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Greetings, printers! Yes, I’m talking to you. If you're flipping through the embroidery section of this magazine, you must be curious about what we do on the needle and thread side of the industry. I can tell you that embroidery is as fun as it looks, but there are plenty of things you need to know before you add embroidery to your lineup. I've learned that there are many misconceptions about our work as embroiderers that can erroneously affect the decision-making process for long-time printers who want to be first-time stitchers.
Let’s examine two of the most important questions printers usually ask when I’m consulting and follow up with a rapid-fire list of the considerations they’ve usually missed. Read this, and you’ll be better prepared to decide whether you’re ready to add embroidery to your shop. Don’t worry; I won’t tell the other printers you’ve been hanging around with the thread-heads.
The most common question I receive from printers is, “What’s the cheapest machine I can use to get started? Can I just use this home embroidery machine?”
If you use the cheapest machine that can embroider a garment, you’ll never make enough money to make the work worthwhile, or you’ll be frustrated enough to quit. At the worst, a printer will show me a small, single-needle home machine from a big-box store with a four-inch
square embroidery area as an example. Though even I have one of these for fun, they aren’t suited for commercial work. A sub-$500-dollar home machine may seem like a minuscule cost to enter a new business segment, but you will waste a tremendous amount of time. These machines’ top speeds (which they do not maintain throughout a design) are far less than half the speed possible on a commercial machine. They can’t change colors automatically; each color requires an operator to re-thread. They have a very limited design size. They are difficult to mount flat garments on, let alone the torturous methods they use to turn cap-crowns into a flat medium, all while limiting their embroiderable area. They are great for a few pieces of craft work, not day-in, day-out commercial embroidery.
Printers may avoid starting on the home machine but ask for commentary on used commercial offerings with obvious problems. Often these are machines that have sat uncovered and abused in storage areas for years, require extensive repair and parts before running or are made by abandoned brands that make finding parts and service near impossible. Though I wouldn’t balk at a properly serviced used machine, the lowest-priced options are likely to have technical issues. This could break a new embroiderer’s desire to pursue the process. A shop’s early experiments in embroidery should consist of time spent learning basics and refining operator practices. With outworn machines, it’s more likely spent repairing and troubleshooting or spending more money than the machine is worth rehabbing it with a tech in an attempt to chase the initial sunk cost.
I will play around on a home machine and sample concepts, but with an unsustainable top speed of 600 stitches a minute, an area of 4" X 6" in the largest hoop, and only a single needle, this is hardly a machine that's ready for professional, profitable production at scale. (Image courtesy the author)
If you are serious about bringing embroidery in-house, the best thing you can do is find a reputable source with proven support and available technicians. Whether your machine is new or used, be sure that you have access to parts and services in your area. You will have enough to learn without the constant possibility that your machine is either not designed to do what you want or that it’s not in good condition. At first, it may be hard for you to know the difference between problems with your technique and problems with your machine. You want to start with a machine that runs well; a capable commercial multi-needle machine with a large sewing area and solid support from the manufacturer or dealer. In the best-case scenario, that support may include training not only in the maintenance and operation of your machine but often in the embroidery itself. Remember all the additional benefits before you tally up the total value of your purchase and compare to the auction special. Ask careful questions of the dealer, be specific about the market you’re addressing, and make sure you are getting the tools you need to service your clientele.
In short, can you embroider with an underpowered home machine or a semi-functioning used commercial? Yes, I’ve done both myself when the need arose. Should you? Not at this stage. You want to learn the proper method to operate and avoid wasting effort and resources. This is particularly true if you are already a successful printer. You don’t want your embroidery capabilities to be so out of balance with what you can offer as a printer that your customer can readily see the difference in experience.
The second question I commonly hear is, “Which digitizing software does the best conversion? How can I learn that quickly?”
Once again, this question shows so many misconceptions that it’s almost hard to break down. First, I assume printers rarely think, “I am about to buy a press, but I want to make my own designs, so at the same time I’m setting this up, I’m going to become a graphic designer really quickly.” The metaphor may not be perfect as far as relative difficulty, but learning to digitize is a very complicated process. The best digitizers I’ve known embroidered first, having run machines with other people’s designs for months or even years before they learned to digitize. Some specifically started as operators with the aim of understanding the way the designs are put together and how design, machine, embroidery supplies, and garments interact. In short, you must learn a great deal of embroidery before you learn to digitize well. It’s only in knowing that interaction that you can make the best attempt at learning to digitize.
Embroidery knowledge is based on a foundational understanding of how machine, needle, thread, and fabric come together and what influences they have on each other. Auto digitizing tools do a fair job on very simple pieces, but even with natural and fairly uncomplicated pieces, artistic choices are only made by a digitizer who works at least somewhat manually. (Image courtesy of the author)
The second problem is believing that digitizing is a conversion process like turning a PNG into a JPG—it is not. It is a reinterpretation of a two-dimensional art source into a three-dimensional embroidery. Done properly, it takes into account the distortion specific to the materials the file is intended for, all while understanding and dealing with the restrictions of embroidery as a medium, the artistic opportunities provided by thread, and the proper sequence for items that prevents excess distortion. Auto-digitizing software is part of major digitizing suites, and it has gotten better over the years, but it’s not up to the task of creating detailed designs. It has to be used with a realistic idea of what it can achieve. That said, a “quick” path to great manual digitizing is hard to come by. It requires you to know a great deal of how embroidery works. Though you can take time as a digitizer to develop the “eye” for how thread can be used to enhance a design, simply being able to address different types of materials and the unique ways they respond to being embroidered is necessary, even with simple designs. After all, it only takes one filled element with a border to reveal that you don’t know how to keep elements from shifting out of registration with each other.
There’s no shame in being an embroiderer before you are a digitizer. Contracting out your digitizing work, especially at first, is a great idea. If you can find a quality digitizer, running their files with careful observation is an education unto itself, and better yet, if you can spend some time working with a seasoned embroiderer before you run anything yourself, you’ll be well ahead of the game. Find an embroiderer/digitizer who wants to learn your brand of printing and trade experience. It’s a win-win solution.
With the all-important questions of machine and software (mostly) out of the way, here’s a list of some quick-hit topics that tripped up my printer friends on their way to adding embroidery:
- Materials matter. It’s incredibly tempting to buy that auctioned-off box of bulk thread from a shutdown shop to start your collection, but don’t do it without getting your hands on the goods. Old, poorly stored thread may be brittle and break more frequently. If you can snap the thread with little force, it’s probably going to do the same on the machine. The same goes for using materials that look like real embroidery materials, but aren’t. Stabilizer is dimensionally stable. It holds up to the distortion natural to embroidery machines. Coffee filters and dryer sheets just don’t do the same job, even if they bear a passing resemblance.
- Embroidery machines need constant maintenance. Though not all oiling points need this much attention, the hook has to be oiled once every four to six hours of operation. Other points need weekly lubrication as well, and the machine must be kept clean and lint free; not just to keep garments tidy, but to avoid problems with tension on the thread path. This is just part of the work it takes to properly maintain a trouble-free machine and avoid downtime.
- You must watch the machines. It may be advertised that you can set up, start the run, and walk away. You’ll even hear embroiderers say that they do so, but the likelihood of catching a problem before it’s critical or understanding what went wrong in a given run is exponentially less if you can only judge by the final sample. Watching the run, particularly when first-time sampling, is critical. In doing so, you will understand sequencing and fabric distortion more readily, and even better, you’ll never crash your needle into the hoop (breaking your reciprocator in the process), even if you forget to trace the design to check placement.
- Quality is affected by multiple production variables. The digitized file is a key part of the process, but hoop tension, stabilizer type, machine speed, garment material, and supplementary supplies like topping can all affect the finished quality. It takes care to do each of these things correctly and experience to troubleshoot a flawed final piece.
- Design files aren’t universal. A digitizer sometimes must adjust designs for a particular garment or fabric to create the best outcome, and most designs can’t be resized much. A design made for finished caps must start embroidering in the middle nearest the brim and stitch out from the center and up from the bottom. This isn’t the case with designs for flat garments. Size is also critical to embroidery designs. The thickness of thread is a constant and the density (how close the stitches are placed in relation to each other) determines coverage of the base material, how dark shading looks, and the feel or hand of the finished piece. There are also minimum and maximum stitch lengths that can run correctly. This means some designs can’t be easily resized, and even with those that can, much more than a 15 percent alteration may considerably change the look and feel. Shrink the design and stitches get too dense and details crash together. Expand it too much and there’s extra space between details and straight-stitch shading looks thin and sparse.
New embroiderers are often surprised that designs aren't universal for every combination of material or able to be endlessly resized. In the case of this design, it was created specifically for 3D foam. Many assume that you can throw foam under any satin-stitch detail and the material will do the work, but designs like this tribal heart have almost twice the density of stitches in a standard satin stitch design and have special transitions and end-caps to hold the foam together or cut away the excess respectively.
Left: New embroiderers are always shocked at how much difference stabilizer can make. Many may even use the right stabilizer type but use it incorrectly. (Images courtesy the author) Right: I learned my craft on this well-worn machine. By all accounts, it’s a lovely machine that was very capable and easy to use. That said, buying one now that is dis continued with parts and service, both becoming more scarce, would not be the best bet for most beginners in the field. (Image courtesy the author)
As you can see on this multi-head machine, you have to keep the thread paths very clean for the machine to stay consistently tensioned. (Image courtesy the author)
I hope these possible missteps don’t scare you aware from embroidery. The truth is, embroidery is an excellent addition to your shop. It has a high perception of value and is still the choice for your hats, outerwear, high-end sports shirts, and all manner of gift items and accessories. Embroidery, particularly if you are starting with one or two single-head machines, also serves as a small-run, low-setup option for traditional screen printers. With the recent flourishing of patch-collector culture and fashion embroidery, there’s more and more demand to justify adding it to your capabilities. You can start small, but do it the right way. Get equipment once you can afford something worth running, overlap outsourcing with qualified embroiderers until you are comfortable, and give yourself the time to learn before you decide to digitize in-house. I can’t recommend this craft enough. I and those who love it are here to help you learn.