This article is written by Tony Whitmore of Your Embroidery Services.
I have been involved with embroidery for over 25 years now and during that time I have seen many changes. Some were so important that they changed the face of machine embroidery while others were so flippant that they are barely worth a mention.
But in all those years, the most recent changes have been on the business side of the industry. This article will look at some of the developments that have kept the UK textile industry alive as well as some of the earlier developments.
In the beginning…
The original multi-head embroidery machines obtained their pattern information from 3.5 inch jacquard, which was effectively a continuous strip of card with holes punched in it. A pattern of pins on the machine passed through these holes and from them it was possible to interpret the X and Y movement of the pantograph.
These machines were very slow by today’s standards and very noisy, as all their operation depended completely on mechanical drives and operations. Around 1980, the first electronic machines became available; these used a beam of light to read punch tape, increasing speed and reducing noise.
Over the following years, this breakthrough was augmented by many functions such as automatic colour change and top and bottom trimming; these changes were still aimed at the classic embroidery company producing large orders for high street stores.
In fact, business was so good in those days, and the supply of machinery so limited, that companies did not 'sell' their machinery so much as take orders from a hungry user base.
Two manufacturers, Barudan and Tajima, took control of the market and this “control” eventually turned into competition. Throughout the 80’s embroidery saw great success and the payback time on what were in those days very expensive machines was incredibly short. It was not unknown for a £30,000 machine to pay for itself inside of 12 months.
Unfortunately this 'Shangri-La' situation caused many in the industry to become complacent and, when the inevitable dip came, many - including some large machine manufacturers - were not ready.
The market crash
As with a great proportion of the textile industry, the large orders moved offshore, leaving only smaller orders to be produced in the home market.
As the available machines had not been developed down this line, the industry fell into a slump, with machine development seriously lagging behind the demands of a new and growing market.
But as the saying goes, “needs must when the Devil drives,” and the manufacturers knew that they had to move quickly otherwise the industry that they had benefited from for many years would be no more.
It was at this point that the development and production of the first small machines started, with the introduction of the single head, single needle machine. Although these machines were seen as small, by today’s standards they were massive and certainly not as portable as modern versions.
With the introduction of this style of machine, the stage was set for a new and lucrative growth area, the small order market.
The growth of competition and innovation
It was at this point that the larger machine manufacturers that had previously dominated the market were challenged by a growing number of new, smaller companies.
Of course, increased competition encourages development, and changes started to appear on their machines. This increased competition also made the machine makers more focused and concentrated, resulting in improvements in important areas such as machine production, rates and price.
A significant breakthrough however, was the production of the compact single head embroidery machine, which had been developed from multi-head machines rather than the existing single-head models.
This mobile model allowed smaller, sometimes travelling, embroidery businesses to flourish and quickly became the focus of many manufacturers. As a result, the market became very competitive indeed.
Dual function embroiery
One development, however was to improve the production capacity and the flexibility of machines to a degree not previously seen. This was the introduction of the first “Dual Function”, which was capable of embroidering two different products and/or patterns at the same time.
With time, larger orders were once again began to appear on the scene. These orders, though described as large, were by no means equal to those seen many years before, but the demand they created made the need for larger machines a reality once again.
Of course, machines that could handle the new demand but also increase flexibility and productivity were welcomed by the market.
A glimpse at the future
The embroidery industry has changed greatly in the time that I have been involved and, I am pleased to say, the changes have continued to occur. The industry survives because those involved in it, whether they are machine manufacturers or embroiderers, react to the constant changes that occur.
I have often said the embroidery survives because it re-invents itself and I firmly believe this to be true. Even at the time of writing this item, more developments are in the wings waiting to make their debut.
At the recent Printwear and Promotion show, the first multi head machine to embroider at 1,500 stitches per minute was seen. Although this may seem a small step forward it is, in actual fact a massive leap that involved not just redevelopment of the sewing speed but also in other areas of the machine.
After all, it is no good having a machine that can move the needle up and down at this speed if the frame movement does not match it. To increase the speed of an embroidery machine involves development in all areas and that can take many years before coming to fruition.
So what next? Where will we be in another two years? Who can say? One thing we can be sure of, however, is that today’s manufacturers have their finger firmly on the industry's pulse.