Emerging embroidery add-on options: S-t-r-e-t-c-hing Stitches to New Potential

We all know what they say about something that ain’t broke. Well, the embroidery industry needs no fixing. Tried and true old craft as it may be, plunging a needle, picking up bobbin and laying down top thread remains laden with creativity as the reshaped embroidery wheel keeps rolling toward new and interesting possibilities. After all, no one ever said if it ain’t broke, don’t mix it.

Stirring things accordingly, the greatest thing since sliced fabric, according to Hirsch’s laser expert Henry Bernstein, is an embroidery add-on technology that’s bridging the gap between science and apparel embellishment, with a few possibilities and a lot of potential.

Burnin’ time on the cutting edge

Bernstein waxes nostalgic about computer-driven devices of yore. “At the Bobbin Show, they actually had stadium seating to show this cutter and that’s all that was talked about. ‘Wow, did you see the Gerber? Did you see what it does?’ ”

From manual to computerized, the next leap in embroidery technology may take a leap of faith to fathom. That is, until you see it in action.

In their cutting capacity, lasers have changed the ways of appliqué. Instead of ordering or creating an appliqué, properly placing and stitching it on—and everything in between—a piece of fabric is positioned atop a garment, sewn on, and the laser unit beckoned. Sliding along its bridge into position, it shoots down a beam to cut the pre-stitched design around the edges, and the remaining fabric is then peeled away.

“Using a beam laser cutter to cut your appliqué during the embroidery process not only assures perfect execution every time, but also eliminates the need to place the individual appliqué pieces,” reports Ken Parsons of Ricoma.

Incorporating a bridge laser system overtop embroidery heads facilitates another appliqué-tion altogether: reverse appliqué. During this process, fabric is stitched inside a garment before the laser slices a design through said garment’s surface, the severed pieces of which are then removed to reveal the colorful or patterned fabric below.

Advantages of appliqué done differently exceed even these efficiencies that eliminate preordering and a good portion of prep work thereafter, and Bernstein discusses the possibilities.

“I put the fabric down, I stitch it out and then I come back and laser it off. It’s huge!” he asserts. “But now, think about it this way, I can do this and it’s all driven by the computer, so I can do fancy shapes, I can do infinite detail work, I can do pieces four or five milliliters thick. Things that could never be done before.”

Yet, still, is the machine’s etching capability, which has only the laser in common with the aforementioned appliqué, says Parsons: “Laser cutting and etching, while using the same technology, produce very dissimilar results. Laser cutting is great for creating multiple layers of appliqués and huge designs quickly and easily for corporate-identity sweatshirts and jackets and any other large embroidered designs. Laser etching can be used with embroidery or on its own to create monochromatic photorealistic images.”

Laser etching, or “burnin’ fabric” in Bernstein’s words, takes a polar-fleece garment, for example, and basically engraves or melts the synthetic fibers, leaving a wisp of smoke and a unique design in its wake.

“This is money,” Bernstein states. “That’s ten seconds of application, and I’m not using thread, I’m not using bobbin, I’m not using backing, I’m not using adhesives, I’m not using inks, I’m not using any materials, I’m not even hooping this garment.”

The key, he says, is high perceived value and lower production, and there may be more in store.

“We don’t know what the potential of this concept is,” says Bernstein, “because the creative minds haven’t gotten to it yet. Some of them have, but unleash this and there’s going to be an explosion of creativity and design.”

Mix maestro

In the meantime, lasers will continue to lend their beams to embroidery inconspicuously as they help align the elements in mixed-media motifs. While not technically added on to embroidery machines, direct-to-substrate, transfer, sublimation and other popular processes provide image add-ons and fill the demand for combined designs.

“We’re getting asked a lot for mixed media,” reports Melco’s Mike Angel. “More than we are for the add ons.”

Embroidery plus additional embellishment equals reduced production time and costs in Parsons’ eyes, who comments: “When mixing media in a design you gain depth, more textural interest and a finished product that is much more exciting than one created using embroidery alone. While of course there are many instances when you would want to use each one of these techniques on their own, it is when you combine them that the end product shines brighter than the sum of its parts.”

Alignment, he admits, is mixed media’s Achilles heel, remedied in part by the positioning laser which projects markings to center a partial design before embroidery completes it. Overlapping designs also benefit from receiving all layers from the same position, as with the bridge laser system.

“The biggest problem you will encounter when tackling any multi-media project is properly aligning the two techniques,” Parsons points out. “That is the major achievement of the beam laser, as all applications are being performed on the same machine at the same time, this problem is eliminated. The same is true for multi-function embroidery machines that have tandem heads, such as chenille and standard embroidery.”

What’s next, perhaps, applies the traditional add-on model to outlying technologies, further blending mixed media’s separate systems to make them actual embroidery attachments.

This compilation, in Bernstein’s opinion, is not far off. “How do we make digital and embroidery and laser work together in a seamless operation where one can follow the other without too much disruption of application?” he wonders. “People are doing it, but there’s a process of events, a lot of steps that are right now requiring separate environments. But if there’s a way to smooth it out and bring all the parts and pieces together, someone’s going to have a home run.”

One example of a step in this direction is a company out of Spain with a specialty heat press shaped to fit within a hoop for transfer/embroidery mixed media, enabling an embellisher to hoop, press and embroider in fewer strokes.

In sequins

Make new friends, but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold, sings the old Girl Scout maxim, which fails to consider sequins—an old friend that’s both silver and gold.

“Fashion trends drive our development,” says Melco’s Angel. “We decided sequins made the most sense for us to have, not chording and boring.”

He explains that while sequins are more in line than some other applications with the business of current core customers, its sparkling is segmented and being seen less and less.

“We see it in specialty products, in customers that offer things that are niche for them,” Angel reports. “Sometimes it’s cheerleading or dance. It’s just a very small percentage of our customers that have found sequins as a niche product within whatever they do for their community, their market.”

While it may be limited to dance duffels and cheer carry-alls domestically, a huge offshore market calls for eye-catching stitch outs to match.

“I saw sequins in China on giant multi-head machines doing big sashes of material,” Angel recounts. “They were mass producing big lines of fabric to cut them, assemble them into other garments.”

This single piece of fabric stretched out over fifty-six embroidery heads, each armed and ready to use sequins in its repeating design, was likely cut up and sold at retail, Angel guesses: “I think the difference is mass-produced products you see at retail stores versus the custom-product industry. Sequins are a little more prevalent still in the retail market than in custom stuff.”

If the decorated-apparel industry follows retail’s lead on this trend, its future looks bright and shiny.

“While sequins are mainly used in the decoration of accessories such as hats and bags, their possible uses are really endless,” states Parsons. “Because of their celebratory connotation, they are mostly used for give-aways at fund raisers and other events. However their wide-spread use in mainstream fashion should become an impetus for expanding their use in the corporate-identity market.”

Parsons brings up another embroidery add-on effect that’s visually and tangibly stimulating.

“Chenille embroidery is also gaining popularity. This is mainly due to its bold and unique look and its textural character. It is very popular in the sports, auto racing, concerts and collegiate markets.”

Chenille, however, can be achieved without adding on, according to Angel.

“We decided not to bring back chenille, but add a chenille effect into our software. So the same machine can make that stitch pattern.” Adjusting the thread feed makes a chenille effect without a dedicated machine possible. “Even with this effect and being able to do letters for lettermen jackets, we just don’t see the requests, we don’t see the push to justify building a machine to do it.”

A new and true embroidery addition that can also be used to punch up feel appeal replaces a normal needle with one of thicker-than-average stature.

Needle punch, according to Barudan America’s Frank Barbieri, plunges this chunky device into the fabric and pulls up felt from below, lending a fuzzy look and hand to the design.

Stay tuned to these and other new-wave developments. With creative minds in embroidery still churning, inventive contraptions are sure to roll in and add onto the old, producing something new.