5 Things to Know About Your Embroidery Machine

Follow these pointers from an embroidery veteran to ensure maximum efficiency and output each time you sew.

By Steven Batts, Contributing Writer

Any small burr or rough spot on the needle will cause a thread break. Since all needles don’t get the same amount of usage, replace them as the performance falls off for each particular needle.

February 27, 2014

One of my favorite movie quotes is from “Top Gun.” The character played by Tom Skerritt says to the class of the top Navy fighter pilots, “You’re the best of the best. We’ll make you better.”

You may think you know a lot about your embroidery machine. After all, you probably get good production from it. But we’re here to make you better.

The type of machine you have — multihead or singlehead — really doesn’t matter. There are things common to all machines that make them more efficient, and there are certain things you can do to get more out of your machine. The following five pointers will help you maximize your embroidery production when it comes to equipment.

1. Clean and oil regularly. One thing that can hold back embroidery production more than anything is machine maintenance, or lack thereof. There is a direct correlation between thread breaks and oiling your machine, especially with the sewing hook. This vital machine part should be oiled each day, or every eight hours of running.

However, oiling is not enough. Your machine also needs to be kept clean. That is not always an easy task. I liken it to following a child around all day. Kids seem to attract dirt and general uncleanliness. Likewise, embroidery machines attract lint and dust, thus impacting performance.

Moreover, lint and dust aren’t the only culprits that cause problems. Little pieces of thread can cause trimmers not to work, and even work their way down into machine parts — in some cases even locking up your machine. Keeping things clean, especially around the sewing hook (the part you snap your bobbin case into) is imperative to keep your machine humming along smoothly.

2. Watch the needles. The most important part of the sewing process is the smallest part of the machine: the needle. It pierces the fabric and carries the thread through. It is designed to create the loop of thread that the hook catches to make a stitch. Most importantly, the needle’s eye allows the thread to pass through it smoothly.

Any given spot on the thread will pass back and forth through the needle’s eye 30 or more times before it is laid down on the fabric. Thus, the needle is critical to making the machine run properly. Any small burr or rough spot on the needle will cause a thread break.

You may be wondering if there’s a standard for how often you should change your needle. That is a tricky situation because embroidery machines have multiple needles and they don’t all get the same amount of usage. So rather than replacing all the needles at a set interval, I recommend replacing them as the performance falls off for each particular needle.

You can measure this by the number of thread breaks that occur. If a particular needle begins to break thread consistently, then it’s time to replace that needle. Another easy way to measure this is by using the “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” policy. If a particular needle breaks thread three times within a relatively short time period, I replace it. Nearly every time the thread breaks, stop immediately.

3. It’s not always the machine’s fault. Just because your embroidery machine is not running properly doesn’t always mean there is something wrong with it. Many times, the problem can be the design you are attempting to sew. An improperly digitized design can cause thread breaks and slower production.

Stitches that are too close together also will cause thread breaks. If a design has tiny stitches — usually the result of too much small detail in a design — thread breaks also can result.

Sometimes, there may be no indication there are too many stitches other than a longer sewout time. Longer stitch lengths on fill areas can dramatically cut down your stitch count. For instance, changing the stitch length from the default value (usually about 3.5mm) to about 5mm can decrease your stitch count by 30% in some areas. That’s a lot of stitches saved, which transfers into a lot of time saved on your machine. As an added bonus, the design will appear flatter and softer on the garment.  

Another design issue is the number of trims. Design efficiency is critical to keeping your machine at its highest production level. For one thing, every trim takes an average of seven seconds. The way I look at it, each trim eliminated equates to seven seconds saved on the design. That may not seem like a lot, but if you can save 10 trims in a design, that is more than one minute per run. During the course of a day, that small amount of time saved can add up to 30-40 minutes.

Those seven seconds may not be the only time savings you get from having fewer trims. A thread trim is the most difficult thing your machine does. This means there is a higher chance that the machine will malfunction and stop. It may be that it didn’t cut and got hung up, or that it unthreaded after the trim. Keeping the number of trims to a minimum reduces the chances of these malfunctions.

4. Get to know your machine. While keeping your embroidery machine running smoothly is critical to higher productivity, it’s just one important factor. Using the features built into your machine can help you save setup time and overcome everyday challenges. There are many machine brands available on the market, and each one tries to set itself apart from the pack with various features.

Did you know many machines have options to fatten the width of stitches right at the machine? Most can recover from a power failure and resume where they stopped stitching, even if the frame was moved while the power was out. Many will let you skip around the design by either keying in a stitch number or jumping around by color changes. The list goes on.

All of these things are designed to make your life easier when you encounter problems. It’s important to know these features exist and how to use them. That’s why it’s also important that you read your machine’s accompanying instruction manual — even though it may be the uncool thing to do … especially for guys. We don’t want to read the instructions until all else fails. But perusing the manual may enlighten you to features you never knew existed.

5. Use common colors in thread arrangement. Ever wonder why today’s embroidery machines have so many needles? It isn’t necessarily so you can run designs containing more colors. The main reason is to reduce the amount changeover between jobs by increasing the likelihood that you already will have the color you need on the machine without having to re-thread it. If it were up to me, I would have a machine with 30 needles. Then I would hardly ever have to tie off threads.

To maximize the benefit of this, keep your most common colors on your machine. Even if you only have seven needles, you should still keep black and white thread on the machine most of the time. Machines with more needles can hold more colors virtually all the time. I have a 15-needle machine on which I frequently keep about 10 colors. That still leaves five needles to change out for less frequently used colors.

I also arrange my needles in such a way as to keep other frequently used colors on the machine. The way to do this is to place the most common colors (i.e. black and white) on the needles that are the most difficult to thread. This usually is right in the center of your thread rack. The reasoning is that you are not planning on removing these colors anytime soon and the cone will only be changed when it runs out.

Around these colors, put the second-most-used colors. They are a little more accessible, but not the easiest to reach. The spots that are the easiest to reach are used for tying off custom colors.

Arranging the colors this way has another benefit besides less down time between runs. By keeping certain colors in the same spot all the time, you can tune that specific needle to run that thread type. For instance, I keep silver metallic thread on the same needle all the time. As a result, I have the tension dialed in for metallic thread and use a larger needle on that position. This means I have essentially tuned that needle position to sew optimally for metallic thread.

Getting the most out of your machine means you need to make sure it runs properly. But to do so, it has to be set up to run as efficiently as possible. When that happens, your production knows no bounds and you’re ready to fly.  

Steven Batts, a consultant with more than 20 years 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 righteousthreads@gmail.com.

A Message from Your Machine
Listen, as your embroidery machine, I know you put a significant investment into my purchase. If you want me to run efficiently and produce at the highest-possible level, I’m going to need a little help.
I’m sure you know the old phrase, “You scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours.” Well, I don’t have a back, but if you take care of me, I’ll take care of you. This article is a good start, but let me expand on a few things for you.

1. Check the Chart. My manufacturer provides a chart of parts that need to be oiled and how often you should do this. It’s in the manual. Some manufacturers even put it on a sticker and place it right on me. Want to keep me purring for a long time? Just follow the chart.

2. Keep Swabbing. If you look at the oiling chart, you’ll see needle bars listed. These can be a little tricky. If you put too much oil on them, it’ll spatter all over the garments — especially white ones. So needle bars commonly get ignored. After awhile, sewing quality gets affected as the needle bars start to get a little sticky.

A better plan is to cut back on the quantity of oil. The best way to do this is to use a cotton swab. Dip it in oil, pull each of the needle bars on the sewing head down individually and wipe them. By doing it this way, you’re simultaneously cleaning and oiling my needle bars.

3. Spring Cleaning. Just like the closet in your bedroom, I have areas that can accumulate unwanted stuff. 
Every now and then, it is a good idea to take the covers off and clean things out.

4. Don’t Touch That Dial. I know it’s tempting, but the more you mess with my tension knobs, the worse I tend to perform. I understand there are slight variances in tension between various garments and thread, but the key word is “slight.” And hey, you probably use the same type of thread most of the time anyway.

If the tension is out of whack, do a tension test by sewing a simple satin line in each color. Compare the tensions, adjust accordingly and then leave it alone!