So You Want to be a Digitizer

If you’ve been embroidering for a while, you may be looking at expanding into digitizing. You’ve seen what collections sell for at your local dealer and maybe digitizing software came bundled with your new machine. How hard can it really be?

Wouldn’t it be nice to make a few extra bucks? Maybe you already have an embroidery business or you’re looking for a new business opportunity and this seems like something you’d enjoy.

Digitizing is a very rewarding activity. Not necessarily rewarding in the financial sense of the word, but definitely creatively rewarding. I also find digitizing both relaxing and energizing, which may seem a contradiction.

The good news is that it’s easier than ever to get into embroidery digitizing. The bad news is that it’s easier than ever to get into embroidery digitizing, especially if you want to get into it as a business.

Today, even if you are starting from scratch—no machine, no software, no computer, no supplies—you could conceivably start with an investment of less than $2500, although I would recommend something better than that. That doesn’t mean you’d be immediately in business—learning to digitize well enough to attract repeat customers takes quite a bit of time.

BARRIER TO ENTRY

In the past—which for us means the early to mid 1990’s—there were two barriers for breaking into the digitizing profession: cost and access to information. Prior to about the mid 1980s, digitizing was primarily learned through apprenticeship to a master digitizer—who in turn learned his trade over the course of 10 years, starting at the lowest level in the embroidery industry, a shuttle boy.

Job security kept the secrets of digitizing closely guarded. In 1983, digitizing software was $73,000. It would easily cost $120,000 to get the software and equipment needed to start a digitizing business.

By the mid-1990’s, prices were becoming more reasonable. In 1995, when I bought a single head 10-needle machine with editing software, I wrote a check for $26,000—as much as my first house!

However, in the early 1990’s things began to change. Janome introduced their Memory Craft 8000 in 1990, which was the first home-use computer sewing machine with professional style embroidery features In 1991, Aisin (Toyota) introduced the P.O.E.M., a small single needle machine capable of sewing a left-chest size design and offered digitizing software.

Costs were minimized by reducing its controls and moving them into software; the machine was driven from a computer. In 1994, this machine was my entry into the embroidery industry and for about $1800, I had both an embroidery machine and digitizing software.

WHAT YOU’LL NEED TO LEARN

Before you can create a design, you need to know how a good one is constructed and how it reacts when sewn on a range of fabrics. In other words, before you begin learning to digitize, you need to learn to embroider.

Why? Because if you don’t have those basics down, you won’t know when a design problem is a sewing problem or when it’s a digitizing problem.

The more time you spend watching high-quality designs sew and analyzing their structure and effects on various fabrics, the more you’ll learn about design construction that can take you a long way towards learning to digitize. Since this article is about digitizing, I won’t discuss this aspect of the process.

Digitizing takes far more effort to master to a level of efficiency than learning to consistently produce quality embroidery. In addition to learning digitizing theory, you’ll need to learn the software,

Few people will have previous background in this so the initial learning curve can be quite steep. When I hired new artists to train as digitizers at Cactus Punch, I told them it would be a year before they were reasonably proficient.

If you read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, the author talks about those who excel in their fields and the amount of time it took. You might be shocked to find out that number was 10,000 hours. Fifty weeks multiplied by forty hours is 2,000 hours.

At this rate, it would take five years to become a top notch digitizer—and even then, it would depend on what type of digitizing you did; it is by no means a guarantee. In other words, practice does not make perfect; only perfect practice leads to true mastery.

Before you despair, keep in mind the 10,000 hours are what it takes to become a master. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to attain true mastery. Fortunately, with the right training you can learn to digitize in much less time. The Learn to Digitize training series is tailored to teach you how to digitize in an organized fashion while learning a specific program.

How long does it take to get good at digitizing? I’ve been digitizing since 1994 and I’m still learning new things about it—and that’s a major part of the appeal for me. It’s not boring and there are always new ways of doing things and new techniques to try. Getting a good foundation can be achieved within 6-18 months. You will have to apply yourself, learn, and practice—and push yourself beyond your comfort zone.

Keep in mind nobody is a natural at this. Give yourself a chance to learn. In many ways our instant society has harmed us because we can have so many things quickly and effortlessly, we think learning an entirely new subject should be the same.

CAN YOU MAKE MONEY DIGITIZING?

When I began digitizing, there was very little competition in the home market. Sure, we had the big guys: Dakota, Great Notions and OESD, but really my main competition in the very beginning was only the machine companies because my target market was other home embroiderers.

We could release a new collection and within a month or two, sell 1000 copies on the more popular ones. Of course, within days of new release, we were also battling bootleggers on eBay and various other sites. Today, in addition to the millions of free designs, there are gobs of low cost designs available, many of them digitized by home embroiderers with home software and little experience.

Some of these are amazing but many are ordinary and unimaginative and sew poorly. And, like other digital and technology-based media, production has shifted to overseas where labor is cheap.

As enticing as free and low cost designs sound, they are really a disservice because they prohibit the production of really good designs. Why spend days creating artwork, digitizing, and testing when you can’t get a fair value for it?

Unless you have a huge catalog of designs that have been amortized from many years of sales, you can’t afford to compete in this market. Your ramp up time will simply be too time consuming and unprofitable. You do not want to be playing catch up, you need to figure out how to be a leader.

WHY LEARN TO DIGITIZE?

Learning to digitize will definitely make you a better embroiderer and it can make you a more creative embroiderer. The more you learn about how designs are constructed, the better choices you can make about choices for fabric, hooping, stabilizers, threads, and needles.

You’ll be able to determine whether a design is worth sewing or not; you can correct problems in marginal designs; you can maximize your design stash by editing and recombining parts of pre-digitized designs.

Digitizing will give you the choice of creating designs from scratch. This can run the gamut from creating designs occasionally to focusing on just producing designs. For example, you might be creating a composition with various pre-digitized designs and you need something else to tie them together. Or, you might only digitize when a customer needs a logo.

I recommend that all embroiderers take some classes on digitizing, whether you want to digitize or not. In addition to improving your embroidery, you’ll appreciate what goes into creating designs and find out why you shouldn’t base your entire library solely on freebies.

You can get a taste of what digitizers consider in Anatomy of a Design: How to Think Like a Digitizer and Become a Better Embroiderer.

SELLING YOUR DESIGNS

If you plan on creating designs others will sew, you need to make sure your digitizing is up to par. These designs need to sew efficiently and accurately plus have something to make them stand out from the crowd. In other words, if you are cranking out auto-digitized or magic wand digitized designs at the software default settings, you won’t attract a following—unless of course you are giving your work away.

Before you decide to take your business in this direction, check the web for your competition and check their prices. You’ll find embroidery designs are a commodity these days.

Most designs are purchased on-line. Selling online has advantages: you don’t have to create packaging, master and burn CDs, you can let PayPal handle most of your orders and bookkeeping, and there are no packaging and shipping costs.

In the past, sewing machine dealers were clamoring for high-quality embroidery designs. Today most dealers have considerably cut their stock of packaged designs and some shops only carry designs supplied by their machine manufacturer.

Why? Because many customers are on the net and buy the designs they want, from whom they want, when they want.

There are simply too many choices to know which to stock. Companies that are successful at keeping their designs in shops often provide special programs for auto-ship, exchange, free shipping, special programs, plus provide projects based on their collections.

For a solo-preneur, this can simply be overwhelming. Before you approach a dealer about stocking your designs, you need to know that they will expect to pay 50% of the retail price and will demand attractive packaging. This means on a collection that sells for $30, you’d actually net around $10.

Selling designs on the internet was also very profitable until about 2002, when sales began to drop off significantly. Setting up a shopping cart has become increasingly easier and while consumers are more comfortable buying designs on-line, the competition is simply astronomical. Embroidery “malls” make selling your designs online even easier since they will handle all the technical details of hosting, creating web pages, and downloading.

Keep in mind that when another site is selling your designs, you won’t be making the full price. Some of these companies require exclusivity, will demand matching prices—which means if you also sell your designs on your own site, you won’t be able to sell them at a lower price—and have certain standards for accepting new vendors or even certain designs.

Another downside of these large embroidery malls is that you are a small fish in a large pond; you won’t easily stand out in a collection of 100,000 or so designs. However, if your designs are unique, your designs will come up in a search on those sites and you may be able to gain a reputation in a specific niche.

Keep in mind that selling stock designs is more than just digitizing. You need to create or purchase artwork that can be used for digitizing products which you will sell, you need to test sew those designs, convert the designs into all the various formats you plan to support, prepare images and color sequences for each design, upload them to the web, create the necessary pages and links to sell and download them.

Truly the digitizing is the smallest time fragment out of the entire process. If the process takes you a full day for each design and you can only sell the design for $1, how many will you have to sell before you cover the costs of your time, the web hosting, the shopping cart fees, overhead, and your investment in equipment, supplies, and learning?

CUSTOM DIGITIZING

Custom digitizing on a mass scale has also undergone a change in the past 20 years, and even speeding up in this century. Custom digitizing used to be a lucrative business.

The barrier to entry automatically reduced the competition and the law of supply and demand kept prices high. As the barrier to entry dropped and technology moved over seas—primarily India and Asia—digitizers began to find their livelihood threatened.

Whereas $20 per thousand stitches was a reasonable rate, now it is quite easy to find rates as low as $2 per thousand and lower. Is the quality the same? Does the average consumer know the difference? Why should a digitizer make less than the embroiderer?

THE SHIFT

I seem to have painted a pretty gloomy picture and you might be wondering why you would want to take the time to learn digitizing. Just because these two previously lucrative primary venues for digitizers are diminishing, doesn’t mean there are no markets.

It’s no secret that today’s world economy is in turmoil and jobs are shifting. As the home market has blossomed, the barrier to entry into the embroidery industry has dropped dramatically.

As these machines and programs have become more sophisticated, the lines have blurred and the gap narrowed between the home/hobby systems and the commercial/professional systems. The influx of new embroiderers and digitizers into the previously exclusive old-boy network forced the closely held secrets of digitizing to be exposed.

The flood of free designs forced the cost of designs downward while also diluting the quality of designs. These lower prices are not necessarily a good thing. Although it means more very low priced designs for embroiderers, it means to compete in this market, digitizers must spend less time on designs—which means simpler, less sophisticated designs.

The advent of the internet made it possible for early adopters to get a toe in the market and now is making it possible for technology driven businesses like digitizing to be done anywhere, which has caused another shift in where designs are made while further driving the prices downward.

This phenomenon is not a new thing, although it may feel that way. This is just a high-tech version of the industrial revolution when machines began to take over jobs previously held by human laborers.

The embroidery industry saw the prelude to what’s happening now in the 1970’s and 1980’s when the schiffli capital moved from New Jersey to India and Asia. The computer industry has been seeing this in the last 10 years as programming jobs moved to these countries. The new demand is for high touch creatives.

Today, if you are just starting out, you’ll need to take a fresh approach. While it seems that designs are proliferating faster than locusts during a swarm, if you look at the masses of them, they are ordinary and uninspiring at best.

Do not compete in this market and don’t use their prices for the basis for determining your own. Instead, use innovative and unique artwork and techniques. Cater to the boutique connoisseur instead of the Walmart crowd.

As jobs move overseas, we’re moving into an age of “art and heart.” According to Daniel H. Pink, author of A Whole New Mind, those who make it in the new economy will do so with “high touch” and “high concept.”

High touch means personal attention. Design is a high concept aptitude that is difficult to outsource or automate and that increasingly confers an advantage in business.

OTHER REASONS TO DIGITIZE

I enjoy the process of digitizing. I like the creative aspects as well as the “puzzle solving” aspects. I also enjoy the challenge of learning new ways of using the software for interesting effects.

I’ve digitized a lot of designs that were just for me and were never intended for sale. I don’t just do it as a business, I do it as a hobby.

Digitizing is a way for me to keep my brain active, stimulated, and challenged—which are all healthy things to do. Don’t feel like you have to justify wanting to digitize by thinking of it as a business. It’s a great hobby and can be done just about anywhere, anytime, by anyone at any age. I’ve even digitized in the car on long trips.

TO BE CONTINUED!

This is part 1 on this topic. After writing this, I almost talked myself out of digitizing! I have more to say on this so stay tuned for a future post.

GET ANATOMY OF A DESIGN!

  • Anatomy of Design is an e-book designed for embroiderers who want to understand what’s going with designs and therefore make better choices when selecting designs, fabric, stabilizers, and threads
  • Embrilliance software is often available in our shop as a physical product that will be shipped (U.S. only) or as digital download from Embrilliance
    • Not sure? Download a demo version to try out any ot the apps or get the free version, previously known as Alpha Tricks Express, now known as Embrilliance Express to open access to the thousands of keyboard fonts available as BX installer file
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