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An Introduction to Embroidery

Copyright © 2014 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in June 2014, Volume 39, No. 12 of The Engravers Journal
Today’s embroidery machines are computer controlled and can be used to personalize all types of garments and cloth items. Photo courtesy of EMbroidery Exceptionally Made, Tucson, AZ.

   If you’re already working in the recognition and identification industry, then you know that personalized garments and goods are all the rage. Everyone likes to see their name or an image that has significance to them on items they own, but what if the item is a jacket or a sweatshirt or a tote bag? What’s a good way to personalize these items?
   Sublimation works for polyester fabrics, but not for anything else. Inkjet transfers are a possibility, but many inkjet transfers will fade after a few washes. Screen printing can be a great option, but it requires a lot of specific equipment as well as chemicals and it is not cost effective for onesies and twosies. Direct to garment (DTG) printing is an option for garments, but printers, especially those with the white ink technology, can be costly, and DTG printing can have a steep learning curve.
   When it comes to personalization there’s one option that works for garments and a variety of other items in almost any kind of fabric, is non-toxic, has a learning curve that isn’t too steep and can be entered into on almost any reasonably-sized budget—and that’s embroidery.
Why Embroidery?
   Embroidery is the art of using colored thread stitches to create designs on fabrics. It’s a high-end form of personalization that has many applications and that appeals to a broad range of customers.
   One of the main reasons why embroidery appeals to so many people is that it has a hand-crafted look that exudes class, elegance and attention to detail. And even though today’s embroidery machine technology allows for easy, automatic stitching in a very short period of time, embroidered items do not look mass produced. If you take a close-up look at an embroidered design, you can see that literally hundreds and even thousands of stitches come together to form an intricate, colorful pattern. And because of the prestigious, hand-crafted look of embroidery, this personalization method commands a higher price.
What Is Machine Embroidery?
   For those who are unfamiliar, machine embroidery is actually what the name implies—embroidery that is done by a machine. This process is how monograms are placed on towels and logos appear on the left chest of countless corporate polo shirts. It’s also used to create the 3D major league baseball team logo on the hat that you bought your son for Christmas and the monogram that decorates your sister’s travel mug. While most people think of machine embroidery as being solely for garments, embroidery professionals are also embroidering waterproof boots, duffel bags, blankets and other cloth items, as well as creating embroidered designs for use with drinkware, compacts, stuffed animals and a wide variety of souvenir products


Embroidery can be used for unique applications, such as these shoes from H & H Embellishments, Lawrenceville, GA.

   The process of machine embroidery starts with the machine. Today’s embroidery machines are computer controlled and can have one head, which means they have one sewing field and can sew one item at a time, or it may have multiple heads, where each sewing field can sew the same design on separate items concurrently. Some single-head embroidery machines can be linked together to form a multi-head machine.
   Sewing heads on computerized embroidery machines are outfitted with needles. The number of needles dictates how many colors you can sew in your design in one setup without having to change the thread color. The number of needles varies with the machine, but generally the maximum is 16 needles on one machine.
   The cost of embroidery equipment varies greatly depending on a variety of factors, such as the number of heads, number of needles, the sewing area size, stitching speed and other features. Generally speaking, a “home” embroidery machine costs around $900 or less, while a single-head commercial machine starts at around $8,000 and multi-head machines start at around $15,000.
   The design files for the images to be embroidered are specially digitized for embroidery and can be either purchased or created with embroidery digitizing software. Once the design file is loaded into the machine, the item to be embroidered is placed in a holder or hoop to stabilize it, and the hoop is positioned under the needles on the machine. The design file then dictates how the item and the needles are moved to properly reproduce the artwork.
   While the learning curve for machine embroidery may not be as steep as it is for some other decoration methods, there are techniques that need to be understood and practiced. Many machine manufacturers and salespeople offer training courses in how to use their embroidery machines, and it’s always wise to take part. These courses can teach you things like how to adjust the thread tensions and proper hooping techniques. How an item is hooped, for example, can impact how the design sews and the appearance of the finished product.


 

Tote bags are just one popular application for embroidery. Photo courtesy of Sassi Designs LLC, Seabrook, TX, a manufacturer of specialty bags.

   Another piece to understand about machine embroidery is the relationship between digitizing and the success of the finished product. Digitizing is the process by which designs are created for machine embroidery. A properly digitized design is key to producing a saleable finished product. An improperly digitized design can cause hours of headache and result in a product that is unacceptable. Many embroiderers will choose to have their designs digitized by professionals, as digitizing does require an understanding of how the thread, fabric and machine work best together.
Where Can I Sell Embroidered Products?
   If you’re already offering personalized products, embroidered items can be great “me too” products. If you sell trophies, machine embroidery would also allow you to offer team jackets, team shirts, stadium blankets and other sports-related items. For those who sell wedding gifts, embroidery opens up the option of offering embroidered handkerchiefs, ring pillows and monogrammed items like throws and towels. Adding embroidery to your existing business offers you the opportunity to upsell every customer by offering additional personalized items.
   Also remember that you’re by no means limited to selling just embroidered sweatshirts or polo shirts. Some machine embroiderers create stuffed animals for christenings and births. Others create wall hangings to commemorate life events. Hats are a big market for many embroiderers. There are even people creating monograms for travel mugs. The limits of your embroidery machine are dictated by you, the products available and what works best for your business.


The SWF 1501C is a compact, portable single-head embroidery machine available from ColDesi, Inc. Embroidery machines are available with multiple heads to sew separate items with the same design concurrently. Photo courtesy of Ensign Emblem Ltd., Traverse City, MI.

    Like embroidery machines, businesses that offer embroidery services come in all sizes. There are large corporations with hundreds of sewing heads and there are people who have a one-head machine doing embroidery out of their homes. Some companies are designed to be small, creating machine embroidered works of art that can be sold on sites like www.Etsy.com. Other companies are combination personalization shops, offering machine embroidery and screen printing or machine embroidery and sublimation. Some shops will specialize in a specific type of embroidery, only doing sports gear or corporate wear for example. Other shops will embroider a wide variety of items as need and their customers dictate.
    The market for embroidered goods is also ever-expanding as new products become available and embroidery professionals discover new ways to use embroidery machines. For example, new stabilizers have allowed for embroidery on waterproof garments. (A stabilizer is the backing for the embroidered design which prevents the material from puckering and slipping.) The development of puffy foam and the specialized digitizing it requires has allowed for 3D embroidery, which is increasing rapidly in popularity, particularly when it comes to hats. Embroidery machines are also evolving and are able to run at faster speeds and offer increased production. Many companies are also developing or updating the software that runs their machines, making it more flexible and easier to use. The updated software has also, in some cases, made it easier for new embroiderers to enter the market. If you can use a computer, you can run an embroidery machine.
What Do I Need to Get Started?
    When you’re starting out with machine embroidery, the first thing to decide is what sort of machine you want to purchase. Embroidery machines are generally broken into two types, home embroidery machines and commercial embroidery machines. Home embroidery machines are smaller, usually with one head and between four and ten needles. Commercial machines are larger, faster and can have multiple heads and up to 16 needles, making them able to handle the demands of high production more easily.
    The machine that you choose can have a huge impact on the success of your embroidery and your embroidery business. As with other equipment purchases, it’s always best to plan for your business to grow and choose a machine that can handle increased production. It is also wise to consider the machine’s reliability, production capabilities and user-friendliness. No one wants a machine that constantly breaks down or has too steep of a learning curve.

This fleece pullover was embroidered by Thoroughbred Threads LLC, Danville, KY.

     It is, of course, paramount that you take into account the type of embroidery business you think you are likely to have and would like to have. Do you plan to mostly do onesie and twosie sort of orders as a supplement to your existing business or are you looking to turn embroidery into an additional profit center by taking larger orders? Once you’ve considered all these factors, you can make the decision as to what sort of machine would work best for your business.
     A wise buying decision will also take into account what it is you want to do with the machine you purchase. Simply answering “embroidery” is too vague. Do you want to embroider caps or capes? Do you think you’ll do a lot of very small items like patches or company logos, or will most of your embroidery be on jacket backs? The answer to questions like these will help you determine the size sewing field you need. The sewing field is like the working range on an engraving machine, which determines the maximum image size you can handle in one setup.
     Do you think most of your jobs will be a few dozen pieces or do you expect to be doing jobs that require embroidery on thousands of garments? Answering this question will help you figure out what sort of production speed you need. A slower machine is fine if you only do small orders. For larger jobs, machine speed can make a huge difference in your production capacity. Taking all this information into account will help you determine which machine and what size is right for your business.
     Choosing a machine is a bit like being Goldilocks in that you want to find a machine that’s “just right.” If you buy a machine that’s too small, you may not be able to keep up the production necessary to make a profit. If you choose one that’s too big or expensive, you may find yourself working solely to pay off your machine. You have to find the sweet spot, using what you know about what sort of embroidery business you want to build and what size you want that business to be.


Classic Screen Printing & Embroidery, LLC, Chester, VA, digitized this logo, embroidered it on a pink shirt and added pink rhinestones for some extra bling. This detailed logo was manually digitized and embroidered on Carhartt jackets for a client by Busy Bee Embroidery, Dauphin, PA.


    Most people who are planning to go into full production as an embroidery business will probably want to purchase a commercial embroidery machine. A commercial machine has a variety of extra features that can make your jobs run faster and more easily. Computerized machines can store designs, stitch out garments more quickly and, if multi-headed, offer production of more than one item at a time. Commercial machines also offer the option of different hoop sizes and sewing field sizes. Some machines can also be hooked to a scanner or your home computer so you can create and upload your own designs. As mentioned, prices for these machines can vary, ranging from about $8,000 to $30,000+.
    You also need to consider the cost of embroidery supplies. You need whatever items you’re going to embroider in addition to thread, stabilizer, bobbins, needles and other associated accessories. Quality does matter when purchasing supplies, so make sure you request samples and test items like thread and stabilizer before settling on a final selection. Many machines will come with a sample kit when purchased, but don’t feel tied to using the products that come with the machine. Do your own research and find what works best for you and your budget.
    If you do decide to add machine embroidery to your business, marketing the new products you now offer may be as simple as letting your existing customers know your shop can now do something new. Make sure to send out a press release to local newspapers, television stations and business magazines. Social media is also a great way to market your embroidery services. If you have a company Facebook page, or a business Pinterest account, create a board or an album that shows off your work. (Pinterest is a photo-sharing social media website that allows users to share photos via virtual bulletin boards.)


This fleece blanket features stock fonts and graphics to create a custom product. Photo courtesy of Visual Advantage, Earl Park, IN. Sports team jackets are often embroidered with the team logo. Photo courtesy of EMbroidery Exceptionally Made.

    You should also remember that wearing your work can be the best marketing of all. Embroider something eye-catching and wear it around town. Make sure you have plenty of business cards to hand out when people ask you where you got that amazing embroidered item.
    Finally, if you’ve decided that purchasing and learning to use an embroidery machine is not for you, don’t despair, there is still a way your shop can offer embroidered goods. Many embroidery shops are contract embroiderers, meaning they take orders for embroidered goods from other companies. Contract embroiderers generally offer prices that make them a profit, but still allow the company who will make the final sale to make a profit as well. If you’d like to offer embroidery, but don’t want to spend the time and money to bring a machine in house and learn how to use it, or if you’re just building your embroidery business and don’t have the capacity for large orders, finding a good contract embroiderer may be a wise move.
    Embroidery is a high-end, attractive form of personalization, and embroidery services are very compatible with services already offered by most personalization/awards and engraving shops. And with today’s high-tech embroidery machines, it’s easy to create hand-crafted looks without spending a lot of time. Maybe it’s time to take a good, long look at embroidery and see if it is an avenue that can help diversify and benefit your business.
    Editor’s Note: Special thanks to the National Network of Embroidery Professionals (NNEP) for helping to provide photos for this article from its members.

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