Erich Campbell shines a light on out-of-the-ordinary threads and how they can benefit your business

Thread is the lifeblood of embroidery, yet some of us never give it a second thought when we want to improve business. Hosts of articles, including some I’ve written, spell out methods for utilising any number of threads beyond 40wt rayon and polyester, from the hair-thin 75wt to the thick and furry wool blends, from the sparkling metallics to the flat, pure-coloured matte threads, from fun-over-function solarreactive colour-changing thread and glow-in-the dark to the super-functional fire-resistant and reflective threads.

What I don’t often see is an exploration of how these out-of-the-ordinary threads could be tuned to the business needs of commercial embroidery. As fun as it is to show how to use speciality threads, it’s critical to explain how a business can benefit from the speciality thread catalogue. There’s money to be made as well as fun to be had; by discussing just what makes these threads ‘special’ and examining their costs and benefits, we can learn to use these threads to add value to our work and market ourselves as more than the average shop.

What makes thread ‘special’?

Calling alternative threads ‘speciality’ isn’t a slight against our tried-and-true thread so much as an admission of how universally accepted they are. Speciality thread is, basically, any thread that differs from the ubiquitous 40wt rayon or polyester thread we use most of the time – whether that’s through the use of a different fibre content or construction, sheen, colouration or thickness. It’s the contrast with our usual thread that the word ‘speciality’ is really hinting at. Common threads in the category include metallics, thick and thin threads, matte finish threads, variegated or ombré threads, twist threads, fluorescents, glowin- the-dark and solar-reactive threads.

The business benefits of breaking the mould

The point of decorating anything is to make it noticeable. In commercial embroidery, much of our work is promotional, meaning we must communicate a message, identify with a brand and leave an impression. Speciality threads are a natural fit, simply because they don’t blend in with the sea of stitching done in solid colour threads of the same sheen and thickness. Their novelty lends designs immediate interest, attracting the attention that is a key indicator of success for any promotional product. Speciality threads help us get eyes on a design and help us communicate something about the brand we evoke through their unique characteristics.

The striped tails of these whimsical lizards and the accompanying spirals are a perfect use of variegated thread. A masterful matching mug and mat! [Image courtesy of Alison Buchanan]

The ‘C’ in this multi-layeredmonogram is stitched in a half-metallic, half-polyester ‘twist’ thread, making for a bold contrast with the brighter colouredmetallics of the surrounding swirls of acanthus leaves. [Image courtesy of Celeste Schwartz]

Communicating with thread’s character

We can use the qualities of speciality thread to change the initial impression someone has when viewing our design, and to elicit curiosity in that viewer. Metallics and threads with a pearlescent sheen evoke jewellery and precious metals, and hint at a metallic object’s actual shine; they’re ideal when a logo calls for a sense of expense, richness or rarity, or for surfaces meant to look wet or polished.

Natural fibre blends and fuzzy finishes seem warm, lending a ‘looseness’ associated with handmade needlework, ethnic folk styles, bohemian fashion or a design meant to be associated with an earlier, simpler time. Matte finish threads’ uniform, flat colours create an unmatched evenness and smoothness due to the lack of the high reflectivity we expect from our standard rayon and polyester threads. For a painted or weathered look, the matte finish thread is unquestionably the way to go.

One design creates distinctly different outcomes with a simple swapping of thread. Even without changing so much as a colour in your design, thickness and sheen can be enough to change the ‘message’ a design communicates. If you work in combinations of these threads, you can also produce eyecatching contrasts of shiny and dull, smooth and rough, industrial and seemingly hand-made. Though this is a blessing to creative souls, it can also be a bolster to your bottom line.

From pretty to profitable

As much as I love the look of the various threads’ finishes, there’s little reason to take on the costs and difficulties of running it if you can’t turn that aesthetic benefit into money in the bank. Luckily, speciality threads increase the value you give to your customers, both in their perception of your product and in its actual use.

Some speciality threads offer added utility. The easiest to point to is fireresistant thread; there’s no doubting the value of added safety for a tradesperson who will be around fire, direct heat or a potential electrical discharge. Matte finish threads also provide a quantifiable value, making outdoor embroidery colourfast in bright locales due to their high level of UV resistance. Nothing gives value like increasing the life of a product. Benefits like these are easy to explain: you’re fulfilling needs customers understand directly, allowing for higher price points and simpler conversions. High-utility decorations are just demonstrably better than the same design without the characteristics of the speciality threads.

Here, you can see how thread choice can make a tremendous difference to the look of an embroidered design, even when the thread colours are very similar. The familiar look of the standard polyester 40wt thread at centre is flanked by the flatter, smoother tones of the matte finish thread at left and by a sparkling metallic on the right. The tone and the feeling of each piece is drastically altered by a simple difference in sheen and reflectivity. [Image courtesy of Celeste Schwartz]

It’s harder to assess perceived value, even though there’s no denying purchasing is often done from a place of perception rather than cold evaluation, with roughly the same garment with the same quality and utility often selling at vastly different prices based on the brand exposure and the whims of fashion. If you can imbue your work with a higher perception of value, a customer will see your work as worth more than that of a competitor, whether or not the cost of the materials or the difficulty of the labour warrants it.

Shops using thin threads can create smaller lettering and finer detail than shops that stick slavishly to the standard. Their work looks more polished, thus giving a sense of a higher quality. Decorators that master working with natural fibre and thick threads create uniquely ‘handcrafted’ effects, making their pieces bristle with authenticity and a feeling of vintage work without the trouble and time of actually hand-embroidering. Shops that have the ever-difficult metallic threads working well in high-speed production can create a glittering or shining effect that’s tantamount to the aforementioned stitched jewellery; if your competition deems them too difficult to work with, you can own that look and finish in your region.

The perception of value can raise the price your customer is willing to pay and, moreover, can separate your work from that of competitors that only work in standard threads. You can easily set yourself apart by becoming the ‘special effects’ embroiderer. Being a specialist breaks you out of the ‘commodity’ race to the lowest possible price, and there’s fewer specialisms easier to achieve than to learn a few new threads. Having said that, you need to appreciate that they do require some learning, testing and capital outlay to implement.

Madeira’s Luna glow-in-the-dark threads viewed in daylight

The same Luna threads and embroidered design viewed in the dark

The costs of creative thread choice

With any addition to your arsenal of embroidery tools, you’re bound to pay in one form or another. The obvious cost, particularly if you run multi-head machines, is in the stock itself. Speciality threads can cost a great deal more than your standard cone of rayon or poly, so a set of cones for full-machine production can be somewhat expensive. If you decide on a full colour range in any one of these speciality finishes outright, you can expect a noticeable change in the cost of your consumables, particularly when you add the extra cost of the speciality needles that some of the threads require to run properly.

There is investment in training, too. Production staff must learn the specific ways in which these threads need to run. Digitisers creating designs for them, whether contracted or in-house, will have to understand them; density, stitch length, and other settings must be altered to accommodate their unique properties. Acquiring these new skills comes with a cost. Your operators will find themselves on a job-by-job basis adjusting thread tensions, sometimes lowering the speed of the run, and making sure thread paths are clear and clean, particularly when dealing with the most fragile threads, making some jobs take longer to stitch. If you’ve ever tried your hand at running metallics on a large scale, you will be familiar with their tendency to break under excess friction or tension. Matte finish threads may swap readily with standard 40wt, but almost any other thread will require some adjustment and some additional labour cost.

You may not be able to avoid initial costs associated with introducing new threads, but the value they can bring to a shop is justifiable. With accurate pricing that accounts for the additional material and labour costs, you can make as much profit as you had previously, while if you price according to the increased value our customers perceive, you can add even more to the margins. The added utility and novelty they provide is sure to grab attention; if you can turn that attention into added order volume or higher-margin orders, the initial costs are quickly recovered, particularly if you are smart about sampling and promotions – many thread vendors will provide small samples with which you can make your own sales materials and promote the possibilities with minimal investment.

In this image, you see a custom tag created for a line of hand-knit scarves. Though this tag is attractive, there’s a subtle disjoint; the scarf, the twine tie, and the canvas tag all cry out ‘handmade’ but the super-smooth, high-gloss polyester thread stands out. If the contrast was intentional, that would be fine, but in this case, the entire idea was to support the ‘handmade’ brand

With a negligible alteration to the design – reducing density to about one-third of the original full coverage –we were ready to use a thick wool-blend thread to render the logo. A quick needle change and adjustment later, and this stitch-out shows the results; one-third of the stitch count, with great texture, visual appeal and a true hand-made feel. [Images courtesy of Celeste Schwartz]

Indulging in play and profit

Embroidery attracts creative souls swayed by the allure of solving customer problems and expressing themselves in the medium of thread. Unfortunately, the desire to play, test and try new things can outstrip business sense, and it’s easy to find yourself well into project planning before plotting for profitability. Speciality threads give you a chance to learn new techniques and expand creatively, while providing value you can use to trigger sales. The world of promotional products trades in novelty and utility; these threads are an easy way to add ‘delight in discovery’ for a customer when they first see the features of a new thread.

As shops look to differentiate themselves, having a signature look that defines their work grants top-of-mind awareness and recognition. Sometimes all it takes is being the ‘small lettering shop’, ‘those people with that shiny thread’, or ‘the place I get my fire gear done’ to become a ‘go-to’ source for speciality and standard work. Trying out speciality threads is an inexpensive way to expand your offerings; no equipment beyond your machine is necessary and though it takes some education, what you must learn and test is based solidly in an understanding of the stitching you already do.

For once, you can follow your creative whim without a huge outlay of capital or effort; what reason could there be not to give it a go and see what new markets you might attract?

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.