Embroidery is a product of advances in sewing techniques that have allowed for the development of stable embroidery stitches. At the present time, these stitches can be made using automated machines.
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Embroidery & sewing machines
Using either of these machines enables one to stitch monograms and logos into apparel and materials, and this allows for product branding, cloth adornment, and decoration of apparel, quilts, and gifts.
These adornments are described as machine-made embroideries. So, how did this machine embroidery develop to create professional (machine-made) embroideries?
History of Machine Embroidery
The first automatic embroidery machine came with multiple sewing heads, and it was made by Tajima in 1964. Before 1964, machine embroidery used punch cards as instruction sets (that is [i.e], sources of instructions on what the machine should do).
In 1973, Tajima introduced a machine that had 6 needles, each carrying a thread of a different color. In 1978, Tajima debuted a machine that supported the automatic color change. Later in 1980, the first computer-controlled embroidery machine was introduced to the market.
The first computer graphics program for the creation and exportation of embroidery designs was made by Wilcom in 1980. It allowed for digital embroidery patterns to be created as computer graphics and then sent (or exported) to the machine.
At the same time, Melco created a sample head for use with Schiffli looms. Later in 1980, Melco introduced a digitizing system called Digitrac that allowed a computer to guide the needle to make stitches. Digitrac worked by ensuring that the needle made the stitch at the right location in the fabric.
In 1982, Tajima introduced an electronic multiple-head chenille embroidery machine (CEM), and later in the year introduced an automatic frame changer to be used in rolled textile embroidery.
Also, in 1982, Pulse Microsystems released Stitchworks, an embroidery software that allowed outlines to be converted into stitches, and this allowed fabric decorators to create exquisite fabric art using software that could be installed in a personal computer (PC). Stitchworks was marketed by Macpherson.
Relatedly, Melco improved its digitizing system to support arched lettering and sewing of circles using satin stitch, and Wilcom then improved on this technology by giving it a multi-user system profile that allowed different people to manage different aspects of the embroidery process, hence streamlining computerized machine embroidery and making it efficient.
In 1983, Tajima made the lock-stitch CEM, which was followed by the 9-needle type machine in 1984, and then a sequin embroidery machine in 1986.
A year later (in 1987), Pulse Microsystems released DDS, a digital asset management software that could store embroidery designs as digitized embroidery patterns, as well as allow machine operators to access these embroidery designs.
These advances in computerized machine embroidery allowed Brother Industries to enter a relatively mature market after it had served other companies by building their sewing heads.
Developments of machine hardware continued apace, alongside software advances, and in the 1990s, Pulse Microsystems developed embroidery software that could be accessed from a network operated by a central server.
In 2000, a server-based embroidery (software) engine was developed and named Stitchport. Stitchport allowed for factory automation as multiple machines connected to a server could receive their instructions from software running in this server.
In 2008, Stitchport was adapted for mass customization, and the result was PulseID that allowed standard embroidery patterns stored in Stitchport to be tweaked and customized before being relayed to the machines.
This short concise history of machine embroidery sets the stage for an explanation of how machine embroidery works, the different types of machines used, and the different categories of machine-made embroideries.
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Machine-made embroideries are classified into three main categories depending on how the stitch patterns are made in relation to the weave of the fabric, and the nature (or quality) of the original fabric.
The original fabric is called the foundation fabric or base material. If the color of the embroidery thread is the same as that of the foundation fabric, then the resulting embroidery work is described as whitework embroidery.
If this whitework embroidery features geometric embroidery patterns, then it is described as Hardanger (or Hardangersøm) embroidery.
Likewise, whitework embroidery can utilize embroidery patterns that create abstract or floral designs like in Broderie Anglaise embroidery.
Categories of Embroidery
There are 3 main categories of machine-made embroideries:
Surface or Free Embroidery
The embroidery patterns are applied on the fountain fabric without regarding the weaves in this fabric.
An embroidery stitch is applied over a specific (predetermined) number of threads that make up the weave of the foundation fabric.
This is best done on a foundation fabric whose weaves are made of equal-sized threads as this creates a balanced fabric known as an even-weave fabric.
The reason for this is simple if the threads of the weaves are of equal size and the embroidery stitch is made over a specific number of threads, then the stitch size is determined by the (weave) threads counted, and because these threads have an equal thickness, then the embroidery stitches made (in the stitch pattern) have equal sizes.
This explains why counted-thread embroidery is best done on even-weave fabric. A weave fabric is simply a fabric made by interlacing threads at right angles, and its longitudinal threads are collectively designated as the warp, while the lateral threads are designated as the weft.
A specialist form of counted-thread embroidery allows the embroidery patterns to cover the whole foundation fabric, and this technique is called needlepoint or canvas work.
The foundation fabric is cut to create a hole (or space) that is either filled by embroidery patterns or reinforced by embroidery stitches.
Counted-thread embroidery is used in cutwork. Evidently, this embroidery involves deforming the fabric by cutting through it.
The fabric can also be deformed by removing the warp threads and then bundling, or grouping, the remaining weft threads into a unique pattern using embroidery stitches, and this is called drawn thread work.
Expectedly, in drawn-thread work, the weft threads can be removed and the remaining warp threads bundled by embroidery stitches into a decorative fabric work.
The stitching tool used in embroidery is the needle. There are various types and sizes of needles, and they allow the thread to be stitched to the fabric.
The embroidery thread is made from polyester, rayon, silk, wool, linen, cotton, or novelty yarn (that can include synthetic or metallic fibers in the thread).
Some machines use narrow ribbons instead of threads to create embroidery patterns, and this form of embroidery is called ribbon embroidery. It is evident that precise use of the needle and thread allows for the creation of unique embroideries.
Also, the embroidery pattern needs to be created on a stretched fabric so that stitching is done at the right stitching tension that preserves the embroidery pattern (or prevents pattern distortion) after the material leaves the embroidery machine.
The frame that stretches foundation fabric so that embroidery stitches can be made is called the embroidery hoop.
This review focuses on commercial embroidery machines, and there are different types of this machine.
Types of Commercial Embroidery Machine
There are different types of machines used in machine embroidery, but they can all be reduced to 2 distinct classes:
It is usually a zigzag sewing machine that is used for making the zigzag stitch, which is developed from the lockstitch. In this machine, after the fabric has been stretched on the embroidery hoop, one can use his/her hands to move the hooped material under the needle so as to embroider a pattern.
This allows the embroidery designs to be manually created by the user. Also, the ability to move the embroidery hoop when creating these designs gives the machine its description as a free-motion machine as the hooped fabric can be moved freely under the needle head.
This machine can come with in-built stitch patterns that one can manually select on the settings panel. Even so, the most basic machine can make a running stitch for straight stitching, while the basic zigzag sewing machine can make a running stitch, lockstitch, and zigzag stitch.
The satin stitch is developed from the zigzag stitch, and it is sometimes considered a special form of the zigzag stitch.
A quality machine allows for thread painting to create garment embellishments, and thread drawing to make textile art, and this makes the machine suitable for fiber art projects.
Usually, a free-motion machine has one needle and this necessitates pausing the machine to rethread the needle if one needs to embellish the fabric with threads of different colors, types, or (thread) thickness. Trimming and cutting up of loose threads must also be done manually.
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Computerized Embroidery Machine
The commercial machine is built for high performance and high efficiency so as to optimize its output. This means that the embroidery process should be fast and effective so that fabrics are embroidered fast and efficiently, and on the other hand, the machine should be power efficient and easy to operate.
These goals can be achieved through the automation of embroidery processes. Also, this machine usually uses link-stitch embroidery, also called chenille embroidery, which was patented in 1994.
In this machine, the entire embroidery process can be automated, or only specific (sub-)processes can be automated.
This shows that (embroidery) patterning can be controlled manually (in partial automation) or automatically (in full automation).
If the process of sewing and pattern creation is controlled by a computer, which can also store the pattern in its memory, then the embroidery process is described as computerized machine embroidery, and the machine is called a computer-controlled embroidery machine, or simply a computerized embroidery machine.
Normally, the embroidery hoop is held in place by a mobile frame that moves under the guidance of the computer, and this expectedly allows the hoop to move under the needle so that an embroidery pattern can be sewn.
It is therefore evident that the movement of the hooped material is automated by the computer, while in the free-motion machine, the user makes the movement manually.
A computer program instructs the computer to guide the embroidery hoop to make a specific sequence of movements so that a specific pattern can be embroidered.
The pattern created on the fabric is a pre-programmed embroidery pattern that is created from a digital embroidery pattern read and interpreted by the computer.
As expected, the patterns need to be conceived first and then converted into a computer file that can be stored by a computer and can also be executed by a computer program.
Automation of the embroidery process allows patterns to be reproduced on different fabrics, hence making computerized machine embroidery suitable for product branding and embroidering uniforms as the same pattern can be sewn to multiple cloths quickly and efficiently.
Even so, user input is still needed when running a computer-controlled embroidery machine. The degree of user input depends on how many needles are in the machine head, as well as how many threads spools the machine can hold.
If the sewing head (sometimes called machine head) holds one needle, then the machine will stop when a different thread is needed, as well as require the user to change the thread if the embroidery pattern being sewn is multicolored.
If the machine has a multi-needle sewing head and holds multiple thread spools, then each needle can be threaded with a different thread color before running the machine, and then have the machine sew a multi-colored embroidery pattern.
Normally, the needles must be threaded in a manner that allows for the color change sequence to be set in the computing device. Some machines can change colors automatically and trim the finished product.
In the industrial computer-controlled embroidery machine, there are multiple sewing heads with each head holding about 15 needles, and this allows for multiple clothes to be embroidered with the same pattern simultaneously.
Parts of an Embroidery Machine
There are different types of embroidery machines but they all share some basic design and functional components that allow the machine to embroider fabric.
These components constitute the basic embroidery machine. Like the sewing machine, the embroidery machine has a bed that houses the bobbin case and holds the upright arm, horizontal arm, and sewing head (or embroidery head).
The basic embroidery machine has the following parts:
This is the surface of the machine where the foundation fabric rests on when it is being stitched. It provides the work area, and also covers the bobbin case where the threaded bobbin is placed.
The most basic bed is the flat-bed which is a low-profile bed. Another type is the raised-bed in which the bed is formed as a pedestal to create a high-profile bed that makes it easy for one to attach pre-sewn parts to the fabric.
The post-bed has the working bed raised on a vertical limb so that three-dimensional products such as bags and caps can be stitched.
In the cylinder-bed, the machine bed is placed on a horizontal cylinder-like limb that is connected to the upright arm so that tubular clothes like sleeves and trousers can be seen.
Lastly, the side-bed is a complex modified form of the cylinder-bed that allows one to embroider cylindrical parts such as cuffs, and it is also called feed off the arm bed.
It is the vertical arm that extends from the right side of the machine bed, and it holds the horizontal arm. It can also house a computer and its display, usually a small liquid crystal display (LCD).
This LCD screen is usually placed on the upper half of the front side of the upright arm, and the accompanying control buttons are directly below it.
It is the arm that is oriented parallel to the machine bed, and it holds the sewing machine head, also called the embroidery head. It can also hold the thread spool on its top surface. The embroidery head is located to the left of the upright arm.
This contains the needle bar that holds the needle and raises and lowers it during stitching. In a computerized embroidery machine, this head can contain the logic head/unit that operates the needle bar and embroidery arm.
The logic head is the computing device that reads, interprets, and implements the instructions set in the embroidery file.
The needle is driven by a servo motor, which must be switched ON before stitching starts. The speed of this servo motor determines the rate at which the needle runs and makes stitches per minute or the stitches-per-minute (SPM) rate.
This is the mobile limb that holds the embroidery hoop and moves it on the machine bed.
It holds the cloth taut and frames it so that the machine can work on the cloth area in the frame.
The movement of the hoop under a stationary sewing head allows the embroidery pattern to be stitched. It is usually made of an inner and outer frame, and this allows for tensioning the fabric before the hoop is moved under the needle by the embroidery arm.
This is a specialized embroidery hoop and arm assembly that allows for embroidery of caps and hats.
It is also called the frame sash, and it serves to hold the hoop to the arm. In fact, the embroidery hoop is held stationary by the pantograph, and it is this frame sash (pantograph) that moves hence causing the hoop to move. Therefore, the arm, the pantograph, and the hoop move as a cohesive unit during the hoop movement under the embroidery head.
Face and throat plates
The faceplate is placed on the front of the machine head, and when it is opened, it allows one to access the needle bar and other components inside it. On the machine bed, one can access the bobbin case by opening the throat plate. These plates are not found in all machines.
These are visual displays on the machine that allows the user to know how the machine is functioning. The display is usually provided by indicator lights and LCD screens.
In some machines, there is a thread brake indicator light, while other machines simply stop stitching after their thread-break detector notices a broken thread.
Relatedly, a thread-break can be shown on the LCD screen. In models that come with a touchscreen LCD display, the display allows the user to input instructions to the machine.
This allows the user to regulate the operation of the machine, and it includes pushbuttons, touchscreen buttons, and switches.
Memory Card and Reader/Writer Box
The memory card provides additional storage space that can hold additional embroidery files, while the Reader/Writer Box allows the user to transfer embroidery files from the computing device in the embroidery machine to the memory card.
Some machines allow for embroidery to be done directly after installing the memory card, as they can read, interpret, and execute the commands in the stored embroidery files. This is done by the logic head.
Now that the basic parts of an embroidery machine have been described, the basic embroidery process needs to be explained.
Basic Processes of Computerized Embroidery
Computerized machine embroidery is done in sequential steps that are influenced by the type of foundation fabric, choice of thread, size of the design, and choice of stabilizer. These steps are:
Acquisition of a design file
The design file can be created using software or purchased. This design file is created using embroidery digitizing software.
The initial file that is created from scratch is termed the source format of the design file, and it needs to be adapted to be used by a particular brand of embroidery machine, and this adaptation of the source format of the file creates the machine format of the design file.
The person who creates the source format is called the digitizer, and this source format is usually described as the object-based embroidery design.
Editing of the machine format of the design file
This involves scaling, rotating, cropping, splitting, duplicating, and distorting this file format. Also, this edited design can be combined with existing designs in the PC to create a finished embroidery design file.
This finished design file is then exported as a file format that can be interpreted and implemented (i.e executed by stitching the patterns) by the embroidery machine. This exported file is called the embroidery file.
The embroidery file is loaded into the machine
Fit to the machine the hooped fabric with the areas to be stitched marked. If needed, this fabric can be stabilized using (stabilizing) materials called (interfacing) stabilizers that are placed atop or beneath the fabric to prevent the finished product from irritating or rubbing against the skin.
Stabilizers are usually non-woven material like foam or fiber and are sometimes called backing. The backing and the foundation fabric are held together tautly by the embroidery hoop.
If the backing can be torn by hands, then it is called a tear-away backing, and if tearing it can only be achieved by cutting it with a scissor, then it is called cutaway backing.
Some stabilizers can be dissolved in water, while others can be removed using flames, and they are called solve water-soluble backing and heat-n-gone backing respectively.
The stabilizer and foundation fabric must be stretched with adequate tension by the hoop so that the stabilizer does not tear or deform inappropriately.
- Needle is centered above the starting point of embroidery stitching on the fabric.
- Start the embroidery machine and watch out for errors during stitching.
- Upon completion of embroidery, remove fabric from machine and trim it.
To add, the machine format of the design file provides two sets of data: stitch data (the offsets) and machine function data like jumps.
The embroidery file can incorporate added machine function data depending on the functional capabilities of the machine, for instance, trims can be incorporated if the machine supports automatic trimming of embroidered cloth.