Monday, May 16, 2011

The Question of Automation

Recently I met an artist who has just gotten serious about quilt making. During our discussions about technique and process she mentioned that she might have an opportunity to try a quilting machine that has the capability to automatically quilt a design which the quilter creates via a computer. I thought this sounded like a very exciting opportunity as I had read about this technology but have never seen or tried one of these machines.

As I thought about this I recalled seeing references to work which utilized this technology being excluded from participation in a show. At the time it didn't have much impact on me because I don't have access to this type machine but it made me begin to think about why they would exclude such work.

We are in the computer age. We design on computers, create images which we then print on fabric from the computer, people who use patterns created and printed from computers, so where is the line and what is the line protecting?

Before I became involved in the world of quiltmaking and art quilts I had no idea of the improvements in quilt making tools. I recall being completely puzzled when purchasing items to make my first quilt and the store clerk suggested I buy a rotary cutter. I bought one, along with a plastic ruler, but I left the store sure I had been encouraged to buy things I really didn't need. I had a nice pair of scissors at home and had no idea of the usefulness of a rotary cutter. Boy was I wrong!

Since that time I've purchased many items designed to assist in the creative process, some great and some not so great. I have nice sewing machines and a small but nice setup for machine quilting on a frame. I even have a stitch regulator. I don't use it much, but like the rotary cutter, sometimes you don't know how a tool or a piece of equipment will work until you try it in your studio.

I suspect if we could go back in time there might possibly be quilt makers who would object to some of tools and equipment we use today. I have, however, read that quilters embraced machine quilting from the very beginning of widespread home sewing machine ownership. Some quilt makers might feel pride and ownership in their skill of cutting with scissors or being able to hand piece and quilt a work with nothing but a needle and thread. They might scoff at the necessity for a sewing machine. They might not want to allow machine-made work to be included in a quilt show. (Actually I believe many traditional shows do have categories which separate work by the techniques used to make the work.) They might consider work made with a machine lesser than..... These are just suppositions I'm making based on my perception of the pride women have taken over the years in "hand work".

As an artist, I believe I could create the quilt stitching image and allow the machine to quilt it automatically while still having ownership of the work as a whole. Think about artists who design the quilt stitch but have someone else do the quilting either by hand or machine. Artists who work in other mediums pretty much do whatever they like and use technology in any way they like. What is the difference for art quilters or is there a difference?

I suppose the biggest question involves software with built-in patterns. While some might object to the use of that technology, I'm confident that there are ways that these pre-programed built in patterns could be used in very interesting and unique ways.

So what are your thoughts about automated quilting?

If you haven't read about this technology here are links to just two of the many companies who are marketing this technology. I have no hands-on knowledge or affiliation with either of these companies and I am not making an endorsement of their products.

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  1. It all depends on whether you want your work in quilt shows or art shows. I'm sure the quilt police will go into conniptions, but I hope the art police don't care.

    I believe that decades ago Pauline Burbidge was quilting her work on industrial machines that at least to my eye seemed to be computer guided -- they looked like the quilting patterns on the big mats they hang in elevators when they're moving furniture.

    Discerning viewers will be able to tell how you made the work, just as they can tell if you hand- or machine-quilted, or if you dyed your own fabric. Probably discerning viewers will also make judgments as to whether your quilting method is appropriate or not, which is their right.

    I think the artist's choice is always whether to use methods that might raise eyebrows among discerning viewers (judges??). Sometimes you are willing to risk disapproval, sometimes you decide the better part of valor is to avoid in-your-face statements or methods.

    More important, sometimes you want to make your art a certain way, sometimes you want to make it another way. Whatever you do, think first!!!

  2. Wel said Kathy. It is a choice and many of the decisions you make will determine where you want to present your work and what audience you are trying to attract.

  3. Use technology with a discerning eye.

    I am more concerned about thoughtful decisionmaking by the artist than I am about how much technology or lack thereof was used to create a piece.

    Many artists in other media use a variety of engineering tools to complete a work especially sculptors and installation artists.

    Several questions come to mind:
    1. Are we most concerned with one-of-a-kind work?
    2. Do we want singular non-replicable excellence?

    I agree with you Terry that the biggest question would be software with built-in designs.

    When I look at art quilts, I'm looking for original ideas and thoughtfulness in its execution. Is the quilting appropriate to the overall design?

    I also agree with Kathleen, it's a matter of decision making and selecting the technique that best suits the piece.

  4. Thank you Chirs for your thoughtful contribution to the conversation. I love to think that artists are free to create whatever they can think of, anyway they can think of with sensitivity to the results.

  5. I am forever amazed that quilters seem to worry more about technique than result. We talk incessantly about whether a technique is right, is cheating, has artistic merit, should be allowed or not. Answer yes or no to any of those questions and the end result can still be good or not.

    I am not sure why shows, quilt or art, even ask about technique. Do other art forms such as photography or ceramic or painting shows do this?

    In the end, all that chatter seems to remove the focus from the art itself, which is where I think it should be.

  6. Recently I was in a sewing machine shop where there was a sample displayed that had very nice free motion quilting on it (stippling). I remarked,"Wow someone knows how to FMQ nice - look how even all of that is - its perfect" The lady laughed and said - "Oh no - I didn't do that - my machine did. I could never take the time to learn how to do that - Why would you if you can have a machine do it?" I guess that's why I'm just don't see me doing anything automated. I mean how far would you take it before its ultimately just you programming the computer and it doing all the work? Now is your skill in fabric or in computer software? How unique could an automated stitch be??

    I love technology - I love programming - but I still want to keep my fingers on the fabric. I also want to be judged against people who keep their fingers on the fabric. Its bad enough that we now see so many Long arm machine patterns over and over - do we need more of the same??

  7. Frankly I don't see the difference between a machine doing your quilting or a person doing your hand-quilting. What is the difference? Nada.

  8. Thank you Elaine, Nina-Marie and Divagirl. It's great to hear your voices.

    I love the idea of fining ways to use equipment/technology for my purposes. I also love making art with simple tools and "feeling" the fabric. I think my point of view is that I want to encourage a broad exploration of materials and techniques but in the end have the work be evaluated, as Elaine said, on the results and not so much the how.

    I appreciate your comments.

  9. Quilting has never been easier. it's quite clever to be able to replicate the same design over and over in a precise manner. Like a sleeping cat on my face, the process might suffocate, though. Technology is squeezing us from every side.

  10. Hey ParisMaddy! Yes. And it's our job to take control!!! Right?

  11. I agree with what has been said already that the fault -- if there is fault -- is not in the tool or the process but rather in how well or ill tools and processes support the final effect of the work. (I think there must be a special circle in hell for whoever it was that made stippling so ubiquitous.) I don;t think there's any particular virtue in mechanical effort just for it;s own sake. If you can work as thoughtfully but more efficiently by taking advantage of new technologies, then by all means godspeed and go well.

    This may have been discussed previously or elsewhere, but I think I'm more troubled by blatantly Photoshopped imagery popping up everywhere than I am by the question of who or what does the stitching. This may be an issue of taste more than an issue of craft but, for me, those works too often have the odor of paint-by-number.

  12. Thank you my croft. I'm in agreement with you about the photoshopped imagery. When that is the first thing I am aware of when looking at a piece, that's as far as it goes for me. Too mechanical. I do think there is some relationship between the use of computer software and automation in general. Both can be used very personally and well but it's very easy to slide into the obvious.