Digitized machine embroidery is still a bit of a rarity in the art world, and finding emerging artists using it even less so. That’s why I was so excited to discover the work of These Woods, a relative newbie to machine embroidery who is using her new skills to create amazing lace and wearable items.
After talking to Erich Campbell, an experienced digitizer, it’s fascinating to get another look at what taking on this art entails through the eyes of someone trying it out for the first time, and the fantastic pieces that can result. Artist Marlena Kaesler shared with me a little about her process and her journey into digitizing…
How did you get into machine embroidery?
I have always been obsessed with embroidery, My Oma (grandmother) and I have very similar taste. She adored anything with embroidery and sequins. In 2004, I saw the most beautiful Betsey Johnson velvet embroidered jacket. I had to have it. I lived off toast and peanut butter for an entire week to get my hands on it, and thus began my intense relationship with embroidery in fashion.
A few years later, I was working a horrible office job at a travel agency. I had an embarrassing moment at a work costume party (I was wearing a banana costume, long story). After that, the entire corporate head office called me ‘banana girl. As I was preparing to go to another corporate function for this job, I decided to take ownership over this embarrassing moment, and started dreaming about wearing a formal banana dress. I came to the conclusion that the only way to make the banana dress design happen would be to embroider it.
I took all my savings and invested in a $300 embroidery machine from eBay. My cousin graciously gave me some software — she single-handedly point me in the right direction. One calendar year later, I made the dress. It was one of my proudest moments.
Why do you focus on wearable items?
I feel more emotionally attached to something that has a personality. Each person who wears a garment I’ve made transforms it. I find that fascinating. The audience for wearable is also wider.
When I wear one of my pieces I get immense joy from a reaction directly from my audience. I get to interact with them and also get new interpretations into what other people see in my designs.
I am so far removed from the art and fashion world and I have absolutely no idea what it involves or what it entails. I am self-taught in every single capacity. My work is incredibly new, most pieces are under six months old.
I want to take this medium and blur the lines between craft and art. I find the word ‘craft’ offensive in a lot of ways — it may be my interpretation of the word — but when I hear it, I envision Popsicle sticks and googly eyes. I find the word ‘crafty’ undermines the world of embroidery and insults its artists. Maybe it’s because I think the word ‘art’ is taken much more seriously than ‘craft’.
I have had friends argue with me about why they don’t consider the things I make to be art, or why some of it is art and some of it is not. For instance, I made a moustache. The base of it was a reinforced cross-stitch with over 15 different shades of brown, and three different stitches. It may look like a simplistic moustache, but that ‘stache took over an hour to stitch out on the machine, plus at least two months of dedication to solidify. To hear “the fox mask is definitely art – but the silly moustache is not” – that perception is frustrating. For the most part people take things that hang on a wall more seriously than things that hang on a neck — I’m here to tell you that it’s the same concept behind both.
Digitizing freestanding stuff can be very technical! What was your learning curve on making these pieces? Did they require a lot of experimentation?
YES! and the experimentation isn’t over! I still have a lot to learn. I’ve only been successfully digitizing my own designs for a few months now. I was HORRIBLE the first few times I tried to digitize. I thought I would never understand the concept. It is EXACTLY like learning an instrument, except maybe harder. With guitar you learn to read music and chords. You get calluses and blisters on your fingers, but that is the only real hardships.
With digitizing you have to expect to waste a LOT of your materials. I basically began staring at the machine for hours and hours, and began to deconstruct how each design was laid out and why. There were no schools or even anyone who knew what I was talking about. When I started really exploring the medium, I wasn’t working and couldn’t afford the internet classes. It was all up to me. It was frustrating.
Once you digitize, you have to be a choreographer for the machine needle. It dances across the hoop — if it makes a wrong step it can waste your project, your time, and even your machine. The stakes are high. I bank on wasting at least 10 pieces when I am solidifying a design. Sometimes up to 25. My failures were always important lessons and I began to see successes. It is so much harder to build smaller pieces then it is to build large ones, so it took a long time to figure out how to make an image resonate on a small scale. I still have a great deal of trouble with this. I feel like I’m only at 50 percent of what I could be, but I’m proud of what I have accomplished in this short amount of time.
Machine embroidery is still a fairly rare medium for artisans to be using these days in their own work. Do you think machine embroidery as an art can find a wider audience through more contemporary ideas?
This is a hot topic for me. I find that machine embroidery is quickly dismissed by those who think hand embroidery requires more skill and therefore more value. This is simply not the case. The two are so different in what they have to offer. It’s like the difference between silkscreening and oil paint. I would never argue that Warhol’s soup cans have less value than Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and I think this argument is just as silly when it comes to machine versus hand embroidery.
Yes, you can make more copies with machine embroidery — but the time it took to digitize that work may be the same amount of time it would take to copy 10 of the same design by hand. You still have to have a pretty good knowledge base of traditional embroidery in order to make machine embroidery. The two methods complement each other, and in most cases I have had to infuse the two types to solidify my work.
Some forms of embroidery can be traced back longer than the culture’s language. It was once a form of art held higher than painting and sculpture. So yes, I absolutely believe that with the right message and the right artist that this medium will become a well-respected and maybe mainstream form of art. I think seeing something shocking in the form of embroidered black velvet would have much more impact then seeing said image on a canvas. I hope I can come up with a concept to make this happen. I would also love to work with performance artists — that would be a dream for me.
If you want to see more of the amazing machine stitched pieces, go have a peek at These Woods on etsy. You’ll be glad you did. And then you’re going to want an embroidery machine.
Gear Threads is brought to you from the offbeat gals at Urban Threads. Created by illustrator Niamh O’Connor, Urban Threads is revolutionizing machine embroidery one edgy, elegant, innovative, and/or offbeat design at a time. Discover the future of digital stitchery at www.urbanthreads.com.