Computers: Converting embroidery into a new art form: Joanna Bawa trains her mouse to turn out designer logos of green crocodiles

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The Independent Online
THE POEM 500 - Personal Original Embroidery Machine - is the world's smallest embroidery machine, startlingly similar in size and appearance to a combined telephone and answering machine. Its moving parts are minimal - the needle goes up and down and a small embroidery hoop for gripping the cloth moves left-right and forward-back.

The Poem is entirely controlled by software, which is available either for PC-compatible or Mac systems. Once the software is running, you can load a design - either scan it in or dip into clip-art libraries of embroidery, which are available separately. It is also possible to create your own simple designs with the conventional paint and drawing tools provided.

The software automatically stores each complete image as a series of layers, separated in terms of colour. The red petals of a flower will be in one layer, its black centre in another and its green stem and leaves in a third. This allows you to change the thread for a new section: as each same-colour section is completed, Poem prompts you to change the thread for the next layer. If it makes good design sense to have two red elements done separately - if, for example, they are at opposite ends of the image - the members of each layer can be separated.

The basic software packages for the machine, MacEmbroidery and PCEmbroidery, are limited in terms of the intricacy of the design that is possible. They can only manage fill stitch, although you can achieve interesting effects by selecting contrasting horizontal, vertical or outline stitching. Both products do a terrific job on text-based logos, bold images and simple shapes, but if you want to invest in serious embroidery software, it might be better to take a look at Poem Designer. Currently available only for the Mac, this converts embroidery into a new art form. You start with a picture on screen, as elaborate as you like, either imported as a file or scanned from a real picture.

While the image is on screen, you define the stitching type and lay. With satin stitch, for example, you can describe the image by dotting the outline with pairs of 'pixel points', using the mouse. On completion, the software uses the pixel points to calculate the number, length, and density of stitches required to achieve a smooth, even look. Then it draws them so you get an idea of the final result.

Use the mouse again to define the direction in which the stitches will run. It is here the skill comes in. Clever placing of the points can twist the stitches to give a surprising visual effect, or an oblique direction line can have the stitches sloping at an angle to the plane of the image.

If you are still not happy, you can zoom in on-screen and locate the penetration marks of the needle. These marks can be dragged around with the mouse to refine the shape and texture of the final image. An experienced designer can place needle marks in such a way that the finished image has a ripply, wavy or ultra-smooth look - and, of course, you can learn techniques which conceal or make a design feature of cut threads.

MacEmbroidery, PCEmbroidery and Poem Designer are filling unusual niches in the software market. Professional designers of clothes, toys or logos use Poem Designer to do a mock-up of design prototypes in minutes, knocking the spots off hand-drawn designs or commercial machines which take a week. Many schoolchildren get their first taste of computer design and mouse manipulation with MacEmbroidery, as well as a feel for design and the impact embroidery can have.

Older students are using the software to explore the principles of computer-aided design and learn how software can control machinery. And home users at the very least can now use a PC to embroider small green crocodiles on their polo shirts and be the envy of all their friends.

Vital statistics

Poem 500 embroidery system

System: Apple Macintosh or PC- compatible.

Requirements:

Mac: LC system or above.

PC: minimum 286 processor,

640 Kilobytes main memory,

MS-Dos 5 and mouse.

Supplier: Mac Solutions, tel: 0535 690001.

Price:

Poem with MacEmbroidery: pounds 800

(education only).

Poem with MacEmbroidery and Poem

Designer: pounds 1,083 (education); pounds 1,200

(retail).

Poem with PCEmbroidery: pounds 800

(education); pounds 1,000 (retail).

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