When More Heads Are Better Than One

Multi-Head Workhorses

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.

It’s unusual for an embroidery company to start off with a multi-head, although I remember a couple whose first purchase was a pair of six-head machines. Most often, an embroidery entrepreneur begins with a single head or the two-head configuration—a single-head is always good for personalization or verifying digitized designs.

A two-head can give you two of a kind, two different items that are different colors, different threads, same design, or an embroidered item and a sample for your portfolio. A two-head can also finish those 24 corporate shirts in half the time of a single head and give you a taste of production power. You can produce up to 72 units efficiently while still handling those products that only require personalization… and you have the option to take on more if profit allows.

Production power

Four-head machines are the beginning of the workhorse category in an embroidery shop. They easily handle 73 to144 units—more if profit allows—and they cut production time significantly.

Resist the temptation to pass the saved time and increased earnings onto customers as savings. If the client is happy with his prices, it is no business but yours how fast you create that embroidery. The payment for the machine is coming out of your pocket; putting any saved-time-equals-money on the table for your customer to put in his may increase your popularity, but not your bottom line—and successful business is all about a healthy bottom line. There is an old saying that if you are not making a profit, you have a hobby, not a business. Multi-heads are all about growing a business.

Either a four- or six-head can get production moving, especially if there’s a single head running those names while the multi-head pumps out jacket backs or tote bags. (All images courtesy Super Embroidery and Screenprinting)

Just think of the ways business can grow with an investment in a four-head. Make it work while out marketing for jobs that match its performance by creating “stock” items—products that are generic in nature but can be turned into a unique gift by adding a personal touch with names or individual information. (That single head for names added to a multi-head for increased production is a sweet combination.)

Moving up to a six-head raises production 73 to 300 units and profit possibilities increase as well. A machine of this size can open up the world of wholesale production. Wholesale can be defined as producing goods for resale with a good share of the profits enjoyed by the producer as well as a fair share to the reseller. It comes into play when the units required are plenty enough to demand a discount but too few to qualify for contract pricing. Be sure to determine pricing structure carefully if tempted to offer contract prices at this level. While this number is certainly open to discussion, any shop with fewer than 36 heads should evaluate profit goals carefully before offering stitches at $0.25 to $0.35 per thousand.Either a four- or six-head can get production moving, especially if there’s a single head running those names while the multi-head pumps out jacket backs or tote bags.

Deciding to purchase or add one of these machines calls for important decisions—to stay small and handle things alone or with an occasional helper, or to grow and embrace the paperwork and employees that are required.

More power

The 12-head is a serious machine and can efficiently produce 300 units and up. It is not an investment for the faint of heart, nor is the 15-, 18-, 20- and 30-heads that wait beyond it. These are machines that place shops on the path to large production work. Coupled with single heads for personalization, those with this capability can court larger jobs and offer serious wholesale services. Keeping any other two-, four- or six-head machines acquired along the way paves the path toward contract capabilities. Employees, more square feet and added paperwork are a guarantee at this level.

Additionally, consider multiple cones of thread, extra needles, bobbins and a stash of emergency supplies like extra bobbin cases, which are also required with the addition of multiple heads.

Those with different sizes of multi-heads should think ahead when planning which machine to use for a job. It may seem right to stitch those 96 shirts on the 12-head in eight runs. But, if the design is a small left chest with 1,000 stitches, it may not be possible to hoop fast enough to keep the machine running. Better to schedule it for a smaller machine than suffer the downtime while the machine waits for the hooped goods.


When contemplating any machine, consider the size. Will it fit through the door? I remember watching a large, multi-head machine swinging through the air on a crane while visiting Paris, France. I asked the shop owner if this had been his intention. “No, I forgot to measure the door,” was his answer. The machine took up residence on the second floor.

Is it smarter to lease or buy? Carefully evaluate all options with qualified help. Allowable depreciation on machines offsets the greater deductions of the lease (whole payment as opposed to interest only) but remember, leases often allow users to trade up to a larger machine. Make sure all payments are applied correctly. Never count on someone else to keep track of the payments. I have met several embroiderers who paid long after the lease was fulfilled. In money matters trust yourself first…trust yourself second.

Additionally, consider multiple cones of thread, extra needles, bobbins and a stash of emergency supplies like extra bobbin cases, which are also required with the addition of multiple heads. Thread costs can be reduced by buying the common colors in multiples—then fill in the less common colors by buying a single cone which can be broken into multiple cones using a cone buster. It’s also possible to wind any small amount of thread needed for a design onto metal bobbins using the bobbin winder on your machine.

When contemplating any machine, consider the size. Will it fit through the door?

Finally, do your homework before you buy. I have spoken with many embroiderers over the years that grew their business carefully. One in particular made a lasting impression: She bought one machine and took in enough work for two, contracting out the extra work. When the time was right to buy the second machine, she had work waiting for it. Still, she took in enough for more machines then she had. She repeated this to the point that she now has more than 100 heads and they are all busy.

Buying used

Although it’s hard to think of one man’s distress being another man’s opportunity, the fact of the matter is that some shop owners are changing directions in these difficult economic times. Used equipment can be purchased at great savings. It’s not possible to assume a lease without the participation and permission of the lease owner, so beware of any offers to take over a lease allowing the current owner to make the payments on your behalf. Be aware, too, that the warranty, even on a relatively new machine, might not transfer to a new owner.

Financing for a used machine can be obtained from a used-equipment dealer but isn’t often available on a machine bought from an individual. Check with an accountant before making a cash purchase as it may be better to defer full payment to take advantage of depreciation. Remember that a clean machine is not necessarily a good machine; check in the back where the power cords enter for dust and rust. Have a qualified technician check the machine before you buy. Perform tests such as stitching out the letters O, I, K, T and S. Check the tensions and stitch quality. Ask to see the maintenance record.

Happy growing

Homework is the key to making a decision and making sure it is the right one. More heads can definitely be better than one, but you have to study your market, study your dreams and then use your head to choose your heads.

Buying Used Checklist

There are a number of used machines available for purchase and this is certainly an option that can be explored. However, be certain not to inherit both debt and another’s problems. Here are some questions to ask if going the used route.

• How old is the machine? What are its features and capabilities?

• Are any of the metal parts discolored? This could indicate overheating, under-oiling or other troubles.

• What is the service/reconditioning record?

• Was the previous shop high volume?

• Is there any visible damage?

• Are there parts missing?

• Can the machine accommodate jacket backs on every head? (Some machines are not “stretch” models.)

• How fast can it stitch?

• Does it slow down for long stitches? If it does, is it a gradual speed change (which is easier on the machine)?

• Are there trimmers?

• How easy is it to change from caps to flats?

• How easy is it to thread and reach the thread?

• Are there a lot of hoops available?

• What is the resale value?

• What service is available and who offers it? How much does it cost? Does the cost include travel?

• Is there a manual and how good is it?

• Is there phone support? Is there a cost for it?

• Are parts available? Where is the parts company located? Are they higher priced because of the age of the machine?

• Is there a warranty? Can it be purchased, extended or transferred? If not, ask for a lower price on the machine.

• Is there training available? From the company? The seller? On site?

• What type of power does it require?

• How big a space does it require? Will it fit through the door? 

• How much does the machine weigh? What, if any, floor requirements are recommended?

• How much noise does it make?

• Does it meet today’s OSHA requirements for safety and noise?

• Is it compatible with any other equipment you own?

• What is the track record of the company/manufacturer as far as dependability and service is concerned?

• What is the return policy?

• What is the financial status of the company (if buying from a used machine broker)?

• What is the bobbin size? How easy is it to change the parts and set the tension?

• What parts are plastic, what parts are vulnerable and how easy are they to get and replace? 

• Where can you get a parts list to compare?

• What maintenance has the user or the broker done on the machine?

• How hard is to time the machine?

• Is installation included?

• Can you trade it in?