ATLANTA — Boosting the productivity of their shops was on the minds of all the 100-odd embroiderers who gathered on the slopes of historic Stone Mountain, Ga., recently.

The embroiderers, who came from both mom-and-pop shops and major apparel companies, were attending embroidery machine vendor Gunold + Stickma’s annual “Punchers’ Conference.” The event, a series of structured seminars and informal talks, is a sort of users’ group for Gunold clients. The topics on the table, however, concerned all embroiderers.

“What was a cottage industry 25 years ago has turned into a big business, but there’s still no place to go and learn about embroidery,” commented Walter Floriani of Tehachapi, Calif.-based embroidery consulting firm Floriani, who gave two seminars at the conference. “Here, we share information we learned through trial and error. The key to success in this industry is networking — talking out common problems.”

In a seminar titled “Production Planning,” Floriani, a veteran puncher, shared simple techniques for decreasing downtime in embroidery shops. Stopping the machines to rethread for the next order is the bane of most embroiderers. Many embroiderers, however, are under such pressure to get the next order produced they fail to schedule jobs that should logically run consecutively. Floriani said the situation is unfortunate because a little advanced scheduling could boost embroiderers’ overall production and cut down on their headaches.

“Embroidery shops are under such demands to produce individual designs on time that scheduling goes out the window,” he said, “but if shops scheduled designs that use three or four of the same color threads consecutively, they could cut downtime for rethreading machines.”

Floriani said that downtime adds up. He said embroiderers can cut it further by having several employees rethread machines when colors do have to be changed.

“It might take one girl an hour

to change three threads on a 12-head machine,” he said. “If I put three people on that job, it’ll take 20 minutes.”

Fabric compensation, or “stitchability,” was the focus of Floriani’s second seminar. Floriani said he has run simple tests monitoring the effects different stitches have on different fabrics at different machine speeds. The outcome is a sort of personal “recipe book” of guidelines for embroidering.

“Once I see how material reacts to a stitch, then I can control that fabric,” he said. “Embroidery is an art form of distortion. We work on fabrics that move when we embroider them and that move on the body.

“Embroiderers have increased the use of backings and toppings because they don’t understand the distortion values of different fabrics. Knits, for instance tend to ‘sink’ when the needle enters the fabrics, so embroiderers have resorted to stiffer and stiffer backings. If people experimented with the distortion values of different fabrics along with alternative stitches, they could use lighter backings or no backings at all. It’s a trial-and-error process, but most people don’t even try.”

Floriani said that’s unfortunate because the quality of the embroidery suffers as a result.

“Embroiderers don’t exclude fabrics that give, they just back more,” he explained. “They’re stabilizing the base materials to the point that they’ll hold the stitches, but they’re creating ‘rocks’ in the process.”

Floriani said many embroiderers are misled by makers of embroidery machinery. “When you go to a show, the machine vendors stitch on stable materials that are very forgiving,” he said. “What they don’t tell you is that the machines often eat the fabrics most of us really use.”

Floriani added, however, that the embroiderers can do much to correct the problem. And he explained his techniques to conference attendees.

“I’ve done full designs on materials people thought they could never work on without backings,” he said. “Take polyfoam hats. If you run a polyfoam hat on a machine without backing, there’s a lot of distortion because the fabric gives under the pressure of the needle. We tested that material without backings to come up with the correct distortion values for different stitches and we programmed our embroidery machines to make up for the distortion caused by the actual stitching. In that case we had to quadruple our distortion values, but it worked.”

Floriani said altering distortion values often means a design will look very fuzzy on a computer screen during digitizing but great when it comes off the embroidery machine.

“Even with stiffer fabrics, if the embroidery looks great on the computer screen, you can be 99 percent sure it’ll look distorted on the garment,” he said. “People have to understand through trial and error how the machines distort different fabrics and make the proper adjustments when digitizing.”

Floriani said material, topping, thread, backing and machine speed all come into play when determining distortion values.

In contrast to the scant attention embroiderers are paying fabric compensation, they are paying more attention to stitch counts. By reducing stitch counts, embroiderers pare costs at a time when the prices they charge for finished goods are stagnant.

“If you reduce your stitch counts, you improve your productivity,” Floriani said. “Many embroidery shops are becoming more ‘stitch conscious.”‘

Floriani said embroiderers can save money and vary the look of their designs by creating open designs, rather than filling designs with stitches. This move, which has gotten a lot of attention from embroiderers, carries over into the question of stabilization and fabric compensation. Floriani said many embroiderers are using too many stitches in an effort to stabilize their designs. If they experimented with distortion values, they could employ the more open-stitch techniques and further reduce stitch counts.

“In my estimation, there are still more than 20 percent more stitches than necessary in most embroidery — and much of that is to stabilize the fabric,” he said.

Steve Widencamp, manager of cutting development at Gunold, offered two well-attended seminars at the conference: “Basic Applique Cutting” and “Advanced Applique Cutting.” He focused his comments on improving accuracy, eliminating fabric waste and raising productivity in applique cutting.

Ordering and sequencing of the cuts and proper nesting of the designs were Widencamp’s major concerns. He said current practices make little sense.

“It’s pretty sad,” Widencamp said. “I’ve gone into cutting rooms at major companies where they start cutting appliques in the lower right-hand corner and jump to the upper left. They can alleviate all that wasted maneuvering by sequencing cuts properly.”

Ordering is also important. Unlike sequencing, it concerns where to make cuts to keep the fabric from shifting during the cutting process. Widencamp said that, although much of ordering is common sense, problems still arise.

“If you are doing a letter A, you cut the inside first,” Widencamp said. “If you cut the outside first, the fabric will shift.”

Nesting is also important. Again Widencamp used the example of the letter A. “If you nest a series of As in rows with alternating letters upside down, you get the most yield out of your fabric,” he said.

Widencamp added that the new interest in open designs that require fewer stitches also changes the way appliques are applied. “We don’t have to fill the whole area of the applique with stitches,” he said. “We can stitch down an applique with a design that is repeated over and over again and cut down significantly on the number of stitches used.”

Widencamp said a variety of machines are used to cut applique. Water-jet, knife, die (cookie cutter) and laser techniques are among them. He said Gunold is pushing the laser technique. And although Widencamp admitted that it is relatively expensive to cut appliques using that technique, he said the accuracy of the laser cuts pays off.

“There is a price differential,” he said. “We’ll never be able to compete with the die cutters because they cut appliques for two cents apiece. The best we can do is a dime.

“But with lasers, we can control the depth of the cut so we can lay fabric three deep and only cut through the first layer. That kind of layering is getting very popular on official team sports apparel, and it’s a clean, precise look people are willing to pay for.”

Widencamp added that the accuracy of the laser cuts mean the embroiderers don’t have to compensate for the frayed edges he said other processes sometimes produce.

“The accuracy of the cuts allows the embroiderer to use fewer stitches,” he said. “They don’t have to cover mistakes in the cutting with stitches, and the appliques are all identical so they’re always aligned with the designs programmed into the computerized embroidery machines.”