Wednesday, February 10, 2016Embroidery's Voice and Vision



Expand your understanding and hone your technical skills as veteran award-winning digitizer, e-commerce manager and all-around technophile Erich Campbell explores and explains the intersection of embroidery, technology, creativity and business. He’s the go-to guy for stitches and tech at Black Duck Embroidery and Screen Printing in Albuquerque, NM, one of the Southwest's largest screen-printing and embroidery firms. You can find him on Facebook at, follow him on Twitter at or e-mail him at


Being on the Cutting Edge Requires Balance: Saying Yes Without Fear and No Without Reservation

Not to make too much of my (very) minor Internet stardom gained as a result of writing this blog for the illustrious Stitches magazine, but I have with some regularity been asked how I managed to get here. Mostly people want to know how I won in the Stitch-Off and Golden Needle contests, but they also ask why I have so many customers who believe that my work is different and/or better than the rest. The answer sounds pretty simple, though I must admit there is a great deal of self-discipline, hand-wringing and trial and error that lies between setting this course and carrying it out.

The simple answer is, you must find the (sometimes uncomfortable) balance between doing what you know you can, and attempting what you want to achieve.

First things first, you have to be willing to try and fail. I most certainly advocate that every embroidery business make time and allocate supplies for their digitizers, machine operators and artists to flex their creative muscles, but I'll take it one step beyond play-time testing. Sometimes you need to take a job, digitize a design or use a garment that you feel is just outside of your abilities. I wouldn't risk it on your most tenuously held and profitable customer, but when the odd job comes in that looks just on the outside of possible – take it. Be honest with your customer, let them know that you will be experimenting, give them a realistic timetable, but take the job and do your best. Sometimes the risk is the push you need to expand yourself; besides, when you establish your reputation as someone who can handle the difficult and out-of-the-ordinary jobs, you'll need this practice not only in the technical achievement on your end, but in making the customer comfortable leaving their specialty job in your hands. You must try, fail and try again, even through frustration. Never take for granted that you or the experts know everything there is to know. If I had never done more than I was comfortable doing at the beginning, I'd never have dreamed of doing the detail work I do now. If I had listened to some who told me it was impossible, I'd never have given my customers the work that I knew I was capable of.

So, you’re probably feeling like that's a dangerous attitude. Good. That uncomfortable feeling means you are that much closer to growing. That said, the first half of this call to action is indeed out of balance on its own. Let me give you the second half of this equation and we'll see if we can regain our equilibrium.

Second, you will need to learn your medium, equipment and abilities enough to know when you really cannot give the customer what they want. I know I've told you all how to redirect the "no" and give people options, but there will come a time when a customer absolutely wants the impossible, and even after you've exercised your "Let me show you what we can do" option, this customer will not budge. When this happens, you need to be able to say no. Despite its wealth of experienced staff, even Black Duck has found itself on the receiving end of a great deal of frustration more than once when one of us said "yes" to a patently impossible job. In trying to maintain our reputation and stand behind our products, we have sometimes lost twice the entire cost of producing the garments on such jobs. From the man-hours required to tweak the art and digitizing, to running the order repeatedly, to replacing the garments over and over when the results were not satisfactory, we paid and paid for that “yes.” The best way to avoid this is to know yourself and your medium. Know how stitches work with each other and different substrates. Know the capabilities of your machines, and the difficulties posed by different garments and accessories you may need to decorate. Most importantly, you must know your own capabilities; be aware when a job is honestly beyond you or entirely outside the scope of your experience. When you really can't do the job, don't take it. You risk irreparably damaging your reputation by disappointing the customer and wasting their time, and you stand to gain little by narrowly pulling off a job at a loss that you'd rather not have to repeat.

So, how did I get here? The requisite amount of practice is certainly part of it, but that's not the whole of the story. I got here by believing I can always do a little bit better and by being honest when I can do nothing at all. This is the balance you must strike; expand beyond your comfort zone, but know the extent of your reach. You must take risks while maintaining overall consistency and reliability. There's plenty of room for you up here on the cutting edge – just make sure you are aware of your footing.

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