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Embroidery pattern from Godey's Lady Book and a digital recreation

Figure 1. Godey’s Lady’s Book embroidery and its re-interpretation through new technology.

This project recreates a motif from Godey’s Lady’s Book by filtering it through layers of digital processes, working with each machine along the way to produce a result outside of an anthropocentric perspective. The motif was originally found in a collection of reprinted issues of Godey’s Lady’s Book housed in the Royal Ontario Museum Library. Godey’s Lady’s Book, first published in 1838, was America’s first women’s magazine (Wiczyk, Introduction). Alongside its numerous fashion plates were poems, short stories, and a variety of craft projects for the women with the leisure time to complete them. These patterns articulated mid-nineteenth century gendered expectations of women, operating as a regulatory tool of the boundaries of femininity. With this project I hope to highlight the agency that actors hold within these mechanics, rather than reinforce embroidery as a process of authoritarian regulation. While every distorted line or misplaced stitch is a headache for the designer looking to optimize this process for manufacture, it is simultaneously the unflinchingly intentional mark of the machine. By keeping what would normally be seen as a design flaw, the hand of the machine is maintained thereby reflecting the agency present in what would normally be considered a tool.

As Rozsika Parker explains, embroidery has long served as a way to occupy women’s time and energy in order to render them silent and still (86). Parker's reading of embroidery is informed by Foucauldian theory on the “mechanics of power” (138), wherein "docile" bodies are controlled and formed to the needs of those in power (136). Samplers, embroidery projects that were a demonstration of one's technical aptitude, were one of the primary tools for doing so for young girls. These projects would typically involve verses, dedicating obedience to one’s parents, but Parker highlights an unsigned and undated sampler that subverted some of these expectations.

“When I was young I little thought

That wit must be so dearly bought

But now experience tells me how

If I would thrive than I must bow

And bend unto another’s will

That I might learn both art and skill

To get my living with my hands

That I might be free from band

And my owne dame that I may be

And free from all such slavery.

Avoid vaine pastime fle youthful pleasure

Let moderation allways be they measure

And so prosed unto the heavenly treasure.”

(Parker 89)

Parker points out that this sampler demonstrates an ultimate acquiescence to the ideology of sampler making, but that it also reflects rebellion to these structures (89). The opportunity for subversion is something I further explore through introducing new technology into the process. Literal machines take the place of people being treated as machines, and their marks reflect a similar rebellion against the imposition of discipline. 

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Figure 2. Embroidery pattern from Godey’s Lady’s Book.

Figure 2 shows the original photo from which the motif was extracted, noticeably there is a “wave” in the gray areas of the photo and an inconsistent tone from the lighting of the image. The moire is the first intervention from the mechanical actors in this process, as it is the result of the physical printed image being translated into a collection of pixels through a camera lens. The inconsistency of the gray is simply my own ineptitude with a camera, however this would result in a more interesting texture to the final embroidery. 

This image was then converted from a rasterized image into a vectorized one through Adobe Illustrator (Figure 3). Raster images are composed of pixels, or individual dots that make up the image, whereas vectors are made up of points that are then connected with lines to form shapes. Cameras produce raster images because the pixels maintain complex details and subtle shading, whereas vectors are more commonly associated with graphic design. Vectors are also often used for computer-aided design because the points and lines that form the image can dictate paths for other machines to follow. Adobe has equipped Illustrator with an automated “Image Trace” function that streamlines converting raster images into vectors, but this process has difficulties with fine detail. As a result the moire in the photographed image created unexpected edges to the shapes of the objects in the vector (Figure. 03). Rather than painstakingly editing the vector to accurately reflect what the original motif depicted, I chose to incorporate these shapes into the design. These lines are the result of the digital camera and vector software collaborating, and this produces textures unique to this process. 

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Figure 3. The embroidery pattern when vectorized and colour coded for the digital embroidery machine.

The vector then needed to be converted into a format that the digital embroidery machine would be able to understand. At the Ryerson Library Collaboratory, where the digital embroidery machine resides, their Adobe Illustrator has been equipped with a plugin that automates this process. Figure 4 shows what the pathways for these stitches look like, each dot is a point where the needle pierces the fabric and the lines mimic what the thread would look like. Additionally the motif needed to be colour coded in order to separate out the stitches, preventing them from clustering which could break the thread or harm the machine. The colouring and choosing of what kinds of stitches would be used is one of the spaces where I was required to make my own creative decisions, distinct from what could be automatically generated. However, I tried to maintain all of the stitches and paths generated from Illustrator, as long as it would still result in a design that the machine could sew. Rather than being solely my  own creative vision, it was a negotiation between the software, the machine, and myself.

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Figure 4. The vectorized embroidery with the pathways for the digital embroidery machine mapped out.

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Figure 5. The first successful test of the motif with contrasting colours.

The stitches were executed exactly as dictated by the pattern produced by Illustrator, however this also includes the thread jumping across the embroidery. This thread jumping comes from the digital embroidery machine being told that two separate sections need to be sewn in the same thread as part of the same function, but that the thread doesn’t need to be automatically trimmed. The thread then trails over the embroidery, resulting in a line. Figure 06 shows how gestural this thread jumping could become if emphasized, however it also resulted in the fabric being more likely to pucker, especially if the fabric wasn’t properly supported. The thread jumping is how the digital embroidery gives its input on the execution of the motif, as the order in which the sections are sewn is generated from the file being imported into the embroidery machine. The only way I could find to alter how much the thread would jump was to alter the pattern itself, reducing the distance between like-coloured shapes. Alternatively, I could have trimmed the threads myself, but to do so would be to erase the voice of the digital embroidery machine.

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Figure 6. A test of a separate rendering of the motif resulting in an overabundance of thread jumping.

The final embroidery was executed in a monochromatic white thread on white cotton fabric. This is another design decision by me in order to link the new embroidery back to traditional whitework embroidery. Whitework is a term for a wide range of embroidery characterised by being white thread on a white fabric. Particular forms of whitework, like la broderie blanche in Lorraine, France, were distinctly entwined with the domestic sphere and resistance to new technology (Walton 43-44). Originally la broderie blanche was produced by working women out of their homes, but manufacturers began pushing for the use of new drum frames in order to increase efficiency in production, primarily through increased supervision of the workers (Walton 46-47). Workers resisted being docile bodies by refusing to accept such work conditions, instead shifting their efforts over to agriculture (Walton 49). As a result manufacturers had to instead appeal to the government to regulate competitive imports from other countries, increasing their hold on a market rather than address the needs of their labour force (Walton 49). This digital embroidery project builds off this history of fraught labour relations by shifting the relationship between makers. The workers here are the different machines and software, and instead of being forced to adapt to a new way of making in order to gain power, they are being listened to.  


Figure 7. The final white on white embroidery.

Although historically embroidery has been a medium for regulating the bodies of women, it has also been a mode through which women have tried to enact agency. Like the girl who wrote of using embroidery as a way to find her freedom, this project looked to incorporate the voices of mechanical actors, highlighting a form of agency present in their programming. The unique marks generated by processing a nineteenth century motif into a pattern for a digital embroidery to fabricate stand as a testament to the possibilities of shifting one’s relationship to one's tools. Rather than being tools in a traditional sense, they were collaborators capable of producing a distinct kind of embroidery that would be extremely difficult if not impossible for a human to generate on their own. This motif is only possible through listening and cooperating with the makers of the piece itself.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Vintage Books, 1977, pp. 135-169.


Parker, Rozsika. The Subversive Stitch Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine, I.B.Tauris, 2012, pp. 1-16.


Walton, Whitney. “Working Women, Gender, and Industrialization in Nineteenth-Century France: The Case of Lorraine Embroidery Manufacturing”, Journal of Women's History 2(2), 1990, pp. 42-65.

Wiczyk, Arlene Z. Introduction. Godey’s Lady Book edited by Arlene Zeger Wiczyk. Areo Publishing Company, Inc, 1972, pp. 3

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