Embroidery was transformed by the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution is one of the most significant events in recent history. It birthed our current technological world order.
It changed everything, especially business. When machines were invented, the time taken to do tasks was shortened dramatically.
And this was the case too for embroidery. For millennia, hand embroidery had flourished, the delight of both kings and commoners. Previously, embroidered clothing was the preserve of the rich since the poor could not afford it. But machine embroidery made embroidery accessible to even the poor.
But what benefits did machine embroidery present that people had not previously enjoyed with hand embroidery? What are its limitations, if any? And what about hand embroidery – why do people still practice it unto this day?
To enlighten you and show you the differences between the two types of embroidery, I have prepared this article in the form of pros and cons lists for both hand and machine embroidery.
Pros of Hand Embroidery:
1. You Can Create Truly Individual and Unique Embroidery Designs
Since hand embroidery is supportive of variety in thread, stitches and fabrics, numerous designs and patterns are possible. As a result, every work of hand embroidery is unique to the embroiderer who did the stitching.
So even when the design is the same, each finished product will have a unique look – two people cannot stitch in exactly the same way and, in fact, one person cannot stitch the same way twice .
What I mean is that even though you duplicate a piece of embroidery from the same pattern, you cannot make two pieces that look exactly alike – it’s like fingerprints.
On the other hand, machine embroidery is super uniform, and so multiple items will look identical.
It is due to this ability to channel an embroiderer’s creativity that many expert embroiderers still enjoy practicing hand embroidery. While machine embroidery is good for the bottom line, hand embroidery is, like all art, good for the soul.
Trained eyes will tell you that well-done hand embroidery is more attractive than machine embroidery.
However, what is uniform cannot be entirely pleasing to the eyes; but what is creative, that which allows for individuality and unique perspective and even charming errors to flow in, will win many admirers.
Perhaps this explains why embroidery from previous eras, even that of the ancient days, remains so attractive. Even after millennia have come and gone, the hand embroidery of past ages can still enthrall.
Cons of Hand Embroidery:
1. Time Consuming
The oft-repeated refrain that “time is money” is a cliché that most of us quote without thinking about its meaning. Like all clichés, it almost feels irrelevant saying it because it’s inherent truth is obvious.
Time is money because the more time you have, the more you can produce; and the more you can produce, the more you can sell.
And this is true in all businesses, including hand embroidery. That is what the industrial revolution was really all about. Sometimes we lose the forest for the trees – we look at the technological advancements of the eighteenth century and marvel.
But the technology was not revolutionary because it was advanced. Great technology is not enough. Many inventions have come and gone simply because they did not solve any problem.
The industrial revolution was revolutionary precisely because the inventions made during this period solved the ultimate problem of all businesses.
And the ultimate problem is this: how to produce more while using less time. The machines that were made in the industrial revolution enabled greater production and, therefore, cut down enormously on time – and ultimately on costs.
When embroidery machines were invented, the death knell of hand embroidery as a major commercial production driver was sounded.
Businesses interests quickly abandoned hand embroidery in favor of machine embroidery.
More people came into the embroidery industry as a result of the high productivity rate of the machines. And today when machine embroidery is a computerized, sophisticated phenomenon, hand embroidery can hardly hope to compete.
Just to create a two-inch square piece of embroidery can take you over two hours – more if you are a novice. The only hope for a beginner who wants to get into hand embroidering is to get so good that they can command premium rates due to the artisanal value of excellent, creative hand embroidery.
2. High Risk of Personal Error
As it is with many things, what gives hand embroidery its edge, its main advantage, its value, is also what breeds one of its major disadvantages.
The uncertainty of the process is what makes it possible for the same person to make different pieces while following the same design. Uncertainty is one of the main principles of creativity. But uncertainty is also the mother of errors.
In the hands of a skilled master, error is the father of creativity; but an unskilled embroiderer’s errors are not charming, and they do not result in any sort of creativity. They result in botched work.
Consequently, the embroiderer may take a long while correcting their mistake or repeating the process. And this, of course, flows back to the first disadvantage: that hand embroidery is time consuming.
Pros of Machine Embroidery:
If you want to discover the advantages of machine embroidery, just examine the disadvantages of hand embroidery and invert them. For instance, hand embroidery comes with the high risk of personal error.
The only time you can be certain of a good result in hand embroidery is when the person doing the job for you is a master of the art. A less-skilled embroiderer may either do a good job, a simply okay one, or they may completely botch it.
Fortunately, machine embroidery does not present this problem. All the creativity of the machine embroidery process goes into the design stage: when you are creating and editing the design file you will use to embroider the fabric.
Once the design is done, all you have to do is load it into the machine. All the copies produced by the machine will be identical. In business, reliability/certainty of product quality is one of the prerequisites of mass production and quality management.
Once you can guarantee reliability of quality, all the customers will flock to you.
For that reason, machine embroidery is the favored means of production for commercial and industrial purposes.
2. Quick and Efficient
As I have said, the inverse of hand embroidery’s limitations is the advantage of machine embroidery. Where hand embroidery is slow, machine embroidery is super fast.
I have already made most of my arguments about this in discussing hand embroidery as time consuming.
The only stage of the process that may consume time is in creating and editing the design file. But once that is done, the process picks up speed as the machine churns out piece after piece. If you want to get the best embroidery machine of your need, here's an article I wrote on this topic.
Cons of Machine Embroidery:
1. Uniformity Stifles Creativity
The inverse of the advantage of hand embroidery is automatically the disadvantage of machine embroidery. As I said earlier, machine embroidery is highly uniform since it is based on pre-made patterns designed using a computer programs.
For that reason, all the designs have uniformity in their stitches and all the pieces look alike.
The stitcher’s uniqueness or passion does not factor into the process. The only one exercising creativity and uniqueness is the person who designs and edits the design file.
For this lack of creativity, machine embroiderer is attractive for commercial and not artistic reasons. Anyone who wants to get to the pinnacle of their creativity as an embroiderer would be best served by taking up hand embroidery.
Let me conclude the article with a common sense summary. If you want to make a lot of money and service a lot of customers, go into machine embroidery. The high production rate will help you finish your orders quickly and charge less to attract more customers.
But if you want to get into embroidery as a craft, as an art rather than a business, if expressing your creativity is your main goal, then I advise you to choose hand embroidery instead.