Shopping for your first embroidery machine can quickly become a mission of confusion. The sales people, and web stores will provide you with all the specs, and information you need to make a decision, but the problem is, you have no idea what all of these numbers and terms mean. That's not your fault – sales people are there to sell, not educate you on the specifics of how the machine works. So you need to be armed with as much information as possible before you write that check. Click on "Read more" to continue.
Decoding the Spec Sheet:
Sewing Field / Embroidery Area – This is the maximum design size the machine can create. I've noticed a trend among manufacturers of machines for the home market to eliminate this information, and list just the hoop sizes that are included with the machine. To determine if the machine will sew an area larger than the largest included hoop, look at the “Optional Accessories” for that particular model to see if a larger hoop is available. It's important to note that while a larger hoop that's intended for a different model may fit on the model you're looking at, that does not mean it will allow you to sew in that larger area. For example, a Brother machine with a 4” X 4” embroidery will accept a 4” X 6.5” “Super Hoop” – this hoop does not increase the sewing field, but allows you to reposition your work without having to un-hoop, and re-hoop it. The sewing field, or embroidery area is fixed in the machine, and putting a larger hoop on the machine will not increase it.
Designs & Fonts – While researching specs on various machines, I was surprised to see an embroidery machine for the home market that does not include any designs, or fonts. Most include several designs, and at least a few fonts for lettering, and monogramming. How many designs, and fonts a machine comes loaded with is not nearly as important as knowing there are some. Included fonts are usually 2 or 3 simple styles. Even if the specs say that the machine includes 5 fonts, it's usually really 3, with 2 of them being available in both regular, and italic versions.
Needles – Combination Sewing/Embroidery machines, and embroidery machines designed for the home user are single needle machines. Commercial machines generally have 9, 12, or 15 needles. And then there are couple of machines that can fit either category – Brother makes a 6 needle machine, and Janome makes a 4 needle machine. While most commercial embroiderers don't consider these 4, and 6 needle machines suitable for a business venture, I feel that the price (compared to a commercial machine) make them worth a look for someone who is just starting their business – especially if it is a home based business.
As the previous owner of a 15 needle machine that I used in my retail Embroidery & Gift Boutique, I can tell you that a 6 needle machine would have been a suitable alternative. Most of the work I was doing was either personalizing gifts, or placing logos on various items such as polo shirts. Most of these logo's had 3 or 4 colors. Most of the stock designs I used had no more than 6 colors. So my production time would not have been affected by having to make thread changes.
Unless you know for sure that you are going to be doing lots and lots of caps, large bags, or jacket backs, consider starting with a smaller machine. What's the worst thing that could happen? If you get so much business that you need to purchase a larger machine, you still have your small machine for short runs, or as a back-up if the big machine fails, and you can be running 2 different jobs at the same time.
Tip: Even for users of a single needle machine color changes do not have to slow you down if you use the pull-through method rather than re-threading your machine each time you need to change thread. Unwind a few inches of thread from the spool that is on your machine, and cut it. Place the new color (thread) on your spool holder. Tie the end of the new color to the end of the thread that is still in your machine. Take the other end of the thread out of the needle, and gently pull it through the threading path until you're holding the knot where you joined the 2 colors. Cut your thread just above the knot, thread your needle, and continue sewing.
LCD Screen - The size of the LCD screen is usually in direct proportion to the cost of the machine. Having a small screen, or a monochrome screen (as opposed to color) is not necessarily a disadvantage -- especially if you will be using a stand-along software program to create, and edit your text & designs. For the most part, higher end machines have larger screens because of their increased ability to create text, and edit designs.
Card Slots & USB Ports- Nearly all embroidery machines will have card slots -- this is where you insert purchased cards that contain designs, and alphabets. If the machine has a USB port, it's pretty safe to assume that the machine has the ability to import designs directly from your computer. If the machine does not have a USB port, you would need to purchase a card reader/writer, and a blank card to transport designs from your computer to the machine. Sometimes the cost of the card reader/writer, and a blank card is the same or more as the price difference between a machine that doesn't have a USB port, and on that does.
File Formats -- Most of the embroidery machines made for the home market use proprietary file formats for design files. For example, Brother uses .pes, Janome uses .jef, Pfaff uses .vip, and so forth. If you are not going to purchase lettering, editing, and design software for your computer, then you will want to check availability of designs for the file format the machine uses.
Lettering, Editing, and Digitizing Software -- There are more programs out there than you can shake a stick at. The salesperson is going to recommend the product that they sell, and/or provide classes for. At first glance, many of these programs seem to be very reasonable in price, but you'll quickly realize that in order to do anything significant you'll need to purchase several more modules, and before you know it, they've sold you $600 worth of software -- and now have to write yet another check to learn how to use it. Before you purchase any software, do some internet searches. Many of the better products offer trial versions. I use a very powerful, FREE software product. I also provide this product to students who take my "Beyond the Basics" Machine Embroidery course. (a link is available on my website)
Training -- If you are purchasing your machine from a source other than a sewing machine shop that provides at least basic training on the machine, do some research before hand to find classes in your area. You will be much happier with your purchase, and get up to speed more quickly if you have some initial training on the machine.