Training for the Small Shop

A structured curriculum for new employees is paramount to getting the most out of your new help.

By Deborah Jones, Contributing Writer

Instruct trainees on the proper thread path from the cone to the needle, as well as tensioning basics.

September 5, 2014

In a small embroidery shop setting, we don’t often recruit help when we need it; rather, we recruit help when we’re desperate for it.

We keep thinking we’ll get caught up on our orders after completing the next job. When we finally get around to admitting that we need help, we want new employees to jump right in. On-the-job training is a must for small shops, but that doesn’t mean it should be trial by fire.

A structured training curriculum increases the odds that a newer employee can help in most areas where assistance may be needed more quickly.

A small-shop trainee may need to be more of an “all-rounder” rather than dedicated to a specific operation. Such would be the case in large shops, which often have trimming and finishing personnel who move up to be trained on the embroidery machine. This builds a more gradual understanding of the embroidery process for the trainee and allows more time for that person to be assessed.

Here are some guiding principles, as well as training curriculum suggestions, to remember when you decide to stop putting off getting some real help.

1. Select your trainee carefully and establish a trial period. Characteristics to look for in a candidate include multitasking ability, curiosity and determination. Even so, not every promising candidate will make a great employee. Some have plenty of drive and enthusiasm at first, but turn into “30-day wonders” after the first month — or less.

That’s why a reasonable and clearly defined trial period is recommended. I think 90 days is a sensible amount of time for both parties to decide whether the arrangement is a good fit.

2. Don’t appear rushed when training. This could foster the idea that you place more value on speed than other production aspects, like quality. While you should emphasize efficiency, always take your time when instructing, answering questions thoughtfully and completely.

3. Break up training materials into easily digestible chunks that follow a logical order. It can be tempting for the trainee and trainer alike to jump full steam ahead to the embroidery machine. But it’s best to work up to that, developing measureable skill sets along the way.

4. Make sure the trainee truly understands the lesson. Many times, trainees will say they understand simply to please the trainer. After demonstrating a principle or procedure, make sure it has been absorbed by asking the trainee to demonstrate or explain the idea. Be friendly, but don’t perpetuate misinformation. If the trainee doesn’t get it quite right, clarify the information immediately.

5. Make sure all employees know techniques used in the shop. When you have multiple employees, take measures to ensure your shop doesn’t fall victim to the “Queen Bee syndrome.” If one employee insists on being the only one to perform certain tasks or embroider certain jobs, nip it in the bud.

Finishing is a great place for any embroidery shop trainee to start because that person’s help will make an immediate and — hopefully positive — impact. Poor throughput often is the impetus for adding an employee, so increasing finishing capacity usually results in quicker turnarounds on orders.

Just because the trainee isn’t operating equipment yet doesn’t mean you should gloss over training in this area. There is great opportunity to understand how practices at the machine affect the final product when performing finishing tasks.

Trapped threads, exposed bobbin thread and other finishing challenges can be avoided at the machine. Trainees who have performed finishing tasks usually are quick to recognize and avoid practices at the machine that lead to a lengthy finishing process.

Skill sets taught include: trimming remaining thread tails or missed trims; removing tearaway stabilizer, water-soluble topping and cutaway stabilizer; embroidery removal; and folding and bagging.

Hooping and backing selection also is important. If the trainee started by performing finishing tasks, that person should have developed an understanding of backings in the process. For example, the trainee may notice that knit shirts always have cutaway stabilizer, towels have water-soluble topping and so on.

Explain the finer points of stabilizer selection by providing an explanation of when and why each stabilizer is used. The rules aren’t hard and fast, but it’s helpful to provide a printed reference chart.

Hooping is an important skill and sufficient time must be spent on this. Never tell a trainee her hooping is good if you really believe she could do better. This is a skill that must be practiced to do well, so allow the trainee plenty of opportunity to practice, and make sure you give feedback.

When it comes to needle selection and changes, instruct the trainee about blade sizes and point types, as well as symptoms that indicate the needle point has deteriorated. Teach the necessary procedure that must be followed for changing a needle. Be sure to caution your trainee about loosening the needle set screw too much, allowing the presser foot to become detached.

Following are a few areas of importance regarding thread for your training curriculum:

Thread Type: Educate the trainee about the kind of thread your shop uses. Talk about the fiber type and explain why you chose it for your particular work.

Knot Tying: The easiest way to change thread on a multineedle machine is to tie a knot that joins the old thread color with the new color. Show the trainee how to tie a weaver’s or square knot that will pass through the needle’s eye. This is an important skill that greatly reduces downtime for threading.

Threading from the Cone:  Every machine operator must know how to thread the entire thread path — from cone to needle. This is essential not only for threading, but also for troubleshooting. Sometimes, thread may jump out of tensioners or become tangled around a thread guide. If the thread path is a mystery, an operator may not be able to identify a problem or may be reluctant to attempt to rethread. Like most items on this training list, this is a verifiable skill that should be tested. In a small-shop setting, this may seem like overkill, but it’s essential to avoiding unnecessary downtime for a very simple and easily corrected problem.

Thread Storage: Thread must be stored properly to preserve it and to ensure it can be found when needed. Most spools now have a snap base that holds the end of the thread. For brands that don’t have this feature, it’s important to know how to tie a proper knot to secure thread to the cone.

Color Changeover and Needle Threading: Some machines now offer automatic threading, which is a great feature. For those that must be threaded manually, there are two methods that should be mastered. When a needle has sufficient blade and eye size, the new thread can be tied to the old thread using either a weaver’s or square knot. Just be sure not to tug a knot through, as it could bend the needle.

Alternatively, for manual threading through the eye, teach the trainee to place the thread in the groove of the needle and push it down and through the eye. This eliminates the need to see the eye and hit the target.

Tensions: This is a skill that is not mastered quickly, but the principles and appearance of proper tension should be taught. Instruct your trainee by using the “H” and “FOX” tests, both of which entail sewing out those letters.

Encourage the trainee to turn over each piece of completed embroidery during training to verify tensions are correct. Supervise the trainee when she is making adjustments to the tensioners during training. This will help you give guidance and build that person’s tension troubleshooting logic.

Bobbin Changes: Regularly checking the amount of thread left on the bobbin is a good work habit for your trainee to develop. Allowing a bobbin to run out costs time and could cause poor-quality embroidery. Train new operators to check bobbin thread levels frequently. This is particularly important when doing sewouts on caps or other items that could make a bobbin change challenging in the midst of the embroidery process.

It’s common for trainees to make the mistake of not getting the bobbin case clicked in properly. When that happens, the machine simply spits it out. Make sure the trainee understands that this never happens with a properly inserted bobbin case.

Needle Changes: Multineedle machines either use flat shank or round shank needles. The flat edge of the shank ensures the needles always are inserted straight. Round shank needles are a bit more challenging, and it’s very important that they are inserted in the proper direction. Check to learn whether your machine manufacturer recommends inserting with the groove facing straight or canted slightly to the right.

Some machines allow the presser foot to drop out if the needle set screw is loosened too much. This can be very upsetting to a trainee, so supervise needle changes in the beginning stages of training to ensure that person doesn’t overdo it.

Help your trainee learn the symptoms of a worn-out needle, such as fabric runs, damaged knits, thread breaks, lack of clarity and so on. Also, this person should be aware of any special needle types that may be needed for specific jobs.

Troubleshooting: The goal in any good training program should be to build proper logic about the embroidery process. When mishaps occur, such as a birdnest (the clump of thread between the fabric and needle plate), use them as teaching moments.

Machine Control Panel and Computer Software: This training is optional in a large shop, but it’s usually necessary in the small shop. Training at the control panel can be done during the normal workday as new jobs are loaded into the machine. Start with simple control panel operations, such as rotating designs and adjusting machine speed. Computer software training should be done in dedicated sessions of at least one hour each.

Evaluation: Be sure to evaluate your trainee at the end of the trial period. If your training was effective, that person should be able to operate the embroidery equipment with some degree of confidence and proficiency. Remember that your embroidery quality depends on the amount of training that is retained and used. Check to ensure the methods you taught are being practiced.

Training your employees can be good for you, too. None of us ever stops learning about embroidery, so listen to ideas and suggestions from your trainees. They may have a perspective that you haven’t thought of and it could be an improvement.

Of course, another benefit is that after you get some good help in your shop, you can plan a vacation!

Deborah Jones is a commercial and home embroiderer with more than 30 years experience in the computerized embroidery field. She runs myembroiderymentor.com and regularly speaks at the Imprinted Sportswear Shows (ISS). For more information or to comment on this article, email Deborah at djones@myembroiderymentor.com. Hear Deborah speak on embroidery topics at the 2015 Imprinted Sportswear Shows (ISS). Individual seminars are just $25 if you pre-register at issshows.com.