Digitizing Learning Curve

As I travel across the country exhibiting at trade shows or speaking at seminars I have had the opportunity to communicate with hundreds of embroidery professionals a year. One topic that comes up frequently is embroiderers (with no previous digitizing experience) purchasing digitizing software. While some of these industry pros want to learn digitizing to better understand the top to bottom process in their facilities others are trying to save the cost of outsourcing (offshore or domestic) and some simply want to spread their creative wings. Each of these scenarios are admirable reasons to learn how to program like a pro. However, one thing to keep in mind is the learning curve to go from a beginner to a well seasoned programmer is significant. Furthermore, if you don’t enjoy highly detailed, sit in front of the computer for hours on end type of work, embroidery digitizing is not for you, period.

My intent in this article is not to be, “Bobby Buzz Kill.” If you want to take the time to learn a new discipline I 100% back and applaud your efforts. My position in the next few hundred words is simply a reality check as to what is involved in creating beautiful, well programmed, production friendly embroidery designs. Over the course of almost a 30 year career as a programmer I have trained dozens of new digitizers. A few have gone on to far surpass my own skills, a few were complete washouts, most became very good production level digitizers. The one and only common denominator to success, the new digitizer had to, “put in the time.”

Before going any further lets dispense with one myth. There is no such thing as “auto-digitizing” for anything but the most basic of basic designs. I am not going to say we will never find this Holy Grail of embroidery, but we aren’t there yet. That is not say there are not excellent “auto-features” to help you program faster and better, but start to finish auto-digitizing is far from ready for prime time.

I have sat in the audience at numerous trade-show software presentations where a skilled salesperson will laud their product and explain to the crowd how fast and easy their software is to use. Just a click here, a click there and perfect programming. There have been times it took everything I had to keep my fanny in my seat and my mouth shut. Some of these software packages cost thousands of dollars (some more than $10,000) and I promise you, it is not that easy. Remember, the salesperson is there to sell you a product. The odds are very good they will gloss over the the reality of the time required to turn “good art” in to great embroidery. I have yet to see the sales presentation where bad art was used to create an embroidery miracle, quickly. One thing to keep in mind, what you will receive from your real world customers most of the time is bad art.
By now you might be asking yourself, “how long does it take to become a good programmer?” This is a fair question but it is not easily answered because everyone is different. However, I can offer you this. I can teach you the basics in a couple of days. After that it is up to you and your dedication. I have yet to train a digitizer who was ready for me to give her any design that came across my desk in less than 6 months, most as much as a year. Sure, any reasonably computer savvy person will get the basics in a couple of weeks but real skill comes with real time. Expect no less than several months of trial and error until you are reasonably proficient. Double that (maybe triple) if you don’t have someone who can mentor you at your disposal.

Finally, the economics of embroidery digitizing have changed significantly since I taught myself the craft. In the current market you can purchase high quality digitizing for very little cost. If you want to learn to program for the artistic appeal or to better understand the embroidery process you will have a great deal of success. If you are looking purely to save money, I would advise you think very hard if this endeavor is right for you. Aside from the cost of “good” software your time has real value. In the best of circumstances many designs might take you several hours to program, sample, edit. You must factor in the cost of your time before you decide if you have saved anything.

Embroidery digitizing can be a fascinating and rewarding addition to your professional toolbox. The most important thing to remember if you decide to get involved is the time commitment to get from beginner to professional is significant. There are no shortcuts. Just when you think you are getting good at it you will be presented a design that is far trickier than anything you have seen meant for embroidery on a fabric you have no experience with. That is when you will learn true humility.