What Is Custom Embroidery?
By Pete Apo
What are the basics of custom embroidery and how does the process work? This article will cover the production process along with the pros and cons of embroidery for apparel and accessories.
Today, commercial embroidery is done with machines that contain computerized instructions and movements to produce precisely stitched designs. It is a very durable way to decorate fabric and if done properly can elevate the look of many apparel and accessory goods.
Custom Embroidery Production Machines
Custom embroidery production machines have several key variations as well as accessories that accommodate different stitch types and processes to decorate garments, fabric, and apparel. The two most important variations are the number of embroidery heads on a machine and the number of needles on each of those heads. The number of embroidery heads on a machine indicates the number of embroidered items that can be run at once, while the number of needles per head determines the number of different colors of thread that can be loaded and used for each design.
Commercial embroidery machines range from one to thirty heads and vary using six to fifteen needles per head. Most machines can be ordered based on a production shop’s production needs. Some add-on accessory items include chenille (hoop stitch style embroidery), embroidery patch cut-out systems, patch sewing, rhinestone setting, and laser positioning.
Production Machine Operation
It takes a skilled operator to run a multi-head embroidery machine. They must work quickly and always be moving to anticipate the next run of items. On large quantity runs an embroidery operator will already have prepared the next run of garments to be put onto the machine while a current run is being sewn. The operator must also be able to quickly fix any problems that stop the embroidery machine from the constant operation. With production, time is money. Here are a few common issues that slow down an embroidery production cycle:
- Thread Breakage- Probably the most common and frustrating thing that can happen in an embroidery run is when the embroidered thread gets broken during stitching. Three main common things can contribute to this: 1) Digitizing error that results in stitches that are too close together or excessive stitch density. 2) Metal burrs on the needle or strike plate can develop and cut the thread. 3) The use of poor quality or old thread.
- Thread Pullouts- This usually occurs when the machine starts again after a thread trim or color change, and the thread pulls out of the needle and has to be re-threaded.
- Bobbin Replacement- The embroidery machine automatically stops when the bobbin runs out. Bobbin replacement is an essential part of embroidery production. The bobbin is the bottom thread that is sewn along with the top thread and can only be seen from the back of an embroidered patch. When running a large machine with several heads, an experienced production worker will replace all bobbins at once when the first one runs out, to alleviate other stops.
- Bird Nesting or other tension-related problems- Bird nesting usually occurs when the bobbin or top thread tension gets too tight or too loose and creates a “birds nest” like a pile of extra thread. The extra thread needs to be cut away and the machine backed up to re-embroider that problem area. Problems with stitch quality due to thread tension slow down production.
Custom Embroidery Production Process
Embroidery for production is just like most types of production lines, in that the goal is always to produce more product, more quickly and for less money, all without compromising quality.
Here are the steps in the custom embroidery process:
Once the customer has decided on the basics of the product, placement, colors, sizes, etc., and a project deposit is taken, the next step is embroidery digitizing. Using digitizing software (Wilcom or Pulse), an experienced digitizer will upload an image of the customer’s logo or design onto the program and size it. Next, he or she manually digitizes each section of the design and maps or programs each start point, thread trim, color change, and stitch type. The digitizer will also take into consideration the kind of fabric the design will be embroidered on.
Once the design is digitized, thread colorways are picked and a production printout is made for the production department to follow. An embroidery sample or test sew is ordered to make sure there are no problems with the design before production is started. Digitizing for embroidery takes years to master because there are so many factors that affect a quality embroidered garment. Often times lessons need to be learned by trial and error. Most professional shops will have an in-house digitizer who can manage and make changes to a design on-the-fly if needed.
Production Embroidery is Started
After the test sew is approved the production crew will prepare the product for custom embroidery. They will hoop each garment with backing (depending on the fabric and other factors) and load the hoops onto the machine to start. Hoops are an essential part of the embroidery process and they can either be a round, oval, square, or rectangle hoop with two parts: a bottom and top piece. The hoop can be tension-tightened depending on the thickness of the fabric.
The backing is also essential to a quality embroidered item. While there are several types of backing that are used it is most important to the performance and life of the embroidery that the correct backing be used for that type of garment. The right backing will help keep the embroidery from puckering or curling over time and gives a good foundation for each stitch.
Clean-Up and Quality Control
When the product is pulled from the machine and the hoop is removed, production proceeds to finish the product, inspect it and package it for delivery. In this step, they will remove the excess backing by tearing it away or cutting it off. They will trim any excess threads from the embroidery and sometimes use water or heat to finish the cleaning. Then the product is inspected for quality control and bagged or boxed as per customer specifications.
Pros of Custom Embroidery
Looks Great- A good looking embroidery design will make any shirt or product more appealing. A sales team with matching embroidered polo shirts have an edge of professionalism to their presentation.
Good Quality and Long Lasting- When done correctly embroidery can last as long as the item it is stitched on. If you make sure to use standard thread quality that does not succumb to fading or shrinking, embroidery will continue to last and still look great.
Versatile- Many products can be embroidered and other variations are constantly being innovated. There are many different thread types such as: fire resistant, metallic, multi-colored or rainbow, glow-in-the-dark, neon and just about any color you can think of.
Cons of Custom Embroidery
Digitizing Cost- The digitizing cost to start a file is only a one-time cost, but can be expensive depending on the embroidery shop you go to. It is not recommended to use a cheap digitizer that might cause your design to turn out poor. Since it is a one-time set-up cost it is good to do your research and find the right embroidery shop. Once you have a quality digitized logo you can use it profitably for years to come.
Cost By Stitch- Embroidery printing is one of the most expensive printing options available because of the embroidery machine cost and technical expertise involved. Whereas screen printing is charged based on quantity and the number of colors, embroidery is charged based on quantity and number of stitches. Embroidery becomes more costly as the logo size increases. The bigger the design, the more stitches are required to make it. That is why you see embroidery mostly limited to hat fronts and left chest logo size.
Complexity Limitations- Embroidery is created by sewing lots of stitches in a certain area and using colored thread for various effects. While it is possible to see amazing digitizing that creates extraordinary embroidered designs, this medium cannot be used to make photo-realistic prints. For photo-realistic prints, your best bet is Dye-Sublimation printing or Digital Garment Printing (DGP). Since it is difficult for the embroidery process to make complex color gradients, small complex shapes, and tiny readable lettering, it is better to utilize embroidery for printing simple designs or logos.
Placement and Fabric Limitations- Be mindful of certain natural limitations of your fabric or product if you wish to do embroidery. Embroidery needs to be able to be hooped, placed on a machine, and then have clearance to move freely during the process. Things like small openings over pockets or seams, as well as using thick material can be a problem for embroidery. An embroidery shop may be able to guide you ahead of time as you decide on which products to order.
Embroidery is an ancient art form that has come a long way with technological innovation. It can raise the quality and look of a product dramatically and create a lasting image that will impact the world. At the end of the day, however, it is only stitched thread on fabric, so complex and small designs can pose a problem for a clean embroidered look.
If you decide to do an embroidered project, speak with an experienced custom embroidery shop and get some samples of their past work so you can see their level of quality. Send your design to the shop and make sure that it can be embroidered in a way that you will be satisfied with. Sometimes because of the limitations of embroidery, some aspects of your design will be recommended to be made bigger or complex items removed or changed. Plan your project carefully and make sure embroidery is the right printing process for the goals of your business.
Pete Apo is the owner of Impact Northwest located outside Eugene, Oregon in Creswell. He has over 17+ years of experience in the garment and promotional item printing industry and is the founder of the clothing and product line The Rusty Hawaiian. Impact Northwest is a provider of custom screen print, embroidery, dye sublimation, and promotional items to Lane County and the surrounding communities.