Old school digitising and artistic flair have seen digitiser Lhea Barrett work on decoration jobs that range from flags for the film Gladiator to logos for racing car seats

Lhea Barrett of Creative Needle is a rare breed: he‘s an old school digitiser who learned his craft before digitising software became the norm on the embroidery scene. He started in the industry by chance: 31 years ago he was studying A-level art at college with no idea about what he would do afterwards. A neighbour had a unit in an industrial park where a friend of his sold sandwiches from a van. The friend wanted a logo for the side of his van, Lhea‘s neighbour mentioned that Lhea was good at drawing and he got the job. An embroidery company saw the logo when they were buying sandwiches from the van, asked who designed it, and took Lhea on as a draughtsman.

“In those days, in 1988, everything was hand drawn,” explains Lhea. “When you did designs, they were all drawn six times bigger. And then you had to draw all the individual stitching in there as well. It wasn‘t plotted like it is nowadays, where you plot four corners and the software fills it in with stitching. In those days, you had to draw all those stitches in there, literally every single one. And then someone would put it onto a big board and plot every single stitch.”

A back of jacket design for Iron Maiden took them nine days. Nowadays, Lhea explains, it would take a couple of hours. A left breast logo would take 20 minutes today. Back then, it was a four- or five-hour job. “Obviously, it was priced a lot differently in those days,“ he comments. “There were only a handful of people doing it. The company that I joined, Punchlines, was set up by two blokes who had trained at David Sharp in Nottingham, which was the centre of the textile world.”

Punchlines had a two-head Barudan machine that Lhea and the team could use for sampling. “I learned to embroider, so I understand what an embroidering machine does with garments. A lot of the digitisers nowadays, they don‘t. They just think, ‘Well, I‘ll trace that with stitching, that will be fine.‘ But as soon as you put it into a garment it pulls, it rips, it does things wrong… People who can run embroidery machines know what to do with those stitches.”

The launch of Wilcom‘s digitising software in the 1980s meant that by the mid-1990s, the market started to change. Lhea set about learning to digitise using Wilcom, so as well as being able to punch designs the old- fashioned way, he could now draw the artworks, digitise them and then embroider them. “At the time, there was only about 20-25 of us in England who could do it. There was Punchlines, David Sharp and a couple of others. None of the embroidery companies had their own digitising systems. They all outsourced. We were flooded with orders all the time.”

Plummeting prices

Lhea stayed with the company for 22 years. “It was brilliant. But then the internet came alive, the world shrunk, and everybody started jumping on the bandwagon. Prices plummeted.” Lhea left the company and set up his own business, Creative Needle, as well as retraining as a graphic designer. With the digitising of logos now available for a tenner a go, it‘s diffcult to see how an experienced digitiser like Lhea can still find work and make a profit, but his solution is simple. “Some customers want something cheap, and that‘s fine. And other people want the quality side. I just hang on the side of the quality.”

Lhea has worked for a wide variety of high profile clients

He continues: “If they want to mass sell a load of garments at a market with logos on, that‘s fine. They send the logo off and 10 quid later they get it back from India or China or wherever. And it does the trick. “But if you want something a bit bespoke, something that you know is going to work on different garments… For example, I do work for racing cars and things like that. Now, they‘ve got leather seats inside, and those leather seats cost thousands. The last thing you want is a cheap piece of embroidery going through that leather seat and ripping the leather to bits. They need a high-quality logo first time, every time. With 31 years‘ experience, that‘s the side that I believe I can deliver. I‘m not out to compete against all the blokes that are selling them for a fiver. I‘m out to give a bespoke product to someone who wants to be a cut above the rest.”

TV and film credits

As well as doing logos for Le Mans cars and the likes of Lewis Hamilton and other Formula One drivers, Lhea has worked on jobs for TV and film over the years. The Airborne Division in the 2001 American mini-series Band of Brothers needed embroidery on their uniforms – and it had to look like it was from the 1940s. “We couldn‘t do it the modern way, we had to make it old-fashioned looking, so it was all scratched, rough, thick cotton. We literally had an old uniform from the Second World War, one that they wore, and we had to copy that. We had to allow for this thick, 1940s cotton to be sewn so it looks like it comes from the right era.”

Another job while at Punchlines was for Gladiator, the film starring Russell Crowe. “At the beginning, he marches through the forest and he has these huge three- metre flags, all gold embroidery. That was done by us. For the really large designs, the problem is an embroidery machine is only so big. And if you‘ve got a three-metre flag that needs to be embroidered, it has to be embroidered in sections. They have to embroider one 300mm square panel, move it across, do the next. So you‘ve got to keep making all these files that match up and overlap and perfectly line up with each other going around the flag.”

Not all of his work is big, bespoke projects though – he still does a lot of left breast logos. His prices are “pretty competitive“ with a turnaround of one to three days, and he emphasises the importance of treating customers well. “If a customer‘s got a question, ask away. If you need a little colour change or something quickly doing, I‘m not going to charge them for every single little thing. If it takes me a couple of seconds to change a colour for them, I just do it and email it back. It‘s all about customer service, at the end of the day. I‘m not a robot. We‘re all human. Let‘s all help each other out.”

His graphic design skills come in especially handy when doing logos, because he can see what needs to be changed to make them work. He also works as a freehand illustrator still, which also influences his digitising. A customer recently asked for an embroidery of their dog. “I can blend all the stitches and make it furry, because in my head I know how to draw it. I draw it using stitching and then when the result comes out, it looks real. There are all these blended details and different colours, which make it stand out. All these skill sets come in very handy.”

Leah has been involved in embroidery since 1988 when he started his first job as a draughtsman for a digitising company

Blended stitches create an authentic furry appearance

Experience counts

Lhea‘s blend of artistic and graphic design skills combined with three decades of digitising make him an unusual – and sought-after – professional. He‘s watched Wilcom develop (and used to give feedback to the company on the earlier versions) and uses the latest version, along with Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop. He fervently believes, however, that his ‘old school‘ method of digitising is the reason he‘s used time and again by his customers.

“The modern ways will work for some people, but I work in the old school way. Even though I‘ve got the latest software, I manipulate it and use it in the old school way. That‘s why my logos work the first time, every time, and why they stand out a little bit more. Customers don‘t want to keep messing around, running the design through different garments. They want it to work the first time, every time, with the least number of colour changes. They want it to run smoothly through hundreds of heads, on hundreds of tops. That‘s where my experience comes in.”