The Crane Wife

What do you get when two artists at a machine embroidery company decide to combine their day job with their artwork? Some crazy as heck embroidery, that’s what…

We’ve long been trying to prove that machine embroidery can be more than teddy bears and butterflies, and even more than that, a legitimate art in itself.  Machine embroidery is not what you think. Don’t believe me? Take a closer look…

That is a heavy mix of custom machine embroidery, ink and acrylics, and it’s all part of an experiment Danielle and I decided to take on to see just what we could get machine embroidery to do…

As it turns out, it can to do quite a bit..

So how did this begin?

Danielle, our resident (crazy) digitizer, and I met at art college. I was an illustrator and D was a fine artist. Since graduating, we love this crazy job we’ve created at Urban Threads and how much we get to use our art skills every day. Still, in the commercial world, especially in machine embroidery, there is only so far the industry tends to go. The art we often find ourselves doing outside of work is still quite different and much darker than the things we do for work, even for Urban Threads.

So… we decided to step out of our usual realm of work and see how far we could take it, stretching machine embroidery where it often never goes: out of commercial and into fine arts.

We took on this piece as a submission to a gallery show called Material Matters. The idea of the show was to take what is often viewed as a craft medium and make it fine art. Most likely, the curators meant thread, textiles, and traditional hand embroidery, but we’d thought we’d challenge their notion of what kind of craft they would accept as art.

I’m pretty sure they weren’t expecting machine embroidery, because after all, how many people are weird enough to have that kind of job, let along crazy enough to try it on an art piece?

…Oh, right.

So, we pulled together the idea to tell the story of the Crane Wife, an old Japanese legend I had fallen in love with through a Decemberists song. We wanted to explore in a new and unexpected medium, and thought the visual  transformation of a woman to bird would also be the perfect way to explore the transformation and evolution of craft, from age old stitching to contemporary mechanized embroidery.

Truth be told though, we had absolutely no idea if machine embroidery would work on a fine art piece.  How would it translate? What kind of things could we do with it?

Only one way to find out…

I started with this piece like I often do, with a digital sketch. Danielle and I usually work very differently – I’m mostly a digital kinda gal, and she’s a paint-to-the-wall kinda canvas artist. Combining our two styles, well, actually worked pretty darn well. It was fun for me to work so large, and off my shiny computer screen…

Why yes, that is duct tape. An important tool in any artist's arsenal. Er, trust us, we're professionals...

We started by prepping the canvas and sketching out a large, more detailed version of the Crane Wife.

Once we had the crane wife sketched out larger on a piece of paper, we started refining the details, trying to figure out what the heck a woman with a crane skull would look like. We decided we weren’t going to machine embroider the whole piece (we’re crazy, but not that crazy) so we picked three key parts to be embroidered… the head, the hand, and the feathers.

To prep the background for the crane wife, we grabbed all different kinds of fabrics, appliquéd them on, and then gave them a heavy wash of ink and acrylics, letting it all bleed together.  I know it’s not super easy to tell, but this is actually a pretty big piece, and getting this giant piece of canvas under my sewing machine was no small feat. I’m pretty sure my sewing machine hasn’t forgiven me yet…

So, after adding a little paint on top to mark where the embroidery was going to go, the easy part was over. Now it was time to test our machine embroidery theory.

Before we started, we thought about one of the more difficult elements of machine embroirdery: colors and blending. We wondered, could we combine pigment and thread, and “paint” our embroidery? To be honest, we weren’t even sure if embroidery thread would even take ink or paint very well.

Oh no, Mr. Gnomie! You seem to have acquired the plague...

Well, lookie at that. I guess machine embroidery thread soaks up ink well enough.

Once we had completed all our sketches, I scanned everything in and took it all into Illustrator, where I work out all the designs for digitizing. The thing was, what could we do with machine embroidery that other crafts can’t do? It’s a somewhat unexpected medium, but does it have any advantages?

We decided to play the most with stitch direction, or the direction of the stitches the machine sews in the fill. When you have one large “fill,” the way light reflects off of it makes it act almost like a 3D plane, giving it depth and distinction. Could we use this to build our piece?


*cue inspirational Rocky montage music*


We drew, tweaked, printed, and digitized our little bums off every day after work for a week. OK, so sitting at a computer for a couple hours doesn’t make a very exciting montage, but just pretend one of us ran up a stairs or maybe punched something every now and then, OK?

After the drawing and the digitizing were over, the time had come for the embroidery.


The moment of no return – if we stitch this on the canvas and mess up, we’ve had it. So, we grab one of the biggest hoops we have, and march on back to one of the behemoth industrial embroidery machines.

Before you ask, yes, I did remember to remove the template before stitching. Just.

We hooped it up with a printed template, said a couple of Hail Marys, and set the machine to stitching.

A couple of hours later (yeah, even on an industrial machine, these things take awhile … that hoop is two feet wide) we had this!

You might notice she’s looking a little pale. We decided that we would primarily use stitch direction to build up the skull, and then use inks and washes to build up color.

We stitched all three embroidery pieces on in the same night, which came to about5 1/2 solid hours of stitching.  While it was stitching, we cut up the silk we had and dyed it to get it ready for appliqueing, and generally consumed a lot of caffeine.

‘Twas a long night…

The next night, I carefully cut out all my dyed silk pieces and stitched them onto the canvas one by one. You can see here the embroidered head, top hand and feathers, and bottom black feathers. My machine still hadn’t forgiven me for the last time I had fed it large swatches of canvas, so it rewarded me with plenty of its own artistic touches that required a seam ripper on more than one occasion. Stupid machine…

Finally, we took it back to Danielle’s studio for its final painting phase.

Yeah, I know, since Danielle is always in the pictures it looks like she did all the work. I swear, it was just because I was the one with the camera.

One thing we did learn about painting on machine embroidered threads is that it’s not a terribly forgiving medium. Once they’ve soaked up pigment, you can’t blend, move or undo it. Ask me how I know this…

As well as painting directly on the threads, we also blended it out into the acrylic so it was difficult to tell where one medium ended and the other began. At least, that was the idea.

After we finished painting, we cut the piece to size and added grommets all around the edges. We then strung it up on a big wooden frame Danielle built and stained. It took forever, and I don’t have any pictures of it because it literally took like a bazillion arms.  OK, maybe not literally.

Half a bazillion.

We also discovered that the frame was really big, and we were, to our great surprise, quite short (let me put it this way … at five foot three inches, I’m the tall one). Needless to say, this part of the process remained un-photographed but did have quite a colorful running dialog to make up for it.

I think I would have made a sailor blush by the 15th time I dropped the frame on my foot.

The last part of our piece was to represent the weaving from the legend, which we decided to take quite literally. Here’s Danielle putting the finishing touches on the last of the weaving. You can see the size of her in relation to the frame to get an idea of just how big this thing is…

Finally, after weaving and tacking everything into place, hand embroidering some details, and sewing in some cascading threads, the Crane Wife was complete.

Through our experimentation, we learned that, yes you can make machine embroidery do all kinds of unexpeced things. It’s just that, like with regular embroidery, most people gave it a reputation of cutesy, clunky or kitschy.  All it is, though, is a medium. One that we live and work in every day, and one that we’re happy to experiment with to see where it takes us, both personally and professionally. It’s also a medium not readily available to a lot of people, so very few have had the chance to really see how awesome it can be.

Well, now that we know, we hope to continue playing with it. Danielle and I have plans of doing a whole series incorporating new and experimental techniques for machine embroidery. We’re hoping too, that maybe someone else out there might be inspired to give it a try. Since, as we’ve thought all along, machine embroidery can in fact be pretty cool.

By the way, if you happen to be in town this spring or summer, she’ll be up at the MCAD gallery June 4-26 for the MCAD Material Matters show. Come and say howdy.


This project is part of The Lab, a UT initiative to experiment, collaborate and innovate to see just what can be done with the art of embroidery.
Check out our other projects by searching for the UT Lab tag.



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37 Responses to “The Crane Wife”

  1. 1

    […] Our chums at Urban Threads have recently launched a blog, where you can find out about all the stitchy shenanigans that they get up to. One recent project was the Crane Wife: […]

  2. 2
    Natasha says:

    Hi! I would really love to know if there will be prints available of this? I absolutely love it, but I unfortunately will not be able to come to the gallery 🙁 If there will be prints available at some point, I would certainly purchase one!

  3. 3

    Wow! All the effort that went into creating this, so detailed!
    I almost feel like I was there through all the stitching and the caffeine…

  4. 4
    Robin says:

    You guys are unbelievably gifted artist. Can’t wait to see what you come up with for
    your next project.

  5. 5
    quilter422 says:

    extraordinary piece of artwork. thank you for sharing your process in such marvelous detail.

  6. 6
    Bathina says:

    OMG I am stunned..What a great project and work of you both! I am normally more on the kitschy side of live but this is just stunnig great! I really would like to think about this kind of using embroidery designs more and thank you very much for your inspirations!
    Candy wishes ^-^

  7. 7
    Nina says:

    This is truly inspiring. Looking forward to seeing what you do next. I wonder what I could do with my knitting machine?

  8. 8
    Jeanine says:

    I can’t tell you how much I love this. How much I love seeing machine embroidery used as a medium for really exciting art. And how much I wish my machine could handle a hoop that size. 😉

    Wishing you all the best.

  9. 9
    Bev Norris says:

    This is an incredible work of art!!
    I admire everything about it: the whole artistic concept; the cleverness of marrying ideas and fabrics together; the fabrics used; the out-of-the-box or should I say, frame, design! I am so envious of artist crafters who can bring together such beautiful, edgy work.
    My sincere congratulations for a wonderful piece!

  10. 10
    Laura says:

    Absolutely incredible. I am amazed and impressed by your work. I know it took a lot to complete, but well worth the effort. This artwork will show for years to come.

  11. 11
    Mia says:

    Was looking for art inspiration for a Crane Wife piece I wanted to do and this popped up.

    ….. I almost gave up my project because nothing could top this. So so so beautiful. Thank you for all the details and step-by-step! Makes one appreciate the piece even more. Congratulations on an amazing job well done!

    (I did end up painting something anyway)

    • Niamh says:

      Aww thank you! I’ve drawn at least two versions of this story myself. I think it lends itself to some beautiful and dark imagery. I would love to see your interpretation of the legend!

  12. 12
    Vicky Haynes says:

    While the idea to use ME is impressive, I have to say that the complete mixed media concept that you created is beyond amazing. Over the years we have collected art and just the process of looking at various art mediums has expanded my appreciation of what art is and/or can be. The combination of details from the ink wash of the canvas to the grommet styling to attach the canvas to the frame are what make this a truly standout piece. And since you did it on your “free time”… What you didn’t tell us is how it was received at the show. I expect that it drew some attention which it well deserves. I am glad that you are going to incorporte this into the UT website as well. I have been playing with the idea of combining some of my papercraft supplies (ink, stamps, diecuts) with my ME and it would be wonderful to have the expert guidance of my favorite people, the UT Team!

    • I, too, would like to expand my ME creations to include other types of media, paint, ink, stamps, stains, diecuts. You have really inspired me. Your designs are very cool. I plan on making a jacket this spring and just cramming some of your cool designs all over it, and perhaps some embellishments, too. The sky is the limit!

  13. 13
    Becky Ray says:

    One word says it all. AWESOME!!!

  14. 14

    This is simply STUNNING. I’m going to go on record stating that, in general, I am one of those people who really do not particularly like machine embroidery. I am a hand embroiderer, and have been since I was fairly young (under 10). This piece, though, has changed my perception of what machine embroidery can be.

    Stunning, stunning work, ladies. Really amazing. A beautiful melding of paint and threads and textiles. Amazing.


  15. 15
    jess.S says:

    this piece is absolutely amazing- it really does shatter the boundaries of normal expectations of what embroidery is & can do. it is a beautiful piece of *art*. also, the choice of subject, the concept & the realization of your vision is superb- i had never even heard of this folk story! *but rest assured, i will now be looking it up!*

    i do have one piece of constructive criticism: i wish, wish, WISH the pictures on the blog could be clicked on to open in a new tab/window & zoomed in. i really would love to see more detail on this & other featured projects on the blog!! i want to study it, soak in the details, i WANT to see where you used paint to blend the lines of the stitching & applique! i want to soak it all in! all that hard work really needs to be appreciated up close… and for those of us who will never be so fortunate to see it’s beauty in person, we need zoom!!!
    <3 jess.S

  16. 16
    Stacy says:

    I gotta say, I love the passion you guys have to make this super cool. I just bought a machine embroiderer and have been having a blast with your designs and inspirations. Thanks for all the work in sharing. The Crane Wife is stunning. I hope you guys end up with your own museum out of this.

  17. 17
    Pat says:

    Great work! You all have what it takes to make it in a really hard field (art)

  18. 18
    Linda says:

    My son learned to play the ‘inspirational Rocky Montage music’ so that he and his brother could drive the truck around with a keyboard in the back and play for joggers they found. I had him play for me while I was reading- I’m still feeling a little emotional about the whole thing.

    -Seriously, great piece. I really liked the framing and the out of the frame part. That’s one of my favorite effects in quilts, and embroidery. You used it beautifully here.

  19. 19
    Meg Roberts says:

    So much inspiration, so little time………………..what can I say – simply stunning.

  20. 20
    Rhea says:

    Gorgeous piece! Thank you for sharing not only the finished piece, but how you went about making it. I was enthralled, read the whole thing, then called family members over to see it.

  21. 21
    ande says:

    That is Damn Cool. I don’t know the story, but from the art, it sounds like one not to be missed.

    Thanks for the in-depth recital about how you guys made this – I love a great behind-the-scenes peek at the process!

    I would really like to see this in person, do you know if it’s going to be travelling?

    Amazing work. Huge pats on the back for both of you.

  22. 22
    Claire Schutz says:

    This is the most impressive piece of work I have seen! Just beautiful. Usually I don’t read a complete article but I did right to the end. I think this is the greatest when different types of medium are combined. That is what “art” is about. Before my time is up I would love to do something of this nature but I can’t for several reasons. Keep up the good work and reporting of same, thank you for “sharing”

  23. 23
    massofhair says:

    Stunning and such a wonderful collaboration of mediums. Like everyone else i feel very emotional about the finished piece. Really should be in an Art Gallery and travel the World for us all to see.

    Thank you for sharing the journey 🙂

  24. 24
    Connie M says:

    Wow!! How great the work the both of you did!! I am so inspired. Keep pushing!

  25. 25
    Jim Miller says:

    That is awesome! I would settle for a framed print of the original and it would still be awesome. You people at Urban Threads just continue to inspire me more every day. Shame I’m so darn lazy.

  26. 26
    Claire says:

    This work of art is hauntingly beautiful. I would love talk with the artist about where the piece is now and how I might own a piece of her art.

  27. 27
    Mary says:

    That keeps taking my breath away literally!!! I’m dizzy but who cares! That’s a fabulous marriage of thread, paint & fabric. I’m 62 & just bought my first embroidery/sewing machine. Thank you Urban Threads for offering me an alternative to cutesy design. UT Rocks!

  28. 28
    Sam says:

    This is absolutely beautiful! I am amazed by the size and scale, fabulously wonderful! I do hand embroidery and playing with art, one day I hope to own an embroidery machine and play with artistic ideas. Well done and thank you for all your hard work, inspiration and experimentation. You are both fantastic artists! wish I lived closer to come and see it ‘live’.

  29. 29
    Kathy Weaver says:

    Here is Sept. 5, 2014 and you are still getting comments on this awesome work. Have to say I enjoyed the commentary as much as the art work, which is inspiring in it’s size and creativity and depth. I’ve been thinking about how to explore using machine embroidery as an art medium and voila, here is your timely article. Hope you continue to explore and share. Thanks for including us in your journey. Do you mind letting us know which digitizing software you use?

  30. 30
    Kira says:

    Totally fabulous! What an amazing opportunity. Keep going and make more magic.

  31. 31

    That’s incredibly beautiful!
    Really love the mouvting technique.

  32. 32
    li'l megs says:

    that is just totally amazing !!!!!

  33. 33
    Daphne says:

    This little (huge) gem popped up at the top of my very favoritest embroidery site when I came to see what was new since a few days ago (I don’t have a problem…I can quit whenever I want to! I just don’t want to…)
    This is absolutely amazing! I wasn’t doing embroidery yet in 2011, so no surprise I missed it. Just looking at it makes me so inspired – it’s too bad that I don’t have the artistic skills to match the level of ‘OMG I have so many IDEAS’ it gives me. Y’all are so fantastic, thanks for the new level of awesome you bring to the medium.

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