Embroidery Goes from Unique to Universal

Here's how special-effects threads add appeal to embroidered stock designs and other mixed-media pieces.

By Alice Wolf, Contributing Writer

Stephen Wilson’s “Laughing in the Face of Casualty and Sorrow” was completed in 2018 in oil and pigment on board with embroidered butterflies. Its diameter is 48 inches.

April 30, 2019

The ability to transform a certain effect to a “special effect” is exemplified by the work of artist Stephen Wilson. He balances art, craft and fashion in mixed media using embroidery for his signature statement. From his background in commercial embroidery design and technology, he creates and digitizes designs that are machine-embroidered and finished with mixed-media hand processes, including found-object assemblage and painting.

Wilson began creating embellishments after high school, setting up shop on the New Jersey coast and screen printing shirts and posters for local bands. “What drove me into embroidery a few years later,” Wilson explains, “was a fascination with the technology.”

In Luscious Threads, a publication of Wilson’s artwork, artist Bruce Helander says, “Wilson found himself as one of the few American experts who already was investigating technology-based embroidery, as most production had moved overseas, and seemed to bravely bridge the gap between fashion embroidery and American crafts with postmodernist fine art.

“In addition to the pretty remarkable inroads that he is making in the art world, his commercial business, managed by an extraordinary young staff, financially supports, in part, his bold experiments and courageous expeditions merging textiles that are sewn and embroidered, machined and hand-embellished,” he adds.

Wilson’s Anita Goodesign, which specializes in stock designs, sprang from the desire to answer an artistic calling, and bring unique and appealing embroidery designs to the general public. According to Wilson, “40-weight thread was being used all over the home-embroidery market, while I was using special-effect threads on the commercial side. I wanted to be innovative and bring the abilities I had on the commercial side into the home-embroidery world. That was really what compelled me to try other threads.”

A master-level digitizer, Wilson has been creating embroidery designs and quilting patterns for more than 20 years. His understanding of the technology behind embroidery design and digitizing serves him well when bringing to life his 3-D statements on luxury, fashion, Americana, arts and crafts, quilting — all while capturing attention and leaving others asking, “How did he do that?”

Enter Metallics
To stand out from the norm, Wilson first used metallic embroidery thread. He incorporated it into a collection titled “Winter Wonderland” using silver metallic thread to enhance snowflakes, stars, snowmen and ice skates. Silver borders and other embellishments also are supplied for embroiderers to create pillows, quilts and wall hangings for all sorts of home décor. Suggested needles were kept to #75/11, since 40- and 50-weight metallic threads were specified.

“The fact that the home-embroidery side was only using rayon and polyester thread really drew me in to using other special-effect threads,” Wilson says. “In the beginning, the home-embroidery side didn’t see these types of special-effect threads being used and I wanted to use them in my art to make them visible, and then educate the consumer on how to use them on their own machines.”

Beyond the Basics
Just how much is too much when it comes to special effects and the extra time required to prepare a machine to stitch a design that requires something other than 40- or 50-weight thread? There’s a reason Anita Goodesign’s offerings specify #75/11 needles and don’t require a needle change. Time is an important factor when it comes to embroidery production. Slowing machine speed — as some threads demand — changing a needle or checking tensions are necessary for ensuring best results when threads are used for special effects.

While a smooth, 50-weight metallic thread can be substituted into a stock design digitized for 40-weight thread, other metallics that are twisted, or 20- or 30-weight, not only require a larger needle (#90/14), but also increasing density from 4.0 to 6.0 for a 30-weight thread, or as high as 8.0 for a 20-weight metallic thread, which requires a #100/16 needle. There is a wide range of metallic embroidery threads available, giving embroiderers a variety of options, from highlights in a stock design to focal points that need to be digitized specifically to accommodate the thread’s thickness or twists.

Following a manufacturer’s recommendations will deliver best results with some of the more demanding metallics.

Hand-Embroidered Looks
Some thick wool or cotton-blend embroidery threads can provide a hand-embroidered look, even though the design has been stitched on a commercial machine. “Typically, the public is used to seeing this type of art as being more primitive or Americana in style,” Wilson says.

He has captured the look of fine embroidery in textile art, introducing precision on the art side with specialty threads. He also can charge more money for designs that require more knowledge to execute — a winning commercial venture.

“I want to be able to showcase the capability of these materials, increasing the desire of the general public to seek out and create unique looks and artistic embroidery,” he says.

Wilson, and other company designers and digitizers, currently are working on collections that will specify thick wool-blend threads. “Some of what I’ve seen in the studio resembles a landscape that is very textured because of the thicker thread,” says Jennifer LaBoy, creative director, Anita Goodesign. “That thread adds a great dimension to the art piece. As for the [Anita Goodesign] side, the special-effect, wool-blend threads will carry over into our events to start. One of AG’s biggest contributions to the consumer is education. When we host AG events, we bring a wealth of knowledge. We all understand that using new materials can be difficult, so by educating the customer on materials we are using in our home office, that provides confidence, inspires them to try new things and think outside of the box.”

The company will require customers to change needles to a #100/16 for collections that specify the 12-weight, wool-blend thread. A density setting of 0.9 is suggested, and machine speed and tensions will be reviewed in training sessions.

Selling the unique to a general population of embroiderers comes at a price. Anita Goodesign employs more than 10 educators who travel the country visiting dealers and educating consumers about how to best accomplish the company’s designs. “In the course of a year, we hold over 250 events and see thousands of customers,” LaBoy says. “The most prominent way we are able to bring special-effect design to the public is through our ability to educate during an Anita Goodesign event. Our educators openly discuss the techniques and materials AG uses to complete all of our collections.”

How does an idea go from concept to creation? “In a nutshell, ideas get sent in from everywhere and are developed in the art department, where the artists draw everything from scratch,” LaBoy says. “Then, a drawing goes into digitizing, where they skillfully hand place every stitch to create the amazing designs that, in turn, get prototyped and stitched out in-house by the creative team.”

From there, the focus gets redirected to educating customers on how to properly execute the process. “Our tutorial writers then write all the content for every collection, with all the step-by-step pictures and educational information,” she says. “[The] graphics [department] then incorporates the collection into our monthly All Access publication and promotes it on our social media. Everything, including all marketing materials, is consistent, and captures the quality and detail of the designs. Our customers are inspired and then turn to our education, if necessary.”

Thinking outside the box, whether for business or personal purposes — or a combination of both — and offering customers a unique twist on a stock design or logo sets embroiderers apart. Uniqueness adds value to your business, justifies charging top dollar and is the secret ingredient for repeat business.

Alice Wolf is manager of education and publications for Madeira USA. She began doing marketing and public relations for the art industry in New York, and then migrated north to Madeira’s New Hampshire headquarters. For more information or to comment on this article, email Alice at awolf@madeirausa.com.

More About Luscious Threads

Published to coincide with his 2018 collection, “Shine a Light When It’s Gray Out,” Luscious Threads is the first book dedicated solely to Stephen Wilson’s art. It contains essays from other artists and art critics, along with an essay by Wilson in which he discusses his influences and technique.

The images contained therein are large, richly colored and enable embroiderers to relate to the creativity and procedures used. The book offers a retrospective of Wilson’s three series: Luxury, Americana and Disorder. For more information, including where to buy the book, email studio@stephenwilsonstudio.com.