Erich Campbell explains how to repair mistakes…and how to avoid them in the first place
Every embroiderer must eventually deal with a disaster. Though the word ‘disaster‘ hints at having the stars lined up against you, it‘s often communication problems rather than star-crossed fate that brings down our work. Rather than blame bad luck, make your own by learning to avoid miscommunication and to tackle problems effectively. Whether your errors see you choosing to save garments or run replacements, you‘ll have a clear path forward paved with precise information, tried techniques and a focus on quality and customer service. When you talk transparently with customers and work both to avoid errors and to learn how to effectively repair poorly executed embroidery, you’ll be prepared for any mishap.
In extreme cases where a remote customer absolutely must approve designs ‘in the thread’ but can’t visit the shop and doesn’t trust photography for colour verification, sending a sample, even in the form of a cut piece, may be the best option to avoid order rejection, provided time allows.
Although computer-generated digital previews don‘t adequately show the physical results of a design or the exact colour of thread, a digital preview can allow a customer to spot gross errors like misspellings, poor sizing or incorrect colour choices.
Collect complete information
Carelessness or malfunction accounts for far fewer errors than poor communication. Any production fails if thread colours aren‘t clearly indicated, typefaces are incorrectly specified or absent, and/or decoration locations are poorly indicated. Many of these problems stem from inattentive or incomplete interviews during the order- taking process. A simple way to ensure complete information is to use formatted order forms. Anyone completely filling out a well thought-out form can’t help but indicate location, size, colours, fabric types, garment type, substrate, etc. Moreover, forms featuring graphical representations of garments allow simple and intelligible indications of design location and orientation. The expense of pre-printed forms or the time spent using software with similar tools easily eclipses the price materially and in customer goodwill one pays for poorly executed orders.
Review and transmit information clearly
With any considerable order volume, it makes sense to use some electronic system for managing information. Industry-specific options now abound, from cloud-based solutions to on-site server installs. Systems that empower employees to store, access and manage customer, order and production data can improve the consistency of your execution. Should electronic means be undesirable or out of reach, even a paper system can function provided it’s consistently used, centrally accessible and updated with any alterations to the order. No matter the mechanism you use to store it, always review order information carefully before sending it to production. Make it concise, clear and complete. If art and production staffers can‘t easily envision your intentions, neither you nor your customer will get the expected result. Any system is only as good as the quality of the information entered, and an inconsistent system will not be used and trusted by employees.
Obtain pre-production approvals
The final bulwark against errors brought on by miscommunication is a staged approval process. Start by sending simulated embroidery previews to the customer. This initial stage outs gross errors like misspellings, improper colours and incorrect sizing. With this approved, you can elect to send ‘in-the-thread‘ approvals, either in person or through sending snapshots of a sample, though colours should be previously agreed upon in the case of the latter. Following internal quality checks, present stitched samples to the customer; should they sign off on all details, that sample should arrive with the order on the production floor as the standard against which to measure actual production quality. At least any errors that pass through such a complete approval process are shared between your company and the customer, sometimes leading to more willingness to work reasonably toward a resolution on flawed orders.
This vintage garment came to us as a special request from a customer. They had tried to remove the name but it was starting to leave holes in the lining. Rather than attempt to remove the sparse lettering, we took a rare approach and decided to directly cover the name with a field of a matched colour, using a shape that matched the style of the current decoration and the space at hand.
Whether or not you have a fully-featured shop and data management system like the one pictured here, it is important to review your initial customer interview notes and make a refined, standardised presentation of all pertinent information for your production staff. [Photograph courtesy of Celeste Schwartz]
Repairing the wrongs
Operator error, malfunctioning machines or oversight will occasionally trump even the most careful communicators. Whether colours are wrong, the location is lacking or you’ve run the wrong logo entirely, you have embroidery where you don‘t want it. What can we do? Diagnosis: Can we replace, cover, or remove and re-stitch?
If a design features lots of small lettering or large fill-stitched areas, or is made of material likely to tear or have permanent, visible leftover damage (leathers, plastics and anything without a weave or knit, apart from felt), replacement may be your only reasonable option. Removing stitches is time-intensive and risky; labour costs often outweigh replacement for inexpensive, commodity garments and many customers won’t accept the option of covering existing embroidery with an appliqué or patch. Unless your garment is rare, customer-supplied or deadlines are too tight to allow, you should always consider replacement. Product quality greatly influences customer estimation of value, making it inadvisable to ‘save’ a garment in a way that doesn’t maintain the quality you want to represent your work. When replacement simply isn’t an option, make sure you have quality in mind when deciding between covering and removing your errant work.
When replacement designs are ‘open’ – for example, if it features letters with a great deal of space between them or small, unconnected elements– and your garment material tends to show ‘scars‘ from stitch removal, or when deadlines simply don’t afford the time to remove and re-stitch, you can create custom patches or appliqués to cover incorrect embroidery. To avoid the excessive density and stiffness seen when fill stitches and designs are stitched directly over existing embroidery, stitch the correct design on an appliqué and attach it with satin- stitched borders for a more attractive, less distorted finish. With this method, the remaining stabiliser even covers the reverse of the incorrect decoration.
Removal or re-stitching
When garments are few and their material is forgiving, and/or your design is made of easily removed elements like large satin stitches, or if you only need to replace an element that is accessible and separated from the design (an incorrect letter toward the end of a word, perhaps, or a solitary, single-layered mark beside correctly stitched elements) you may choose to remove the offending embroidery and re-stitch. Removal requires slicing through stitches. Electric trimmers with custom blades are sometimes employed, but I favour a manual approach. Depending on the stitch type, any number of seam rippers, scalpels and blades can do the job. Whether using a hooked safety- blade that allows the dull side of the hook to rest and slide safely over the garment while cutting the threads or a standard single-edged razor, the technique is as simple as it is critical. Cut carefully from the back side, keeping the blade parallel to the stabiliser’s surface wherever you can, and start shallow. Slice bobbin stitching, occasionally scratching at top-stitching or tugging it carefully with tweezers as it loosens. If you try not to damage the backing, you‘re unlikely to cut the garment. Don’t pull too hard or put too much tension on the garment as this can result in small holes or tears. Steaming after you’ve removed the stitching and freed the original stabiliser helps to relax the fabric. After steaming, check once more for overly visible holes and flaws. If the quality of the remaining garment is reasonably smooth or your replacement design will cover smallflaws, you are ready to re-stitch.
The re-stitching process
Re-stitching combines careful hooping and design preparation. Replacing a design in the same area as the incorrect embroidery requires extremely straight hooping and precise starting positions, especially if you are adding or replacing elements alongside remaining stitching. When replacing with the same logo you removed, as in a colour- change error, consider upscaling the replacement logo a small amount to shift elements and cover a slightly larger area – this may help hide some of the ‘scarring‘ from the previous logo. When replacing or ‘dropping in‘ elements, the best method is to register to an easily identifiable point in the remaining design, like a sharp corner, point or intersection. This will be your starting position, with any replacement elements set in relation to that point. With straight hooping and careful measurement, your new element will stay aligned and properly spaced. This method is best for unconnected, single layer elements; avoid adding anything that needs tight registration like small outlines added to an existing embroidered letter or graphic. Even when this ‘works’, the results are just not consistent enough to merit the difficulty of the labour.
No matter the tool used to cut the threads, stitch removal should really be a last-ditch effort in most cases. Careful attention must be taken not to cut into the garment or to make holes by pulling too forcefully on the stitches or material. Stitch removal takes a great deal of time and effort. Make sure that it makes sense for your bottom line before you break out the blades. [Photograph courtesy of Celeste Schwartz]
When a logo has a large background area in a single colour, an appliqué can often replace any fill. In the case of covering damaged embroidery, the logo design can be run on appliqué material and later adhered and stitched down with a full-satin edge, as seen here. Any embroidery or small amounts of damage beneath the appliqué have no effect on the final look. [Photograph courtesy of Celeste Schwartz]
No embroidery disaster can be said to have been truly averted until the customer is happy with the outcome. Communication is as key in following up on an error as it should have been in avoiding it. Be transparent, be honest, apologise when your shop shares fault and make the customer feel that they have received the service or product they paid for and are happy with the transaction whenever possible. You‘ll find an honest answer, a sincere effort to provide the agreed-upon product and unflinching integrity does more to rescue an interaction than the in-fighting and blame-shifting we might be tempted to employ when faced with an angry customer. Ultimately, we know that our brand lies wholly in the perceptions of our customers and that their word often does more to shape our image than our own. We needn‘t kowtow to unreasonable requests, but every effort we make toward retaining a good customer should be considered less a production loss than an ultra-focused marketing spend. Follow your process and you’ll avoid most errors outright, but when the eventual problem crops up, pick the recovery method that you’d hope your service providers would extend for you, within reason. There’s never a bad time to be the hero, even if your work is what needs saving.
Sometimes the scarring left by an embroidery design can be very severe. In this case, the open nature of the logo that was being replaced in a new colour meant that the scarring would have been much too visible to satisfy our standards. That said, this garment was given a second life as an employee uniform jacket with nothing more than a light texturing fill and a satin border. This sort of cover up can make scarred garments into usable pieces not only for employees, but for charitable donations as well. [Photograph courtesy of Celeste Schwartz]
Some designs are easily fixed with stitch removal and embroidery replacement. This fix is for a memorial blanket. Its felt-like fabric was left with almost no scarring on removal of the erroneous number that was incorrectly entered and signed off on by the customer. This ‘8‘ was dropped in place quite easily. The starting point was set to a junction where the satin stitches met to give the most precise point to start the needle. With careful, straight hooping and proper measurements, this one-of-a-kind blanket was saved.
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 program manager for the commercial division of BriTon Leap.