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Machine embroidery is an embroidery process whereby a sewing machine or embroidery machine is used to create patterns on textiles. It is used commercially in product branding, corporate advertising, and uniform adornment. It is also used in the fashion industry to decorate garments and apparel. Machine embroidery is used by hobbyists and crafters to decorate gifts, clothing, and home decor. Examples include designs on quilts, pillows, and wall hangings.
There are multiple types of machine embroidery. Free-motion sewing machine embroidery uses a basic zigzag sewing machine. Designs are done manually. Most commercial embroidery is done with link stitch embroidery. In link stitch embroidery, patterns may be manually or automatically controlled. Link Stitch embroidery is also known as chenille embroidery, and was patented by Pulse Microsystems in 1994. More modern computerized machine embroidery uses an embroidery machine or sewing/embroidery machine that is controlled with a computer that embroiders stored patterns. These machines may have multiple heads and threads.
Free-motion machine embroidery
In free-motion machine embroidery, embroidered designs are created by using a basic zigzag sewing machine. As this type of machine is used primarily for tailoring, it lacks the automated features of a specialized machine.
To create free-motion machine embroidery, the embroiderer runs the machine and skillfully moves tightly hooped fabric under the needle to create a design. The "feed dogs" or machine teeth are lowered or covered, and the embroiderer moves the fabric manually. The embroiderer develops the embroidery manually, using the machine's settings for running stitch and fancier built-in stitches. In this way, the stitches form an image on a piece of fabric. An embroiderer can produce a filled-in effect by sewing many parallel rows of straight stitching. A machine's zigzag stitch can create thicker lines within a design or be used to create a border. Many quilters and fabric artists use a process called thread drawing (or thread painting) to create embellishments on their projects or to create textile art.
Free-motion machine embroidery can be time-consuming. Since a standard sewing machine has only one needle, the operator must pause to re-thread the machine manually for each subsequent color in a multi-color design. He or she must also manually trim and clean up loose or connecting threads after the design is completed.
As this is a manual process rather than a digital reproduction, any pattern created using free-motion machine embroidery is unique and cannot be exactly reproduced, unlike with computerized embroidery.
With the advent of computerized machine embroidery, the main use of manual machine embroidery is in fiber art and quilting projects. Though some manufacturers still use manual embroidery to embellish garments, many prefer computerized embroidery's ease and reduced costs.
Cornely hand-guided embroidery
This embroidery inherited the name of the Cornely machine. Created in the 19th century to imitate the Beauvais stitch (chain stitch), it is still used today, especially in the fashion industry.
Cornely embroidery is a so-called hand-guided embroidery. The operator directs his machine according to the pattern. The fabric is moved by a crank located under the machine. The Cornely also has a universal drive system controlled by a handle.
Some models can embroider sequins, cords, braids, etc. There are also Cornely machines performing a classic straight stitch.
Computerized machine embroidery
Most modern embroidery machines are computer controlled and specifically engineered for embroidery. Industrial and commercial embroidery machines and combination sewing-embroidery machines have a hooping or framing system that holds the framed area of fabric taut under the sewing needle and moves it automatically to create a design from a pre-programmed digital embroidery pattern.
Depending on its capabilities, the machine will require varying degrees of user input to read and sew embroidery designs. Sewing-embroidery machines generally have only one needle and require the user to change thread colors during the embroidery process. Multi-needle industrial machines are generally threaded prior to running the design and do not require re-threading. These machines require the user to input the correct color change sequence before beginning to embroider. Some can trim and change colors automatically.
A multi-needle machine may consist of multiple sewing heads, each of which can sew the same design onto a separate garment concurrently. Such a machine might have 20 or more heads, each consisting of 15 or more needles. A head is usually capable of producing many special fabric effects, including satin stitch embroidery, chain stitch embroidery, sequins, appliqué, and cutwork.
Before computers were affordable, most machine embroidery was completed by punching designs on paper tape that then ran through an embroidery machine. One error could ruin an entire design, forcing the creator to start over.
Machine embroidery dates back to 1964, when Tajima started to manufacture and sell TAJIMA Multi-head Automatic Embroidery machines.
In 1973 Tajima introduced the TMB Series 6-needle (6 color) full-automatic color-change embroidery machine. A few years later, in 1978, Tajima started manufacturing the TMBE Series Bridge Type Automatic Embroidery machines. These machines introduced electronic 6-needle automatic color change technology.
In 1980 the first computerized embroidery machines were introduced to the home market. Wilcom introduced the first computer graphics embroidery design system to run on a minicomputer. Melco, an international distribution network formed by Randal Melton and Bill Childs, created the first embroidery sample head for use with large Schiffli looms. These looms spanned several feet across and produced lace patches and large embroidery patterns. The sample head allowed embroiderers to avoid manually sewing the design sample and saved production time. Subsequently, it became the first computerized embroidery machine marketed to home sewers.
The economic conditions of the Reagan years, coupled with tax incentives for home businesses, helped propel Melco to the top of the market. At the Show of the Americas in 1980, Melco unveiled the Digitrac, a digitizing system for embroidery machines. The digitized design was composed at six times the size of the embroidered final product. The Digitrac consisted of a small computer, similar in size to a BlackBerry, mounted on an X and Y axis on a large white board. It sold for $30,000. The original single-needle sample head sold for $10,000 and included a 1" paper-tape reader and 2 fonts. The digitizer marked common points in the design to create elaborate fill and satin stitch combinations.
In 1982, Tajima introduced the world's first electronic chenille embroidery machine, called the TMCE Series Multi-head Electronic Chenille Embroidery Machine. In the same year, they developed the automatic frame changer, a dedicated apparatus for rolled textile embroidery. Also in 1982, Pulse Microsystems introduced Stitchworks, the first PC based embroidery software, and the first software based on outlines rather than stitches. This was monumental to decorators, in that it allowed them to scale and change the properties and parts of their designs easily, on the computer. Designs were output to paper tape, which was read by the embroidery machine. Stitchworks was sold worldwide by Macpherson.
Melco patented the ability to sew circles with a satin stitch, as well as arched lettering generated from a keyboard. An operator digitized the design using similar techniques to punching, transferring the results to a 1" paper tape or later to a floppy disk. This design would then be run on the embroidery machine, which stitched out the pattern. Wilcom enhanced this technology in 1982 with the introduction of the first multi-user system, which allowed more than one person to work on the embroidery process, streamlining production times.
In 1983, Tajima created the TMLE Series Multi-Head Electronic Lock Stitch Chenille Embroidery machine, followed by the TMEF Series 9-needle Type Electronic Embroidery Machine in 1984.
In 1986, Tajima introduced the world's first sequin embroidery machine, enabling designers to combine sequin embroidery with plain embroidery.
In 1987, Pulse Microsystems introduced a digital asset management application called DDS, which was a design librarian for embroidery machines. This made it more efficient for machine operators to access their designs. In 1988 Tajima designed the TMLE-D5 series embroidery machines, with a pair arrangement of lock-stitch-handle embroidery heads, which were capable of sewing multiple threads.
Brother Industries entered the embroidery industry after several computerized embroidery companies contracted it to provide sewing heads. Pulse Microsystems developed a software for them called PG1. PG1 had a tight integration with the embroidery machine using high level protocol, enabling the machine to pull designs from software, rather than having the software push designs to the machine. This approach is still used today. Singer failed to remain competitive during this time. Melco was acquired by Saurer in 1989.
The early 1990s were quiet for machine embroidery, but Tajima introduced a 12 needle machine into their series along with a noise reduction mechanism.
In 1995, Tajima added a multi-color (6-color) type to chenille embroidery machines, and announced the ability to mix embroidery machines with plain chenille embroidery. They also began sales of the TLFD Series Laser-cut Embroidery Machines. In 1996, Pulse Microsystems introduced the computational geometry based simulation of hand created chenille using a spiral effect. Following this in 1997, Tajima introduced 15-needle machines, in response to the "multi-color-age".
In the late 1990s, Pulse Microsystems introduced networking to embroidery machines. It added a box, which allowed them to network and then pull designs from a central server. It also provided machine feedback, and allowed machines to be optically isolated to protect machines in an industrial environment. Since then, computerized machine embroidery has grown in popularity as costs have fallen for computers, software, and embroidery machines. Many machine manufacturers sell their own lines of embroidery patterns. In addition, many individuals and independent companies also sell embroidery designs, and there are free designs available on the internet.
In the year 2000, Pulse Microsystems introduced Stitchport, which is a server based embroidery engine for embroidery in a browser. This allowed for the factory automation of letter creation. Although they were not yet ready for it, this transformed the apparel industry by allowing manufacturers, stores, and end users access to customized versions of the mass-produced garments and goods they had been buying throughout their lives, with no margin of error.
In 2001, Tajima created heater-wire sewing machines, which were innovative, combination machines.
In an environment that was finally ready for the individuality that mass-customization allowed, the principles developed for Stitchport were adapted in 2008 for the creation of PulseID. PulseID allows for the automation of personalization, even on the largest industrial scale.
In 2013, Tajima released the TMAR-KC Series Multi-Head Emrboidery Machine, equipped with a digitally controlled presser foot.
The major embroidery machine companies and software developers are continuing to adapt their commercial systems to market them for home use, including Janome, RNK, Floriani, Tacony Corporation and many more. As costs have fallen for computers, software and home market embroidery machines, the popularity of machine embroidery as a hobby has risen, and as such, many machine manufacturers sell their own lines of embroidery patterns. In addition, many individuals and independent companies also sell embroidery designs, and there are free designs available on the internet.
The computerized machine embroidery process
Machine embroidery is a multi-step process with many variables that impact the quality of the final product, including the type of fabric to be embellished, design size, stabilizer choice and type of thread utilized. The basic steps for creating embroidery with a computerized embroidery machine are as follows:
- Create an embroidery design file or purchase a stitchable machine embroidery file. Creation may take hours depending on the complexity of the design, and the software can be costly.
- Edit the design and/or combine with other designs.
- Export the design file to a (proprietary machine) embroidery file that mostly just contains commands for the embroidery machine. If you bought such a file, you may have to convert the file.
- Load the embroidery file into the embroidery machine, making sure it is the correct format for the machine and that the stitched design will fit in the appropriate hoop.
- Determine and mark the location of embroidery placement on the fabric to be embellished.
- Secure the fabric in a hoop with the appropriate stabilizer, and place it on the machine.
- Center the needle over the start point of the design.
- Start and monitor the embroidery machine, watching for errors and issues. Troubleshoot any problems as they arise. The operator should have plenty of needles, bobbins, a can of air (or small air compressor), a small brush, and scissors..
- Remove the completed design from machine. Separate the fabric from the hoop and trim the stabilizer, loose threads, etc.
Digitized embroidery design files can be either purchased or created with industry-specific embroidery digitizing software. Embroidery file formats broadly fall into two categories. The first, source formats, are specific to the software used to create the design. For these formats, the digitizer keeps the original file for the purposes of editing. The second, machine formats, are specific to a particular brand or model of embroidery machine, they contain primarily stitch data (offsets) and machine functions (stitch, trims, jumps, etc.) and are thus not easily scaled or edited without extensive manual work. However, because these files easy to decode, they serve as easy exchange formats, with some formats such as Tajima's .dst and Melco's .exp being so prevalent that they have effectively become industry standards and are often supported directly by machines built by rival companies, or through provided software to convert them for the machine.
Many embroidery designs can be downloaded in popular machine formats from embroidery websites. However, since not all designs are available for every machine's specific format, some machine embroiderers use conversion programs to convert from one machine's format file to another, with various degrees of reliability.
A person who creates a design is known as an embroidery digitizer or puncher. A digitizer uses software to create an object-based embroidery design, which can be easily reshaped and edited. These files retain important information such as object outlines, thread colors, and original artwork used to punch the designs. When the file is converted to a stitch file, it loses much of this information, rendering editing difficult or impossible.
Software vendors often advertise auto-punching or auto-digitizing capabilities. However, if high-quality embroidery is essential, then industry experts highly recommend either purchasing solid designs from reputable digitizers or obtaining training on solid digitization techniques.
Once a design has been digitized, an embroiderer can use software to edit it or combine it with other designs. Most embroidery programs allow the user to rotate, scale, move, stretch, distort, split, crop, or duplicate the design in an endless pattern. Most software allows the user to add text quickly and easily. Often the colors of the design can be changed, made monochrome, or re-sorted. More sophisticated packages allow the user to edit, add, or remove individual stitches. Some embroidery machines have rudimentary built-in design editing features.
Loading the design
After editing the final design, the file is loaded into the embroidery machine. Different machines require different formats that are proprietary to that company. Common design file formats for the home and hobby market include .ART, .HUS, .JEF, .PES, .SEW, and .VIP. Embroidery patterns can be transferred to the computerized embroidery machines through cables, CDs, floppy disks, USB interfaces, or special cards that resemble flash or compact cards.
Due to some commonality between the controllers and the software manufacturers, some of the formats are headers and additional information surrounding similarly encoded stitches. .TAP is a .DST file without the header. .EXP file stitches are very close to .JEF, .SHV and .SEW but without the surrounding data about thread color and hoop positioning. .10o is encoded in the same manner as .F01, .GT, .DSB, .DAT, .INB and .U01 but with different headers and surrounding information.
|File Type/Extension||Company/Machine compatibility|
|.CSD||POEM, Singer EU, Viking Huskygram|
|.CXM||Proel TSI, Millennium X|
|.DST||Tajima, Brother, Barudan, Babylock, Melco, Richpeace|
|.E?? (?? = 01-99)||Barudan Tajima|
|.EMG / .EMG2 / .EMG3||GMI, Stilista|
|.EXP||Melco Expanded, Bernina|
|.F?? (?? = 01-99)||Barudan ZSK|
|.GNC||Great Notions Condensed|
|.JEF/.JEF+||Janome, New Home|
|.PCD, .PCS, .PCQ||Pfaff|
|.PEC, .PEL, .PEM, .PES||Baby Lock, Bernina Deco, Brother, Simplicity, Melco|
|.PHB, .PHC||Baby Lock, Bernina Deco, Brother|
|.PMU||Proel, ProWin (Proel TSI)|
|.PUM||Proel, ProFlex (Proel TSI)|
|.SEW||Elna, Janome, New Home, Kenmore|
|.U?? (?? = 01-99)||Barudan|
|.VP3||Pfaff, Husqvarna Viking|
|.Z?? (?? = 00-99)||ZSK|
Stabilizing the fabric
To prevent wrinkles and other problems, the fabric must be stabilized. The method of stabilizing depends on the type of machine, the fabric type, and the design density. For example, knits and large designs typically require firm stabilization. There are many methods for stabilizing fabric, but most often one or more additional pieces of material called sstabilizers or interfacing are added beneath or on top of the fabric, or both. Stabilizer types include cut-away, tear-away, solve water-soluble, heat-n-gone, film last, and open mesh, sometimes in various combinations. The stabilizer helps to keep the embroidered piece from rubbing or irritating the skin like in left chest polo shirt designs or in children's wear.
For embroidered wearable items, the fabric is placed in a hoop. This is then attached to the machine. An X and Y drive mechanism moves the hoop under the needle following the design coordinates created when the design was digitized for embroidery.
Embroidering the design
Finally, the embroidery machine is started and monitored. For commercial machines, this process is more automated than for the home machines. Many designs require more than one colour and may involve additional processing for appliqués, foam, or other special effects. Since home machines have only one needle, every colour change requires the user to cut the thread and change the colour manually. In addition, most designs have one or more jumps that need to be cut. Depending on the quality and size of the design, sewing a design file can require anywhere from a few minutes to over half a day.
Stitch your Design
For the best machine embroidery for beginners, this is often the final step. To get the stitches, learn to be very patient with your machine. You should also ensure that your stabilizer remains in place and prevents any kink around the fabric. 
Not all machines are solely used for embroidery; some are also used for sewing. Some of the more advanced computerized embroidery machines have an array of easy to navigate features. Some of the main ones include LCD touchscreens, a USB connectivity, auto threading, built-in design editing software, embroidery adviser software, and design file storage systems. Commercial embroidery machines can be purchased with a set number of needle colours per head (1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 12, 15,18 or more colours). Industrial embroidery machines are available with 1 to 56 heads.
Commercial and contract embroidery factories
Factories can have a few small machines or many large machines, or any combination of machines. Contract embroidery is done on goods that the customer supplies to the embroidery house and is limited to the trade, "ASI" and marketing firms use these services almost exclusively. A company offering contract embroidery sews designs onto wearable items for brokers, other embroiderers, speciality firms, and screen printers at wholesale rates. The customer of a contract embroiderer usually supplies the items to the factory and only pays for the embroidery service.
Commercial embroiderers, and some contract embroiderers, offer their services to the public and can supply the wearable items, and usually have a vast collection of stock designs and text available, Keeping up with current market trends, and offering names and personalization as well as designs for embroidery.
Almost any type of fabric can be embroidered, given the proper stabilizer. Base materials include paper, fabric, and lightweight balsa wood.
Machine embroidery commonly uses polyester, rayon, or metallic embroidery thread, though other thread types are available. 40 wt thread is the most commonly used embroidery thread weight. Bobbin thread is usually either 60 wt or 90 wt. The quality of thread used can greatly affect the number of thread breaks and other embroidery problems. Polyester thread is generally more colour-safe and durable.
Other associated costs are thread, stabilizer, purchased designs, needles, bobbins, and other miscellaneous tools and supplies.
- French term meaning applying, usually by sewing, one piece of fabric to the surface of another. A cut piece of material stitched to another adds dimension and texture and reduces the stitch count.
- Backing and stabilizer are often used interchangeably to refer to materials, generally non-woven textiles, which are placed inside or under the item to be embroidered. The backing provides support and stability to the garment which will improve the quality of the finished embroidered product. Backings come primarily in two types: cutaway and tear-away. With cutaway, the excess backing is cut with a pair of scissors. With tear-away, the excess is torn away after the item is embroidered. Additional types of stabilizer can be dissolved by water or heat.
- A small spool of thread inside the rotary hook housing of a sewing machine. The bobbin thread forms the stitches on the underside of the garment. Bobbin thread holds the top embroidery thread to the garment. The bobbin on an embroidery machine works in the same manner and for the same purpose as on a standard sewing machine.
- The computerized technique of turning a design image into an embroidery program. Special software is used to create plotting commands for the embroidery machine. The commands are transferred to the machine's logic head by a designated embroidery language.
- Fill stitch
- Fill stitches are a series of running stitches sewn closely together to form broad areas of embroidery with varying patterns and stitch directions.
- A clamping device used to hold the backing and fabric in place in the machine.
- Running stitch
- One straight line of stitches, often used for fine details, outlining, and underlay.
- Satin stitch
- Also known as a zigzag stitch, a satin stitch is a line, border or edge produced by the thread being alternately stitched to either side of a baseline. Satin stitches are generally limited to a maximum of 1/2" in stitch length before some alternate technique must be used, such as split stitching or fill stitching.
- A stabilizing pattern of embroidery which, if used, precedes the main body of satin or fill stitching. It consists of one or a combination of running stitches for centring, edging, paralleling, or zigzagging the design area. Money and time-saving technique is to use, instead of a large amount of embroidery thread for underlay, a fancy speciality stitch saver patch material that simulates underlay.
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- Best Embroidery Machine for Home Business