Erich Campbell details exactly how embroiderers can improve output with pathing, sequencing and tested coverage

When most people ask me how they can learn to digitise ‘better’, their concerns are almost always about the look of their finished piece: “Can you help me create a smooth gradient?” “How do you make 3D foam look ‘clean’?” “How can I get those tiny letters to be legible?”

These are all valid questions, and I’ve lectured on all of them, but in the realm of commercial embroidery, focusing solely on the relative beauty of a finished piece ignores half of the equation that determines the profitability of the job.

Designs should always be attractive and properly represent your customer’s provided art – that’s the initial test. But for your company to be consistently profitable and successful, you have to control the time each design spends on your machines, rein in any excessive use of stabilisers and other support materials, and eliminate unnecessary hand work in finishing.

Improving efficiency is the way to increase your profit margins without degrading what you provide to your customers, and digitising is the first step in being truly efficient.

I’ve often answered the call when large-volume decorators have designs they feel are too costly or time-consuming. Simple adjustments often netted savings of 10-15% in stitch counts, let alone the time saved in removing excess colour changes, jump stitches, and tie-offs/ins. One of my recent design saves took a 26,000 stitch design and rendered it in 22,000 stitches while also reducing colour changes from 12 to six. Factoring a run at 1,000 stitches per minute and adding time for colour changes, this saved over five minutes per run. This might seem paltry, but an eight-hour day would see four more runs of said design, making a 12-head machine’s output jump from 204 garments to over 250. Efficiency is as unsexy a topic as an embroidery artist can hope to discuss, but the power it has to shift your company’s bottom line is undeniable.

The design on the left has 26,000 stitches, 12 colour changes and 28 trims, the one on the right has 22,000 stitches, six colour changes and eight trims (All Photographs courtesy of the author)

Many designs won’t have such a drastic turnaround, but incremental improvements can add up. Many embroiderers think that a design used for a small-run production needn’t be analysed at this level, but if that customer repeats the order, the design may stitch some hundreds of times throughout your professional relationship, making it just as crucial to save these minutes over the course of the design’s useful lifespan. If you can identify what makes a design efficient and how you can prime yourself to create these smooth-running and less wasteful designs, you can turn this poorly entertaining subject into a matter of pounds in your pocket.

How can you tell if a design is efficient?

The perfect design represents the source art attractively, with appropriate coverage in filled areas, smooth edges on each element, legible lettering, and clarity in the fine detail, all with the minimum stitch-count necessary to the outcome. This design doesn’t waste movement, change colours or return to them excessively, and only trims when it must. Truly efficient designs have an economy of movement, travelling around the design as quickly and logically as possible, and require very little extra attention or support through additional materials or labour in the finishing stage.

Simply put: efficient designs run smoothly, using every stitch they need and none they don’t.
How do I make my designs more efficient?

Be aware of your materials and how they interact.

Create a frame of reference to give you clarity: test and record settings that achieve your desired look with the lowest stitch count. This requires you to understand the properties of materials you embroider regularly, including the underlay styles and density needed to reach the desired level of coverage on each type with various levels of contrast between the top thread colour and that of the ground. Create testing swatch designs featuring various stitch-types with changes in density, stitch length, underlay and angle. Stitch test samples on any new material for a living palette of underlays and densities for your desired coverage. Known settings help you step ever closer to the minimum stitching required without per-design guesswork.

It’s important to know your material, both the directions in which it stretches and how the texture of its surface can affect your stitch coverage

Practice pathing

Visualising the travel of the needle through designs before digitising helps to avoid excessive movement; deciding on the fly while digitising makes you more likely to travel from area to area haphazardly, and to have difficulty plotting the most effective course through the design. Think about the most rational path of travel during the preparation of any art assets, imagining the movement in the design as it will run on a machine. Visualise the sequence to create an aesthetically pleasing sense of depth through layering as well as how it must run to maintain that economy of movement.

When in doubt, draw

If it’s difficult for you to imagine the order elements should come in a design and where you should start and end them, there’s a low-tech method that’s sure to help you sort it out. Take a printed copy of your image to be digitised, sketch outlines for each embroidery element in the design directly on the art, and then pretend to fill them, keeping your pen or pencil from leaving the page; imagine now that your pencil is your needle, filling all items in a colour without picking up the point from the page. Attempting to keep the point down is precisely the same thing digitisers do when avoiding those extra colour changes and trims. Connecting all elements in a colour in a continuous line might be impossible, but you’ll know where the rare unavoidable jumps and trims must be and which can be avoided if you take the time to engage your hands, eyes and mind in pathing.

This exercise can give you the rough order of your elements and colour changes, and help you find ways to hide travel stitches; having these designs made before you digitise can make you faster and less likely to lose focus.

Virtual viewing

The slow-replay function is a staple in nearly every digitising suite; you should use this virtual stitchout to check out the design on-screen and at high speeds before going to sampling. Pay special attention to the beginnings and endings of design elements and transitions between colours; these are the places you’re likely find problems. Take note of extra movements, places you might hide travel stitches rather than execute a slower trim cycle, and replay any portions that seem to take too long so that you can isolate and edit. You’ll very likely be cleaning up after a couple of gaffes.

Print your artwork, draw the borders of the stitched elements and then colour them without lifting your pencil

When you have too many colour changes or your travelling is inefficient, you may have to sort out your sequencing or even add elements to connect trimmed areas. When your mind freezes, use your cursor like your pencil to pretend you’re ‘colouring’ again as you did with the art; even that quick shift toward a physical action may help shake loose a better way to orient and order your elements.

Back it up, then stack it up

Never edit or resequence on the sole copy of your design; save a spare and experiment on a new version. That way, you can always revert to the first execution if you find yourself struggling with the changes. Group elements of the same colour and compress each colour into a single colour change. Re-sort the order of elements to see which needs to run first while maintaining aesthetic layering for a dimensional look, unless absolutely necessary to layer in a way that isn’t seen in the image you are rendering and you can hide your alteration in the later stitched layers.

Try to place your newly resequenced elements in one ‘tour’ of the design, stopping and starting elements in a way that makes a clear path through the design. Take the endpoints and start points of adjacent layers into consideration to avoid slow jump and needle-up movements. You can hide and show layers of embroidery you aren’t working with to see clearly, then return layers to visibility to make sure they interact as they should. This will help you to hide ‘travelling’ run stitches under elements running later in the design. Estimating that a jump and trim cycle takes about 10 seconds, even at 1,000 stitches per minute it would be faster to make a connector of 17 or fewer stitches rather than to jump the same distance and trim. Moreover, trims are always more likely than standard, medium-length stitches to cause a thread break, plus they sometimes allow a thread tail to pull out of the needle.

Always use your software’s slow-replay function to virtually stitch out your design before going to production sampling

Stitches tell all

When efficiency is key, it’s especially important to watch your initial sampling run. Nothing reminds you how unnecessary movement slows a run like attentively waiting at the machine while misplaced jump stitches drag down run times, let alone having to trim your sample that jumps back and forth incessantly. This provides you with a final opportunity to validate your sequencing and movement: watch for any material instability that underlay could tack down, or ripples that stitching away from previous finished elements might fix. Pathing is important also in training yourself not to heavily rely on support materials, and this is most noticeable on the machine. You never want to correct for overly heavy densities, unmitigated distortion, or errors in sequencing by adding extra stabiliser to the stack… Watching your sample run with rapt attention can get you on track through an understanding of the interactions involved in the embroidery process.

Production friendliness is a pattern

Intensely focusing on efficient movement and reducing changes and trims can feel slow at first, particularly while you feel like there’s a host of variables to check and verify. If you were only a ‘looks’ digitiser, it can be frustrating to dig into these details. With time, though, these practices are easy to internalise; you’ll become production-friendly in all you do, simply by habit. Once your settings are well-known and your frame of reference is set, you can return your focus to those aesthetic decisions with an underlying foundation of efficiency that’s second nature.

Production will be smoother, consistency will come easily, and you’ll have happier staff that get more done and do less to spruce up the finished work. You’ll avoid operations likely to cause thread breaks and re-threading, giving operators time back in each shift and reducing frustration.

Production calendars can be more profitable and less stressful, all with a modicum of preparation and forethought. Efficiency in digitising isn’t just something that design perfectionists ponder; it’s a real source of revenue.

Erich Campbell is an award-winning digitiser, embroidery columnist and educator, with 18 years’ experience both in production and the management of e-commerce properties. He is the partner relationship manager for DecoNetwork in the USA.