Embroidermation: test 1

You may have heard I’m working on this movie, and I am, but my contract prohibits me from blogging about work-in-progress. All the more reason to blog about my super-exciting other project that no one is paying me for and is motivated purely by madness and my crazy Muse: I want to make an animated quilt. Or rather quilted animation. Or embroidered animation, because the most common quilt plotters are actually embroidery machines.

I’ve already ranted about the shameful state of embroidery machine software. Having just bought a fancy new Brother machine that came with Brother’s “top-of-the-line” software, PE Design NEXT, I can now say the situation is worse than I thought. Not only is the software crazy expensive, it’s also woefully inadequate for automated line drawing conversion. More on that in a future post; for now I want to describe the steps required to make a single frame (scroll down to see it).

I began with an animated cycle I made almost two years ago: the ZizAutomated digitization of one frame of that design, in color, for embroidery, is well beyond what PE Design NEXT can handle, so I started by just asking it to do the outline, monochrome, in a simple running stitch. That was also way more than it could handle, so I went back into Flash and simplified the design:

Then I imported a frame into Adobe Illustrator and “merged” everything to eliminate background shapes.

Before: the Ziz above is comprised of many shapes. Even though they're not visible on the surface, vector files know they're there, adding unnecessary complexity.


After: "merged" in Illustrator.

I gave it no fills, only a 1pt stroke. PEDNEXT read it as several hundred separate shapes, with thread cuts between each; it wanted to start and stop every few stitches to cut threads, even with all the outlines abutting each other.

Clearly we had to convert the design into one continuous line, which PEDNEXT can’t do (it can sort of do it with bitmaps it traces itself, but it’s terrible at auto-tracing. One should be able to trace in a better program and get it to work with those vectors, but it’s biased against vectors for some reason). It’s an old math problem called the Chinese Postman, a variation on the more famous Traveling Salesman. The Traveling Salesman visits every vertex in the most efficient path; the Chinese Postman travels every path.

Fortunately my Significant Other and co-lunatic in automated embroidery machine experiments, Theo Gray, was a founding developer of Mathematica software. Just one morning of his fiddling with the files yielded exceptional results.

This was an .eps file in Mathematica, brought into Adobe Illustrator, exported as .wmf for Brother's software, and again as .png to be visible on this blog. It is a single line with many points, tracing over itself efficiently.

Then PEDNEXT refused to read the resulting single-line file, even after it was converted to .wmf (windows metafile – the ONLY vector file PEDNEXT accepts. It doesn’t accept .svg, .eps, .dxf, .ai, or any other vector file. Just .wmf. Which is what you’d expect from $2,000 embroidery software, right?) Thinking the line was too long, we broke it into smaller segments and imported them as separate files. Through a tedious process of elimination we discovered there was just one teeny segment PEDNEXT refused to read. We pinpointed it to two points (perfectly normal points! the files are fine, we have no idea why PEDNEXT doesn’t like them), deleted them from the master line, imported to Illustrator, exported to .wmf, imported to PEDNEXT, saved as .pes (Brother’s proprietary format) on a flash drive, and got it into the machine. And finally:

This took 8 minutes to stitch at 700 stitches per minute. Design area is about 8" tall by 10" high. I'd share other details like how many stitches it is and how much disk space it occupies, but I don't have them handy because PEDNEXT is windows-only and the windows machine I've been using for this is at Theo's house.
It's not real until a cat can sit on it.

This represents a huge step towards my dream of embroidermation. It took us a long time and much obsession to get to this single frame. Further tests with PEDNEXT will determine whether the whole 24-frame sequence can be automated, or if there are bugs in every new frame import. Meanwhile I’m even more committed to supporting EmbroiderModder2, a young FLOSS alternative to existing inadequate overpriced embroidery software (crowdfunding campaign coming soon!). I hope Brother supports it too – their machines are great, with better software who knows what people could do with them.

Update: see the Mathematica code and an animated gif of the stitching here!


More Well-Hung

We went back to Sleepy Creek Vineyards to rearrange some things and hang Earth, Fire and Water next to Air/Nude. This is the first time all of my 4 Elements quilts have hung next to each other.

Speaking of Sleepy Creek, I finally tasted their tomato-jalepeño wine, Winey Mary. Yes I thought it was a joke too, but it actually exists and is actually made of fermented tomatoes and jalepeños, not grapes. And I actually liked it. Not as a wine – I don’t really like wine, or beer, or any alcoholic beverages – but as an unusual and strangely tasty sensory experience.

tomato jalapeno wineYou can try some at the official wine-and-cheese opening (cash bar, buy some local wine!) is this Saturday June 15, with a screening of Sita Sings the Blues at 8pm.

The quilts will be hanging all Summer. Whee!


Hangin’ at Sleepy Creek

Art Quilts & Animation at Sleepy Creek Vineyards

Today we hung quilts at Sleepy Creek Vineyards. Official wine-and-cheese opening (cash bar, buy some local wine!) is this Saturday June 15. The quilts will be hanging all Summer though.

double sided quilt

The small “This Land Is Mine” quilt is double-sided. Here Death watches over the bottom of the stairs. Symbolic?

Bargain (Ten Thousand Dollars) and Nude, along with a larger This Land Is Mine quilt (one-sided)

Shiva Natraj and the Shedus

More at the show – come check it out!


Dear Domestic Embroidery Machine Manufacturers

Your machines are amazing. There is so much I could do with one! I could render a vector-based animated movie, convert each frame into a simple embroidery file, and sew out a frame at a time as a quilt. It would be amazing. I want to do that so much! And your domestic embroidery machines could do it. They are reasonably priced – a few thousand dollars is quite reasonable for a machine that can do that, and many are priced even lower. Such potential! The artist in me is drooling.

But the software. For some reason you sell software for insanely high prices. All I need is software that converts common vector formats (like .eps or .ai) to an embroidery file, and allows me to size it to fit your hoops, and get it into your machine.

To do that would cost me a minimum of $900*. And is Windoze only. Brother’s PE Design NEXT (which is the minimal “level” of software I’d need for my simple vector-to-stitches conversion) appears to cost about $1,000.  But I’m not sure – Brother’s web site doesn’t say, and they don’t offer it for sale online, only through “dealers.”

I understand it costs money to develop software for your machines. It also costs money to develop the machines. That’s why you sell the machines. Here’s a tip: The more useful your machines are, the more you will sell! Under the current regime of ridiculous embroidery software prices, you are selling fewer machines. I am not buying your potentially amazing machines because of the software issue. And I really really want an embroidery machine and would be happy to pay many thousands of dollars for one. I’m a ready and eager customer! But no sale.

I would buy one if I could design my own stuff for it.

Imagine a sewing machine that shipped with a limited set of licensed Disney® dress patterns, with a few more online you could download for $5 to $20 each. But sewing your own dress pattern would require expensive proprietary software, closed-source of course so it can’t be improved or debugged or customized. Or how about a sewing machine that uses only proprietary fabric? Which the sewing machine company has a monopoly on, so they sell it for $500 a yard? Sewing machines are popular and diverse because fabric is inexpensive, widely available, and can be used in any machine. The cheaper fabric is, the more sewing machines sell. Expensive proprietary fabric would mean fewer machines would sell. But that is exactly the idiotic business model embroidery machine makers have locked themselves into.

The more useful your machines are, the more you will sell!

Sewing machines are great because you can sew anything with them. Computers are great because you can make anything with them. Computers+automated embroidery machines would be great if you could embroider anything with them, but you can’t. Embroidery software for my Mac is $2,299!

Functional, accessible software makes your machines more valuable. Expensive, restricted software makes them useless.

Let me repeat: functional, accessible software makes your machines more valuable. Expensive, restricted software makes them useless. Which is a pity because they have so much potential.

*P.S. Yes I know there is Embird, which would “only” cost me $309 ($164 basic module + $145 font engine, to convert vector files) to be minimally useful for me (maybe – I can’t even be sure of that). Plus the cost of a PC (which isn’t actually that much because PC manufacturers, unlike embroidery machine manufacturers, know the value of their product increases the more useful it is, and so they encourage lots of software and even support Free Software so they sell lots of PCs, thus driving the price down further even while their manufacturers’ profits increase – think about that!) But Embird only converts  EMF, WMF and CMX   vector formats, so I’d need yet another program to convert a .eps sequence (or .ai or .swf) first.

There is also this Free svg-to-pcs (Pfaff) converter which I tried with this pcs-to-pes converter a few times and it didn’t work. And also doesn’t have stitch editing or further control. But it is promising.

Even the mighty Linus Torvalds knows about the embroidery software problem, but it’s still not fixed.