When we hear of embroidery, most of us probably think of grandmothers sitting in front of the fireplace with a pair of cats playing by her ankles. And while this might tell one part of the story, the majority ignore the other half – the reality about the huge industry that employs countless of people and uses state of the art technology to do the same thing the elderly lady is doing – embroider. In this post we’ll explore the skill and try to understand how a simple embellishment technique can encompass such extreme opposites.
Let’s start by defining it.
So, what is embroidery?
Simply put, embroidery is the art of embellishing a piece of fabric or other material with a needle and thread or yarn. Since it can be done with both the cheapest and the finest of materials and with varying degrees of expertise the result is a very versatile skill. It encompasses the mundane to the spiritual, from folk craft to royalty. Nowadays you can find embroidery on the staff uniform of your favourite fast-food restaurant and on the runways of Milan, Paris and New York.
The History of Embroidery
It has been around since people started sewing and most experts agree that that was sometime during the Palaeolithic period. I’m no anthropologist, but I will guess, that at some point, some Homo Erectus (bored to tears, probably) decided to experiment with sewing and discovered that you could do more than just hold two pieces of fur together. It’s impressive considering that we were still trying to figure out how to start fire back then!
Sources indicate that the practice started in Western Asia and from there spread to the rest of the world. Embroidery, as we know it today, can be traced back to Ancient China and the Warring States period (5th-3rd century BC*). As for Europe, some of the earliest examples date back to the Barbarian Invasions. In some cultures like ancient Persia, India, Japan, Baroque and Medieval Europe, embroidered clothes and objects were a sign of wealth and status.
Embroidery remained a manual work, and relatively expensive, until the industrial revolution when the first embroidery machines were introduced. This was the first time in history when embroidery was mass produced. Suddenly, it was available to anyone at any time and in any place. The process worked by punching the design through paper tape and then running it through the machine. A single error meant the design had to be started from scratch.
It wasn’t until the 80’s when the first embroidery machine run by computers was introduced. The new appliances cut production time and left less space for mistakes. Since then, the machines have become more sophisticated and potent, but the basics are still the same.
* To put things in perspective, Alexander the Great was still roaming the earth back then.
Unless you’re Ron Weasley and are the (not so) proud owner of a large collection of magical jumpers, your garment was embroidered by a machine. As we’ve come to learn, everything that’s got to do with embroidery varies greatly and these appliances are no different. Computerised embroidery machines go from the individual (meant for personal use) to the industrialised ones with several sewing heads and up to 15 needles. Their prices also vary greatly, going from a couple of hundred to thousands of pounds. While some technicalities change, the process is the same for all of them.
1. Design: Without the design, we have nothing. So the first step, naturally, is to create a design. Depending on the type of business, the artwork is provided by the customer or created by the design team of the service provider. In Printsome’s case, if our client doesn’t have the capabilities to come up with an image of their own, we can provide it for them.
2. Converting: Unlike what most people think, embroidery machines do not accept jpg, tiff, png or any other of the regular formats we use on our personal computers. Usually printers ask for this type of format because nobody expects you to have an industrial embroidery machine in your house, if that was the case, then why would you asking someone else to embroider your stuff? Before embroidering, the design is uploaded to the machine where it gets “digitised”.
3. Programming: After the design has been turned into a format that the machine can understand, some programming must be done. Depending on the model, this process can be automated or more manual. Basically, the machine has to learn the steps it must take to embroider the desired artwork.
4. Embroidering: What happens next is that the threads and garments are located and the machine is set to go. Depending on the capabilities, several pieces can be embroidered at once.
5. Wrapping Up: In the final stage, each garment is reviewed. They’re checked for quality and if there is any excess backing material, it’s trimmed.
6. Ship out: The finalised garment is shipped to the customer and hopefully they’ll be happy with the result.
For the sake of this article’s readability, the process has been simplified. If you want to go into more detail about the process of computerised embroidery, you can check out this website.
What is embroidery good for?
Despite what most people think, embroidery is not much more expensive than other embellishment techniques. It does require some setup costs, but unlike some printing services, embroidery prices are based per design rather than per colour.
• It’s durable, it doesn’t fade like most inks
• Provides texture
• Allows for fairly complicated designs
• Big colour palette
• It can be done on a variety of items like polos, shirts, caps, beanies and bags.
Embroidery is the preferred method for small and medium sized companies to brand their uniforms and for several reasons. Embroidery produces a high quality and professional finish. It is ideal for breast positioned logos, uniforms, workwear, polos or any other instance where someone may want to present a high level of professionalism.
What is the future of embroidery?
The future of the textile industry is an exciting one. Since the current model is not sustainable*, many companies are working on inventing new processes that are greener and friendlier to the environment. Fortunately we won’t have to wait that long, some progress has already been made, designers and fashion labels have presented fabrics made out of corn and living, bio-based materials as an alternate to the water-consuming cotton.
* If you have any doubts about the damages the textile industry causes to the environment, you should check out this article.
As for techniques, lasers are the rage now and embroidery is not excluded. There is the laser bridge technique that replaces needles with lasers. If this is the future of embroidery or if it will be replaced with something even more advanced, only time will tell.
The only certain thing about the future of the industry is change.