Getting Started with Embroidery

  Scott M. Ritter is president of and has written over 150 articles for various trade publications. He is the author of the book Jumping in with Both Feet: A Guide to Starting an Embroidery or Screen Printing Company, has served as a board member of SGIA, speaks at a number of trade shows, and has developed software for the screen-printing industry since 1990.  

If you own a company that offers screen-printed garments to customers—and as you’re reading this magazine, it’s likely you do—it is almost inevitable that customers are going to ask if you can provide embroidery for them as well. It’s only natural. Customers will assume that, if you offer one form of garment embellishment, you can probably do other types. That’s nothing new.

I started my screen-printing company in 1983. Within months I started noticing ads for the new computerized embroidery machines showing up in the trade publications and, by 1985, we had enough customers asking about embroidery that we installed our first machine.

The equipment and the industry have changed dramatically since then, but the basics for deciding when to get into embroidery, how to transition to the new tasks, and deciding what equipment to buy has changed little over the decades . . . except that it’s gotten easier.

Are you ready to offer embroidery?

In business, it’s rarely a good idea to say “no” when people are offering you money. Likewise, there’s really no reason for any screen-printing business to turn down embroidery jobs.

You may not have an embroidery machine, but there are plenty of contract embroidery companies who make it their business to supply companies such as yours with embroidery service on demand. There are also plenty of nearby embroiderers who would love to form a strategic partnership with screen printers to supply their embroidery needs.

In short, you have lots of embroidery supply options even if you know nothing about embroidery or have no equipment of your own. You just have to do a little legwork to set up a supply chain before a customer asks you for a price, so that you can quote embroidery with confidence.

It’s also good business planning to know what kind of customer base you could expect if you added in-house embroidery to your existing operation.

Most business people would say that starting a business with a guaranteed customer base and an immediate level of sales that will sustain the business is a dream come true.

Adding contract embroidery to your existing offerings until you feel comfortable buying your own equipment is one way of attaining that dream.

By offering embroidery and “farming it out” to another company, you can gauge how much embroidery work is available to you, and determine a level of sales at which it would be profitable to bring the work in-house.

Of course, there are pitfalls to be avoided in doing this. The only thing worse than having a customer refuse the shirts you embellished is having a customer refuse the shirts you paid somebody else to embellish.

You need to be confident in the workmanship you will receive from your supplier and you need to know how your supplier will stand behind its work before you stake your reputation on somebody else’s quality.

Also, most printers hate giving up control of the production process, so you might have a difficult time convincing yourself to do this.

Embroidery is a very different business from screen printing in many ways, and getting comfortable with the aspects of selling embroidery before you start producing it can eliminate one stumbling block when making the transition.

Possibly the biggest adjustment that screen printers must make when they start embroidering is changing their concept of time and money.

When you screen print, you have a business where your equipment is relatively inexpensive, and you can make a lot of money per hour when you are printing. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of sales to keep your equipment running all day, every day. Most beginning printers have plenty of hours where the press is idle.

Embroidery is just the opposite. Your equipment represents a larger investment, and you won’t make nearly as many dollars per hour running embroidery jobs, but it doesn’t take a lot of sales to keep the equipment running all day, making money at a constant rate through the day.

Which machine to buy?

Printers looking to start embroidering always ask which machine is best. If you asked a room full of screen printers which company makes the best manual screen press, how many answers do you think you’ll get?

Each printer wants something different, and has a tendency to prefer a brand he’s worked with. If you ask ten different embroiderers which machine is best, you’re likely to get nearly as many answers. Nearly every brand of machine has a user that will tell you there is no better choice than theirs. Even many embroidery-machine salespeople will concede that there are no “bad machines” out there. The best machine for you depends on your budget, and a number of factors you might not have considered.

If money were no issue, I’d tell you to go buy the most expensive machine you can find, and you’ll probably like it. But money is usually limited, so you’re probably going to look for something you think will do what you want for the least amount of money, and that’s a good place to start your decision-making process.

With embroidery machines, you’ll usually get what you pay for. More money will usually get you more features, better reliability, additional mechanical precision, or a combination of all three. 

Features you might need include the ability to sew on finished caps; that’s an “add on” for many machines, even though nearly every machine is sold with the attachment.

Also check out the size of the sewing field. If you think you’re going to have plenty of call for large jacket-back embroidery, you don’t want to buy a small or “portable” model that won’t sew large sizes.

As for mechanical precision, let me just say that the pricey machines usually handle the difficult task of sewing very small designs better for a longer period of time than less expensive brands or models.

If you add embroidery to your shop, you will eventually discover that there are few worse feelings than when you have to finish a large order by tomorrow and your machine just quit sewing. Embroidery machines are complex pieces of technology so, no matter which brand you buy, you’ll likely face that dilemma someday.

There is a selling point when picking a machine that is more important than price, features or even precision—support. I often talk to people who are contemplating buying their first machine, and they are torn between two brands. When I ask them to consider what they are going to do when the machine dies just when they need it most (if it’s going to die, that’s always when it decides to do so) their decision usually becomes crystal clear.

Training and support are the two biggest features you need to get when you buy a machine. If one brand you are examining has an office within 100 miles, and the other only has an office on the other side of the country, and you can’t reach the salesperson without leaving a message. . . . Well, I think you get my point. Service trumps price or other features every time.

Training ranks second after support. When I bought my first machine, I had to travel 1,500 miles to the factory for three days of intensive training. Getting training is lots easier today, but there’s more to learn too. You’re not only going to need training to operate your equipment, but you’ll need to learn to use the software, learn to perform routine maintenance and simple repairs, and learn some basics of how embroidery works.

You’ll need to evaluate the training offered and determine whether it will be adequate for you. I know that’s asking you to do a lot of guessing, so I’ll just add that the ability to continue your education after the original session and get further help is very important too.

Embroidery machines require a continuous program of maintenance—nothing like a manual screen press. This will all be covered during your training, but be aware that you’ll have to adopt a continuous schedule for oiling, greasing, adjusting, and even computer-file maintenance.

If you don’t feel confident in performing this maintenance, make sure somebody from your company who will be responsible for maintaining the machine attends the training session too. Having a repairman visit frequently is prohibitively expensive, so there should never be a day your embroidery equipment runs that at least a few minutes maintenance won’t be scheduled.

With good maintenance, even the cheaper machine selections will give you good years of service. A final word on maintenance is that, as the price tag increases, the “useful lifetime” of the machine normally increases too, and the frequency of maintenance required can decrease due to things such as automatic oilers.

Supplies you’ll need

Most embroidery machine companies offer some sort of a starter kit of supplies. Usually, the one they include for free with the machine will barely give you an idea of what each supply does, and the ones they sell—while usually a great value—are also usually grossly inadequate. There just won’t be enough of what you need there, so get the kit and then start adding on.

Among the supplies you need are pre-wound bobbins. Plan on one bobbin lasting about one or two jacket backs or five to eight caps. I’d suggest having two boxes on hand if you plan on having your machine running any amount of orders right away, and see what you need to stock from there.

You’ll also need a good selection of thread colors. I recommend that you start with about 15 to 20 basic colors of thread on hand, and be ready to order other colors as you take orders that need them.

Unlike ink, you can’t get by purchasing a few basic colors and custom mixing what you need from there. If the starter kit offered by your salesperson includes up to 30 colors of thread, that’s usually a good start and probably includes a well-conceived selection. If there are 50 or more colors, there may be cones of thread in there you’ll never use. (So don’t let your head be unduly turned.)

I should also mention that there is a world of difference between thread brands; again, you’ll usually get what you pay for, and cheap thread is no bargain when your embroidery machine breaks it every few seconds.

“Backings” or “stabilizers” are a concept that is completely foreign to most screen printers entering the embroidery world. Nearly every garment you embroider will need a backing of some kind behind the fabric to stabilize and hold the thread in place, and there are different kinds of backings for different fabrics.

Your salesperson will be able to recommend a selection of products, but you’ll get the best selection if you can tell them what kind of work you plan to do. Be ready to explain what portion of the work you expect to perform will be embroidered on knit fabrics versus woven fabrics, and what size designs you’ll do most—that is, caps, shirt crests, or full jacket backs.

There are a number of tools you’ll need as well, and many of these tools are considered “consumables”—you’ll use them up, wear them out, break them or lose them, and need to replace them regularly—such as scissors and trimmers. Make sure you have a few sets of trimmers, and more than one fabric scissors. It’s also a great idea to have a few “seam rippers” on hand in case you have to remove stitches from a garment. Yes, unfortunately, you’ll end up doing some amount of this at some point. You can get these from most sewing stores.

One slightly pricey tool that might seem superfluous is a hooping device. While it’s true that you don’t strictly need one to hoop garments for sewing, having one will pay for itself quickly in the number of garments that you won’t have to reject because of badly placed embroidery. I recommend getting one before you sew your first garment.

Something your salesperson might not offer that you also need is a very high-quality electric-surge suppressor. Considering the value of your investment in embroidery equipment and the value of keeping it running, the best surge suppressor you can buy is a great, cheap investment.

Besides a good surge suppressor for the machine, you can now get “whole-building” surge suppressors that install right on your electrical meter, protecting your entire electrical service, computers, embroidery machines, the works. I’d highly suggest one of these in addition to the individual ones for your computers. You can never be too well protected.

What software should I get?

I’ve had conversations where people have told me that they are buying a machine from one brand, and considering software to run the machine from somebody else. While I’d say that you can buy your digitizing software from your vendor of choice these days, the software that feeds designs to your machine isn’t usually up for discussion.

If you own a computer (and if you don’t like computers, commercial embroidery is not for you!) have you ever attempted to call a tech-support line? You’ve probably already learned that whatever problem you are having, the tech will likely tell you it’s caused by something other than their product on your computer. This is Murphy’s Law, Corollary #3527. Do you really want this scenario to unfold when you need help with your embroidery machine? Getting the machine and basic software together, as one package, is just plain smart. If you don’t like the machine and it’s software, you should look to a different machine.

Now comes the tough part. You’ve never operated an embroidery machine in your life, and the salesperson wants you to decide which software features you want to buy. How do you decide? Obviously there will be a basic package. This package helps you sort out your designs, add lettering to the designs, and send the design to the machine. Everything starts from here, and lots of add-ons are usually available. Most software packages offer some version of the following additions:

Design editing—Editing a design will be more than just slightly daunting when you first try to do it. In short, you’re not ready to perform or learn this when you first take delivery of your machine because you won’t know enough about how embroidery designs work yet. Unfortunately, it won’t be long before you’ll need it. If you could set up your training so that you could learn the basics when you take delivery, and learn this a few weeks later, that would be great, but that’s usually not possible. Design editing is a feature you can’t really do without, and with some basic software packages, it’s included anyway. It may be inconvenient to purchase and learn this when you buy your machine, but you still need it.

Digitizing package—Everybody is entitled to their opinion, and it’s my opinion that there are few things more detrimental to your learning to digitize than getting digitizing software with your first machine. Others will disagree. I feel that you can’t understand digitizing until you’ve seen how designs that other people created are “put together.” In short, you really need to know a lot about embroidery, how thread interacts with different fabrics, and how to stabilize designs before you can create your own designs. It may seem foolish to own a machine and not be able to create your own custom designs for it, but I recommend that you spend six months to a year sewing designs other people created before you attempt this yourself. As you watch those designs sew, you’ll wonder why the digitizer did what he or she did; often, you’ll also figure it out by the time the design finishes sewing. You won’t have that advantage if you never sew other people’s designs.

Auto-digitizing package—Many basic software packages either come with a “scan-and-sew” feature, or offer one for little money. If yours doesn’t offer one, adequate ones start around $300. Get one. Even though the auto-digitizing software might prove adequate for only 10 to 30 percent of the custom designs you need to make, that 10 to 30 percent solution will pay for itself in no time. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking you can deliver a design on which it didn’t perform well to a customer. Embroidery is all about quality. Even once you are ready for, and purchase a full digitizing program, you’ll still be thankful every time somebody brings you a design this feature can handle adequately.

Stock-design package—When I bought my first machine, there was no such thing as a stock-design package. These days, buying a machine without a stock-design package is like owning a drawing package with no clip-art. Although some may argue, I say get all the designs you can within your budget; one day you’ll be glad you did.

Pulling it all together

I hope some of these brief ideas help you in finding the right machine. The one last thought I’d like to share applies to buying embroidery equipment as well as it applies to any other large purchase: Do your homework. Investigate the machines available using the Internet from the comfort of your own home or office, and read up on embroidery technology so you can ask the right questions. If you can get to a trade show where your local dealers will be showing, do it. Besides just the show-special pricing, you’ll be able to compare brands side-by-side and get answers to your questions.