Why machine embroidery?

It was probably 15 years ago that I first saw an embroidery machine and went “oooh!! I want that!!”  It seemed like the perfect way to add some detail to the historical costumes I made, and my mind was spinning with possibilities.  Every year or two I’d stop into a sewing store and look longingly at the newest models, but it was many years before I actually made the purchase.

When I finally did get the courage to buy one, it wasn’t the dazzling experience I thought it would be.  It started off well enough.  I got such a thrill opening the box and looking at all the designs included with the machine.  I happily bought thread and stitched a few things out.  So cool! Then I needed a real project to test it out on, and that’s where my excitement started to wane.

There was a lily among the designs I owned. That seems like something with potential, right? Didn’t Worth make some gowns embroidered with lilies? Surely I could figure out how to add some embroidery to a ball gown. The problem was that one lone lily wasn’t big enough or varied enough to recreate the opulence of a Worth gown without just looking silly.  When I went looking for additional lilies, they were too small or the style didn’t blend or they had some other problem, and my grand ideas of ball gowns went on hold.

So I looked for a less ambitious project, like some sweet borders for Victorian frillies or a blouse.  That worked pretty well, as long as I was willing to limit myself to straight lines.  Unfortunately, I discovered there were a lot of curved hems and corners on collars that I had no idea how to work around. So I still wasn’t producing the garments I envisioned, and I was discouraged enough that there were months (and years) where my machine sat gathering dust.

The other limitation was that there are very few historically accurate designs out there. My favorites are from Martha Pullen’s historic collection. These have the benefit of being taken straight from period clothing, but often aren’t the complete set of designs needed to recreate the garment in question.  For example, her DAR collection has designs taken from several waistcoats, but generally only includes the borders. What do you do when you need pockets and collars and all the shaped embroidery?

Even with the addition of some pretty expensive embroidery software, the options didn’t expand much.  Editing files was hard, and digitizing from scratch was even harder. The first time I managed to cut and paste and smoosh together some designs to create a waistcoat I was over the moon!! It’s still one of my favorite pieces.  Unfortunately, there were quite a few flaws in my editing technique that made it unwieldy to stitch out, and I never quite mustered the energy to start over and do it more thoughtfully.

A close up of my first really ambitious embroidery project.

A close up of my first really ambitious embroidery project, an 18th c. men’s waistcoat, using heavily edited versions of Martha Pullen’s DAR design collection.

Along the way I learned a few things.  First, there is a rhyme and reason to how designs are professionally digitized.  Even when they are driving us crazy with 14 seemingly needless color changes, they really do know best.  There’s a push and pull to the way a machine stitches out, and professional designs compensate for this so that the design is properly aligned at the end of your hard work. My attempts at editing and digitizing taught me exactly how much I didn’t know. Second, modern machine embroidery assumes the wearer is going to toss the clothing in the washing machine frequently.  As a result, there aren’t many long floating stitches like you would see in hand embroidery, and the end product often looks flat and modern.

Eventually this led me to where I am now, tackling the task of translating historic designs taken from extant garments and period publications into a format that can go into an embroidery machine and come back out looking as handmade as possible. I’ve been working with professional digitizers so the resulting designs are high quality, but it does take a bit of back and forth as I explain WHY I want them to go against the conventions of the industry. Once again, I am getting a good look at how much I don’t know!

Along with getting the stitches to mimic hand work, I’ve spent a lot of time playing with different threads.  When I first started out, I had no idea there was a world beyond the sea of rayon in every sewing shop.  It turns out there is silk, cotton, and wool available, and they add beauty and dimension to a machine stitched design, helping bridge the gap between hand and machine work even more. They can be more expensive, but I think they are worth every penny.

Now, someone is going to ask the question – why bother with a machine at all? Why not just learn to do it by hand? Well, I do know how to do the basics by hand, but I currently have neither the skill or the time to create the type of projects I envision.  The machine is faster and better than I am, or probably ever will be.  As well, some people have physical limitations that would prevent them from tackling an ambitious hand embroidery project.

Just like with everything in the costuming world, everyone works at their own level.  Some will do handwork, some will do machine work, and some will find trims and fabrics that are close enough for their own tastes. For those that are inspired by the possibilities of machine embroidery, I want to start offering some real alternatives to what is currently out there.  My products won’t be for everyone, and that’s fine by me. If even a few people dust off their machines and get excited about embroidery again, it will be worth it.

Swimming in Swatches

No matter the type of handiwork, I’ve always hated making swatches. I do them because I know how valuable they are, but it’s still my least favorite part of a project. So of course, I decided to launch an idea that would require me to swatch things over and over and over again until they’re just right. What was I thinking??

Well, mostly I was thinking about how awesome it would be to bring period embroidery designs to life in a way that didn’t make them look flat and modern. It’s been a very interesting learning curve, figuring out how to translate historic pieces into something a machine can reproduce, and it hasn’t been without a few hiccups. I know enough about good digitizing to know I don’t know how to do it myself, but most professional digitizers need some coaxing to step outside their comfort zones. Once it looks good on the computer, then comes the work of making sure it looks good in practice – and that means endless swatches, in silk, cotton, and wool threads, on a variety of cotton and linen fabrics.

This silk on cotton voile swatch was stunning...until I washed away the stabilizer and the edge collapsed.

This silk thread on cotton voile swatch was stunning…until I washed away the stabilizer and the edge collapsed. Working on potential fixes, because this is gorgeous on sheer fabric!

As you might expect, some combinations work better than others, or look more period.  For example, take a peek at the same pattern in both silk and wool.  What a difference, right?

Wool on the left, silk on the right.  Can you see the difference in texture?

Wool on the left, silk on the right. Can you see the difference in texture?

It’s helped me discover issues – for example, cutwork on linen doesn’t act the same as cutwork on cotton voile.  I’ve also learned, and been frustrated by, the fact that some color ranges are available in some threads but not others. So my beloved yellow-greens are readily available in silk and wool, but ridiculously hard to find in cotton. Some colors that look great on the spools just look garish or clash when stitched out together. With each new discovery comes a new swatch or two… or five.

Just a few of the swatches so far.

Just a few of the swatches so far.

The good news is that although I’m long past my original target date, I am getting close to having something to publish. I’m also thinking ahead to the next few patterns.  So far I’ve only worked on 18th c. and Regency era designs for women, but I’d like to expand my range to include earlier pieces as well as some items for men, like pocketbooks and caps.

It’s about the journey, right?

A lot has happened this year to make me take stock of where I’m at and what I really want to be doing.  I originally started Romantic Recollections with the vision of a small business I could work from home while I raised children and did some homesteading on our 5 acre property.  It was a big dream, but the business wasn’t really the biggest part of that dream.  It was something I loved doing that I hoped would help make the other dreams possible.

I’ve come a long way from that original vision. The children I dreamed of never showed up, and the efforts we made to bring them into our lives distracted me from making much progress on the business – or the homestead, for that matter. We firmly closed the door on the idea of children this year, which opened up a lot of questions about what I really want to be doing with my life and with the business.  Suddenly, the business is in the position of not being a little thing to help out around my other activities, but in the position of being THE thing that I do.

Frankly, this scares me half to death. I’ve made a lot of false starts over the last few years, meaning to blog, meaning to sew, meaning to grow this business.  It’s not in any position right now to support the dreams of the future that is shaping up in front of me. But you know what else? There’s more than one reason I haven’t put the work into this business that would be needed to really succeed at it. I’m finally being honest with myself, and I’ve realized I just don’t like client work as my main business, and it’s been making me pretty unhappy and stressed out for a while.

Now, I love historical costuming. I love researching and planning and fabric shopping.  I really love making patterns and I love sewing. I love wearing the outfits and talking about it with other costumers, and even talking about it with clients. I have so many ideas and get so fired up at the thought of everything I want to do. I can see how passionate I am about this topic, and it always felt sensible to pursue it as a business.

The reality is that while I love all those things, I don’t often enjoy what I end up doing in my business – usually because I don’t get to do enough of the parts I truly love. It also leaves me with little time and inspiration to sew for myself, so not only do I not love my work, I also don’t participate in a hobby I love. As much as I really wanted to make it work, it isn’t making me happy, and it shows.  Work projects rarely, if ever, make it as far as the blog or the website because I was so drained by the end of projects that I didn’t care enough to document them. I didn’t spend a lot of time searching out new clients, because I was already overwhelmed with the few I had. I’m finally admitting to myself and everyone else that if I intend to have a costuming business, I need to take it a different direction.

But these years of muddling through to this realization haven’t been a complete waste. I’ve met some wonderful people in the costuming world, including some great entrepreneurs who have found their niche and are thriving – and it doesn’t involve sewing for others. I’ve dipped my toes into teaching and writing, I’ve won a competition, I’ve learned a ton about period clothing and I’ve turned out some pieces I am incredibly proud of. I’ve also figured out some of the things that really make me light up, like millinery and embroidery and making silk flowers.

For the last couple years I’ve been full of ideas about the potential of machine embroidery when combined with historic designs. There are so many pieces I would love to bring to life, not just for myself, but for the many costumers out there who wish, like I do, that there were historically accurate machine embroidery patterns available. It’s a topic I’m incredibly passionate about, and everyone I’ve talked to has been excited about the possibilities.

I have a clear vision of what I want to do and I’ve been working on some designs this year, around my client projects. I’ve been justifying the client work as a way to support the embroidery development, but I’m finally seeing that it’s been a huge roadblock instead. By the time client work is finished, the last thing I want to do is go work in my studio, and that’s just wrong. I’ve been letting the thing that makes me unhappy get in the way of the thing that makes me shine.

So I’m walking away from client work as gracefully as I can. I need to move on to the really exciting ideas that keep me in the studio for hours, yet feel like mere minutes. It’s time to build this business into something I love that can also sustain me, and I think this new direction has a lot of promise. I still want to do some hands-on work, and I have some ideas for what that might look like down the road, but I don’t want that to distract me just now.  My big priority for 2015 is launching some beautiful embroidery patterns and helping people use them in their own projects. I can’t wait to show you some of my ideas!