts to run at speed.

A digitizer worth the title can look at a design at size and tell you what stitch each element will use, and where all the potential problems in the design may lie. A truly proficient digitizer can do all that, make improvements to the design through using the particular properties of thread to reflect light and show dimension, creating decorative elements and visual styles that aren’t even present in the original, all the while keeping the amount of trims, color changes, and traveling through the sequence to a minimum. The best will be conscious of nearly every stitch, and use only what is needed to create the proper impression of the original art.

Do we trace? Certainly we do, but with quite a difference.

What advantages/disadvantages do you find with machine vs. hand embroidery, specifically with the look of the final results?

The most obvious is that, though it can be done and I have certainly done so, machine embroiderers don’t usually work one stitch at a time — we work with areas filled programmatically with stitches. We control how they are filled, but it takes more time than a commercial digitizer usually enjoys to tweak each individual stitch. The control hand embroiderers have is superior — they adjust by feel to distortion and can vary the tension of each stitch as it goes, so they require few of the tricks we must do to make things register and come out the shape they intended.

Moreover, they can work on both sides of the material and create complex stitches that are impossible to us. I can fake it to some small degree, but I can’t really make a feather stitch, or split stitch, and I certainly have no hope of a real French knot! Many other techniques, like couching, trapunto, or sequin work, have specific machine attachments and materials or processes that allow us to use them, but we are restricted by the need for such equipment. Machine embroiderers must hide traveling stitches on the front of their work and tie off and trim anything they cannot hide. The best of us have developed tremendous skills at this game of hiding stitches and properly planning where things start and end (we call it pathing) but you may never know how much I’d like to be able to hide my travels behind my piece.

Photo and on screen comparison
Original photo source, left, and the on-screen digitized version, right

What do you wish people appreciated more about your job? Or, what do you wish people knew about your job that most don’t?

I wish they knew that we don’t just scan in an image and have the computer automatically convert it into stitches. There are software packages that do so, but they have none of the craft that a digitizer does, and most frequently create designs that are as painful to run as they are to look at. A scanner can’t choose to break up a silhouette into a single-color carved relief, or choose how to split a serif from a letter just so that the light plays over each element as it moves. It can’t decide to shift a gradient to create a better progression of colors, or choose outright to remove, resize, or replace elements that damage the piece. We are interpreters — we know the language that thread speaks, and we render two-dimensional art into that language of embroidery. There are so many choices to be made, and even the most simple letter may be composed of six or seven distinct elements that have to be created. I’d like people to know how much thought goes into each piece.

Do people ever say to you, “Oh, machine embroidery, that’s not a real art”? What do you say to that?

Mostly, I don’t bother to answer. Many people will say that it lacks the humanity that something done without a machine has. That said, I think there is art of its own kind in any time someone consciously makes choices that affect the piece. It’s easy to defend those who digitize, because we select and place our stitches, choosing how they will render our subject, but I’d even fight somewhat for those who use stock designs. They can select colors, placements, threads, and substrates; they can choose to express something even without placing or moving a single stitch. I think that most people who believe machine embroidery can’t be art have relegated it to a world of Disney branded embroidery machines with packs of built-in designs that never change or expand. That’s just not representative of what is possible now, especially as digitizing software becomes more accessible to more people. What was once punishingly expensive can be had in a more limited capacity for free — anyone who wants to start learning how to create their own designs can do so if they are willing to research, test, try, and ask for help from those like me who love the craft and who are willing to help. It may not be high art, but we express a great deal with the symbols, designs, and signs we wear, and machine embroidery is key to that. Who wouldn’t want to grab control of that machinery and express themselves?

What tips or advice do you have to people who would like to try it for themselves?

If you can, intern at a commercial embroidery shop or at the least get hold of a home machine or someone who has one, and watch designs run. Operating machines will teach you a tremendous amount of the possibilities and limitations of the craft. Knowing fabric and how it reacts to being hooped and embroidered is always worthwhile. Add that to knowing how machines operate and what they are capable of, especially if you manage to watch the work of a truly skilled digitizer, will likely teach you as much as a good book, provided you whip out a ruler and take some measurements on occasion. After that, seek out some skilled digitizers online. We’re here, and many of us are helping people every day. Check out trade magazines like Stitches or Impressions (reader beware, I write for Stitches) who have free digital editions of their magazines online. You may not be in it for business, but they handle the nuts and bolts better than a lot of home-embroidery sources I’ve seen out there, and the skills do transfer. After that, it’s all about trial and error. Don’t get discouraged. Just watch, analyze, try, and try again. You can do this.


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