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Avant-Garde Embroidery and Digital Design

By Rebecca Huval

Graphic designers (and sisters) Maricor and Maricar Manalo were thrilled by the opportunity to create a music video for the indie band Architecture in Helsinki. They gave an enthusiastic yes to the unusual request for hand-embroidered stop-motion animation, but there was one hitch.

They didn’t know anything about embroidery.

“If we had understood the process in the beginning, we would have been more freaked out,” Maricor says. Maricar adds, “We were sewing during the daylight hours and then working on the animation at night. It was a crazy and sleepless couple of months. We subsisted on coffee, chocolate and Thai take away.”

Click above to watch the stop-motion animation.

That was 2008. Before that embroidery crash course, the sisters had created stop-motion animations using sculpture and model-making and were drawn to textural layering. Embroidery brought it to a whole new level. “It was that tactility that really excited me in the beginning,” Maricar says.

Today, the Maricor/Maricar studio specializes in the hand-crafted. The Sydney-based sisters stitch lettering and illustrations that are sharp, stylish, and anything but stodgy. Clients have responded to their digital-meets-analog design process: They’ve worked with Wired Magazine UK, British Council Australia, Hong Kong Airport, and TOMS Shoes, among others.

TRAVELING TOWARD INSPIRATION

But before their current success, the sisters questioned if there was an audience for their analog work. “At our lowest point, Maricor gave me a necklace with the words ‘Don’t Give Up’ to remind us what we were working toward,” Maricar says.

Then they found a grant that could turn it all around: Realise Your Dream from the British Council Australia, which funds exceptional creative workers on a two-month trip to London to advance their careers. “I hadn’t even told my boyfriend I was applying for a grant that would mean moving to the United Kingdom because I thought it was such a long shot,” Maricar says. “But we busted our asses on our application.”

To their surprise, they landed it, and the journey changed the course of their business. Their U.K. visit stretched to 10 months, and during that time, they found a well-honed tradition of artisanship and fiber arts, including some established embroidery studios. Arguably more important, they found clientele who respected embroidery.

“It gave us the confidence to think there was a commercial value in embroidery as illustration,” Maricor says. “Before, we thought of it as a hobby or a craft; it felt like it wasn't commercial enough. But we were doing something different, and people responded to that.”

They signed on with the illustration agency Handsome Frank and started landing British clients. Today, the majority of their work comes from the U.K. and the United States; Australian clients have been slower to respond to their style.

BEHIND THE SCENES OF “BE EXCELLENT TO EACH OTHER”

Most designers would shudder at the prospect of client feedback when changing a color means restitching weeks of work. However, the Manalos have come up with a creative process that blends digital design and handicrafts at just the right moments. Follow along as they explain the steps that led to the finished version of the phrase "Be excellent to each other."

“We like to use phrases or quotations that have a little tongue-in-cheek humor or that subvert the hyper-optimistic, ‘be happy’ slogans you often see. ‘Be excellent to each other’ is one of our favorite ‘happy’ quotes. It’s from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure."

“I started off with a very rough pencil sketch to plan out the basic letterforms and hierarchy for the words. I knew I wanted to mix hand-drawn lettering with clean geometric type, so these initial sketches let me test the balance between the lettering styles.

“I usually fill a page or two with quick lettering studies to loosen my hand before I get a nice-looking concept. I used a brush-tip marker to sketch out ‘Excellent to,’ trying to keep the lettering loose. After that, I refined the letterforms a little using tracing paper and pencil."

“I then scanned it, opened the digital file in Adobe Photoshop CC, and began to make adjustments. You can see that the brushed lettering is much more refined than the geo lettering.”

“For geometric-style lettering, I usually create a skeleton pencil sketch and develop most of the letterforms directly in Adobe Illustrator CC. Once I was happy with the letterforms in Illustrator, I copied the paths into a Photoshop file and kept them editable as a Smart Object so I could make adjustments in Illustrator later.

“For the color mock-up stage, I used a photograph of Australian native flowers for inspiration. I color-picked my main colors and saved them as swatches to have them handy. I ended up going back and forth between Illustrator and Photoshop to apply the color since I was editing the two lettering styles separately. This is where having the Illustrator elements saved as a Smart Object is important.”

“To color up the brushed lettering, I created a mask of the design on a layer group that contained solid layers for all the swatch colors. With our lettering, we like to mimic watercolor and painted textures, so I used Photoshop brushes that give a painted and dry-media effect. I then brushed on color with these solid layers using masks."

The Manalos showed the files to their client, going through a few rounds of client back-and-forth.

"I keep the colors separate at this stage so I can change them easily, but you end up having the same color always on top, which doesn’t look natural. So once I knew the palette was working, I added a layer above where I applied more paint, this time using all the colors on the one layer to make the painted design look less uniform.”

“This is the final digital mockup that I used as a color guide for the embroidery. Changes during the embroidery process are harder than hitting the undo button so, for commercial work, we make sure this mockup is as detailed as possible for the client.”

Photo: Lucy Leonardi

After the client signed off on the design, the Manalos could finally grab their embroidery hoops. The sisters don’t look like stereotypical cross-stitchers in rocking chairs; rather, they use a floor stand to hold the hoop so they can sew with both hands. Still, their shoulders and back get sore. “Hours of sewing do take their toll!” Maricar says.

“The painterly effect we tried to simulate in the digital mockup is translated to the embroidery, with some of the stitches feathering off or scattered.”

To speed things up, they sewed at 75 percent of the final scale and magnified the stitching in Photoshop. Even so, embroidery accounted for the majority of their time. They often log six-hour days of knotting and threading. Maricor takes the daytime shift; after putting her three children to bed, Maricor picks up the needle where her sister left off.

“Once the embroidery was finished, we captured a high-resolution raw digital photograph and edited it in Adobe Lightroom CC. This usually includes fixing white balance and exposure, making sure the shadows in the stitchwork give shape and texture to the stitches, and also a little bit of color correction and sharpening.”

“I did the final image processing back in Photoshop, where I further edited the exposure to fix light fall-off on the bottom right corner. At this stage, we also sometimes clone out marks on the fabric and do more detailed color correction, if necessary.”

TONGUE-IN-CHEEK AND CHEEKY

As they near a decade of this type of work, the sisters have evolved their sense of style. They started out averse to traditional crafty motifs, such as florals, but they’ve recently reclaimed and subverted those themes. On their Etsy page, their sassy attitude and experiments come out. “Don’t worry be happy,” one reads, with chipper dots and circles. Flip it over and you’ll see a different message, stitched on top of the shaggy underside of all of those knots. It's a prime example of their tongue-in-cheek response to stereotypical uplifting quotations.

In the coming years, the Manalos hope to push embroidery to new places, adding more of the textural interplay and layering that attracted them to handcrafts in the first place. They want to incorporate painting and even tubular wire into their designs. But first, they have to start giving their passion projects as much credence as their client work.

“I need to work on not getting burned out as much,” Maricar says. “We have so many ideas and don’t always do them. My mantra is, ‘Stop thinking, keep doing.’”