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A stitch in time: how UK embroidery turned itself around
Feature: 3/8/2006

Enlarge Image click hereWith the rise in power of the manufacturing industry in China and other low-wage countries, offshore competition has become a thorn in Enlarge Image click herethe sides of many areas of the industry.

But for much of the embroidery sector, foreign companies no longer pose quite the same threat that they once did. In fact, most of the industry has managed to claw its way back from a deeply embattled state to one of rude health.

How? Well, the trouble began in the late 90s, when the majority of the industry was focused on large embroidery companies that would use 15 and 17-head embroidery machines to add logos to thousands of garments for major companies.

As overseas embroidery became increasingly viable, larger companies began to lose out on their bulk orders - the very orders that kept them alive.

Tony Whitmore, director of embroidery machine supplier Your Embroidery Services Ltd (YES) has been in the industry for 28 years, and has spent the last nine with YES. He said: "A lot of bulk orders started to move away from the market.

"Companies such as Marks & Spencer, BHS, Littlewoods and Tesco were moving their manufacturing offshore at a fast rate over a fairly short period.

"Now, some embroiderers saw an opportunity and set up factories abroad so they were still UK embroidery companies but the UK industry didn't benefit from the orders. Others, however, tried to maintain their UK base."

The offshore rush
But those that stayed behind fell on lean times as the numbers of major UK embroidering contracts dwindled - and with them, so too did the need for large-scale embroidery machines.

In fact, the UK embroidery market was experiencing so much upheaval at the start of the millennium that, in 2000, Mike Mahoney set up a company called M-Tech that was specifically designed to move large embroidery machines out of the UK and into China and other manufacturing hubs.

He said: "All of the big stuff is now being made in Sri Lanka, China, Pakistan and places like that, so all the of big machines - the 15-to-20-heads - are all surplus to requirements. I buy them and then sell them on to dealers who then refurbish them and sell them on to other countries."

However, it now seems that the UK is drying up as a source for the machines, forcing Mike to look further afield. He explained: "I've moved 700 to 800 machines in six years, but the supplies are running thin. As a result, we've started working with a man in China who is sourcing second-hand machines to sell on elsewhere."

Saved by the single-head?
While the larger orders hadn't completely left the UK, the industry was still severely shaken and in need of a new direction. Thankfully, modern technology had provided the answer: the compact single-head embroidery machine.

While single and two-head machines had been around for some time, they had generally been larger and heavier than the newer models.

Advances in technology, however, meant that around six years ago it became possible to buy a single head machine that was more mobile and could be easily delivered and installed by one person.

This, combined with their smaller size and quieter operation, made them a viable option for home businesses, point-of-sale companies such as t-shirt shops, or smaller garment manufacturers.

Tony Whitmore of YES added: "I would say that the compact style machines, together with companies such as ours, went a long way to helping the industry - it had to reinvent itself and did so by making an inclusive move towards smaller orders."

According to Tony, the result was not just change for the embroidery industry, but for small companies all over Britain: "Because the companies were no longer relying on huge orders, the option of embroidering was opened up to everyone," he said.

"Only a few years ago only the big organisations would have corporate identities, but now you can see local florists and small businesses that have their own uniforms. It wouldn't be profitable to make them without smaller machines."

There are more unusual uses for the single-head machines as well. For example, it’s now possible for small embroidery companies to take their machines on the road, allowing them to do on-site embroidery services at special events like Crufts, where there is a captive audience willing to spend a great deal of money for personalised items.

Smaller companies: the next big thing
In fact, although larger embroiderers may have a tough time on their hands depending on how many large contracts they have been Enlarge Image click hereable to maintain, smaller companies have been able to take up embroidery as an additional source of income, particularly by using mid-sized machines with six or eight heads.

Rowheath Ltd has been running for some 21 years, having started out as a packaging company before moving into garment re-labelling and, three years ago, embroidery. Since then, the business has enjoyed a great deal of success with its stitching.

David Wilton, director of the company, told director-e: "We predicted a big demand when we first moved into embroidery. We started out by targeting our existing customers, since we knew it would compliment the services we were already offering them.

"It built up to the point that embroidery now makes up about 40 percent of our business, which is helpful because some of the other markets are dying away and this works as a replacement.

"I think it will become the largest part of Rowheath and remain our business model for the foreseeable future."

Another company that uses embroidery as just part of its business model is 10-year-old Paramount Embroidery, which also devotes its time to providing digitising services for other companies that wish to have images converted into computer data for embroidery machines.

It is run by managing director Dean Roscoe, who said: "The multi-head machines that I have don't run all day, every day, but I'm not aiming for that. There are many businesses that have huge embroidery machines that they have to keep running constantly to make a profit and they are constantly dropping their prices so they can compete.

"What you've got to do is get a niche market and look after your customers and they will remain loyal to you, even if that means paying a little more."

Some larger businesses, meanwhile, have managed to adapt by adopting a new output structure: "Although a restaurant chain might buy thousands of uniforms, they won't need to buy them all at once," said Tony of YES, "so every time a new member of staff joins up, the chain will contact its regular embroiderer, who will be set up for small units.

"This embroiderer can then add the company logo onto each item as it is needed, doing just a few at a time, so that although it may embroider hundreds or thousands of uniforms a year, it will only do them in small batches. You could call it bulk ordering in units of one."

Seeing thread
Of course, all of these companies have to source their thread from somewhere, which is where organisations like Madeira come into the Enlarge Image click herepicture. The Madeira Group, including agents, comprises some 61 companies across the world, each one dedicated to supplying the high quality embroidery thread produced by the parent company, as well as all essential accessories like backings.

Karen Burrows is managing director of Madeira's UK branch, and has noticed big changes in Madeira's sales over the last few years - and this has allowed her to make some observations about the state of the industry as a whole.

She said: "There's been an increase in the number of Madeira customer accounts that have been set up over the last few years. In fact, we see more and more accounts being set up every single day and they seem to be new, small companies.

"There are still big companies that have remained operational, of course, but the focus is definitely on the smaller companies that are getting into the industry. So while the industry isn't as focused on larger orders as it used to be, it's far from being in trouble." (To contact Madeira UK, call the sales department on +44 (0) 1765 641700 or e-mail sales@madeira.co.uk)

Of course, the more new businesses that start up, the more demand there is for threads from companies such as Madeira.

But while the new-style embroidery industry is working out fine for thread companies and other tool suppliers, there is one sector of the industry is finding things to be slightly tougher going, and that sector is digitising.

The dangers of digitising
The purpose of a digitising company is to transfer an embroidery design from paper to a computer, then to turn the computer image Enlarge Image click hereinto useable embroidery data.

Once, it took teams of draughtsmen to manually recreate the designs on a scale that could be properly transmitted into the computer, but now it can be drawn directly into the computer by one person and transformed into embroidery data by using specialised software.

As a result, many of the people behind the new, smaller embroidery companies are attempting to create their own embroidery data, but it's not always as easy as it seems.

Clive Parsons is the managing director of David Sharp, a specialist digitising company that has just entered its thirtieth year. He feels that the expertise offered by his company and similar organisations isn't appreciated by newcomers to the industry, not least because of the way that digitising software is sold.

He said: "Fewer and fewer companies are going to outside digitisers because the price of digitising software has come down a lot, but the process is not as straightforward as it seems.

"Every design is made up of layers of stitching and it's only experience that tells you which layers to put down first, second, third or fourth to run as efficiently as possible.

"You also have the added complication that the image on the screen is not necessarily how it appears on the garment because the type of material and its likeliness to move during the stitching process can affect the final result. These things need to be taken into account during the digitising stage."

Dean Roscoe of Paramount Embroidery feels that many of these problems stem from inaccurate salesmanship on the part of some of the software distributors.

"A lot of salesmen will do a demonstration of the software that involves them just clicking on a few images and sending the design to the embroidery machine, but that's not the way it works in the real world.

"So the newcomers end up with software that they can't use. They end up creating embroidery that has too many stitches or isn't set up properly for quick and efficient production, and they get frustrated by that. It's difficult for them."

However, Clive at David Sharp says that some of the customers that he once lost to do-it-yourself digitising software are beginning to return.

"The people that have bought software have to give it a go since they've spent so much money," he said, "but over time they realise that it's not as easy as they thought it would be and they come back to us. It's happening more and more."

More offshore trouble
However, it's not just the internal industry that's hurting UK digitising companies. Like almost everyone else in the industry, they are Enlarge Image click herefacing competition from abroad. But many believe that the quality from foreign embroiderers isn't up to scratch.

Dean of Paramount Embroidery said: "The foreign companies are very cheap and can get it done quickly, but they're often poor quality.

"I get e-mails from offshore companies that come across my embroidery website without realising that I digitise as well and they offer to do some work for me.

"They always say that the first design is free, so I give it a try and they always put too many stitches in for it to be efficient. They place creating a detailed copy of the original design over creating something that will actually work in mass production."

Clive of David Sharp agreed: "As a test, we have actually outsourced a selection of our own images to ‘test’ the competition, to see what sort of quality could be archived at such low costs, but because we have no control over the production, the quality of their
digitising just isn't that great.

"They can quite easily set up an office, purchase a few PCs and install the ‘easy to use’ software, but without the knowledge and experience of companies like ours they can't create designs that are neither the correct density or efficient enough to go into production.

"They are much cheaper than us so I can't blame anyone who uses them, but we've never been impressed with what's come back and that's why we continue to operate 100 percent out of the UK."

The future for the industry
So where is the industry heading now? Dean of Paramount embroidery said. "I see more and more manufacturers and distributors that Enlarge Image click heredo their own embroidery in-house and so I can see sales of all the smaller heads growing.

"The future is in more small jobs turned around quickly. But as far as manufacturing embroidery goes, that's definitely gone."

For David of Rowheath, however, the future wasn't quite so rosy: "Competition over here is fierce on price because a lot of people have lost the very largest contracts at that end of the market are looking to fill the gap by encroaching on the small-to-medium end.

"That's where I see the problem - I would imagine that the contraction of the industry will mean that some smaller firms will pull out and the rest of us will get more competitive."

However, not everyone believes that more businesses will mean less business. Mike of M-Tech said: "The more small businesses that set up, the more business they will do because they will dig around and create demand.

"Obviously a few will fall along the wayside as that happens in any line of business, but on the whole it will remain healthy."

Tony of YES added: "While I am always concerned about the industry, I am not unduly worried. It is an industry that, with or help, reinvents itself every time it comes up against a hurdle.

"It is our job to help guide it towards its eventual destination and we should do that with a confidence that reflects the past success of our business. I can honestly say that I have immense confidence in the industry."

Author: James Wilkinson
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