My Aunt Yetta sewed quilts—and most of her family's clothes—on an antique treadle sewing machine that was powered by her foot.
The next 50 years of technological innovation added electricity and the zigzag stitch—and that was fine. As long as a machine could stitch patches of fabric to one another to create a quilt top (called piecing) and could sew together the quilt's bottom and top layers with batting in between (the actual quilting), we quilters could make our pretty blankets, quietly upgrading from one machine to another without missing a stitch.
Today, though, if you open up a high-end sewing machine, you'll find that inside it's eerily akin to your latest PC—jammed full of printed circuit boards, USB ports, memory cards, and user interfaces driven by touch screens.
Even a modest sewing machine has hundreds of built-in stitches, and the expensive models—wow. Bernina's stitch regulator, a gizmo that attaches to higher-end machines, ensures that free-motion quilting stitches are even; the device reads the movement of the fabric as you push it past the needle and adjusts the motor speed accordingly. One Brother model's LCD offers a "needle's-eye view" that lets a quilter line up the work exactly; precision is an important consideration for many quilting techniques. (One look at my own wandering quilting rows shows why.) Other features recognize the distance between the seam line and the edge of the fabric, even on gentle curves. Quilters care about quarter-inch seams because even slight inaccuracies in quilt blocks, of which there may be hundreds, compound themselves across a quilt that's three meters wide.
An average quilter will be delighted that the sewing machine threads the needle by itself and will never peer inside the box to find the servo motors and light-tripped switches. Almost everything is done in software anyway; in many machines, the only mechanical parts are those servomotors, video controllers, USB connectors, and the needle assembly and bobbin. "For us, it's really printing with thread," explains Dean Shulman, the senior vice president of Brother's sewing division.
The embedded software on a sewing machine's system board is almost all custom written—this is one domain not dominated by Windows Embedded CE. You download updates from the manufacturer's Web site onto a USB key that plugs into the sewing machine. You can also use the USB port to save and copy embroidery designs.
All these features are designed to help amateur quilters get professional results. The high-end sewing machines—which start at about US $6000 and can cost more than $10 000—help quilters work with more speed and accuracy, and best of all, avoid much of the tedium of an essentially repetitive craft.
The tech revolution goes beyond the sewing machines themselves. We can now scan images, create flashy kaleidoscope effects in Adobe Photoshop, and print the results directly onto fabric. Even a duffer like me can add nice touches, such as the engagement photo I put on the label of my niece's wedding quilt.
To be sure, hardware and software bring frustrations as well as opportunities. "Computerized technologies can be fickle and fragile," complains Stephanie Gordon, the owner of Swamp Quilts, in Gainesville, Fla. "I can understand the allure of a very high-tech computer, but I like to stick with the basics. My machine is not digital, but it is high quality, durable, and does exactly what I need it to do."
Still, most quilters have happily moved into the 21st century. "The sewing machine has opened up the gates of faster creative expression," says Bonnie Lyn McCaffery, a quilting book author and instructor who's been quilting for 27 years. McCaffery has learned to create continuous line designs for beautiful bobbin embroidery, using techniques that can't be duplicated by hand.
As in chess, automotive manufacturing, Lasik surgery, and a thousand other activities, human-machine collaboration can be a beautiful and productive thing.
Whether it's mothers and daughters or large quilting bees, quilting has always been a social activity, one in which women (and occasionally men) come together to sew and quilt, sharing experiences and techniques. Thus it's no surprise that quilting has become a "Web 2.0" activity. Online communities are active and vibrant—and have long ago moved beyond e-mail lists, discussion forums, and their modern equivalents, Facebook and Twitter.
Applications like Electric Quilt and Quilt-Pro are customized CAD applications that help quilters design quilt blocks, estimate fabric yardage, visualize patterns, and audition colors. Their online forums encourage quilters to share their completed designs; even a mystery book author (of quilting-related novels) has gotten into the spirit.
This article originally appeared in print as "A Different Kind of Multithreading."