Friday, November 2, 2012

Estimating embroidery stitch counts

Fill stitches are generally estimated at 1,000
per square inch
Pricing is a question which constantly haunts embroiderers. What services should you be charging for? Do you charge for setup? How much is fair?  No one will have the ultimate answer, but with enough experience, there are systems that can work very well. Typically those systems involve charging for embroidery on a cost-per-thousand- stitches rate.

Using that strategy, the embroiderer or the digitizer is first called upon to look at a piece of artwork and estimate the number of stitches that it will take to complete the design. The accuracy of these estimates can make or break the profitability of any shop.

It's probably not the easiest method of pricing, but it is one of the few aspects of the industry that has a standard. In other words, it is the only thing that is concrete. If you go by time, no two digitizers work at the same pace. If you go by complexity, who is to say that this design is more complex than the next? It all comes back to stitch count.

The number of stitches is the major element in determining the amount of time on the machine, and embroidery production is essentially a timed process. Stitch count helps determine how much time it should take to complete a specific embroidery job, but it is not the only factor. By understanding the digitizing process, you can begin to factor in other elements such as trims, color changes, set-up time, and types of stitches in pricing. But in most cases, stitch estimation is unavoidable.

Traditionally embroiderers have relied on a standard measure of 1,000 stitches per square inch for basic fill stitches.  Keep in mind that counts work best when you are familiar with the work of your digitizer. Everyone has their own style and you have to learn to adapt counts to that.  An estimate of 1,000 is safe in most applications, but if you anticipate a lot of underlay, you should probably bump that number up to 1,200.

On the programming end of things, digitizers can become frustrated with embroiderers who do not learn how to produce reliable stitch estimates.  Embroiderers often will drop off the design and want to know how much the embroidery is going to be, leaving the digitizer a major responsibility.  Because of this, digitizers will often overestimate their stitch counts, to cover this responsibility. It is generally assumed that digitizers are the most knowledgeable about how many stitches go into a design, which is probably true, but it’s really not a smart idea to expect them to tell you how to quote your customers.

A good way for embroiderers to begin educating themselves is to go with an old rule of thumb for determining the number of stitches. Use a ruler to measure the design then multiply length times the width to find the square area.  Keep in mind, however, that working with the square area is really just a ballpark guess and does not take into consideration the variety of different stitch techniques that may be used.

Because of that, variations can be used in the formula. Break the design into fill areas, satin stitch areas, and text. If an element contains a solid area, it is a fill measured in square inches. Running and satin stitches are measured in linear inch. Find out how many stitches are in a square inch of each element and multiply.

To ensure adequate coverage for almost any type of garment it is a good idea to ask your digitizer to program all designs for fleece application, unless directed otherwise. This is done to estimate for a worst-case scenario, and allows designs to be easily customized to their appropriate applications afterwards.

The complexity factor

Some embroiderers feel the equation is not so much about counting stitches as it is about stitch ratio. Rather than going by strictly per thousand stitches, an alternative approach is to base estimates on the different elements in the design. After establishing a basic stitch count, study the design from a digitizer's point of view to look at how it will be digitized, whether there will be satin-stitched borders around fill areas, if there will be a running or satin stitch, or if lettering has to be converted to a column fill. This is a skill that will require knowing enough about embroidery to judge what is appropriate for a certain part of a design, and comes with experience in the industry.

An interesting contrast to pricing designs based on complexity is the common technique used by manufacturers specializing in embroidered patches. Determining the price for embroidered patches is typically simplified by the size of the patch, then broken down into a percentage of embroidery coverage over the twill fabric.  Typically it is in three different price points, 50%, 75%, and 100% coverage.  The level of detail for these points place no impact on the price at all  A patch that was literally a solid block of fill stitches covering 100% would actually be priced the same as one featuring a detailed multicolor design.

Other considerations

Stitch counts are an important starting point but there are other considerations, including the number of trims. A design may contain three colors, but did your digitizer go back and forth with these colors resulting in seven actual changes? This takes more time on your machine, and may be something you will need to have reflected in your price.

Before the days of automatic thread trimmers this wasn't a factor, since most of the trimming was done away from the machine. But automatic trimmers add time to the process, so that a design with 10,000 stitches and no additional trims can be accomplished in less time than a similar size job with 20 trims, which add between six to 12 seconds each. On a 144 piece order produced on a 12 head machine, that means an average of 40 minutes tacked onto production time.

Another danger of pricing strictly by stitch counts is when accepting small jobs of 24 pieces and less. The embroidery might be completed in an hour, but it might take a half hour to set up the job. The larger the order, the less the set-up time influences the total production time.
The modern formula for pricing marries the dollar-per-hour rate to standard cost accounting. Business costs are divided by the run time establishing a dollar per hour rate. It also factors in the amount of profit you want for the company.

Whether they are used for rough estimation or the sole determinant what you charge your customers, stitch counts are key to pricing. Remember, if you underestimate, you won't be covered for your time. If you overestimate, you may make money, but the customer may take their next job elsewhere.

To keep customers loyal and maintain profitability, take a hard look at your own stitch-estimating skills. Develop an eye for estimation like these veterans by thinking like a digitizer, looking back at past jobs, and considering the various design elements.


  1. I never knew that it depended on the number of stitches one got. I just assumed that it was so much per image that was placed on the garment. Guess you learn something new each day.

  2. Great post here. It is full of some great information. I am not very familiar with embroidery but want to learn more for my husbands business.

  3. That is amazing!!! The stitches are beautiful! I actually found some embroidery my mom was working on a few months ago... she passed away in 2004 and probably hadn't touched this embroidery since the 90's at least. I'm tempted to finish it, but another part of me wants to leave it exactly how she left it, you know? Hard decision, but whatever you do with it I'm sure it will turn out lovely!