Embroidery machines are special purpose sewing machines which produce elaborate embroidery on fabric by following a computer design. This design can either be user created, come standard with the machine, or be created by a third party and purchased for use on the machine. Embroidery machines are made possible by advances in computer technology. A recent innovation in home sewing, embroidery machines were first commercially available in the 1990s, at a fairly steep price. These machines have certain stored patterns the user can access, similar to computer programs.
As with every technological advance, embroidery machines are rapidly becoming both less expensive and more capable as time goes on. Now you can purchase software that works with digital input to turn a photo or favorite artwork into a machine-readable embroidery pattern for use in your embroidery machine. Some machines will both sew in the traditional sense and sew embroidery patterns as well, although the recent trend is for a separate machine for embroidery only, with a traditional 'sewing only' machine used for regular sewing. A whole industry exists now to create patterns for use in embroidery machines.
It is of historical interest to note that Charles Babbage, widely believed to be the first to invent the programmable computing device in the 19th century, borrowed the concept of storing machine instructions for his Analytical Engine on punch cards from those used in Jacquard looms. These looms were the first mechanical devices to use stored instructions, in this case on cards with holes punched in them, to direct the pattern of the cloth being woven by the machine. Jacquard's punch cards inspired Babbage's, which became the earliest form of input for the new computing devices that were created in the 1940s and beyond. Now the computing field returns the textile industry's favor, with machinery, software, imagery and digitization bringing the ability to transform any piece of cloth into a fabulous tapestry of colorful imagery.