In my follow-up readings by and about Donna Haraway, I hadn’t yet picked up Eric’s reference to weaving as a specific topos within techno-feminism. Noting the digital punchcard system of the Jacquard loom, however, I recognized a personal connection.
I worked in the Montréal needletrade from about 1989 to 2005, in commercial embroidery design for garment embellishment. When I started as a mechanical draftsperson, the next-stage digitizing of the designs that instructed the industrial machines was still sometimes encoded on rolls of punched paper tapes, although diskettes were replacing this medium. My boss–an old master of his trade–was still entitled Embroidery Puncher, and I remember him at work unspooling great coiling mounds of pink or purple tape, as he searched, I think, for the coded errors or points of adjustment he was to repair and improve.
Well, “mechanical draftsperson…” I’ve used the most descriptive terms I can come up with–graphic artist would be too catch-all, and the usual job title, Embroidery Designer, sounds extravagantly misleading.
My first job was in Ville St-Laurent, although we served larger companies in the Montréal garment district around Chabanel, notably Conrad C. Collections. And I say mechanical or technical drawing because I worked by hand, at a drafting table, with instruments such as mechanical pencils, rules, compasses and dividers. The standard procedure was to take the customer’s artwork, usually printed at 1:1, and enlarge it by wall projection to 6:1 proportions (3:1, if by practical necessity), tracing the image on large sheets of paper cut from a hefty roll. (I think we used white bond at the time, only later translucent vellum.) I then redrew the design with geometric accuracy while incorporating specific modifications that would permit it to be rendered in thread. For example, lettering in a logo (uniform or jacket embroidered ID was a common customer item) had to be no smaller than 6mm enlarged height, and spaced accordingly, to be legibly sewn. A line to be embroidered in satin stitch similarly equalled a minimum of 6mm width. (Machine sewn running stitches were too unstable to replicate legible design consistently across large runs; they were more often used for floral decoration.) At the same time, a “left chest” embroidery should at best not exceed 3.5 inches, maximum 4; and of course the look of a copyrighted design had to still be preserved within these technical constraints. A balancing act, yes.
(This is only lesson 1 in course 100, you understand; imagine all those police, firemen’s, fraternity, and municipal crests with titles and mottoes tightly inscribed within concentric circles…proudly worn as embroidered patches on the shoulders of the elect.)
At each stage we worked the traditional enlargement process to ensure minimal design error upon reduction to actual size–a compensation for the irregularity of rapid mass production by multiple machines and operators.
My large drawing then went to the board of the Puncher, who scanned it with a mounted, sliding cross-hair cursor to create the sewing programme that was plotted onscreen at an adjacent monitor. This was micro-engineering at a much higher level of complexity than drawing, because the Puncher digitized a dimensional design path both spatially and temporally for production, planning for the greatest efficiency and economy in colour changes and stops, the fewest repeat passes, the optimal stitch count. In the very best work, the inevitable consequence was the greatest elegance as well.
But the bottom line was never romantic. Time is money: “IS THE MACHINE STILL RUNNING?” My first boss claimed to have once threaded the sewing heads as they ran, despite having a needle or two plunge through his thumb in this School of Hard Knocks. Little wonder a master puncher’s heritage of time-honed techniques, his private programmes and strategies, were hard-earned, closely-guarded trade secrets before the coming of the Microsoft share-ware era that swept first local production and then digitizing offshore to the Orient.
So, just as a final aside: I worked about 2 years at this first job, at a fixed rate of $7.00 an hour, and commuted by Metro and bus for a total of 2 1/2 to 3 hours each 8 am to 5/6 pm weekday–with occasional Saturdays, of course. And while my senior colleague, Suzanne, was “The Best Girl,” I was still ” A Great Girl.” Me too. But…yeah, kinda proud of it.