This post was originally in XStitch Magazine Issue 5: Heroes & Villans, and has been adapted.
To me, cross stitch is the height of handmade. Unlike a lot of other crafts, such as knitting, screen printing, or painting, cross stitch can only ever be made with human hands. It requires dexterity and planning that a machine simply doesn’t have the ability to do. As time has progressed technology has been added into cross stitch to help people do this, such as specialty threads, double eye needles, or even conductive threads, however, it has never been able to cross that barrier into a commercial project, even if people have tried in the past.
Truly, people have tried. In fact, as of today, anyone with a large enough wad of cash can buy a sewing machine capable of cross stitching, and whilst it’s beyond the cost of most crafters, it can be done. But not well.
The most well-known example of a cross stitch machine is probably the Ikea cross stitch invite, sent out to over 50,000 customers back in 2016. A Chinese embroidery house taking on the challenge of making all those invites; it’s not a surprise that they were done on a machine. Looking closely though you can see that on the mass-produced invites the aida doesn’t match up with the stitches. However, that hasn’t stopped its draw. Since then cross stitch can be seen on fashion and furnishings everywhere, becoming a visual synonym of ‘handmade’, despite all of these incarnations being machine sewn.
Inherently, that is cross stitch, a handmade product, lovingly produced the quality of which cannot be reproduced by machines. But the march of progress strives ever forward and it’s inevitable that cross stitch will at one point become just another stitch a sewing machine can perform seamlessly. But that does raise an interesting question. In the words of Will Smith in I, Robot:
“Can a robot write a symphony? Can a robot turn a canvas into a beautiful masterpiece?”
Whilst we’re some way off a machine cross stitching a masterpiece, there are a lot of robots creating masterpieces. Or at least, art. There is an international competition held each year where the artists are all robots, hoping to win a cut of $100,000. These aren’t just simple machines capable of taking an image in real life and recreating it either. These machines take decisions based on previous paintings, art styles, or sometimes because they want to (which is pretty scary, even if we’re just talking about art). These artificially intelligent machines are creating independent aesthetic choices, creating artworks that “doesn’t look like a computer made it” as per the New York Art Critic Jerry Saltz. We’re yet to call these paintings masterpieces, but computer algorithms are making massive strides in creating a visual medium we can recognize as art. Something we can recognize as truly human.
This year’s winner was CloudPainter, created by an independent team headed up by Pindar Van Arman. And whilst you might be willing to write him off as a traitor to humanity, ushering a new age of robot overlords, which may or may not need a Terminator to be sent back in time to sort out, Pindar has a very interesting take on what he’s doing, and what his machine is capable of.
“What they are capable of reveals the point where computational creativity ends and human creativity begins. It was not until I began exploring this threshold that I began to understand my own creativity and what it revealed about me as an artist.”
This is only a powerful insight into the mind of an artist, but it highlights that one thing that makes art human; it’s more than just artistic interpretation; it’s artistic creativity.
The Xstitch magazine has been put together with a whole series of cross stitch artists, making their own artistic decisions in creating patterns based on a brief. That might be something simple as “heroes & villains” or something more contrived they put together themselves, but it’s you, the reader, who has the human touch. You can take the patterns and recreate them perfectly. But they will never be perfect. And the reason for that is human emotion, human experience, and human creativity.
In the first issue, I submitted a Saturn V cross stitch pattern and I spelled something wrong in it. That error got printed. That error got stitched. And that error was stitched by others copying the pattern. But some chose to edit it. Some chose to fix my design to their own needs. Maybe it was spelling, maybe it was an aida choice, maybe it was taking only part of the design. Those are choices that a machine cannot make. Those are choices that only humans can make. And that’s why cross stitch will always be handmade. The tiny changes that make it something more.
This something more has always been around in the cross-stitch world. One of my all-time favorite cross stitches is by Major Alexis Casdagil, a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany. The sampler itself is steeped in Nazi iconography, a means for the Major to please his non-robotic overlords. It’s not something I’d have on my wall, or even in my house to tell the truth. But it has a secret. Along the edge are a series of Morse code messages, denouncing Hitler and praising the King of England. Another cross stitch was a detailed map, officially not allowed, but as it was ‘art’ the overseers couldn’t take it away either. He also stitched a British flag, something forbidden in the camps, with a flap over, meaning to see it the Nazi’s had to open it, where Alexis would exclaim the Nazi officer was actually a secret Nazi hater. He stitched not to create art, or to please anyone else. He stitched to defy.
It doesn’t matter why cross stitch is created, to sell cheap furniture, or to defy one of the worst people in history, so long as cross stitch is created by the human hand, even if machines do it too, cross stitch will always be handmade. It will always be inherently human. On a final note, when the robot overlords to take over, don’t forget to praise their cross stitch.