Build Your Business:

Inside the Embroidery Evolution

February 11, 2016

I recently celebrated 25 years of being in the embroidery industry. I remember my first days as a technician at a machine distributor. It was January 1991 and someone requested a paper tape of a particular design. I remember thinking, “Paper tape became obsolete 20 years ago, didn’t it?” I found out that while the machines at that time had built-in floppy disk drives, many embroiderers still used this ancient technology.

In those days, embroidery machines were somewhat of an enigma. On one hand, they were technological marvels that were accurate to within 0.1 mm and could cut thread, change colors and detect thread breaks. Even more amazing is that much of that technology had been around for years.

On the other hand, manufacturers were somewhat slow to adapt to the changing technology. Just as paper tapes were slow to give way to floppy-disk readers, floppy disks were slow to give way to USB drives. Color displays and other features often were slow to permeate the machine market.

Today, embroidery machines are the most technologically advanced they’ve ever been. Machines typically achieve more than 1,000 stitches per minute, and designs are loaded quickly and easily. There are more hooping devices to embroider just about anything and more tools to help with design alignment.

Although the basic concept of the embroidery machine remains the same — it still features a sewing head and a pantograph, albeit in different forms — the surrounding pieces have changed dramatically.

For years, the singlehead embroidery machine was king of the market. Back in 1991, it had become an afterthought. Large multiheads were the flagships of machine manufacturers. Now, those same companies cater to the singlehead market, with many offering two, three or more models of these machines. Others have dropped multiheads altogether to solely focus on singleheads.

There are numerous reasons for this. First, the demise of domestic textile manufacturing has severely diminished the market for 12- to 15-head machines. Also, much of the embroidery business has become a cottage industry. Many embroiderers start with single-needle sewing machines with an embroidery attachment and then move into commercial embroidery machines. This has boosted the market and forced manufacturers to create machines that meet that demand.

The current trend is for increasingly smaller singleheads that are simpler to use. It has ebbed a bit, as machines have gotten so small that they can fit just about anywhere and feature sewing fields large enough to handle almost any job.

Companies with a variety of singleheads offer a diverse number of needles and sewing areas (field sizes). In truth, one word can be used to describe the singlehead trend: customization. In addition to number of needles and field sizes, other custom features include sequin settings, and lasers for cutting appliqués and even chenile. While these options also can be added to multiheads, it is often cost-prohibitive.


Most embroidery machines primarily rely on USB technology to get designs into the machine. The growing trend is to network a singlehead or multihead with a computer via a LAN cable. Wireless technology trends are making networking even easier. Some machines already have options for a barcode reader. Even better, some models can send production information back to the computer. You can see the total of runs, how many times the thread has broken and numerous other production statistics.

While these systems still are predominately PC-based, tablet-based apps are available for certain sewing/embroidery machines in the home market. It is just a matter of time until it filters its way into the commercial market.

Other emerging features also include customizable machine menus, the ability to change sewing speeds on particular needles, setting a color sequence, and loading and setting up a design while another one is sewing.

Such innovations are major in terms of productivity. Having the ability to set metallic thread to sew more slowly while ramping up the speed of other colors can help avoid thread breaks. Moreover, since the most downtime a machine has is during the change from one design to the next, being able to do this while another design is sewing is a big time saver.

Almost all machines can “perimeter trace,” or trace a square around the outermost dimensions of a design. However, more machines currently on the market can trace around the outline of the design. This technology is coupled with a laser pointer built into the head (or first head of a multihead machine). Some even have built-in cameras to assist with alignment. They use positioning stickers or even a scan of the sewing area with the screen design superimposed over it so placement is more accurate.

Today’s machines run faster and are quieter than ever. This involves a lot of mechanical engineering to accomplish. Sure, you can make the machine run faster, but if the design can’t hold registration, what’s the point?

The pantograph motors need to move faster and the pantograph itself must still carry the weight of the garment.

Machine speeds seem to have plateaued in the last decade. Sewing speeds for singleheads have hovered around 1,200 stitches per minute and multiheads now can sew at about 1,000 stitches per minute.

But as sewing speeds have somewhat topped out, engineers have been examining other ways to get more production out of machines. There have been many advancements in color-change and thread-trimming speeds that have greatly reduced the running time of designs. The ramp-up time for the motors has increased and many manufacturers have switched to servo motors for the pantograph. This allows it to move faster, smoother and more quietly than ever before.

To put things in perspective, consider this: Today’s eight-head machines with servo motors and the other aforementioned improvements can produce more than many 12-head models made just a few years ago.

This also follows the trend of smaller machine sizes. With most of the large contract embroidery business gone and custom embroidery being the predominant option, smaller machines that can change over quickly are more desirable.

While the behemoth 12- and 15-head machines are hardly sold anymore, there has been an increase in what used to be considered medium-sized machines (six and eight heads). They can output similar volume, yet take up less space and are more versatile.

While embroidery machines must be oiled regularly, manufacturers have been working diligently to cut down on the amount of maintenance required for certain parts. For example, bushings and gears that required regular lubrication are being replaced with sealed bearings and belts that don’t. As an added bonus, these changes tend to reduce noise. And some machines now even include indicators that signal when lubrication is needed.

The most-used accessory for embroidery machines today still is the cap frame. It is included with nearly every machine. Because of its importance to the market, a great deal of engineering has gone into this vital area.

Manufacturers always are looking to make cap frames easier to load and unload from the machine, while also making them more adaptable to the ever-changing variety of caps on the market. However, subtle changes to the sewing arm allow you to sew higher on most caps — up to an extra ¼-inch.

The biggest trend in attachments is the continued move away from conventional hooping. More and more embroiderers favor adhesive stabilizer-based frames, and an increasing variety of frames are available for this hooping method.

The newest trend in hooping includes magnet-based hoops, like the Mighty Hoop by Midwest Products. It is similar to a conventional hoop but relies on powerful magnets to hold the rings together, putting less stress on an embroiderer’s hands.

Along those lines, clamps of various sizes and types also are increasing in popularity. Once thought to be reserved for bags, they are being used for many types of goods that are difficult to hoop by conventional means. In fact, Hoop Tech carries a variety of clamps with interchangeable windows to adapt to many different applications. EFP’s Gator Clamp can be adjusted to fit any project.

A lot has changed in embroidery during the last 25 years. Machines are more durable, quieter and advanced. And with all the options for accessories, hooping has never been easier. With all these developments, it’s clear that embroidery is now pushing the envelope and no longer is behind the times.

Steven Batts, a consultant with 25 years of experience in the embroidery industry, owns Righteous Threads, Greensboro, N.C., which offers digitizing, embroidery and machine maintenance services. He regularly leads seminars at ISS shows and is an industry speaker and consultant. For more information or to comment on this article, email Steven at