Erich Campbell explains why there’s a lot to be gained from embroidery on non-apparel items
I’m seeing increasing numbers of small, custom embroiderers enjoying profitable niche markets by expanding into non-apparel embroidery. To examine the potential of this type of business, I asked a few friends to weigh in on the subject…

Who does it?

As a starting point, I spoke to friends who have boutique shops that are well used to creating specialised, one-off projects. “Shops [positioned] for production apparel can’t invest the time needed for these types of projects,” says Carolyn Cagle of Strikke Knits. “Multi-heads are not for speciality jobs and speciality jobs are usually single items.” Although boutique shops’ business models made sense of bespoke work, their concerns were similar to those of larger producers attempting to ‘fit’ these orders into standard production and profit models. Even so, they collectively reported 25-50% of their revenue came from non-apparel work.

Is it profitable?

The decorators I spoke to boasted high returns, but offer a few words of caution. Laura Jastrzemski, creator of embroideries for the car industry, says: “The cost of custom upholstery can be pricey, along with the cost of the vehicle itself. [When] working with a leather panel that goes into a built-to-order, limited production exotic sports car, there’s room for a serious profit on a small design of 8,000 stitches.” However, Carolyn emphasises the importance of educated quoting as the first step to rendering these jobs profitable. The extra effort in consultation, design exploration, and special handling and execution have to be factored in. You must sell customers on the value of your knowledge of, and willingness to pursue, these non-traditional applications.

Off-beat furniture restorer Omforme turned to Strikke Knits to realise the Jackalope crest on this defiantly vibrant chair. Working with creative souls who value your abilities and input is a bonus beyond the financial compensation such creative projects can bring [Image courtesy Strikke Knits, Omforme of Minneapolis]

What makes it challenging?

Compared to garments, hooping these items isn’t easy, whether you’re stitching custom gun-cases or crushed velvet upholstery panels. Materials that don’t take well to hooping and are oddly-shaped, heavy or otherwise awkward to get under the needles require special treatment. Laura says of her process: “I’m working with pre-cut and pre-marked pieces of leather or suede, in all sorts of odd shapes, depending on what the ‘panel’ will end up being used for. Some are small and narrow (such as a door panel insert), others may be larger, like a seat panel. The panel and the size of the design determines how the item will be hooped.” Even after hooping, Laura warns of material concerns: “Vinyl doesn’t take well to embroidery. Leather is more forgiving since it’s a skin, so it ‘breathes’ where vinyl does not. The digitising is a little different; I use a slightly longer stitch length in fill areas and the finest needle possible for the weight of the material.”

Partnering with service providers who needed custom embroidery for their non-apparel pieces and learning how to handle their materials led Laura to working with high-visibility brands and events

[Image courtesy of Laura Jastrzemski]

Carolyn says that her customers often require extra effort because non-apparel customers often have a well-defined vision, but no embroidery expertise. They have often been redirected by shops who turned down their work due to its difficulty or their lack of experience. “My customers for these items are usually sent to me, they have an idea and they solicit an embroidery shop via a search, then those shops send them to me or they find me via the internet from my postings and my customers’ postings of the finished work.” Though often creative, flexible, and willing to pay, these customers are particular about the result and require additional product preview mock-ups, and meetings to ensure their expectations are being met.

Even simple logos like this can be extremely profitable in the context of a custom upholstered seat

When your audience is used to paying for custom work, the margins can be markedly higher than one might see in apparel work [Image courtesy of Laura Jastrzemski]

How do you sell it?

Speciality sales don’t seem as difficult for my decorator friends as one might imagine. Word of mouth referrals flow freely when you take on work that other shops won’t touch. Social media mavens with a penchant for visual presentation, like Carolyn’s interior designers, are known to share and credit images of the finished work, which is enough to drive a volume of orders. Ask for shout-outs, tags, and referrals to grow your business quickly with these engaged audiences. Jane Swanzy of Swan Threads says that working the right niche in your area can make marketing automatic. Jane’s husband serves as her unpaid brand ambassador. She says, “Hunting-related items are a big seller for us. I don’t want to say my customers are ‘easy targets’ but they really are. I decorate something for my husband and all his hunting friends have to have it.”

This piece was part of a memorial project taken on by a local radio station looking to restore the custom car of a man who had passed away

Projects like this let you do good for the community while getting your shop’s name known in public – it can benefit everyone involved [Image courtesy of Laura Jastrzemski]

Do you like this difficult work?

My friends overwhelmingly enjoy non-apparel embroidery projects. Carolyn loves the freedom and collaboration with customers: “This is the time-consuming part and it’s the most rewarding at the end of the job. When a client lets me be me and says, ‘I trust your decision’ – be it colour, concept or size – that is the ultimate joy.” Laura enjoys being consulted as an embroidery expert, and relishes the opportunity to work on unique projects: “There’s a certain amount of prestige involved in working on these one-of-a-kind, high value jobs and knowing that the (upholstery) shop I deal with shares my high standards. The fact that they have chosen only me to work with gives me a sense of pride. We started out as a business partnership and we’ve become friends as well.”

One of my favourite non-apparel pieces was this design for shower curtains in an upscale hotel. The initial exploration was difficult and required a great deal of re-hooping and labour for the in-house sample, but the finished pieces were outsourced to a company that could use its border-sash frames to execute the entire span at once [Image courtesy of Erich Campbell]

Businesses can still be the consumers of these non-standard accessories. In the case of this piece, knowing the desirable brands and getting the finished piece in front of the right person can help you make sales [Image courtesy of Erich Campbell]

Final thoughts

Jane points out that you don’t necessarily have to do this difficult work yourself to benefit from the market. “Look beyond the shirts, jackets and caps. If your machine won’t easily accommodate these items, contract it out to a shop that can do the work for you.” Carolyn cites the importance of cultivating your creative experiences while you learn how to handle these materials and applications: “Be willing to explore what you can embroider; play with items; go ahead and create something for the fun of it.” From the high premium you can charge, to the volunteer sales force you gain in these creative customers, to the name you can make for yourself as a one-of-a-kind service provider, there’s much to be gained from looking beyond apparel for embroidery work. Get creative, know your overheads, and share your work with the people who can help you to be seen. Embroidery’s frontier may be harder to reach, but it’s far less crowded than our usual marketplace.

Logos may not differ, though you will have to take speciality materials into account and charge accordingly for the labour and learning it takes to use them effectively [Image courtesy of Laura Jastrzemski]


Even sports team logos you might usually expect on caps can get in on the act: these coordinating colours and custom placements can fetch a high price [Image courtesy of Laura Jastrzemski]


Erich Campbell is an award-winning digitiser, embroidery columnist and educator, with more than 20 years’ experience both in production and the management of ecommerce properties. He is the programme manager for the commercial division of BriTon Leap.