Planning a new embroidery business? Follow Erich Campbell’s expert advice on how to select the right equipment and accessories, the skills you need to master, and proven ways to make a profit

New embroiderers tend to obsess over equipment. Invariably, their first question is: “Which machine makes the best-looking embroidery?”. Yet this goes to show a common lack of understanding about the fundamentals of running a profitable embroidery business. Among the main machinery brands, there isn’t a candidate that won’t produce a satisfactory result from well-made files if you’re using the right materials. Unless your work is highly specialised, most current embroidery machine models will suffice, albeit one may be more suited to caps or another’s cylinder arm may fit into a smaller pocket, etc.

Rather than focusing on embroidery machine specs, ask yourself the following questions instead:

Support What training does your distributor or manufacturer offer? Will you be able to take advantage of it? What documentation or instructional materials are available with the machine? Is there an active user community to help you when official channels fail? In short: How hard will it be to get the instruction and answers you need to operate effectively?

Repair Are technicians and parts available to service your machine? Are they local to your business? If not, what costs are required to get a tech on-site, and how long is the average wait for a service call? In short: When you are down, how difficult and costly will it be to get running again?

Remember, the embroidery machine that you are able to be operate efficiently – and maintain and repair at the lowest cost and with the least difficulty – will be the one that will serve you the best over time.

Every operator needs to learn the basic functioning of their machine’s control panel, both for loading files and standard running, and for feedback on machine operations

Irrespective of the size of your embroidery machine, a full set of tools for each station should be within reach of the operator

Basic skills

With your shop fitted out with the right equipment, the following skills and basic information are what’s required to start stitching successfully:

Machine operation and maintenance Basic operation can be learned from machine manuals and manufacturer training. Your operator should know how to perform the following operations in the machine’s controls:

■ Load and clear files

■ Change the starting position of the needle

■ Set running speed

■ Trace the extents of a design to check hoop clearance

■ Navigate through stitches in a design for missed stitch/error repairs

On the physical side, the operator should be able to:

■ Thread the machine

■ Load a bobbin correctly

■ Switch from flat hoops to the cap driver

■ Oil and grease the correct parts on an appropriate schedule, tracking upkeep

Most of this is easily picked up without much training; it requires diligence more than talent.

Ask for samples from your supplier to test new materials. This fine 60wt thread sample came with appropriate needles and an information sheet to help embroiderers understand the right way to implement it for fine detail work

Mastering embroidery techniques is only one aspect of launching a successful new embroidery business; think of your entire production workflow and stay organised

Operating Operators start slow, but get faster with practice. In the initial stages of learning, it is critical to carefully observe the machine as it is running, particularly for operators who aim to become digitisers in the future, as observation helps you understand interactions between thread, needle, garment, stabiliser and design, and how they produce a given result.

Operating teaches you how embroidery physically works, which is important to understand, especially when you are faced with diagnosing a problem.Hooping It can be difficult to hoop a garment straight to the seams (or adjacent structures, such as pockets) so it doesn’t appear skewed, and to keep tension firm without excessive stretch. You must adjust hoops for differing garment thicknesses and materials so that the hoops aren’t so tight that the garment is crushed, resulting in a permanent ‘burn’ ring, nor so loose that the material crumples and shifts during stitching. Learning to hoop correctly and uniformly is critical to pucker-free designs.

Cap framing is an entirely different story, requiring you to smooth the cap around a cylindrical gauge and strap the crown into place. When developing these skills you’ll benefit from direct education or, at least, video examples. Hooping is one of those things one develops a feel for with experience, but you’ll greatly benefit from evaluation by a pro early on.

Stabiliser An important aspect of hooping is selecting the appropriate stabiliser. A single piece of medium cut-away will suffice for most flat garments with a well-digitised design, while caps require only tear-away from pole to pole of the cap gauge. These types of stabiliser are ubiquitous, however modern embroiderers also need to learn how to use a broader selection of stabilisers to cope with different jobs. Stretchy performance materials and light garments benefit from thinner and similarly stretch-resistant, no-show mesh and performancewear-specific stabilisers, for example. Your stabiliser vendor often offers ‘recipes’ for tested combinations that serve as a good starting point.

Finishing Learn to carefully cut away most of the excess stabiliser, leaving an adequate area to avoid cutting garments or nicking embroidery. Holes or unravelling designs are a total loss. Learn to trim surface-connecting stitches that aren’t trimmed on-machine without leaving fuzzy ‘tails’ and how to steam, fold and pack for presentation. Finishing is your last chance for quality control, and determines the initial experience your customer has with your product.

Using accessories that help you to stay consistent in your process can significantly speed up production and efficiency. The financial outlay is often worthwhile

Whether softening up a cap seam or dealing with marks left after hooping, finishing tools, such as this garment steamer, are indispensable

Key accessories

There is a world of equipment to expand your shop’s capabilities, yet certain accessories and tools are critical in your initial set-up.

Tools Make sure you have a dedicated kit of tools for fixture- and needle-changing, as well as any necessary lubricants or materials that the machine requires, within arm’s reach of each embroidery machine.

Hoops Purchase sizes for the most common decoration areas: chest logos and full backs. Buy enough to prepare a full run of garments while another is on the machine, for increased efficiency and throughput.

Hooping aids From inexpensive ruler-like devices marking the centre of your design on any size garment to costly slip-over jigs with registration systems, straight and repeatable positioning that you can record saves time, trouble and money. Small shops may baulk at the cost, but these aids reduce errors and make hooping more efficient than manual table hooping, especially for newcomers to embroidery who often have a hard time judging alignment.

Tension gauges Poor thread tension can cause bobbin thread to show in designs or birdnesting to occur under the garment. Many new embroiderers struggle with tension; starting with measured tensions at your vendor’s recommended settings for your thread type helps. You’ll need both a pencil gauge for top tension and a bobbin gauge if you don’t get an all-in-one digital unit. Having a measured baseline tension makes adjustments more precise and allows you to record tested functional tensions for any combination of materials.

Garment steamer A garment steamer is useful for much more than wrinkles: it removes the ‘hoop burn’ ring from excessive hoop tension, softens stiff cap crowns, and removes the water-soluble topping used to temporarily support stitches on textured materials.

Software and digitising

All embroiderers should have basic lettering and editing software, but not every embroider will digitise. In-house digitising enables quick turnarounds, creative renderings, and information control, but even businesses that digitise for themselves often start by outsourcing their initial files, kickstarting production and gaining customers while their digitiser trains. Unless you start the learning process immediately and your machine vendor is offering a significant package discount, it’s unlikely you’ll need to purchase the highest-end digitising suite with your machine. Some rare machines may require speciality software to control unique functions or equipment, but most can be loaded with standard embroidery file types directly, without using the bundled software. I would encourage every embroiderer to learn digitising, however you shouldn’t feel pressure to digitise in-house; it’s not critical to the early success of your new embroidery business.

The bottom line

Ultimately, commercial embroidery is about commerce. You may work hard to be skilled at the trade, but you won’t stay in business long if you don’t make the money it takes to survive.

For starters, know your overheads, plan for profit and price accordingly – always understand what it costs to keep your business running. The calculations vendors use – tallying how many items you must sell to pay your machine’s lease – are enticing, but incomplete. Your lease payment is never your sole cost. Know the cost to be operating in your location, the energy required to run equipment, your supplies and the labour needed to decorate a piece. Measure costs, but plan for expansion, repair and profit, and price accordingly, accounting for the work you can reasonably do with your available equipment and time. If that’s something your customers won’t pay, you need to work on finding customers that will, or find more efficient ways to operate.

Have a market in mind before acquiring equipment, whether it’s your first machine or you’re adding embroidery as an additional decoration process. Start with a clear idea of who you will service, what unique experience you can offer, and what this group of people needs. You can operate and build a market without equipment by selling while outsourcing your production. Contract decorators exist to fulfil that role.

Never stop selling, and never stop or slow in marketing your business, whether that’s through old-school prospecting or establishing your brand via social media and events. There’s nothing to produce without incoming orders. If you don’t like to sell, partner with or hire someone who does. If you believe in the value of embroidery, charge for that value and keep your business running successfully.

What gets measured, gets managed. Keep track of production, materials, expenditure, hours worked and anything that comes in and out of your business. Through analysing your ‘history’ in data, problems of excessive costs or slowdowns in production become obvious. Track, report and use what you learn to constantly move toward more efficient and profitable operation.

Putting it all together

Think about the result before you start, learn how things interact, and measure what you want to control. Consider things holistically and give yourself the time it takes to learn, as well as a little forgiveness for the mistakes you’ll make. Every ruined garment or unprofitable job will teach you volumes. Starting with careful decisions about costs and set-up, dedicating yourself to learning and practising, and constantly working on your business as much as (if not more than) you work in it, is the path to success as a commercial embroiderer.

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.