How to Find Efficiencies in Your Embroidery Shop

Sometimes, saving pennies equals wasting dollars. There is nothing wrong with stretching your business dollars; just do it wisely.

By Jimmy Lamb, Contributing Writer

Focus on finding the best thread for the best price, not the cheapest thread on the market. This will save you the most money in the long run.

February 18, 2014

I’ve been around this industry for a number of years and, during that time, I have had the opportunity to make as many mistakes as humanly possible. If it’s true that you learn from your mistakes, then I could qualify as a genius … or not. But for sure, I have learned a lot from my business experiences — especially in the areas of economics and efficiency.

Like all business owners, I learned very quickly to assess what things cost and where I was spending my money. After all, if I could reduce the cost of operation without cutting into revenues, then my profits would increase. On the surface, that’s a very simple concept. In reality, it’s very easy to be shortsighted on decisions that involve money, such that you leap before you look. The result is that you may be saving pennies, but wasting dollars.

Let’s take a look at some of the key day-to-day production activities of an embroidery shop and address some of the areas in which you may not be spending your money wisely.

The first focus will be needles. Do you save needles to reuse later? Do you try to see how long you can go without changing them? These are examples of poor cost management. Old needles will become dull, leading to embroidery details that are not crisp. If nicks develop on the needle, it can result in thread breaks — which, in turn, result in unnecessary downtime. Needles are cheap; producing poor quality embroidery is not.

Anytime you change from one needle style to another — regardless of how long the previous needle was installed — throw the old one away. In addition, change out your existing needles on a routine basis. The frequency of doing this depends on how much sewing you are doing, but my preference is at least once per month.
Consider this: A package of 100 standard needles costs about $20, which works out to $0.20 per needle. Is it really worth it to reuse or overuse needles?

Going beyond needles, how you do you manage your embroidery threads? Let’s face it: You use a lot of thread. Thus, it’s an area that is ripe for seeking ways to save money. But, like everything else, simply finding a cheaper alternative may not save any money at all.

First of all, a typical 5,500-yard cone of polyester thread costs about $8, which works out to about $0.15 per yard. If you found a cheaper brand for $6 per cone, your cost would be $0.11 per yard. Big difference!

One hundred cones (using the example above) would cost $200 less if you chose the cheaper thread option. But that’s not looking at the big picture. The real question is: How does the quality of the cheaper thread compare to that of the higher-priced brand?

A 6-head embroidery machine running at 800 stitches per minute (spm) generates 13 stitches per second (sps), per head. If a thread break took 30 seconds to fix, then you lost 78 stitches (13 sps x six heads) per second for 30 seconds, which equates to 2,340 stitches of lost production.

If you were charging $0.50 per 1,000 stitches, you’ve incurred $1.15 of lost production. If the lower-priced thread yielded an extra four thread breaks per hour, that would work out to $36.80 per day, $184 per week and $737 per month of lost 

Of course, those all are just hypothetical numbers, right? But I’ve “been there, done that.” Though not my exact numbers, it does illustrate the lesson I learned the hard way when I experimented with alternative threads that had a lower price tag, but also a lower quality level. Focus on finding the best thread for the best price, not the cheapest thread on the market. Test and retest to verify strength, flow and colorfastness. Make your final choices based strictly on performance, not price. This will save you the most money in the long run.

Still determined to stretch your thread-purchasing dollars? Perhaps you have resorted to running a cone to the bitter end, standing guard at the machine watching diligently until the last inch comes off the cone and makes its way up toward the thread tree, dangling and twisting in mid air. You stop the machine, and gleefully replace the empty cone with a fresh one and then tie off the ends of the old thread to the new one. Then you carefully pull the knotted section through the upper thread path, down to the needle and through the eye. Wow, how much money did you just save by running this cone of thread out to the very end? About $0.15 (cost of a yard).

Production needs to be continuous and uninterrupted. Plus, you need to make the most out of your down time with multiple tasks, making sales, ordering products, managing inventory, etc. Wasting time trying to save a penny doesn’t make sense.

In addition, the final couple of yards of thread on a cone may be of questionable quality, leading to tension problems and thread breaks — both of which can cost you considerably more money than you would have saved by running the thread out to the end of the cone. When you can clearly see the cone itself through the strands of thread, it’s time to change it.

Along those same lines, do you run bobbins to the very end in order to maximize your cost savings? This is another example of a wasted effort that can lead to costing you some real dollars in the long run.

First of all, the quality of the last 5% to 10% of most bobbins is questionable. Many times, the thread coming off is kinked and brittle, leading to inconsistent tension and possibly bobbin thread breaks. Of course, every thread break slows down production and costs you money, but the inconsistent tension is a far greater concern.
Tension problems result in poor quality top stitching and/or bobbin thread showing on the top. When this happens, you may be forced to remove the stitches and re-sew the area of the design that was affected. And it’s quite possible you will have to remove the entire design and resew it from the beginning. Worse yet, you end up damaging the garment while trying to fix it, and then you have to replace it.

Bobbins are cheap; downtime and damaged garments are not. As a general rule, you can get about 30,000 stitches per bobbin (depending on tension and stitch lengths). Keep an eye on the bobbin and change it out at the beginning or end of a run, rather than in the middle. For multihead machine users, you need to change all bobbins at the same time. They never all run out at the same time, but once one goes, the others will follow sequentially, resulting in unnecessary downtime.

The reality is that you have to change bobbins sometime, so there always will be a certain amount of resulting downtime somewhere in the production cycle. But it makes better sense for that to occur during the garment swap, rather than in the middle of the run. Plus, never running to the end of the bobbin reduces the chances of generating negative quality issues.

Of course, you can’t have a discussion on bobbins without also talking about bobbin cases.

As the bobbin feeds through the case during normal sewing, it tends to leave behind trace amounts of lint that build up over time, typically under the tension spring. This buildup forces the tension spring to push up and away from the bobbin case slightly, which, in turn, loosens the tension. In this case, adjusting the tension screw will not increase the thread tension, as there is a physical obstruction. Your choices are to clean the case or replace it.

Cleaning a bobbin case is a simple process, but it’s also just as easy (and quite cheap) to replace it with a new one. Considering that a standard L bobbin case typically costs less than $6, it’s probably cheaper to replace the case (and clean it later) than to stop production to perform maintenance on the case. Thus, you should keep a couple of spare bobbin cases on hand for each sewing head.

And when it comes to cleaning, it may take longer than you think. You should always remove both screws, taking care not to drop one on the floor, as you will never find it again (trust me, I know). Clean all surfaces thoroughly with a small brush and reassemble. Also, it shouldn’t be done while the machine sits idle, as, once again, you will be wasting dollars in an attempt to save pennies.

It’s a common practice to save large scraps of backing, left over from big jobs such as jacket backs, to reuse on smaller jobs like left-chest logos. However, in your zealous quest for saving a buck, are you setting yourself up for failure?

One of the rules of hooping is that the backing must be larger than the hoop, such that it is fully captured and supported by the hoop itself. The only way that backing provides stability to the garment is when it is initially properly secured. If not, then the degree of stabilization will be greatly reduced, possibly even eliminated. Therefore, any scraps that are too small to fit the required hoop should not be used.

You may try to get really creative and piece together some small scraps so that, as a combined unit, the size is greater than the area of the hoop. However, this is another bad idea! If you have overlapping pieces of backing, then you will have uneven hoop tension. Remember that the backing is sandwiched along with the garment between the inner and outer hoop rings. Where there are multiple layers of backing between the hoop rings, there is greater thickness, which means the hoop tension is greatest only in these areas.

In the sections between the rings — where there is only one layer of backing — the hoop tension will be less. That means the degree of stabilization is not equal all the way around the hoop, so the fabric may shift during sewing in those locations where there is lesser hoop tension.

The bottom line is you are only saving a tiny amount of money by reusing backing, but doing so improperly can lead to poor sewing quality, which can cost you a lot more in the long run. There is nothing wrong with trying to stretch your business dollars, just do so wisely.

So at the end of the production day, it really pays to understand the hidden costs of making poor materials decisions. When I was first getting started, one of my embroidery mentors told me to focus on the best threads, bobbins and backings, along with top-quality digitizing if I wanted to be successful. The premium-quality stitches, combined with a higher level of efficiency, would generate far more profits than buying lower-priced, inferior-quality materials.

Award-winning author and international speaker Jimmy Lamb has more than 20 years of apparel decoration experience. He currently is the manager of communications for Sawgrass Technologies, Charleston, S.C. For more information or to comment on this article, e-mail Jimmy at jlamb@sawgrassink.com. Hear Jimmy speak at the 2012 Imprinted Sportswear Shows. Individual seminars are just $25 if you pre-register: issshows.com.