Short on Embroidery Supplies?

Protect your embroidery business when materials and products aren’t readily available because of the increasingly tricky supply-chain puzzle.

By Deborah Jones, Contributing Writer

The supply-chain crisis has seen hundreds of cargo ships waiting at major U.S. ports, contributing to unpredictable shipping times; fortunately, the situation continues to improve in 2023. Image by tawatchai1990.

April 4, 2022

Though it’s dwindling in some locations in the United States, COVID-19 continues to linger. The resulting global supply-chain issues have created mounting pressure on companies of all sizes to conduct business as usual under less-than-ideal circumstances.

The embroidery niche of the decorated-apparel industry isn’t immune, and applying fresh tactics in your shop can help you meet your schedules and maintain your quality and service levels.

Here’s a familiar-sounding overview of the quandary.

More Imported Decorated Apparel Products

Extended delivery times for domestic products sent decorators to the Internet in search of alternate sources for supplies to keep their machines running. From bobbins to backings, poor supply availability impacted embroidery shops of all sizes.

Many of the products available online are from lesser-known suppliers and, worse, of unknown content and quality. While savvy buyers have bought such supplies in small quantities for testing, less-experienced buyers stocked up on sometimes-inferior supplies. While there are high-quality products available from overseas sources, this shot-in-the-dark approach can prove costly, as embroidery quality suffers.

As the few mills that manufacture embroidery backings in the United States began to face challenges with raw-material availability, rising costs and labor shortages, these top-of-the-chain suppliers began sourcing finished products overseas. Proceeding with caution, mills sent samples to top distributors that were conducting confidential testing. When the results were favorable, certain products were supplanted with imports, sometimes at a slightly lower cost for the distributor.

These replacements helped keep the supplies flowing — but at a cost. Transportation expenses began to rise dramatically, reaching unprecedented. The cost of shipping a container of goods rose to as high as 10 times that of previous years.

Adding to the misery of this expense is the pain of long delivery times. While hundreds of cargo ships waited their turn to be loaded at major U.S. ports, suppliers gave distributors their best guesses regarding unpredictable shipping times. Hoping the situation was temporary and would soon improve, mills delayed price increases but eventually had to pass on at least a portion of the increased costs. Delivery times as long as three or four months out no longer seemed outlandish.

Supply-Shortage Strategies for Embroiderers

After being disappointed by multiple vendors who couldn’t provide everyday staples required for embroidery production, some decorators began to stock up whenever they found certain supplies. Fortunately, for embroidery, most don’t have a shelf life, so stocking up can be a good strategy — particularly on essentials like black and white thread, and bobbins.

Here are some tips on other ways you can work around supply shortages without tying up lots of cash.

1. Be Flexible with Thread:

When it comes to top thread, even though you may like the economy of 5,000-meter thread cones, you may be able to find the exact color you need in a different size. You may even find this to be a good long-term strategy when ordering new colors for specific jobs.

Top-thread brands have hundreds of color options available and many are just a half-shade apart from another in the assortment. When your shade is out of stock, consult your customer about a close match when the preferred color isn’t available.

Keep a thread chart that contains actual thread swatches from multiple thread lines. Computer monitors and printed thread charts can vary too much for accurate color matching. When matching within your preferred brand isn’t possible, check out close matches from other brands on your swatch chart.

2. Try a Different Bobbin Type:

Embroidery-machine operators tend to be particular about their supplies and sometimes are reluctant to try something new. This frequently is true about one of the most essential items required for every stitch produced: the bobbin. This item has been subject to one of the most acute shortages, so it’s wise to explore options in advance.

Testing is the key here and it’s important to evaluate the results compared to your current favorite bobbin type. Aside from stitch quality, another factor is yield, or yards per bobbin, which can vary widely based on yarn type and bobbin style. If your shop uses paper-side bobbins, consider giving sideless bobbins a try. They’re green and may have a better yield.

A less-appealing option — but viable in extreme cases — involves winding your own bobbins. This method generally results in fewer yards per bobbin than their factory-wound counterparts, and the metal bobbins must be replaced after a few months of steady use. Labor also is required to continuously rewind the bobbins.

3. Backing Substitution:

This area can be a little trickier because it may require more testing. There are different backing options for most embroidery jobs. In other words, several backing products can accomplish the same result for embroidery on most fabric types, so substitution can work.

The trick involves knowing how to successfully substitute backing. On a job where you normally use a single layer of medium-weight tearaway, will two layers of light tearaway give the same result? This is a simple example and substitutions get more complicated when it comes to substituting, say, specialty woven cutaway used with moisture-wicking technical fabrics. Testing in advance of a supply shortage or substantial price increase is key with one-of-a-kind specialty products designed for a specific purpose.

4. Bobbin Cases, Needles and Hoops:

Regardless of the supply shortage, a complete set of replacement bobbin cases always should be on hand in a well-stocked shop. This allows for a faulty case to be switched without stopping production.

Needles are one of the least-expensive components of production, yet many shops don’t keep an adequate supply. With supply-chain challenges in mind, it’s smart to keep a variety of blade sizes and point types on hand — even those you don’t use every day. When you get a job requiring a different needle type, you’ll be prepared. Remember, needles are inexpensive and they make all the different types for a reason.

In most shops, the practice is to keep two hoops of each size so that one is on the machine while the other is being loaded with a garment for the next run. I always recommend having three of the most-used hoop sizes, and this has never been more true than during the current supply-chain challenge. If you only have two hoops of each size and one gets damaged, the machine must wait for the remaining one to be rehooped. There’s currently a considerable time delay for replacement specialty hoops, which could extend to more hoop types.


With the job market becoming very competitive, hiring may be difficult. If you haven’t already cross-trained your team on additional operations, now is the time. Absences are common during the pandemic and long-term absences are a real possibility. Having each team member skilled in other employees’ tasks can help ensure high-quality products continue to make it through the production process and into your customers’ hands.

Major manufacturers are planning to make the most of resources available to keep supplies flowing and embroidery machines running. For example, some suppliers are developing thread products made from recycled materials. Manufacturers are confident supplies will remain available and that there’s no reason to panic. Still, remember to plan for any scenario that presents itself in the future.

Deborah Jones has more than 30 years of experience in the computerized embroidery field. For more information or to comment on this article, email Deborah
at djones@embstore.com.