Mechanical Drawing: The Schiffli Project

The Swiss painter Paul Klee famously likened drawing to “taking a line for a walk”. In doing so he captured the explorative nature of drawing as experimental mark making. If we can agree that this is indeed the primary function of drawing, then “Mechanical Drawing: the schiffli project” provides us with a collection of threads that have been taken on a most remarkable walk.

First a brief history lesson: the multi-needle schiffli embroidery machine was invented in Switzerland by Isaac Groebli in 1863. The one hundred year old version housed at Manchester Metropolitan University is now the last working machine in Britain. With the ability to mechanically stitch in repeat across a six foot wide piece of cloth, the machine was used extensively in 19th and 20th centuries to manufacture decorative embroidery, particularly in the industrial centres of Nottingham and the North West of England. While a product of industrialisation, the schiffli’s design attempted to bridge the gap between the artist’s hand and the machine’s output by way of a pantogram or mechanical arm that controls the stitch pattern. When the designer or artist moves the device through space the machine stitches, in repeat, a version one-sixth the size of the motions made. Consider it Nintendo’s Wii technology of the past.

Over the past decade Britain has witnessed the end to schiffli production within its shores. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say that with the exception of the schiffli operating at MMU, all other machines have either been scrapped or sold to new Asian production sites. Whether the general public have noticed this decline is another question. Thus Mechanical Drawing is, among many other things, a project to raise public awareness of the unique capabilities of the last working machine in Britain. Professor Maureen Wayman, Dean of Faculty of Art and Design at Manchester Metropolitan University, explains the historical relationship in Britain between textile education and industry in her introduction to the comprehensive catalogue that documents the project. “Art and Design education in Manchester dates back to the 1830s, to a time when the relationship between industry, the museums and the schools was a very close one. During this early period of their existence the British Art Schools were largely industry funded.”

Today textile education in Britain is moving at great pace towards the digital realm that is more often funded from within education than industry. While this new world is equally engaged with the requirements of the job market as the era Wayman evokes, it is also often alarmingly distanced from material and mechanical knowledge. The schiffli addresses this trend by tackling, among many other issues, the beauty and potential of mechanised production methods labelled by many as obsolete. The reality of the fifteen artists commissioned to create a total of twenty pieces of work on the schiffli is that they are working with an endangered species. The work they have created helps us understand that mechanical knowledge is as pertinent to contemporary textile practice today as the day the schiffli was first introduced to industry.

While digital versions of the schiffli are now in popular use within industry, the crucial difference between digital and industrial technology is the latter’s ability to record, albeit in mechanised translation, the maker’s hand. Dr Melanie Miller of MMU, who developed the project with the independent curator June Hill explains, “The schiffli is essentially a mechanical drawing machine, the embroidered images being created by moving a pantograph by hand.” The closeness of the hand to this mechanical process means that deviation and uncertainty are recorded in repeat, as truthfully and as carefully as the planned templates that many artists brought to their time with the machine. Professor Lesley Millar observes that the contribution these individuals have made does not make them “custodians of the past” but instead suggests that the schiffli’s “mechanical limitations [are used] as a means of questioning the boundaries between the new and the old, the personal and the political, the intention and the outcome.” Millar’s observation suggestions a shift in our understanding of industrialisation from the standpoint of a limited approach providing function but lacking potential to a far broader mode of inquiry.

The number of perspectives, which reveal working processes as well as expectations and interpretations of the schiffli’s mechanical potential, are apparent in the contemporary cloth created through this project. Poignantly, several artists linked the machinery’s perceived obsolesce with similar attitudes stretching across other sectors. Artist Nina Edge, for example observes “the schiffli machine at MMU is allegedly obsolete, an allegation also levelled at some 200,000 pre-war terraced houses including my home. This coincidence stimulated investigation of the present and future uses for both the schiffli and the terraced house, by using each to articulate the other.” Edge’s resulting imagery is embroidered onto a net curtain, emblem of privacy in the domestic sphere that has been disregarded because of the heated controversy surrounding the preservation of the area in which she lives.

Rowena Ardern’s “The Endangered” similarly addresses an arena under threat, in her case a number of now endangered British wild flowers. “This successful relationship between artist and mechanism mirrors the ironic paralleling of endangered flowers with endangered machinery, in which the uncertain fate of both has created allies after centuries of hostility,” notes Dr Jane Webb. Others found that the mechanical possibilities of the schiffli liberated rather than limited their practice on a material level. Alice Kettle, who recently completed an enormous site specific commission for the Winchester Discovery Centre in the south of England is known for her painterly use of thread across densely embroidered surfaces. Remarkably, the bulk of her work has been created stitching blind, that is working from the back of the cloth and turning it over only at intervals to see the development of the stitch. Kettle’s involvement with the schiffli altered this perspective entirely and allowed the artist to literally draw directly onto the surface of the cloth. While many artists arrived with plans to plot and tame the schiffli into ordered submission, Kettle worked without a template, spontaneously responding to the results. “I see the line differently with the schiffli,” Kettle explains. “It becomes a many faceted conversation between multiple threads, that are all connected in the same movement. The huge machine gives incredible subtlety and expression to the line, what at first seems a lumbering giant carries the potential of complex and intricate artistry.”

Mechanical Drawing touches upon a wide range of issues, from Britain’s emerging identity as a digital rather than industrial nation, to the realities of globalisation and preconceptions regarding the role of the maker’s hand in mechanical production. Professor Lesley Millar notes, “One of the most striking things about the marks that the schiffli makes is how modern they look.” Thus the schiffli asks us to reconsider our understanding of industrial production and the possibility of unique multiples. But despite the engaging outcomes of Mechanical Drawing and the potential for further development, the long-term future of the schiffli machine at MMU remains uncertain. We must hope it does not accept its retirement without a battle.

Dr Jessica Hemmings is a Reader in Textile Culture at the Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton

July 5 – September 7, 2008 Macclesfield Silk Museum
September 11 – 14, 2008 The Knitting and Stitching Show (Birmingham NEC)
October 9 – 12, 2008 The Knitting and Stitching Show (Alexandra Place, London)
November 20 – 23, 2008 The Knitting and Stitching Show (Harrogate International Centre)

FiberArts magazine (Sept./Oct. 2008: 46-49)