Power Punchers

Converting designs into stitches is both a science and an art, according to the professionals. The best digitizers are creative and methodical – and are always pushing themselves to further their craft.

Back in the early 1990s, Lee Caroselli Barnes, owner of Balboa Threadworks Embroidery Design, received a commission to custom-digitize the U.S. Postal Service’s Elvis stamp. Barnes and her late brother, Keith, were the cleanup crew. The art had originally been sent to a Japanese firm for digitizing, resulting in an unwieldy design with 210,000 stitches and 28 color changes. “They were going to scrap the job because it didn’t look like Elvis Presley,” Barnes recalls.

Balboa was able to digitize the king of rock ’n’ roll with fewer than half the stitches – just 92,000 – using six colors. The award-winning, photorealistic design that resulted was a game-changer for the industry, Barnes says. “To have a design as large as that one was with that many stitches that lined up perfectly and could be done with only six colors is just phenomenal,” she says. “It did show people what could be done. … Of course, we’ve taken it further than that since then.”

The Elvis stamp is an iconic example of what digitizing is all about: an accurate representation of the submitted artwork that sews out quickly, cleanly and efficiently. Digitizing is a marriage of technical know-how and creative problem solving, both a science and an art, expert punchers say.

Good digitizers understand the physics of their machines and are able to work around the limitations of embroidery to create production-friendly files that aren’t too dense, have a minimum of color changes and trims, and a low likelihood of thread breaks.

Great digitizers, however, see embroidery’s natural qualities not as limitations, but as opportunities, playing with light and layering to create dimensional art – a sort of low-relief sculpture in thread. “You’re building on layers, and if you don’t build on layers, you’re going to end up with something that has no life to it, no pop,” says Jay Fishman, owner of Ohio-based digitizing firm Wicked Stitch of the East. “What separates the professionals from the amateurs is that they really know how to bring life to a design.” Stitches talked to some of the best digitizers in the field to find out what makes them tick and determine the qualities every digitizer needs to succeed.

Attention to Detail

If you want to sew out a circle, you digitize an egg. That’s punching 101: What you see on your computer is likely not the same as what sews out. “You have to get past the perfection on the screen,” says Erich Campbell, digitizer and e-commerce manager at Black Duck Inc. (asi/700415) in Albuquerque, NM.

Understanding and compensating for that distortion is something that comes from a thorough knowledge of the tools of the embroidery trade: fabric, thread and machine. Having a scientific mind and a keen attention to detail doesn’t hurt either. “There’s a lot of testing and a lot of trial and error that has to happen,” Campbell says.

The best digitizers never stray too far from the production side. Even experienced digitizers, who can calculate pull compensation in their sleep, should spend some time watching their designs in action, experts say. “If you get off the machines for too long, you get rusty,” Campbell says. “The magic hasn’t left for me. Watching that machine take off and essentially execute my commands is great. Seeing how it runs in real time – that kind of feedback can’t be beat.”

That immediate feedback is why every puncher at Artwork Source, the Tacoma, WA-based quick turnaround digitizing service founded by Cory Dean, is equipped with a single-head embroidery machine and must stitch out designs on the fabric specified by a customer before finalizing a job. “That was a huge expense for us, but we said we must have that,” Dean says.

Real-world experience keeps digitizers from creating “bulletproof” designs. Too much thread density will cause production problems, with fabric bunching or embroidery dishing in, issues not readily apparent on a screen. Even without the production issues, those unnecessary stitches translate to a higher cost in time and materials.

Digitizers also have to make judgment calls about when to favor color registration and when to favor speed – a big factor in production-friendly designs, Dean says. “It’s a delicate balance,” he adds. “It’s something that takes years of running machines to understand.”

An Artistic Bent

One of the biggest misconceptions about digitizers, especially by embroiderers just entering the field, is that the job is somehow automatic – a simple conversion. “They think that all we do is scan the artwork and save a data file,” says Bonnie Landsberger, digitizer and owner of Moonlight Design in Cannon Falls, MN. She’s had clients make paradoxical requests for pictures of the finished design before they’re willing to confirm a job – not understanding that the work can’t be done until clients provide clear instructions and finalize the details of a job.

Real digitizing takes time, skill and creativity. It’s an interpretation of the original artwork, not a reproduction. That’s why, regardless of a logo’s simplicity, no two stitch files turn out the same; every digitizer has a unique approach, says Karen Habe, co-owner of Quality Punch in Torrance, CA. “Being artistic in digitizing is about selecting the right colors of thread and putting them together in the most pleasing way,” she says. “Even the simplest logos require some artistry.”

The more complex a design, the more interpretation is needed. Fishman recently received a full-back design to digitize: a man in a kilt with bagpipes, holding a bear and cougar by chains. The original artwork had at least 50 colors, 20 of which were different shades of green. Fishman returned to the customer to ask how many times he wanted to rethread his 15-needle machine. After some back and forth, Fishman was able to simplify the design, editing it down to 15 colors. “It’s not just so simple that you’re coloring a piece of artwork by number,” he says. “If we don’t put in the time to plan the design and think about it, we’ll spend twice as long digitizing it and getting it correct.”

Ask any digitizer worth his or her salt about auto-digitization features, and you’ll get a range of responses, from disgust and derision to outright horror. Dean sums it up succinctly: “Van Gogh didn’t use auto-paint.”

Leaving the decision-making up to a computer program limits creativity and often ends up costing more time than it saves once you factor in how long it takes to edit out mistakes. Most professional digitizers are even skeptical about preset functions that, for example, choose the type of underlay for a design. “If you don’t know what you’re doing and you don’t know what to look for, but you know how to press buttons, forget it,” Fishman says. “We just don’t use auto functions because we can’t control them. We need to be in control.”

A Curious Mind

The best digitizers are always on their toes, keeping up with the latest developments in fabric, software, thread, stabilizers and other products. “The learning never really stops,” Landsberger says. “There are constant changes in materials that require observance and learning to keep your skills up to date.”

An insatiable curiosity is what spurred Barnes, digitizer and owner of California-based Balboa Threadworks, when she entered the field. She and her brother broke all the established rules of digitizing because, as Barnes says, they didn’t know any better. “We experimented, pressing every button, wrong or right, to see what the equipment would do,” she says. “We had to learn to think outside the box.”

With the iconic Elvis stamp and a slew of other custom painterly designs in the decades that followed, Balboa Threadworks has pushed the limits of artistic digitizing, “blending” thread by digitizing in light, precise layers that allow colors to bleed through. The light layers also eliminate the need for pull compensation or changing settings based on fabric type, Barnes says. Her method goes against the grain of traditional digitizing, which she calls “regimented” and “secretive,” more about fighting the machine than working with it.

As Barnes sees it, digitizing comes down to one scary word: physics. “The main rules come from the machine itself, the things it does day in and day out, whether you like it or not,” she adds. “If you know that certain things will happen every time, you have two choices: You can work with that and design around it, and use that for consistency, or you can fight it. I’ve found that if you fight it, you’ll win 10% of the time, and the machine wins the other 90%.”

Communication Is Key

One of the most critical traits of a good digitizer has nothing to do with technical skills or a creative mind. Like any other service-oriented industry, it’s about being timely and responsive. “It’s important to be able to communicate and also not trying to be everything to customers,” says Joanna Grant, vice president of graphic production and support services at Affinity Express (asi/33149) in Elgin, IL. “Not everything can be done in thread. Sometimes that means being honest with a customer, saying, ‘This isn’t going to look very good.’ ”

It’s also important to offer consistent, quick delivery. “Customers need to know when they’re going to get [the design],” Dean says. “The industry is so rush-rush these days that it’s a pretty important attribute.”

Ultimately, embroiderers should be looking for the whole package when seeking out a digitizer or digitizing service. It’s about establishing a long-term, professional relationship with someone skilled and reliable. It’s not like shopping for a TV, a bargain-hunt for the cheapest product. “You’re buying someone’s talent,” Fishman says. “You’re not buying something lying on a shelf. We’re trying to teach people what quality is again.”