Rhinestone technologies

Shine On!

Deborah Jones is a second-generation embroiderer who has been involved with computerized embroidery for more than 30 years. She shares her knowledge through magazine articles, seminars and private consulting and her two books, Machine Embroidery on Diffi cult Materials and Dimensional Machine Embroidery. Jones devotes much of her time to developing educational videos and products for embroiderers through her website www.myembroidertymentor.com.

For decades, embroiderers in Europe have incorporated all kinds of personalization and decorating types to their offering. They frequently offer services such as engraving to make the most of the relatively small pool of buyers.

But embroiderers in the United States, with its larger customer pool, often prefer to outsource personalization or decorating methods outside of their specialty rather than adding capabilities to their shop. The depressed economic climate is changing this and causing embroiderers to try new techniques that add appeal and increase the price point.

You may have noticed that stones, studs and nail heads are adding interest to embroidery and imprinted apparel of all kinds—and the look is still trending heavily. Driven by ready-to-wear fashions, many embroidery shops are now adding bling to their creations.

It’s clear that companies supplying U.S. apparel decorators noticed the trend and quickly scrambled to serve this growing market. There are even start-up suppliers dedicated solely to the production of stock and custom bling. Like crows, humans are attracted to shiny objects and flock to trade shows to buy goods and equipment that give them the capability to sell bling.

Methods to the madness

Many embroiderers start out with bling using fairly low-tech methods. Some actually glue single stones in place, using special washable glue made for this purpose. Others go the route of applying individual “hot fix” stones with an inexpensive heated wand. Hot fix stones have special glue on the back that melts when heated. Simple heat tools for applying hot fix stones can be purchased at hobby stores, but better tools are available from industry suppliers. One of the most effective uses a small vacuum accessory to pick up the stones and hold them while the heat passes through the stone, melting the glue. The vacuum continues to hold the stone while it is applied to the garment.

These lower-cost application methods are used mostly for “sprinkling” bling of any kind around an embroidery design or to highlight specific parts of a design. One benefit is that stones and studs of any color or size can be mixed easily in one creation. It’s easy to experiment by placing the stones around a design to see how they look before applying them permanently. One of the biggest benefits to sprinkling stones around an embroidery design is that it appears much larger, filling more space than the embroidery design alone. Even two or three strategically-placed stones can make single initial monograms come to life.

Taking these methods to the next level are simple stencil-like templates to place hand-applied stones accurately. The simplest are made from paper or card stock with openings where stones are placed manually until adhered with the heat wand.

More sophisticated templates are made from thicker vinyl-like material. The holes are cut using a vinyl cutter or engraving machine to a specific size. The size of the opening correlates to a designated stone size. The stones stick in the openings when brushed across the stencil. A special self-adhesive plastic is then applied over the stones, picking them up to create a transfer that will subsequently be applied using a heat press machine. This method greatly speeds up both the stone placement and the application to the garment.

Both methods allow embroiderers to update designs and consistently create repeatable bling patterns. But most stitchers who get involved with stones quickly move up to the next level—creating stock and custom stone transfers with a machine.

Bling machines

Rhinestone transfers are made quickly and efficiently using automated equipment that operates in a similar way to embroidery machines. Designs are produced in specialized software that is sometimes a plug-in module to embroidery software.

This makes it easy for an embroiderer to combine the two decorating methods in a single design. The bling portion of the design is saved in a format for the automated rhinestone machine and the embroidery portion, if any, is saved in a format for embroidery.

The automated equipment usually has two to six hoppers that hold the stones. Each hopper contains one size and color of stone. The benefit to more hoppers is the ability to use a mixture of colors or sizes.

The stones or studs are picked up from the hoppers and placed onto the sticky transfer paper by a swing gun. Efficiency is coupled with precision to create exquisite transfers for stand-alone use or to be combined with embroidery or screen print.

The cost of the equipment ranges from about $14,000 for a complete package for a two-hopper system to around $50,000 for six-color or multi-station machines. The payback can be surprisingly fast, with many owners adding more units or trading up to larger machines, according to equipment suppliers.
For several years, these rhinestone-setting machines have been making their way into decorators’ shops. But also, since bling transitioned from fad to trend, appliqué and transfer companies are also using this equipment to move into the lucrative area of supplying stock and custom rhinestone transfers.
Many transfer companies that traditionally produce and market screen-printed transfers are now selling stock and custom rhinestone transfers as well. In past years, industry trade shows had only one, or possibly two vendors involved with stones. Now, it’s hard to go down any aisle without seeing a vendor that offers bling or bling equipment in some form.

Market opportunities

Any of these options will open up a world of opportunities. An ordinary embroidered shirt or cap with a selling price of $20 can suddenly jump by $10 or more with the addition of even a few of the sparkling beads of light, even though the stones themselves have an almost insignificant cost factor.

Good quality Korean stones can be purchased for around $30 to $50 for 50 gross of the popular SS10 (3mm) size. The highest quality stones from Austria and the Czech Republic cost much more, but good-quality Korean stones have excellent light refraction and adhesion at a much lower cost.

Markets range from bridal to cheer and even cowboy bling. Walk around any consumer event such as dog shows, gift markets and craft fairs and you’re sure to see bling artists selling their wares. Buyers at such events have become used to seeing embroidery offerings, and sluggish sales can be fueled by impulse buys when bling is added to embroidered goods.

An area that remains somewhat undeveloped is bling for logos. The opportunity is huge for trend-seeking embroiderers who recommend jazzing up logos for styling salons, restaurants and other casual businesses. So, add bling to your embroidery offering and sales (and your customers’ logos) could look brighter soon.