Embroidery has been around in some form or fashion essentially as long as humans have worn clothes. Sewing (or weaving) by handi was really the only method for creating designs or patterns on fabric and other materials until the 19th century. In 1801 Joseph Marie Jacquard introduced the first mechanical loom for weaving. The loom used “punch cards” to create a pattern. The holes in the cards had a corresponding hook that ultimately determined the image.
In 1801 Joseph Marie Jacquardi introduced the first mechanical loom for weaving. The loom used “punch cards” to create a pattern. The holes in the cards had a corresponding hook that ultimately determined the image. (Images courtesy Photos.com)
Jacquard’s loom was also our first example of digitizing. The cards used for creating patterns in weaving remained the only way to mechanically digitizei for nearly a century and a half until, eventually, paper tapes were introduced as a means of digitization. Paper tapes were similar in principal to a punch card in that they were “punched” with holes that would create an image on fabric. Paper tapes, however, worked with computerized systems. The tapes were fed into the tape reader which would transfer the pattern electronically to the embroidery machine.
The first computer-based digitizing software didn’t arrive until 30 or so years ago. When Jerry Decker, head digitizer at Stitch Designers Inc., first started in the embroidery business 13 years later, many digitizers were still utilizing this same technology. It was a much slower and more tedious technique.
Earlier systems that involved paper tapes were fed into a tape reader to transfer the punched pattern electronically into the embroidery machine. Note the size of the digitized tape in comparison with the actual sew-out. It takes something the size of a roll of masking tape to produce a tiny logo—just imagine how large the roll would have to be for a jacket back. (Images courtesy the author)
The process involved a magnetic board called a digitizing tablet which was connected to a computer by a cable. An artist would render the design much like a draftsman would in creating blueprints for a house. Using a “puck” the digitizer literally had to plot points on the board to create the digitized design. Although the image would appear on the computer screen “your eyes and hand had to work independently of each other” says Decker, because the puck had to be placed directly on the board as opposed to the desk, like a mouse permits today.
Around the same time Decker got into the industry, digitizing tablets had begun to be phased out with the introduction of the scanner. This was also about the time that a revolutionary storage device, the 3.5" floppy disk, was introduced which would end the need for the paper tape. The scanner allowed the digitizer to transfer images directly into the computer and ultimately to the digitizing software. This, in turn, made it possible to work with a design directly in front of the screen on a desk, with the mouse conveniently adjacent to the keyboard.
Early digitizing techniques involved a magnetic board called a digitizing tablet which was connected to a computer via cable. Artists would render the design much like a draftsman would in creating blueprints.
Although the software continues to evolve, the actual practice of digitizing remains very similar to that of the last 15 years. Some of the biggest changes we have noticed are in the cost of the equipment. As true with any new technology, embroidery software was much more expensive when it was first introduced. A new scanner alone was nearly $1,000 in the mid-1990s, as opposed to a couple hundred dollars for one today. They were also much larger and would not fit nicely on a desk. The first digitizing system Decker used cost more than $30,000 when it became available three decades ago.
With the drop in cost of materials, digitizing services would become significantly more affordable. Today’s digitizing software allows digitizers to work, not just more cost-effectively, but much more efficiently. Virtually everything is electronic. At Stitch Designers, the embroidery software is connected to a server that can transfer a digitized file directly to the embroidery equipment. These files can also be sent electronically via email from one party to another. Therefore tapes, disks or any other “hard copy” of the design are, in essence, unnecessary.
Present-day digitizers must possess certain skills in order to be successful. Obviously, having solid computer knowledge is a plus, but there are many other factors to consider. In the United States, we typically don’t rely on the metric system, but it is crucial in embroidery. As a result, a digitizer should be proficient in mathematics. Albeit an atypical combination, artisan ability is equally as important. According to Decker, if you are digitizing for embroidery it also helps to know how to operate a machine.
Modern systems connect software to a server that can transfer the digitized file directly to the embroidery equipment. Since these files can be sent and stored electronically, tapes, disks or other “hard copies” of designs are now unnecessary.
There is an intangible quality a skilled digitizer must hold as well. If you do not have desire or take pride in what you do, it will be evident in the work produced. John Horne, President of Stitch Designers, has had less than eight digitizers in his employ during the company’s 25 years in business. “It takes a minimum of six months, working eight hours a day, five days a week, before a digitizer can produce something we would accept,” Horne says. If you are not passionate about it, you certainly won’t take the time to become proficient.
It is hard to predict exactly what embroidery digitizing will look like in the future, but I am sure we can anticipate more technological advancements to speed up the process. We have already seen the introduction of completely automatic digitization, but at this point, the work produced by people is still superior. If an edit is necessary a person must make the corrections before the process can be restarted.
It is important to embrace technology as it is presented, but it appears it will be quite a while before automatic digitizing is the norm—good news for Decker, as his job is safe… for now.