Machine embroidery is a term that can be used to describe two different actions. The first is using a sewing machine to "manually" create (either freehand or with built-in stitches) a design on a piece of fabric or other similar item. The second is to use a specially designed embroidery or sewing-embroidery machine to automatically create a design from a pre-made pattern that is input into the machine. Most embroidery machines used by professionals and hobbyists today are driven by computers that read digitized embroidery files created by special software.
With the advent of computerized machine embroidery, the main use of manual machine embroidery is in fiber art and quilting projects. While some still use this type of embroidery to embellish garments, with the ease and decreasing cost of computerized embroidery machine, it is rapidly falling out of favor. Many quilters and fabric artists now use a free machine embroidery process often called "thread drawing" (or thread painting) to create embellishments on items, or to create examples of textile art.
Before computers were affordable, most embroidery was completed by "punching" designs on paper tape that then ran through a mechanical embroidery machine. One error could ruin an entire design, forcing the creator to start over. This is how the term "punching" came to be used in relation to digitizing embroidery designs.
In 1980, Wilcom is thought by many to have introduced the first computer graphics embroidery design system running on a mini-computer. However, old timers often debate this. Melco Industries has been delivering embroidery solutions since 1972. Melco created the first embroidery sample head for use with large Schiffli looms. This sample head became the first computerized embroidery machine marketed to home sewers. The sample head was needed to avoid sewing out the sample for the Schiffli loom and taking up valuable production time. Schiffli looms spanned several feet across and produced, lace, patches and large embroidery patterns. The economic conditions of the Reagan Years, coupled with tax incentives of the day for in-home business, helped propel Melco to the top of the market. Embroidery does well in times of economic recession or downturn. At the Show of the America's in 1980 Melco showed the Digitrac. The original digitized design was produced at 6 times the size it would eventually be sewn out. The Digitrac consisted of a small computer, similar in size to today's Blackberry Devices, mounted on an X and Y axis on a large white board. It sold for $30,000. The original sample head with one needle sold for $10,000 with a 1" paper-tape reader, and 2 fonts. The digitizer would mark common points of the design to create elaborate fill and satin stitch combinations. Melco is the result of an international distribution network formed by Randal Melton and His partner Bill Childs. Melco patented the ability to sew circles with a satin stitch, arched lettering generated from a keyboard. An operator would "digitize" the design into the computer using similar techniques to "punching", to create a 1" paper tape, or later to a floppy disk. This design would then be run on the machine. The machine would stitch out the digitized design. Wilcom enhanced this technology in 1982 with the introduction of the first multi-user system that allowed more than one person to be working on a different part of the embroidery process, vastly streamlining production times. Wilcom is now dominant in the field of embroidery.
Brother International got into the embroidery business as a result of being contracted by several computerized embroidery companies to provide sewing heads. Their sewing heads were mounted and branded on several different brands of computerized embroidery machines. Adler was also a common choice. Later Tajima, from Japan, provided sewing heads that were capable of using multiple threads. Singer failed to remain competitive during this time. Melco was acquired by Saurer in 1989.
Recently Singer was acquired by Affiliates of Kohlberg & Co., L.L.C. ("Kohlberg"), a leading U.S. private equity firm specializing in middle-market investing, they also acquired VSM is a leading supplier of high-end consumer sewing machines and accessories under the Husqvarna Viking and Pfaff brands. This alliance has proven to provide Swedish and German engineering combined with top notch embroidery digitizing software to home users. The top end home sewing machines in this category retail for as much as $8,500. They are capable of reading the common format that industrial computerized sewing machines use. The DST format.
Saurer and Wilcom, Tajima, Brother, began to innovate. The early functionality of the computerized commercial systems were adapted and marketed to companies such as Janome for home use.
Until the entry of China into the embroidery Machine Market, high quality computerized embroidery has been out of reach for the casual hobbyist. However, as costs have fallen for computers, software, and embroidery machines, computerized machine embroidery has rapidly grown in popularity since the late 1990s. As of 2006, the average user can buy a machine and special digitizing program to create personal designs for less than $500. Many machine manufacturers sell their own lines of embroidery patterns for those who don't want to create their own. In addition, many individuals and independent companies also sell embroidery designs, and there are thousands of free designs available on the internet.
Cedars Embroidery Machine, an international factory in China, produces a large variety of multi-head embroidery machines with sequin devices, chain/moss machines, and mixed type machines. These are the basic steps for creating embroidery with a computerized embroidery machine: purchase or create a digitized embroidery design file, edit the design and/or combine with other designs (optional), load the final design file into the embroidery machine, stabilize the fabric and place it in the machine, & start and monitor the embroidery machine.
Digitized embroidery design files can be either purchased or created. Many machine embroidery designs can be downloaded from web sites and one can be sewing them out within minutes. Please note that there are many different brands of machines, and each may use a different format. When purchasing or downloading free designs, you need to make sure you get the format used by your machine. If your format is not available, you can get a conversion program to convert from one stitch file format to another stitch file format - from PES to HUS or from DST to PCS, for example. Different conversion software programs are available like Wilcom TrueSizer, Designer's Gallery, SmartSizer Gold, demo versions may be available from the manufacturer's websites.
A person who creates a design is known as an "embroidery digitizer" or "puncher". The digitizer, or puncher, users digitizing software such as Wilcom ES to create their embroidery design.
Other design software
Wings'XP Embroidery Design Software, D.I.S.C. Digital Image Stitch Creator, Design Shop by Melco, & many others....
The digitizer creates the design in the native file format for the digitizing software (.EMB for example). These are 'Object Based' design and allow the digitizer to easily reshape and edit the design later.
The native file formats retain important information such as: Object outlines,
Thread colors, & Original artwork used to punch the designs.
As a digitizer it is critical to maintain and keep the original digitized design file. Converting the design to a stitch file such as DST, PES and DSB will lose many of the valuable information, and make editing and changing the design very difficult or impossible.
Software vendors often advertise "auto-punching" or "auto-digitizing" capabilities. However, if high quality embroidery is essential, then industry experts highly recommend either purchasing solid designs from reputable digitizers or obtaining training on solid digitization techniques.
Once a design has been digitized, it can be edited or combined with other designs by software. With most embroidery software the user can rotate, scale, move, stretch, distort, split, crop, or duplicate the design in an endless pattern. Most software allows the user to add text quickly and easily. Often the colors of the design can be changed, made monochrome, or re-sorted. More sophisticated packages will allow the user to edit, add or remove individual stitches. For those without editing software, some embroidery machines have rudimentary design editing features built in.
Loading the design
After editing the final design, the design file is loaded into the embroidery machine. Different machines expect different files formats. The most common home design format is PES, which works in Brother, BabyLock, some Bernina, White, and Simplicity embroidery machines. Common design file formats for the home and hobby market include: ART, PES, VIP, JEF, SEW, and HUS. The commercial format DST (Tajima) is also very popular. While there are commercial programs to view and convert these files, there are also simple open source applications like Embroider modder. Embroidery patterns can be transferred to the computerized embroidery machines in a variety of ways, either through cables, CDs, floppy disks, USB interfaces, or special cards that resemble flash and compact cards.
Stabilizing the fabric
To prevent wrinkles and other problems, the fabric must be stabilized. The method of stabilizing depends to a large degree on the type of machine, the fabric type, and the design density. For example, knits and large designs typically require firm stabilization. There are many methods for stabilizing fabric, but most often one or more additional pieces of material called "stabilizers" or "interfacing" are added beneath and/or on top of the fabric. Many types of stabilizers exist, including cut-away, tear-away, vinyl, nylon, water-soluble, heat-n-gone, adhesive, open mesh, and combinations of these. These stabilizers are often called Pellon, but this is inaccurate as Pellon is a trademarked brand name of Freudenberg of Germany.
For smaller embroidered items, the item to be embroidered is hooped, and the hoop is attached to the machine. There is a mechanism on the machine (usually called an arm) that then moves the hoop under the needle.
For large commercially embroidered items, a bolt of fabric can be worked by a long row of embroidery "heads", producing a continuous pattern of embroidery. Each embroidery head is a sewing machine with multiple needles for different colors, and is usually capable of producing many special fabric effects including satin-stitch embroidery, chain-stitch embroidery, sequins, appliqué, cutwork, and other effects. As prices fall, many of the features traditionally available only on professional machines are becoming more affordable in home embroidery machines.
Embroidering the design
Finally, the embroidery machine is started and monitored. For commercial machines, this process is a lot more automated than for the home embroiderer. For most designs, there is more than one color, and often additional processing for appliqués, foam, and other special effects. Since home machines only have one needle, every color change requires the user to cut the thread and change the color manually. In addition, most designs will have a few or many jumps that need to be cut. Depending on the quality and size of the design, stitching out a design file can require a few minutes or an hour or more.
Some machines are for embroidery only. Some machines are a combination of embroidery and sewing. Machines range in price from $200 all the way to more than $125,000 for a large-scale commercial model. Most average home embroidery machines can be purchased for $500 to $8000. Some of the more advanced features becoming available included a large color touchscreen, a USB interface, design editing software on the machine, embroidery advisor software, and design file storage systems. Commercial embroidery machines can be purchased as 1, 2, 4, 6, 12, 15, and 18 head machines.
Industrial embroidery machines are now available from 12 to 56 head models. These machines are limited to certain manufacturers and can set you back up to 6 figures. Tajima is one of the best embroidery machine from Japan. Cedars company is a manufacturer for special embroidery machines from 2 to 45 heads. Melco Embroidery Systems is the only manufacturer of commercial embroidery machines in the United States.
Commercial and contract embroidery factories
Factories can have a few small machines or many large machines, or any combination of machines. Contract embroidery is a term used to describe embroidery being done on goods that are supplied by the customer to the embroidery house. Contract Embroidery is limited to the trade. A company offering "Contract Embroidery" is embroidering wearable items for brokers, other embroiderers, Ad Specialty firms and Screen Printers at a wholesale rate. The customer of a Contract Embroiderer usually supplies the items to the factory and only pays the factory for the embroidery service. Commercial Embroiderers offer their services to the public and supply the wearable items.
Editing and digitizing software
There are many choices available for software that can organize, print, edit, convert, split, and even digitize new designs. Some websites offer tools that allow you to customize stock designs without the need for expensive digitizing software. Online T-shirt design tools are generally geared towards the consumer rather than professional. Often the software can be tailored so you pay for only those features you need. If all you want is to embroider a design purchased either from the internet or a reputable digitizer, then you probably don't need any additional software at all.
High quality designs can be created and/or edited by trained users with almost any type of digitizing software, expensive or inexpensive; expensive software simply automates common tasks and complex embroidery techniques. Digitizing and editing software ranges from free to $15,000. For basic software, expect to pay anywhere from a few hundred to a couple thousand. For professional software, expect to pay $5,000 to $15,000 or more, depending on the desired features. While there are some software packages that can auto-digitize artwork, auto-digitized designs usually result in more thread breaks and other problems, and have an arguably lower aesthetic quality relative to designs created by professional human digitizers. It is important to understand that digitizing embroidery from artwork is not the same as using a paint program or a vector-based drawing tool. Fabric and thread have very real limitations with which even art or embroidery professionals need to be familiar. For example, the minimum text size is quite a bit larger than most artists expect, circles need to be digitized as ovals to compensate for fabric pull, and underlay must be chosen properly to support the specific design. Even designs that appear to stitch out correctly may have problems once washed if basic digitizing principles aren't applied. Factors such as the fabric and thread types chosen can profoundly affect the final digitized design.
Fortunately, quality training is finally available. There are also tutorials available for most software packages, though this is usually geared toward their software features rather than on general digitizing techniques. Other good resources include Yahoo groups, books, and a number of magazines on machine embroidery.
These are just a few of the top quality entry level (costing several hundred dollar) editing and digitizing programs: MasterWorks, BuzzEdit v2, Stitch ERA Essentials, Embroidery Magic 2, Fancyworks Studio, Embird, PE Design/Palette, Origins, and Generations. Manufacturers of professional quality digitizing software include Barudan, Compucon, Pantograms, Pulse, Wilcom, Sierra, Wings and others.
Just about any type of fabric can be embroidered, given the proper stabilizer. For example, open lace and embroidering items are being developed. Anything from paper to fabric to lightweight balsa wood and more can be embroidered.
Machine embroidery commonly uses polyester, Rayon, or metallic embroidery thread, though other thread types are available. 40wt thread is the most commonly used embroidery thread weight. Bobbin thread is usually either 60wt or 90wt thread. The quality of thread used can greatly affect the number of thread breaks and other embroidery problems. Polyester thread is generally more color safe and durable. Madeira is just one of the many companies that sell high quality embroidery thread.
Other associated costs are thread, stabilizer, purchased designs, needles, bobbins, and other miscellaneous tools and supplies.
Appliqué: French term meaning applying one piece of fabric to another. A cut piece of material stitched to another adding dimension, texture and reducing stitch count.
Backer/Stabilizer: Materials, generally non-woven textiles, which are placed inside or under the item to be embroidered. The backing provides support and stability to the garment which will allow better results to the finished embroidered product. Backings come primarily in two types: cutaway and tear-away. With cutaway, the excess backing is cut with a pair of scissors. With tear-away, the excess is simply torn away after the item is embroidered. Additional types which are dissolved either by water or heat also exist. For all of these the terms backing and stabilizer are often used interchangeably.
Bobbin: A bobbin is a small spool of threads inside of the rotary hook housing. The bobbin thread actually forms the stitches on the underside of the garment. The bobbin on an embroidery machine works in the same manner and for the same purpose as on a standard sewing machine.
Digitize: The computerized technique of turning a design image into an embroidery program. Special software is used to create plotting commands for the embroidery machine. The commands are transferred to the machines logic head by a designated embroidery "language."
Fill Stitch: Fill stitches are a series of running stitches sewn closely together to form broad areas of embroidery with varying patterns and stitch directions.
Hoop: A clamping device used to hold the backer and fabric in place in the machine.
Running Stitch: A running stitch is one line of stitches which goes from point A to point B. A running stitch is often used for fine details, outlining, and underlay.
Satin Stitch: Also known as the zig-zag stitch by which a line, border or edge is produced by thread being alternately stitched to either side of a baseline. Satin stitches are generally limited to a maximum of 1/2" in stitch length before some alternate technique such as split stitching or fill stitching must be used.
Underlay: A stabilizing pattern of embroidery which, if used, precedes the main body of satin or fill stitching. It consists of one or a combination of running stitches for centering, edging, paralleling or zigzagging the design area.