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Is digitizing right for you?

Part 1: Your Path to Proficient Embroidery Digitizing

Erich has more than 18 years experience as an award-winning digitizer, e-commerce manager, and industry educator. He empowers decorators to do their best work and achieve a greater success. A current educator and long-time columnist, Erich takes every opportunity to provide value to the industry. Find more information on Erich and his publications here.

Bringing digitizing in-house is not a discipline you should enter without careful consideration. Even so, there are simple ways to get started that can take your technique beyond a basic translation of images and turn it into something truly artful. In this series, we'll cover entry into the field, starting with reasons why digitizing may or may not be a good fit for your shop.

The most cringe-inducing reason I've heard for in-house digitizing is this: "I'm tired of paying someone to digitize. I'll just learn how and save money." Though digitizing can certainly become a profitable venture, this is usually a poor primary reason to digitize.

There’s a significant cost in software, and it takes considerable time and effort to learn the technical basics of digitizing and the software itself. Also, consider that there’s a necessary period of overlap where you’re learning and not ready to digitize for production. You’ll be paying both for software and training time while still outsourcing digitizing. Any savings is likely to come sometime after your initial investment.

If money is your sole reason for digitizing in-house, you should crunch some numbers and reconsider. Though every embroiderer should have simple editing and lettering software and enough digitizing knowledge to perform basic fixes and lettering drops, learning to create production-ready, artistic digitizing takes a great deal of commitment.

REASONS TO DIGITIZE IN-HOUSE

That said, there are some great reasons for in-house digitizing.

  1. Responsiveness: If you cater to clientele with impossibly fast turnarounds, producing designs in-house adds immense value. My company frequently works with television and film studios, and there are many occasions in which a prop garment must be created overnight or even in the same day to keep to strict shooting schedules. Digitizing and making rapid changes to their designs on the fly won us their business and tons of referrals. Customer education also falls under this heading. With a skilled digitizer in-house, you have an on-call consultant to help customers understand what can and can't be done with their designs. Immediate feedback can be given during the initial consultation.
  2. Production control: For demanding customers, both in terms of quality and style of execution, you need control of every aspect of the design process. Moreover, if you want every design to run perfectly and efficiently to your own standards, taking up digitizing allows you to apply specific compensation for every garment and process and to the exact needs of your production methods. It allows for fine control of every stitch, and more importantly, when you encounter problems with design, they are easily communicated and fixed quickly. There’s no phone or email tag with out-of-office digitizers.
  3. Creativity: Whether dealing with new production techniques, never-before used materials, textural experimentation, or strange customer requests, digitizing in-house allows you to personally engage in constructive play with your embroidery in ways that expand your abilities and business. Though you can certainly partner with a good digitizer for these sorts of experiments, there's nothing like quick iteration. It's important to be able to digitize, test, refine, and retest on the fly when working on a new technique.

Now, you can have some measure of these perks with an off-site digitizer if you find the right one for your business. I've digitized for off-site clients, and so long as we cultivated a working relationship with good lines of communication and clear working parameters, it went well. Although digitizing for others didn’t allow for direct feedback, responsiveness, and the ability to creatively solve problems on the fly, you can come close with a solid relationship and buy-in on both sides.

WHAT IT TAKES

Those who are interested in the art often ask, “What makes a good digitizer? How will I know if I should try?"  Less charitable souls will even say, “I can draw vector art; it can't be that hard," or, "I'll get the software and just have our artist learn it." Although I don't believe digitizing is limited to a gifted few or it can't be learned, it's not a simple skill.

Years ago, some nine months after I started digitizing full time for my first apparel decoration company, I had a brief conversation with our resident artist. He walked up behind me as I was editing a design, tweaking stitches and nodes with one hand while holding a first-run sample in the other, occasionally replaying the design in preview mode. No sooner than I noticed him watching me work, I heard him sigh wearily.

He said, "I'm glad you decided to do this. Our boss wanted me to do it, and having seen you work, I can tell it's an entire career unto itself. There's so much you just have to know, so much to learn."

Whenever decorators ask if I think they should start digitizing, I flash on the weary look of this otherwise talented, technically adroit, and creatively savvy designer, watching the stitches in that complex piece fly by in that virtual replay. I knew in that moment that digitizing was neither easy nor universally desirable for everyone, no matter artistic or technical skill.

Digitizing requires equal parts scientist and artist; it demands technical precision and a mindset that allows for experimentation and refinement as part of the creative process. At the same time, it requires someone with creative vision who can see the essence of a design, knowing what details are critical and which can be cut or altered to suit the limitations of embroidery. A digitizer must be an interpreter, taking two-dimensional art and rendering it into the three-dimensional, low-relief sculpture that is embroidery, all while maintaining the technical needs of the machine; the sequence that the elements stitch; and the way the thread, needle, and fabric interact.

In short, this has always been my test: If you desire to create in thread, control the machines, and you can imagine yourself pushing control points around on screen, altering settings or even moving individual stitches in the service of your quality, you may be cut out for the work. However, if you dread learning about fabrics and threads, testing designs on embroidery machines, compensating for distortion, or fiddling with submillimeter needle movements to correct registration on small outline fills, you may be happier letting someone else do the digitizing.

All in all, I can't recommend digitizing enough. It has opened opportunities to me and my company that would have been almost impossible to manage with subcontracting. If you want to establish your company as leaders in quality, innovation, and nimble execution—and you yourself are willing to become a technical artist—it can be intensely rewarding.

Looking for more on digitizing? Don't miss part two of this three-part series from Erich Campbell: Part 2: Your Path to Proficient Embroidery Digitizing.