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?
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.