In embroidery, there are plenty of reasons to make that extra push to create top-quality work. A good-looking product can help win new business, and, if you establish a reputation for producing a higher-quality product, you’ll have an easier time setting more favorable pricing. But some simple realities can stack the odds against achieving that goal. For one, if you haven’t realized it already, you’ll find a lot of less-than-perfect work that embroidery customers find acceptable, the thinking being that if the customer is willing to pay for that kind of work, why work harder for it? Another reality lies in the (potential) difficulty level of achieving that highest level of quality. It’s been said that that it takes 20 percent of your efforts to achieve 80 percent quality, but 80 percent of your effort to achieve the last 20 percent. Is it practical to overcome the steeper part of that learning curve and go for “perfect” quality? It can certainly be done. It’s as easy to find top-quality work as it is to find less-than-perfect work.
As an instructor in the field for many years, I’m often asked what those top-notch producers are doing. Do they have some inhuman skill? Are they using some magical machine? Is there a secret formula? The answer (or answers), I’ve found, is that it could be all of that, and at the same time, none of it. Yes, there are some incredibly talented people. Yes, there are great machines out there, and yes, there are those who sincerely believe in their own, secretly-guarded process to produce their magic. I’m a little bit proud that I have helped a few with their process, and helped others with their talent. But I’m far more humbled to have discovered that there are some universal, not-so-magical commonalities in how they are achieving seemingly-impossible levels of quality.
Start at the beginning
The road to quality has a starting point, and to me, that lies at a point long before the production floor, at the very moment when your customer walks in the door or meets with your salesperson to discuss the order for the first time. It is very important that the person in your company that you’re counting on to sell your product should have some understanding of the strengths and limits of what the medium can achieve, especially when compared to other kinds of products that you might offer in your shop, such as screen printing. Embroidery, because of the different textures and layers that stitching can achieve, can produce a 3D, textured look that customers are willing to pay a premium for, and is a lot of what makes the effort to achieve top quality worth it. But those qualities also come with limitations that are not in other media. A single stitch, the smallest element of a design, acts as the finest-possible element in a design, whereas in printing, the finest dot that can define detail is a lot smaller. So, details like fine lines and small text that print very clearly may not be so readable if that same detail was embroidered. Embroidery compensates for this in various ways. There are fonts and letter styles that are designed to work better at smaller sizes than others. A trained digitizer or graphic artist can suggest alternative versions to your customer’s artwork that are simplified in color and detail that have a minimal impact on the appearance of the original. Embroidery also has limitations in the other direction. It isn’t so practical to fill very large areas in with stitching, as this can be very heavy on light garments, and take a long time to sew out. A trained salesperson who knows the industry can suggest alternatives, such as appliqué or simplified versions of the customer art that would work better in embroidery. Showing your sales staff examples of these limitations and strengths or sending them to training can help them provide a realistic offering to your customers, while at the same time setting their expectations about the media as well.
Build a relationship with your digitizer
Most professional digitizers that you’ll hire to convert artwork into a stitch file will understand to some degree how to “reinterpret” customer artwork to be more appropriate for embroidery. Make sure to provide the digitizer not only with a clear image of the art to be digitized, but also the type of fabric or garment that the design will be sewn on, and, as specifically as you can, the size that the digitized design needs to be. This will allow your digitizer to better-optimize the design for that type of fabric. In choosing a digitizer, invest a little and send the same job out to several digitizers, and take the time to compare the results; not just between the different digitizers, but also against the original art. Make notes on what appears better about each design, and don’t be afraid to ask a few questions to your digitizer as well. Well-done designs will take less time to sew, yet still offer solid coverage in all areas, but without feeling too heavy and layered. They should also run smoothly and logically in sequence. Elements of the same color should sew together in sets, with minimal movement between sections of stitching. This smoothness not only takes less time to sew (boosting productivity) but is also less-risky quality-wise with fewer threads needing to be cut and fewer thread tails hanging from unnecessary cuts. Hopefully, you can find a digitizer or two that you feel comfortable with, which can benefit in turnaround times, and last-minute edits. Your digitizer will also start to understand your preferences about a design, improving the chances that they will get your design right on the first try.
An understanding of the way the fabric and digitized files will interact will have an effect on the finished product. (All images courtesy the author)
Train your production staff properly
With a good design in-hand, produced by a professional digitizer, the quality torch passes directly into the hands of your embroidery machine operator. Fortunately, it takes a relatively short amount of time to learn how to run an embroidery machine effectively, so it’s entirely reasonable to expect even a new staff, with proper training, to produce quality product in the first week of operation. Knowledge should extend beyond which buttons to push on the machine. A good training regimen should cover the following abilities:
How to adjust and maintain good thread tension. This is perhaps the single-most important adjustment that can be made to the machine that directly affects
How to set up the machine for each type of job. Which hoop or hooping method is the most effective for the type of item that will be embroidered, which type of needle and stabilizer will be most effective for that job. I highly recommend test-sewing the design on a similar fabric or on extra copies of the garment to be sewn.
Basic maintenance checks on the machine. Embroidery machines are relatively easy to maintain. Keeping them oiled in the right places and the occasional cleaning to keep the thread path free of dust and other interference can go a long way. During maintenance, a check-up routine should also include the occasional test-sew to verify that the machine is stitching consistently on all colors, and is cutting thread cleanly and effectively between sections.
Keep your ear to the ground for new trends and products. In my 20-plus years of teaching embroidery and digitizing classes, I can honestly say that the foundations described here for creating good-quality embroidery have remained more or less the same over time. However, customer preferences are an ever-moving target. Cotton golf shirts have given way to “moisture management” polyester. Taller ballcaps are popular again where they weren’t before, and we’re putting more complex stitching on them than before. Mass production of embroidered patches is being done completely in-house using just an embroidery machine, where a separate merrow machine was also required. These trends and more have forced embroiderers to be creative, but the supplier market has answered with specialty stabilizers, hoops, and other products that make this easier. Once you and your staff have become confident in producing most jobs, invest a little and visit industry trade shows, read industry magazines, and find industry-related content on the internet that can help prepare you for these shifting trends.
Proper training of both sales staff and machine operators helps every department have a better understanding of what a realistic final product will look like.
In the never-ending quest for quality, always keep an eye open, both inward to ensure you are consistent in maintaining your machine’s performance as well as maintaining consistent practices between you and your staff, and outwards for whatever else may be coming over the horizon.