Stitches Magazine is 25!

Back in 1986 I was a contented, part-time print artist without one thought about machine embroidery. It was a nice, peaceful few hours each week at a custom print and embroidery shop where I could get lost in the black ink on white paper that would be magically turned to colors by sublimation or screen-print ink. Ah yes, it’s amazing what can happen with a technical pen while the mind flies away into the rainbow gardens.

Then one day my boss approached me with the proposition of full time hours if I could learn how to use the Melco Digitrac®. (See History at Wikipedia Machine Embroidery.) I looked over at the tall easel-like monstrosity with a sliding T-square shaped crossbar and input pad with a transparent plastic bulls eye that moved on an X-Y axis, devouring the space next to the Melco Super Star embroidery machine, daisy chained to a floppy drive, as well as a tape punch machine. “Ummm, I don’t think so.”

Understand, I already had a career as the local hospital’s head cook and I would soon become the kitchen supervisor after finishing one more month of school for certification. I was set. It was too late in the game for me to start a new thing. He gave me a key to the shop and the manual and told me to “play” any time I could fit it in, and then decide.  “I have school,” I protested.

This is your school,” he replied, with a gesture towards the monstrosity.  Well, what artist addicted to hand embroidery wouldn’t be curious enough to accept the opportunity for at least the experience?!  So I did. And it didn’t take long – a few days, maybe a week – when I knew I would no longer be creating menus and cracking eggs every morning.

But it wasn’t easy!  Back in those days (omg, I’m starting to sound like Grandma!) we didn’t have personal computers, much less the Internet. There were no schools or books for “punching” which was the common term then for “digitizing”, evolving from the tape punch process it required. We thought it a grand transition when we moved up to the floppy drive – the big one that really flopped. Without editing software or even a personal computer, trial and error was the only real teacher. I taped a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the Digitrac and insisted on working evenings to avoid interruptions. Other employees who had a message or question for me knew enough to stand quietly in my peripheral vision until I turned to speak with them, and if they didn’t … well … it wasn’t pretty.

So that first year was quite intense with late nights, punching and watching every stitch sew simultaneously on the machine, which I also had to learn how to operate and maintain to be sure in my testing of work on different fabrics, stabilizers and thread weights that any error was not caused by the punching that created the design. Back then there was absolutely no way to cancel a punched function without eliminating all of the work, so I learned to create very small files to avoid those duh-moments like forgetting to punch the needle down and watching the machine dance in the air for 15 minutes after an hour of digitizing. Then the small files were combined by writing a program using the machine’s keyboard – a process done very carefully, because the only way to test the program was by running the machine – a time and material waster if the program had errors. And I pushed my tenacious self through the turmoil of fabric puckers, columns too wide or too thin, the use of underlay where and why, thread breaks, gaps between objects, disappearing stitches, loose stitches and unraveling stitches, stitches too short or too long, and coverage too sparse or too dense. And I’ll spare you what was involved in creating “special stitches” of motifs and patterns in fills that were created only by manually sectioning each element into multiple objects. Needless to say, I desperately struggled while sinking deep into the land of stitched woes!

And then … that glorious moment arrived when my boss placed into my hands the very first issue of Stitches Magazine. I swear, I heard the angels sing! I wore out the pages of that issue, finding the answers to a year’s worth of built up questions. Since then, each issue has brought a continuous stream of ideas and solutions for all of us in this industry, and personally, I can honestly say I couldn’t have gotten as far without it!

So, with the deepest of my own gratitude and on behalf of those who struggled their way up and through this industry, allow me to wish Stitches Magazine a well-deserved and sincere congratulations on 25 years!

This also seems to be an appropriate time to announce that entries are now being accepted for this year’s Stitches Golden Needle Awards! There are a couple of new exciting rules that will leave no excuse for not giving it a go. From the editor, Nicole Rollender:

Enter the Stitches Golden Needle Awards Today

Our challenge to you: Enter ONE design in this year’s Stitches Golden Needle Awards for embroidery and digitizing excellence. Choose the best work that you currently have and show it off to us. We want to make this year’s contest the best we’ve ever had: http://bit.ly/gAzZ4W

Remember, you don’t have to fit this project into your schedule – just submit the best stuff you’ve already done!!!

And on another stitch … in regard to the announcement in my last blog about Moonlight’s Design Shoppe soon to close, I’ve found it’s necessary to change the word “soon” to “in the near future”. Disassembling a sister domain of e-commerce without affecting the other sister domain for a custom digitizing service, I’ve discovered, will take a bit longer than expected. (I’ll whine about that process another day.) So, in the mean time, I will continue to deliver sales and will see about dusting off some of the cyber-cobwebs with a few page upgrades, but for now, my new stock designs will be introduced each month exclusively at Masterpiece Embroidery. (A big welcome to the newest member of the group, award winning digitizer, Erich Campbell who submitted three wonderful designs to this month’s collection!)  Masterpiece Embroidery is the place to shop for embroiderers looking to increase their stock library with high quality designs created by 15 skilled digitizers at an unbelievable price of $9.99 – and that’s the total cost for over 30 designs! No memberships necessary, no sneaky fees – just one short month before the price changes, so don’t delay!

Till next time kids, keep on stitchin’! 🙂

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Tree Buds, Dust Bunnies & Finding the Right Stitch

It’s been awhile since my last post, so allow me to back up a couple of weeks to the first official day of Spring, something that happened quite early here in the Midwest this year. Business had been unusually busy, and it was interfering with my seasonal habit of venturing out to the garden when the time was right. It was obvious the calendar and Nature had decided that the time was right and I was not yet ready. It set me in somewhat of a panic.  I’d had all orders but one caught up and had run into a brick wall, turning creativity into a ragged discombobulated mess. So, I ventured into the kitchen to take a break from the puzzle by finding something domestic to strike off the To-Do list.

While gazing out of my kitchen window, trying to distract myself from the tub of dirty dishes my hands were trying to make disappear, I thought of how dismal the bare tree branches seemed against Winter’s left-overs of a drab, dry, greenish-golden background. There hadn’t been enough snow all season to appropriately blanket and compliment a leafless tree. Everything looked dead. Oddly depressing, to say the least.

To lift my spirits I set imagination in motion, while picturing the lush beauty of the apple tree filled with delicate, white blossoms. It won’t be long, I consoled myself, but first there must be leaves, and for that we need buds. Little specks of green suddenly poked out from the grey tips as if dancing to the musical notes of a song, many popping up in close unison to greet the sun. I blinked with the assumption that my imagination had gone into overdrive. It was a good call, considering the green of the specks were about the same tone of green that dominated the design I’d been digitizing. But then the little specks turned into larger dots, and eventually, I realized I’d just witnessed my apple tree budding – something one can go a life time without seeing unless it’s in a video. Cool!

It brought to mind motivational speaker, Dr. Wayne Dyer’s thought provoking statement, “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” Well, perhaps this particular situation was simply nature being nature, but it was cool – and a darn good way to bring attention to Dr. Dyer’s most recent work, Wishes Fulfilled. Earlier, I had seen a few minutes of his public television presentation and heard him say another statement I’d been chanting while tackling the design, “If you want to accomplish something, you have to expect it from yourself.”

Well said, Dr. Dyer!  Perhaps that’s why I have dust bunnies in the corners of the steps that lead to the Man Cave. I expect the clean-up to get done by nagging at my hubby. (Yeah, like that has ever really worked in the history of man and wife.) He doesn’t notice so he obviously doesn’t expect it of himself and I certainly don’t expect it of myself, though occasionally he will claim the little bunnies are made up of thread scraps, putting the fuzzball in my court. I think not, dear sir! So there remains the little clumps of cobwebs and dust, knitted together with cat hairs – little furry critters that nag at me, and then I nag at hubby, and so goes the circle.    But, I digress.

At first examination of the artwork of the design I was working on, it hadn’t hit me as something too exciting, but it appeared quite elementary – a few common elements against a background of a faint gradient blend and colors in close tones ranging from yellow to green. Piece of cake, I thought with a slightly smug confidence. After all I’d digitized this type of logo more times than I could recall. And after 26 years of punching, I expected it of myself.

But what I had originally, so quickly assumed to be an easy job, soon became apparent that the artwork needed something to make it pop. Without it, the design in thread would sit like a flat, drab, boring patch of the same tone that would swallow the inside elements, even if nicely stitched. The embroiderer shared that thought, suggesting a pattern fill background to help separate it from the inside elements. The finished design would be sewn on sturdy fabric, but the size was fairly large, so I wanted to keep the stitch count down. And there began the quandary that led to days of test-sewing different pattern fills till I found one that would please my eye – a wavy pattern that seemed appropriate for the elements set at a long stitch length.

The embroiderer was pleased.   I was not.  There remained something uncomfortable to my eye. I had become so distracted by trying to improve the appearance of the background that I’d failed to foresee how the inside elements had became over-shadowed by the pattern. Changing it to a flat fill background with a shorter stitch length would bring out the inside elements, but it could add a ton of additional stitches, along with the fact it presented the possibility of buckling.  As well, I personally thought it just wouldn’t look so hot. What to do? And then, I literally awoke one night with the idea that a see-through crosshatch pattern seemed perfect for the situation. A light density of stitching offers color and detail, but even though it’s attractive, it doesn’t overpower the inside elements. All it requires is being sewn on a fabric color that works with the colors of the design – perhaps an applique to offer color without becoming the immediate focus, and plus, it’s achieved at a low stitch count.    I thought it was perfect.    The embroiderer thought not.     … sigh

I returned to using the pattern fill and stayed in tune with the wishes of the embroiderer, whom I believe has a better artistic judgement when dealing with thread. Embroiderers have more hands on experience with thread color, whereas, digitizers spend more hours gazing at monitor colors – it’s just the way it is. Put that together with the fact that this particular embroiderer has produced some pretty nice work, and her judgement was not in my mind to question.  But I couldn’t shake the feeling there had to be more. So while discussing the possibilities with her I studied the image of her sewn sample and noted that I really liked the fabric she’d chosen to test the design on – it really was a shame to cover it up. And then it was as if the light bulb went on in both our heads at the same time as our vision of the finished design came together, by heading in an entirely different direction. We simply needed to eliminate the majority of the background stitches all together and let the fabric work for the design.

Sometimes – perhaps, most times – as the good doctor suggests, when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. Happy Spring!

Winners! – Stitches Golden Needle Awards™

I am so excited that I can’t even think of the best way to begin this post, so, I’m just going to dive right in … CONGRATULATIONS! to this year’s winners of the Stitches Golden Needle Awards™ : Steve Freeman, Qdigitizing; Tanda Bundy, Bass Pro Shops; Affinity Express Team; Jane Swanzy, Swan Threads; Lee Caroselli, Balboa Threadworks; Marjorie Corrow, Life’s A Stitch Embroidery; U.S. Digitizing Team; Peggy Severt, Pegboard Crafts; Cathy Cattle, Sew B It Custom Embroidery (cover); and Barbara Stuemer, TexDesign!  Kudos to each one of you for some of the finest digitizing in the industry!

As one of the judges, I have to admit it was a difficult event this year to find something to write down as a “con” with so many beautiful, interesting and highly technical entries.  I found it near impossible to keep opinions silent about my share of the entries since I opened The Box last July.  (I said many “WOW!”s as I opened each entry!)  So, let me say now, the 2011 contest entries – including many that didn’t make the list of winners – proved to be some of the most astounding and simply awesome pieces that I’ve had the pleasure to critique.  Thanks to all who participated and made this contest so tough to judge!  See for yourself and check out the November issue of Stitches Magazine!

As well, congratulations to Stitches Magazine, honored as “Magazine of the Year” by the American Society of Business Publication Editors in the 33rd annual Azbee Awards of Excellence competition!  And congratulations to ASI publications, honored by ASBPE with eight national and 11 regional awards of excellence for writing, editing, research, design and photography.  Whew!  I must say that all this gives me great pride as both a writer and a digitizer to be a contributor to such a fine publication by a fantastic organization!  Read more …

Now on to other things … which there isn’t enough time for.  I am swamped!  As we near the holidays, custom digitizing orders fill every extra moment and I fade to the background of blogs and e-clouds, as well as anywhere outside my home office.  “Just My Two Stitches” is currently a difficult task to keep on the schedule so, I’ve decided it necessary to cut back to posting every other week, at least until the rush has passed. I’m hoping that you won’t notice because you’re staying just as busy!  See you back here in a couple of weeks! 🙂

Digitizing – Easy as Apple Pie

Homespun Country Apple - Moonlight's Design Shoppe

My hubby set fresh picked apples on the counter and asked for pie. I sighed. Business has picked up with holiday custom orders, so domestic things take a back seat. I try to keep a little holiday cheer going this time of year, but things like baking from scratch have to be scheduled, because if it’s not on the white board, it won’t happen. I just can’t think about that sort of fun until custom orders are delivered by holiday deadlines, usually the first part of December.

Can’t we just stick with Sara Lee® this time of year, please?

As if he heard my thoughts, he announced, “I’ll do it, just tell me how.”   Visions of a floured floor and sugar-speckled kitchen flashed through my mind.  I think not.   But, if I didn’t bake them into something, these tart apples would only be good for squirrel food.  Anyhow, I hadn’t baked an apple pie for awhile, so perhaps it was a good time to refresh my memory.

I had a double-crust, ready-to-bake crust in the freezer, so I didn’t need to worry about rolling out dough – half the battle. But, first I had to hunt down my grandmother’s apple filling recipe, which is actually a list of basic ingredients with a few instructions: “some of this and some of that – and it depends on how many apples you have and their size, and what kind of apples they are to know how much of ‘this and that’ the pie needs”.    Grandma was a “dumper” – eye-balling measurements and judging the unbaked taste and texture before putting it in the oven. Not everyone would chance baking without a measuring cup; baking requires a specific science.  Grandma was a pro at baking. I am not.

Long ago I had jotted additional notes on those instructions after experimentation with various combinations of apples and amounts to determine default measurements.  So, I began digging through the jungle of books, papers and cards I keep stashed in an antique pie cabinet (that ironically never gets used for its original purpose of keeping fresh baked pies), but when the recipe didn’t immediately surface, I headed online for the basic ingredients of any apple pie, hoping it would jump start my memory.  I found one that sounded similar, and the fact it was named “Apple Pie by Grandma Ople” sold me – until I got distracted by another recipe of Food Network‘s Paula Deen whose recipe included applesauce. I had an opened jar of applesauce aging in the fridge, so I figured it would be worth combining it with the first recipe I found, which would work if I compensated for the extra liquid and sweetness by adding a little more flour and reduced the amount of sugar.

Paula’s recipe suggested a crunch topping, that sounded worth a try, and considering I had enough apples for one high double-crusted pie, if I spent a little time making the crunch topping, I could make two pies – and perhaps even get more than one piece (Kevin loves pie).

After the pies were baked, I was only disappointed with the topping that I thought would be crunchy like yet another recipe I’d found.  Mine lacked enough crunch – perhaps, a bit too much butter. (I should have known. Paula Deen is the Butter Queen.) I considered drizzling a vanilla icing over the top, but hubby stopped me with a smile, claiming, “It’s perfect” – the main objective.

Digitizing is very much like baking apple pie. First you need to plan and calculate the ingredients: consider what kind of fabric and/or garment it will be sewn on and what weight/type of threads will be used. Then a preliminary plan is done by mapping the path on the artwork, decide stitch types, calculate whatever automatics can be used for efficiency, punch with compensation for push and pull, and choose the best values for parameters like density, stitch length and column width.  After digitizing, the design file is then test-sewn to be sure the results are what’s intended; and if not, time is taken to polish it for results of a smooth running design that meets with the customer’s satisfaction.

Each design comes with different requirements.  If designs were consistently the same, digitizing would be easy – easy to quote, calculate and do.  Specific steps and parameter values for each type of art, fabric and stitch types would be memorized via repetitive action. But just like the ingredients that have to be considered for pie, the ingredients for a design have to be carefully measured.  The next design will be completely different, and the next; it could be years before the specific needs discovered in one design will come around again. When you find a digitizing recipe that works for a particular art/fabric/thread/stitch type combination, write the parameter values down in a notebook and keep it close to your design system (as I refer to in “Software is a Tool – You Control the Digitizing!“)  Having a collection of these technical recipes to reach for exactly when needed will save hours of digitizing time – time that you can use to bake pie.

Baked Apple Pie Design by Concord Collections at EmbroideryDesigns.com

Calculating Percentage & One Smart Pig

I was called “pigheaded” more than once when I was a kid.  I was quite stubborn.  I didn’t care what workable methods were otherwise proven to me, I wouldn’t give up till I tried my way.  If the ideas failed I might concede to listening to other methods, but then tried to omit steps, which usually led to more steps than it would’ve taken had I not challenged the basic rules.  Then, of course, the project would require tweaking one thing or another to achieve the initial intention, while burning precious hours. Some 50 plus years later, I can see how being pigheaded wasted a lot of my time.

Most dictionaries define “pigheaded” as being “stupidly obstinate” or “stupidly stubborn”.  But, sorry, I just can’t put a pig in a “stupid” category.  Back when I was a country gal, we had a pig who would wait for the husband’s truck to drive away (never my car) and then proceed to open the corral gate by lifting the latch with his snout, letting the horses run free.   While I rounded up horses, luring them out of the neighbor’s cornfield with a bucket of grain, he’d mosey on over to my garden and rut up a few snacks.   I wouldn’t call that stupid – more like obnoxiously smart.   There I was, six months pregnant, barefoot and chasing a pig with a hoe around the carrot patch I’d just watered – mud was flying!  I was screaming with anger, crying from frustration, and laughing at the same time, knowing how hysterical the scene must have looked.  This very clever 800 lb. boar was quite obstinate, refusing to leave the veggie patch even after I broke a brand new $25 hoe over his back – twice in one week.  That would be my stupid stubbornness.

We, as humans, are supposed to have common sense, according to Thomas Paine who literally wrote the book on it.  Common Sense “equates to the knowledge and experience which most people already have….”  But when something appears too difficult or time-consuming, there’s always that challenge of the assumption, “there’s just gotta be an easier, cheaper, and/or faster way!”  Sometimes it’s a good thing if it leads to discoveries; sometimes not, when it results in wasted time.

Recently, a colleague asked a digitizing question, “Have you ever found a fast way to duplicate and increase an irregular shaped element like an outline of a Fleur-de-lis so it can be used for the outline of the first outline?  Is that even possible?”   My immediate thought was “no it can’t be done” but I could not remember why I had come to that conclusion.  I did recall the many times I’d tried and failed, but that didn’t stop me from wondering if I’d overlooked a possibility.

My “stupid stubbornness” kicked in.  I gave it a shot on two different design systems, scaling the X-axis and the Y-axis separately, as well as both globally; the second outline would not match up properly to the first outline no matter the method.  I concluded the only way to accomplish this task is to digitize the first element in numerous objects, then increase the size of each object one at a time, modify the points to correct unavoidable distortion that occurred when resizing, and connect them accurately to the adjacent objects of the outline.  Obviously, it’s faster to simply digitize the second outline than to waste hours editing.

Sometimes things that seem so logical can be so impossible without spending precious time.  And unfortunately, some things that are impossible are commonly thought possible by the masses, revealing that “common sense” is not always the way to go.  Take for instance, changing the global scale of a design with unequal sides; it’s very common for the end-customer to ask that a design be decreased or increased by 1″ high and 1″ wide, something that would distort the shape of the design.  Only one axis of the artwork can be increased at 1″, with the other axis following to scale of the same percentage.

Ah yes, calculating by percentage – a bit of a nightmare for young math students born before the 70s (such as myself) who were not equipped with any sort of gadget other than an abacus.  I hated math.  Its lengthy complexity was boring!  So, just as I did with other things that made little sense to me at the time, I buried it deep in that “I’ll never use it” pile.   Life had other ideas.   Eventually, when it became necessary, calculating the percentage to resize to a particular measurement was a pigheaded, trial-and-error, horror show at the copy machine, using an architect’s scale and my best guess. Then another employee, a high school student, reminded me of the simple equation I’d learned in elementary school: multiply the existing size by the percentage.

Example: The existing (100%) size is 6.25″ wide and needs to be resized 20%;

  • To increase – 6.25 x 120% = 7.50
  • To decrease – 6.25 x 80% = 5.00

Or it can also be approached from another direction by multiplying the size 6.25″ by 20% and then subtract the sum (1.25) from the existing size to decrease or add the sum to increase.  If you’re a hair-puller in the face of numbers, the best option is to purchase a proportion wheel available at office supply and college stores, and you’ll also find many free tools online, such as found at Plaino.com

There’s absolutely no flexibility when it comes to accurate measurement – it is what it is or it’s not.  Being too stubborn to do the math usually comes at a price of wasted time. Now, on the other hand, a little pigheadedness while observing the rules led me to discover what I know about digitizing.  Calvin Coolidge is quoted as saying, “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence.  Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent.  Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated failures.  Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

I agree.  I think it’s okay to be a little stubborn if you’re not stupidly stubborn – and as long as you don’t grow a snout.
Photo © Tristan Savatier – Used by Permission

The Box – It’s Showtime! Stitches Golden Needle Awards™

Well, there it is, taunting me from the coffee table ever since it arrived on Friday. I haven’t opened it. I’m afraid to. Oh, I’m quite aware of the contents and it’s not something that is truly frightening – it’s actually quite exciting – but it scares me, nonetheless.  I’m afraid if I begin investigating, it will suck me in, robbing my attention until the task is completed, and I’ll surely forget all about top priorities on the to-do list.  This task in the box does have a deadline, and although it’s not as immediate as the custom designs that need to be digitized and the column that needs to be written, it’s certainly of great importance and priority. This somewhat magical box that will certainly make a few wishes come true, holds the hearts, hopes and hard work of the digitizers who stepped up to meet the challenge – it contains my share of the entries to judge for the 2011 Stitches Golden Needle Awards .

But I wanna open it!” the little girl inside my head whines, while I walk slowly by, gliding my fingers across the tape that bars me from satisfying curiosity. I had intentionally left the box on the coffee table, far from my office, so as not to be tempted and distracted from my digitizing. Usually, the only work related tasks allowed in my living room are reading Stitches Magazine and writing this blog; a rule necessary to retain sanity for anyone who works where they live – every task has a place and each task is done in its place.

But now that it’s time to relax in “my little piece of heaven” the box is in my sight, beckoning with a siren-like song. Or perhaps, I’m hearing the tinnitus that grows stronger as my blood pressure rises from excitement.  Nevertheless, the box calls.

So off to the office I carry the box, set it on the desk, while deciding I really should open it to see if it’s all there (as if I’d know if something was missing). Yep, looks like it should be everything – a return shipping label atop a neat stack of entries confined within their own white, 8 x 10” sealed envelopes. I counted the entries, of course, simply to calculate an approximate amount of time I’ll need to accomplish the task, lifting each out gingerly, one at a time. Then, before setting them in a stack on the desk, I weighed each envelope in my hand, as if it’s supposed to mean something – like the curious child, shaking a gift found under the Christmas tree.

Oh, the temptation to open just one! “No!” I cry aloud, dragging myself out of the room and closing the door. “This is Sunday! And there’s but a few hours left that I might relax!” Then the parent in my head directed my attention back to the current task at hand. I returned to the couch with a cup of chamomile tea and opened the laptop to write about a completely other subject. But now, all I can think about is the box. I know there’s some fantastic goodies inside those white envelopes and I look forward to examining and watching them run “with my nose to the hoop”. I want to give each entry the time it deserves, which my schedule won’t allow for at least a few days. But I will fight the temptation to peek!  The freedom of time to delve into each entry will be worth the wait.

I suppose my anticipation stems from the confidence this will be an enjoyable task. As a judge in previous years, I have never been disappointed, and instead, have always been impressed with the many differences in techniques, and the outstanding creativity and skill revealed in every entry. So, I’ll keep my patience and proceed as scheduled, while looking forward to judging some mighty fine designs!  As well, now that the curtain is about to go up, I wish all the contestants the best – may you each “break a needle”! 😉