Here's to the Little Stitchers

With over 35 years in the embroidery industry with particular emphasis on writing, education, and digitizing, Helen Hart Momsen is widely published in the trade press. Momsen founded and moderates the Embroidery Line (www.embroideryline.net), the longest continuously running internet forum for apparel decorators. A sought-after speaker for many years for THE NBM SHOW, Momsen has authored two ground-breaking books on professional embroidery, available at www.Helenhart.com.

Recently, I visited a wonderful store in Maryland to look at some sewing machines. The dealer, who had an impressive set-up, also sells embroidery machines designed for the “home market,” although I know quite a few professionals (business license and all) who have the same machine.

In the course of our conversation she told me that the Little Stitchers (my name for the hobbyists in the embroidery arena), are quite grateful to the professional (industrial/commercial) segment of the industry because there is quite a trickle-down effect. Designs, support, education—much of which is developed for the larger market—is available to the home sewers and makes their stitching easier and more efficient. They also enjoy going to the trade shows and seeing what is new and what it would take to move up to the world of professional embroidery.

I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the Little Stitchers, even though I do not come from that background. There were no smaller, less-expensive computerized machines when I started out—in fact, there were no computerized machines at all. I spent the first seven years of my journey with a freehand machine, hand guided and dependent on the operator for everything. How far we have come in such a short time!

I meet a lot of hobbyists in my seminars at the Printwear Shows and can see, shining in their eyes, the enthusiasm and commitment that brings them there. They are very engaged in the embroidery process, very engaging in our conversations. I welcome them as members of my Embroidery Line (EmbroideryLine.net) as they can gather lots of information and education there about copyright issues and the sharing of designs, the bottom line (which becomes important when they make the move to the professional level) and the importance of quality digitizing and stitching.

At first I worried that there might be some criticism from the professional embroiderers/digitizers who are members, since resentment often bubbles to the surface in discussions that concern the hobbyist (not to be confused with a professional working from the home front) and their attempt at competition (read “lower prices”) with the commercial embroiderers in their area. But so far it has been smooth sailing, perhaps because most of the hobbyists are silent members and just soak up the information. And when they do post (most members don’t know their background unless they share it), they have many tips and tricks to share that are helpful even to the professionals. I have found the work of this segment can be very detail-oriented and the design and color of their end-product often borders on art. This “crossing the aisle” can be beneficial and motivational for both sides.

Vendors and buying

At one Printwear Show, I was making my way through the exhibit hall, looking at what was fresh in product lines, visiting old friends and making new ones. At the end of one aisle a display of baby clothes caught my eye. I hear so many requests on the ELine for new and different clothes for the little ones, so I stopped to ask for a catalogue.

The vendor, reading my badge and seeing the SPEAKER ribbon, took the opportunity to ask some questions of his own.

“Maybe you can tell me, there is something that is bothering me. I go to many shows that target those who do embroidery as a hobby. This is my first time at a professional trade show. But I’m not sure if this is the place for me.”

“Why not,” I asked—always eager for the show to grow and for booths full of exciting products to share with my seminar attendees.

“Nobody is ordering anything. They compliment my product, ask for a catalogue and move on. At the shows I attend for the home sewers, the orders come fast and furious. They seem to have money to burn. I would think the commercial embroiderers would have even more to spend.”

I lingered at his booth, listening to his stories and trying to see things from his point of view. But, before I left, I told him how I viewed the situation.

The home hobbyist, I said, makes a lot of gifts for friends and family. Perhaps they participate in bazaars and craft fairs. They are more of a “speculative” buyer, taking a chance things that tickle their fancy will appeal to others as well. They are more willing to spend what might be disposable income or even go into debt to have different and appealing products.

Whereas the professional/commercial embroiderer, I told him, is involved in a business, not in a hobby. They are conscious of the bottom line and most are unwilling to stock their stores or even buy samples until they poll their customers or perhaps just browse your catalogue and think things over. They might have partners to consult, business managers who expect to be involved in purchasing decisions. But your catalogue will be filed and, if they have a call for what you offer, they will contact you to make an order. You are planting seeds for future sales that may be much larger than what you enjoy at the home sewing shows.

I don’t know if my words encouraged him or not. I will have to see if he is at any of the shows this year. But the encounter underscored for me the differences I already see and sense between the two camps—the Little Stitchers and the pros.

Vendors and selling

Another booth that caught my eye sells backing and thread. The company was new to the show, having come from the home market. They had many samples of embroidery that showed off the quality and diversity of their backing products.

In a discussion with the person in charge, I made the suggestion that they get samples of shirts, jackets and caps from the vendors at the show and stitch designs on those, perhaps making extra samples to put in the booths from which they got the garments. This would show off their backing products on samples that make more sense to the attendees at a commercial industry trade show. Lampshades, quilts and lace bowls are beautiful (and might always appeal to artistic types), but the commercial houses are geared to large volume and the bottom line. These attendees might have a hard time translating the backing used on that lampshade into something that can be used in a garment-decorating contract house.

Showing is always more effective than telling, I told him. Show how your backing translates into their world and you will generate interest on both sides at the show.

Like the baby garment vendor, this exhibitor had a notion of how things are at a trade show based on experience gathered in the home markets. There are many similarities, but the differences need to be addressed if the end-result is to catch the eye, the interest and the business of the professional.

Vendors and pricing

I was surprised to learn (some time ago, so things may have changed) that some of the stock design companies sell to the home market at lower prices than they sell to the commercial industry.

Perhaps they feel that the commercial embroiderer makes more and so can spend more. But my feeling has always been that the professional with all the proper credentials, licenses, overhead and the like is entitled to the best price. They are in business to make a profit.

This is the same philosophy that I shared with these two vendors that I spoke with about their wares at the commercial trade shows—and a price list that shows a respect and deference for the commercial embroiderer who has invested in his right to buy at wholesale prices is a plus. Home hobbyists with no legal business standing should never get the same price break as the bona fide business. And the end user should pay retail. The only business-license holder who might be entitled to a better price break is the volume buyer or, in the case of the backings and threads, a retail store that has to purchase minimums for stock. This is putting it simply, but the end result is that those who make the investment reap the right to the best price that allows for profit.

I am always surprised (guess I should be over it by now) when no proof of license is required. I hear tales about the hobbyists who buy at the wholesale price and then break the product into smaller lots to sell for profit to fellow stitchers.

When I approach a vendor, I want to see a price list that honors my license and investment and does not reward those who do not make the same commitment.

Peer-to-peer respect

I am so aware that it is not a perfect world. Many a day I listen to the news and think of a perfect solution “if I ruled the world.” Having said that, I will add that I am always dismayed when I hear stories about embroiderers who criticize the quality and pricing of work that is brought to them for a bid.

Tell them what you can do for them. Tell them about your commitment to quality, I say in my posts on the Embroidery Line and in my seminars. But don’t tell them what is wrong with the work they are showing or the price they paid. You demean the decisions they have made. And it is never good to build your business by stepping on the backs of your competitor. Keep it positive and you will reap the rewards.

So, you can imagine my distress when I received a booklet in the mail that is actually the inspiration for this column. The cover of the book reads: Every 24 Hours Another $54 Million Dollars Is Up For Grabs! I opened it up and read its scant 28 pages, learned I can get 75 percent profit by selling for a company that provides logo’d apparel.

Seventy-five percent with no investment in machinery or training? I wondered. Still, I do advise many in my classes to seek a contract house rather than turn down jobs larger than they can handle, so I’m on board so far.

But wait. In order to be an “independent representative” I have to pay $159 plus $17 shipping and handling to get the “package” that contains the copyrighted program: “order-getting strategies,” a large color catalogue and “much more” (with a statement that leads the reader to feel lucky they are not being charged “thousands of dollars” to enter the company’s “inner circle.”)

You also receive some “free” gifts for a timely response, including a shirt embroidered with the company logo and another book that tells how to make big cash in this business. A money-back guarantee is offered (30 days) and, after you reach $2,500 in sales, you can even get your $159 back.

So, what’s wrong with investing $159 that you can get back in order to be a sales rep with a 75 percent commission? Nothing. Would I make such an offer if I had a factory that was capable of filling the orders generated? Probably. Would I make such an offer, jobbing out the orders generated to an off-shore company if I didn’t have my own equipment? Possibly, if the profit was worth the bookkeeping and administrative headaches.

So what’s my beef?

Page eight. And I quote: “You see, almost all logo apparel that you currently see has been produced by small ‘mom and pop’ operators. But here’s the problem. These dinky bandits are buried with orders that they can’t even keep up with, and they don’t want anyone to know about it. They want to continue to charge their high prices and hold this industry hostage.”

Like I said, negative never wins. I send you a hug this month—from one “dinky bandit” to another. Nolo illegitimi carborundum.

—HHM