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Mechanical Drawing the Schiffli Project

What is the MMU schiffli machine?

It is a unique, one hundred year old multi-needle embroidery machine capable of mechanically stitching repeat patterns or images across a two-metre wide piece of cloth. The stitched designs are created by moving a pantograph by hand. Such machines were traditionally used to mass-produce commercial embroidery.

Contemporary schiffli machines are computerised. Whilst this speeds up production, within an art school environment the pantograph schiffli machine provides a unique opportunity to be physically involved in the creation of the embroidered image. The design has to be drawn up six times larger than the finished embroidery; the operator traces around the design, pressing a trigger to make the needles shoot forwards to create the stitches. The slightest movement by the operator is mimicked, in miniature, by the thread on the cloth. The schiffli machine is an amazing, beautifully balanced piece of engineering. It is, in essence, a huge, mechanical drawing machine.

Stitching on the schiffli machine is a very seductive process. There is something magical in seeing an image being simultaneously repeated twenty, thirty or forty times across a piece of cloth; and the rhythmic squeak as the machine progresses is quite hypnotic, if a little noisy. The machine looks intimidating, but is surprisingly easy to operate.

One of the appealing characteristics of the schiffli machine is that the operator does not have to be a textile expert in order to utilise the process, thus artists from a range of disciplines have been able to create work on the machine.

The UK schiffli industry

Used extensively in the 19th and 20th centuries in the UK for the manufacture of decorative embroidery, with a strong base in Nottingham and Macclesfield, the schiffli industry is no longer indigenous to the UK. As recently as the 1990s there were still a significant number of schiffli manufacturing companies operating in the UK. However, as with so many aspects of clothing and textile production, cheaper manufacturing costs in the Far East led to the closure of all the UK schiffli companies who were unable to compete economically with offshore production. The machine at MMU is therefore the sole remnant of what was once an important industry in the UK. It is the last working schiffli machine in the UK. The schiffli project was developed to raise awareness of the significance of this unique machine, and question contemporary approaches to technology, innovation and obsolescence. Using mechanical drawing as the theme, fifteen contemporary artists from a range of disciplines were invited to produce new works that explored the schiffli's distinctive characteristics in the context of their own artistic practice.

The last schiffli

The schiffli machine at MMU is approximately one hundred years old. It is a Plauen machine, built by Vogtlandisher Maschinenfabrik in Plauen, Germany. As schiffli machines go, it is relatively small, with 'only' 86 needles, and a stitching area two metres wide. It was purchased in the mid 1970s from Hewetson, a large embroidery manufacturing company in Macclesfield, where it was used as a sample machine.

Watch a video of the schiffli machine in action.

Schiffli machine with pantograph
Schiffli machine with pantograph Engraving from Les Broderies et les Dentelles, M. Charles and L. Pages, Paris 1906 (The MMU schiffli machine is very similar to this machine)
Name plate on the schiffli machine
Name plate on the schiffli machine
Example of work created on the schiffli machine
Design by Melanie Miller