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An Introduction to Embroidery

Embroidery is unlike any other printing decoration method.  Embroidery is the process of sewing patterns or pictures directly onto a garment, or to create a pattern or picture by sewing.  The origins of embroidery can be traced as far back as the 5th century B.C. in China. Embroidery gained popularity in the Middle East during Medieval times.  However, it was not until the Industrial Revolution that machine embroidery became possible.

Even these early versions were just machine looms and workers who still did the actual embroidery by hand. In the 1870s, Isaac Groebli would invent the Schiffli Embroidery machine, which is the basis for modern embroidery machines. The first multi-head embroidery machine was invented by the Singer Sewing Company in 1911. Today, embroidery machines work with computers to sew complex designs on a wide variety of products.

The first thing to consider in custom decorated embroidery is the artwork.  In order for an embroidery machine to know where and how to stitch the design the artwork must be digitized. Digitizing tells the machine how many stitches to lay and where to lay them.  Digitized artwork can be bought, or converted from, existing vector artwork. Every brand of embroidery machine has its own file format, however certain formats are so popular that they have become standard on most machines.  These formats include .DST (by Tajima), .EXP/.CND (by Melco), and .FDR (by Barudan).

The quality of the digitizing will ultimately be one of the leading factors of how well the product will sew. Poor digitizing will result in the artwork not sewing properly and the machine will often have problems (broken needles, thread breaks). Quality digitizing will result in a tightly sewn thread and fewer problems from the machine. It is important to realize that digitized artwork is set up for an exact size and to be sewn on a flat surface, or a round surface like a hat. The artwork must be digitized to the exact size as it cannot be made bigger and sewn without being digitized again. Hats are digitized differently as they are sewn from the center out. The digitizer will setup the artwork file so that the machine begins sewing the hat from the center and gradually making its way left and right to create the design. Once the design has been digitized in the correct format it is sent to the machine, usually by a USB connection. 

In order to embroider a product, it must first be stabilized to prevent it from moving during stitching.  This is done by “hooping” the product. Hooping products that will be sewn flat involves placing a hoop over the desired sew location and a corresponding slightly smaller hoop inside the product that can then be pressed together to become locked. After hooping, a material called stabilizer (or interfacing) is added beneath the fabric and/or on top of it.  This is the white material you often see on the inside of embroidered sweatshirts. While often not the most aesthetically pleasing thing to look at, it is very important to ensure the stitches do not become loose during washing. Once the garment has been stabilized it is loaded onto the embroidery machine and is ready to be sewn.

An embroidery machine’s size and capabilities are determined by the amount of heads and thread colors that can be sewn to create a design. The number of heads on a machine determines how many products can be sewn at one time. It is important to realize that embroidery acts somewhat like both DTG and screen printing, in that it is used for no minimums and high run orders, but uses the same equipment.  The higher run orders should be sewn on machines that have multiple heads so that the design can be sewn onto multiple products at once. Most left chest and hat designs take around 15 minutes to be sewn, so you can see how it is important to be strategic with the machine’s time. Only one design can be sewn at a time, so most embroidery machines can only sew around 4 unique designs an hour.

Once the artwork has been loaded onto the machine, the embroidery will tell the machine which thread colors to use for creating the design and the sequence that they should be sewn in.  Each color of thread on the head has its own needle. So, a 15 color machine has 15 different needles that are used to sew the design. The product is sewn by having the needle pierce through product, backing material, and catching the bobbin thread from the bottom of the machine. The bobbin thread is most often white and is what you see along with the backing on the reverse of most embroidered products.  There are many moving parts on the embroidery machine while a design is being sewn, which sometimes leads to machine breakages. Like all decoration equipment, if you are thinking about purchasing one, be prepared to be able to take it apart to some degree as things will break and you may have to fix it yourself.

As is the case with any product decoration method, some garments and products are easier to embroider than others.  Polo shirts, hats, bags, jackets, and doctor smocks are some of the most commonly embroidered products. Polyester fabrics are typically more difficult to embroider because they are thinner than cotton, and can pucker or wrinkle easily while stitching.  In addition to some polyesters polos, stretchy and ribbed fabrics can be difficult to sew as the area being sewn has inconsistent thickness. Some bags and hats can be much more difficult than others due to their structure and rigid sew surface, which make it difficult for the needle to sew into the product.  It is important to know that 100% cotton embroidered garments can sometimes pucker after the garment shrinks in the wash.

While the amount of products that can be embroidered is smaller than other garment decoration methods, the margins for embroidery are typically quite high.  This is largely because the material costs (thread and backing) are minimal. However, embroidered garments typically have a higher perceived value among customers, as the products being decorated are more expensive and appear more professional than most other decorated products.  There are also no minimum requirements for embroidery orders, making them good for one-off designs (which are typically more expensive). Local embroidery shops typically make their best money by decorating small run team and business orders. Larger orders can often be outsourced to larger shops that have the equipment to sew the products much quicker.

Unfortunately, as with any decoration process, embroidery has a few flaws.  For one, embroidered products are typically more expensive as blanks. So, mistakes can be expensive.  Embroidery also requires a very different skill set than most other product decoration processes. It is a time-consuming learning process.  The artwork can be difficult to digitize properly and the sew time can be extensive, especially for larger designs. It is important to understand exactly what you are getting into, whether you purchasing embroidery equipment or outsourcing it to another decoration business.  However, if you take the time to learn the process and understand the machinery, embroidery can be an asset to any product decorator looking to expand their product offerings.

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