Now That I've Got It ... What?

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.

Now is not the time for regrets, and I would have regrets of my own if I did not start out by saying that research before the purchase is paramount. A fellow embroiderer recently shared with me that her one regret during her purchase experience was that she didn’t research her software selection with the same vigor as she researched her machine choice.

And I say Amen, to that. This is an important decision—so much so that in my seminars at the Printwear Shows I stress that the choice of the editing/digitizing software is more important than the choice of the machine. Support and training on the software is ongoing, but digitizing education is perennial.

I also make sure to tell my students that they should not be unduly swayed by the salesman’s assurances that the software that comes with the machine will work better than any other. The same embroiderer told me, “I wish I had not trusted the machine dealer to talk me into a program that no one else seems to own. I feel like I am all alone with the software as I have never found anyone else who is running it. But I am comfortable with it and reluctant to change.”

Digitizing software and embroidery machines are not married—they are just keeping company. And they can choose to change the company they keep if the deal is sweeter with another partner. Sometimes a machine company will decide to develop its own software (or ask for a private branding of an existing software with or without modifications) as that is the sweetest deal of all—they can “give” it away with the machine, or sell it for more profit than one that is offered with a profit-sharing partner.

If you have any doubts that digitizing software and machines are “independent,” ask yourself why there are digitizing systems sold without a machine. Because any software will create designs that will run on the machine of your choice. You can buy your machine from one company and your digitizing software from another . . . and the argument that you “need” to have your warranties with the same company so there is not confusion or finger-pointing when there may be an issue is bunk. It won’t take you long at all to be able to determine if the problem is machine or design oriented. You will know which support line to call.

Choose a software that is user friendly. Ask to use it, not just watch a canned demo. Another veteran embroiderer told me, “One of the reasons I chose my software was because I tried it out first. It ‘felt’ the most comfortable.”

Carry a graphic on a jump drive to the show and ask them to digitize that—not just show you their pre-planned dog-and-pony show. Use the Internet to find groups such as the Embroidery Line (embroideryline.net) where people will share their experiences, good and bad, and ask about other forums that are dedicated to users of that brand of software. Try to find groups that are independent of the company, where the good and the bad are presented with no company moderator’s interference.

Whew. Now that I’ve gotten that off my mind, let’s look at what you can and should do now that your decision has been made and your digitizing future awaits you.

Installation and training

The first questions you should ask—and get the answers in writing—are, “How much training do I get? Where do I have to go to get it? How much more training is included? Is there any charge for any subsequent training?” You also need to ask about updates and upgrades. It will cost you money to upgrade to another level but, if there are updates to your level, what will they cost, if anything. Ask if technical support will cost you, even over the telephone. (Ask these questions and get the answers in writing before you buy.)

Go to the training. Take the time, even if you have to invest money for travel and expenses, to avail yourself of everything that comes with your purchase.

Take along some graphics of your own, maybe some designs that you are planning on creating for potential customers—or even some “speculation” designs, accounts you hope to land—and train on those. You will be a step ahead when you get back to your shop or studio.

Consider taking your laptop with you and let them walk you through the installation of the software. You will be ready and able to install it on any other computer if you have done it once. If you don’t have a laptop ask them for a phone assisted installation.

There are certain features that attracted you to the software. Perhaps it has a split satin stitch—a stitch style more durable for wide areas than a satin but not as stitch-intensive as a fill. Perhaps it has a lot of fonts and powerful manipulation tools and you bought it because you have a call for lots of lettering. Ask specifically to work on those features that drew you to the purchase.

Ask about default settings. At one of my first experiences with software training, I was told that this was “too advanced” for a beginning class. Let’s label that as bunk right now. All software has defaults. Microsoft Word defaults to a document. If you want to do envelopes you have to know where to go and how to change the default settings. In digitizing software, the stitch length, the density (or span) of the stitches (how many are packed into a given space), and more are assigned values. These can be changed. While it is true the more experience you have the better choices you will make (taking, for example, the target fabric into consideration) you still need to know why they are set as they are, where to go to change them; and then you will let experience and the trainer’s experience (if you are lucky enough to be trained by someone who really digitizes) teach you when to change them and why.

And that’s a good question to ask as well: “Does the person who will be training me know how to digitize and how the fabric and other factors affect the choices made in the process, or are they just qualified to teach me what the buttons mean?” The answer can make a world of difference in your progress and your preliminary view of digitizing and if it is a good fit for you. It is no different than the effect your first teachers (including your parents) had on you as a child. The presentation of and patience during your training will impact your potential as a digitizer more than you can imagine.

Networking

Remember those Internet groups you joined to educate yourself about your software decisions? Those will stand you in good stead as you continue to learn. The beauty of the global ‘Net is that there is always someone awake somewhere so, even if you are burning the midnight oil as you ascend your learning curve, someone somewhere will be bright-eyed and willing to help.

Webinars are great ways to learn. The magic of being on the same page with someone else on your computer to facilitate your learning is an amazing tool. Perhaps your software trainer or company will assign you a mentor (or you’ll find one on your own) and you can meet on the computer and trade the mouse control back and forth as you learn.

One of my Embroidery Line friends told me that her trainer quit and she didn’t know who to contact for more help. Don’t anticipate trouble, but do be aware that things happen; anticipate ways in which you can mitigate the fallout. Ask the questions. Write down the answers. Ask for a backup. Try to meet that person as well when you go to your training.

I love meeting—in person or on the web—with folks who use the same software I have, then swapping control of the program and showing tips and tricks we have learned along the way. I love the artistic side of digitizing. Others concentrate on the practical creation of corporate logos. But there are many things we can learn from others no matter what their area of expertise.

Partner in your education with those who love to create animals, lettering, flowers, landscapes—you never know what serious tools you can discover. When you end up being able to make your digitizing software do more than the developers knew it could, it is a real rush.

And don’t think that you can’t learn from those who use different software packages—you can. The industry tradeshows have seminars on many different digitizing subjects. It is a good idea to learn from many different teachers. And the experience of networking with others who are learning can be a great benefit as well.

Practice makes perfect

I consider being a digitizer akin to the doctor who practices medicine or an attorney who practices law: We will be practicing and learning forever, and we will only get better.

One of the toughest things we learn when we venture into digitizing is that what we see on the screen is not what we get when we stitch it out; it takes a happy accident (or years of training) to get a design right the first time. It can be done: Be assured, there are master digitizers out there who don’t need a machine to verify their designs. But in the beginning, you will.

You will learn about push and pull and how to compensate for those things. This doesn’t need to discourage you—just be aware that physics enters the picture when the substrate is the least bit moveable. Your results will be affected by the way you hoop, the backing you choose. Two people can sew the same design on the same fabric with the same backing and get different results just because the tightness—or not—of the hoop is a personal thing.

Use outgrown clothing, lengths of goods from the fabric outlet, different types of textiles gleaned from the Goodwill store to sample your designs. Pay attention to how the stitches behave better or worse depending on the stretchiness or firmness of the substrate. Make notes and you will soon learn to compensate as you digitize—because you have educated yourself to the reaction of the fabric to the needle and thread which is driven by the stitch length, density and more—decisions you make as you digitize.

Digitize a chart that you can stitch on different fabric types. Change the underlay and density in a formulated manner so you can see at a glance what works and what doesn’t.

While you learn

Sometimes embroiderers decide to venture into digitizing in order to keep the money “in-house” (which can be false economy if you’d rather be stitching or if you find sitting in front of the computer isn’t your cup of tea.)

It’s always okay to use a professional digitizer to get the job done in a timely fashion or to cover the complicated designs while you are learning. As one veteran embroiderer told me, “I’d rather have a great end result than be able to say I did it all myself.”

It is also always okay to want to be able to do nothing more than manipulate existing designs, create good and varied lettering and have flexibility. When you know you are not interested in digitizing as an end in itself, this can change your expectations of what you want and need from your software. This can be a good thing—there is nothing wrong with knowing what you want, even if there are limitations to it. 

Make sure you follow up

Make sure that you present yourself for training as often as you are allowed—or you pay for—if you are a serious digitizer-to-be. When you upgrade to a new level, you should get more training. If you find you are too busy embroidering to get the training, you need to consider hiring help to stitch, sending someone else to get the training if your fate is not digitizing, or just remaining comfortable with the skills you have for editing and lettering and letting a dedicated digitizer take care of the rest.

That’s one good reason to start out at a mid-level with digitizing software. You want to be sure of your interest as you gain experience and your improving skills allow you to face more complex designs fearlessly. Investing a fortune in a process for which you  never have a flair or a software in which you really have no interest would be a foolish move. Better to learn the editing and lettering end of things first and see if the interest and talent are present before you purchase the level with all the bells and whistles. 

Understand the why and the how

Embroidery digitizing software is more than just a program in a box. It is a challenge to understand designs that are embroidery-related—which necessarily factors in things such as color, fabric and the intended use of the final product.

Do you want the hues to blend, the lettering to stand out? That’s color. Do you have stretchy, woven, fragile or hardy targets for your stitching? That will affect your choices in stitch length and push and pull compensation. That’s the physics of fabric. Will your embroidery be worn day-in and day-out, or framed for posterity? The answer to that affects your choice of stitch types.

This can mean a lot of sew-outs on a lot of different substrates but is an exercise that seeks perfection and allows you to learn about your software from a very practical point of view. And this is an amazing gift of knowledge to give yourself whether digitizing is your destination or not. It will make you a better embroiderer as well for, when you understand your substrate, you are more prepared for excellence.

Digitizing for embroidery is more than the screen-based art destined for print; it is based on fabric and that factors in a dimension that demands an evolving digitizer do more than what the software “allows” or the trainer tells then to do.

And, in the end, whether you find that you never want to do more than merge designs, create lettering and consult a professional digitizer for the rest, your business will be better for the understanding you have of the fabric and stitches that are the common denominator of embroiderer and digitizer alike.