The Future is NOW

Looking Back - Looking Ahead

Watching the embroidery industry evolve has been exciting. My first machine was a freehand version that required a knee to create the width, a foot to control the speed, hands to hold the hoop—and lots of practice and patience.

Watching the digitizing software evolve has been just as amazing. I used to create designs for my freehand machine…I would draw the fonts on the acetate with a grease pencil and then stitch through the outlines with my sewing machine. This created a template which was placed over the garment. An applicator loaded with chalk was then rubbed across the acetate, creating a dotted outline on the garment—white chalk for darks and blue for whites and lights. I would hoop the garment and follow the guidelines with that one-color manual machine.

The arrival of the computerized machine changed things and when the paper tape evolved into formatted disks  and I acquired my first digitizing board and buttoned-cursor, the control of both production and design finally rested with me—from thought to thread I was completely in control of my business.

The development of the scanner changed things even more, and I can remember with such clarity the discussions that would heat up when the question of whether this new-fangled device would take the place of the board. The “I-walked-to-school-through-three-feet-of-snow” crowd was sure it would not and the “They-put-a-man-on-the-moon-didn’t-they” group was sure it was the digitizer’s new best friend.

I was on the side of the moonwalkers because I feel exhilarated, not threatened, by the fresh and innovative. New ideas and gadgets excite me and, unlike the man who wanted to close the patent office in the late 1800s because everything had been invented, I think there is always more to come.

The scanner opened up a whole new world to the digitizer/embroiderer. We had to learn about file formats. Terms like “camera-ready art”, bitmaps and jpegs became part of the conversation. Those who like to make rules taught that camera-ready art was the only way to go and thus we must demand it. I didn’t buy into that—I once had a man ask for a design for his boss derived from a house painted on his pick-up truck. I didn’t ask for camera ready art; I asked him to wash the truck. I took a picture and imported it into the computer. The result was a real hit.

I realize that our comfort level with art is controlled by our own artistic abilities—or lack of. So the “new” vector art that is available is much more popular with most than bitmaps and jpegs or even hand-drawn or “napkin art” which usually needs some help to make it usable.

Vectors and Rasters

Raster art, such as bitmaps and jpegs, consists of pixel information which is given a CMYK or RGB value. This results in detailed and smooth images for photos and paintings but, if the scale is increased, new information can appear distorted. When you scan an image into your computer with a TWAIN compatible scanner, remember that the quality of the image will be determined by the scanning resolution. The image resolution will determine the dpi or dots per inch. Two hundred dpi will work for most artwork.

When pixels are close together and small, the image is better but the file is large. If you want a smaller image, you can keep the number of pixels the same and increase the size but the image will be grainy and pixilated. The edges will be blurred, making it more difficult to digitize. Poor lettering can be recreated in a drawing program like Corel. Fuzzy edges can be digitized with a “best guess” or redrawn. The result is more work.

Vector-based art is made up of paths, with a definitive start, points, curves and angles along the way, and an ending point. These paths can create both simple and complex graphics.

With vectors, lines, colors and shapes that comprise an image are stored as a mathematic formula—not a specific number if dots—and thus can be scaled up or down and still retain superb quality and detail. The quality of the image will be determined by the resolution of the display, and the file size will stay the same no matter what the image size. A graphic file can be used to digitize a left chest or a jacket back with no blurry edges or text to re-work into clarity with a drawing program. The result is less work.

It is important to remember that scanning produces raster graphics and so vector art needs to be created and/or imported into a digitizing program. There are stand-alone programs, improving all the time, that are dedicated to converting raster graphics to vectors and graphic companies that offer this service to embroiderers and digitizers.

Character sets called fonts (see Printwear xxx) can also be defined by paths. Typefaces used to be stored as bitmaps for printing purposes and size could not be easily altered. But now fonts are stored as vector graphics and are scalable to any size. TrueType fonts and PostScript fonts are examples of type characters stored as vector paths.

 Clip Art

 The personal computer, introduced by IBM in 1981 and Apple in 1984, allowed clip art to be used by the consumer. Clip art describes prepared images used in illustration (excluding photographs) that artists create by hand or by computer software programs.  Clip art can be electronic or printed. Although it can still be purchased in book form, CDs and online varieties have outstripped the paper kind in popularity.

When Adobe Systems introduced Adobe Illustrator for the Macintosh in 1986, home computer users were able, for the first time, to manipulate vector art. The first vector clip art collection was published in 1987.

The two different types of clip art file formats are bitmap and vector graphics. Most common web-based file formats are GIF, JPEG, and PNG—bitmap file formats.

The most common vector file format is Adobe's EPS (Encapsulated PostScript). Microsoft has a simpler vector format called Windows Metafile (WMF). The World Wide Web Consortium has developed a new vector format called SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics).

Clip art comes with all its attendant copyrights and warnings which can be as complicated as the mathematical formulae that govern vector art. We will cover copyrights in next month’s column.

 Digitizing Magic        

 One of the “bestest things” (as my Dad used to say, tongue in cheek), is that the digitizing programs are evolving as well. Many of the programs available today have capabilities that allow vector art to be imported and the outlines of that design selected and filled with your choice of stitches.

 I remember the first object-based software (c1990), Capital Automation, allowed objects to be drawn which could then be selected for stitches. A square could be filled or outlined or both, using the same object. It was one of the attributes of that software that made it a favorite of mine. And now, just two decades later, we can import the outlines (vector art) and proceed with the digitizing. Functions in graphic arts programs, stand alone conversion programs and even some of the new and re-vamped digitizing programs are letting us skip that “draw the object” step entirely.

“Auto” digitizing, contained in digitizing programs that have and are partnering with Corel, has its supporters and detractors. In this software you convert directly to stitches, not to objects, leaving the would-be digitizer out of the stitch selection loop.

 The Future

 When you are shopping for a digitizing program, be sure to ask about how—and if—it works with vectors. Ask, too, about the knowledge and resume of the developers. I always want to know if the mind really behind the development is an accomplished digitizer or just a software tech that knows how to make buttons work but not the why of things. Worse yet are the ones developed by a non-digitizer but given a name that implies otherwise. Be careful in your shopping and you can end up with software that will grow with creative zest.

I love the vector compatibilities and capabilities that result from these exciting new innovations in designing software. Unlike the man in the patent office, I can imagine millions of things being developed, making each era an exciting time in which to live. We may have smaller, more subtle and computer-related advances but their impact will be just as exhilarating as the automobile and the airplane.