Stitches

Can This Shop Be Saved?

Stitches In Time in Concord, NC, is all about the monogram. The charming retail shop, with a small but growing corporate wear division, has a loyal following. But owner Pat Fortney and daughter Marianne Baker have struggled to increase their reach, and the stress of the job has put a strain on their relationship. Stitches sent The Embroidery Coach, Joyce Jagger, to chart a successful course for the business and help ease some of the tension between mother and daughter.

It’s a quiet April morning in Concord, NC, an hour before custom embroidery and monogramming shop Stitches In Time opens. At the sound of Joyce Jagger’s brisk, efficient knocking on the glass-front door, shop owner Pat Fortney – a yellow tailor’s tape draped like a scarf over her purple cardigan – bustles over to welcome The Embroidery Coach – inviting her inside for two long – and often emotional – days of evaluation and education.

Before settling down to business, though, the diminutive Fortney, her close-cropped steel gray hair sweeping across her forehead in a soft wave, is all Southern charm, offering a pastry ring and hot tea to the imposing Jagger.

“Is it decaf? Don’t forget, I’m an old lady,” Jagger jokes. As she waits for her tea to brew, the 76-year-old – trim, toned and full of energy, thanks to an unflagging exercise regimen and a strict gluten-free diet – browses the bright and airy shop.

Stitches In Time is packed with unique, charming gifts: A nook in the corner houses bibs, blankets and other baby items, and a claw-foot tub at the other end of the showroom is brimming with duffel bags in loud prints. There are floppy hats and faux-leather purses, a rack of raincoats, whimsical hooded towels in a wicker basket, and monogrammed earrings and pendants.

The beige walls are festooned with wood-carved initials: a yellow swirling “B” inside a stylized sunburst, next to a fuchsia tulip bearing the letter “W.” The enticing retail displays are the brainchild of Fortney’s daughter, Marianne Baker, a frazzled mom with blond highlights, a friendly smile and a sharp wit. Baker is often the face of Stitches In Time, dealing with customers and ordering, with Fortney preferring to stay in the back room, focused on embroidery production.

“It’s definitely all about the monogram,” Jagger says as she surveys Stitches In Time. “Your shop is adorable. … Your place is clean. You look organized.” She bends over to examine the stitching on a knit bib, fingertips tracing the slightly puckered design. “We’ve got to work on quality a little bit.”

Fortney, who trails behind, one hand gripping an oversized travel mug of coffee, is eager to learn: “I’m an open plate.”

“Good,” Jagger replies. “Because if you don’t listen, I get tough, and I’m older than you.”

How the Winning Shop Was Selected

For the second year in a row, Stitches asked readers with struggling shops to submit a summary of their obstacles and challenges for a chance to make over their businesses with the help of Joyce Jagger, The Embroidery Coach. Jagger reviewed videos and other information about vital stats and pain points provided by each shop, and chose the business she felt had the most potential for improvement. Stitches In Time in Concord, NC, won a prize package worth over $8,400, which included two days of personalized onsite training, plus six months of follow-up calls including planned action steps with Jagger.  For details about all of Jagger’s personal coaching services and her subscription-based online embroidery business tutorials, visit her website, www.theembroiderycoach.com. Following Jagger’s visit, Midwest Products sent Stitches In Time a HoopMaster kit, along with an 8-by-13-inch magnetic Mighty Hoop and fixture, at an overall value of around $1,400. More information about the products is available at www.hoopmaster.com and www.mightyhoop.com.

 

The showroom of Stitches In Time in Concord, NC, is packed with unique imprintable gift items, from raincoats to towels to purses. The back room, shown above, houses a one-head embroidery machine and other supplies.

The High Cost of Low Prices

A lifelong seamstress looking for work after an unexpected layoff, Fortney was intrigued by the defunct Concord embroidery business she routinely drove by. The “for sale” sign seemed like a good omen, and Fortney seized the opportunity, opening up Stitches In Time in 2008. Over the years, the quaint shop has developed a fierce and loyal following – many in town, Baker says, consider it their small “hidden gem” – but even 2014’s record sales of over $100,000 weren’t enough to sustain Fortney and Baker, and the daily stresses of running a struggling business have stirred up a complicated cocktail of emotions between mother and daughter. Fortney, who seriously considered installing a Murphy bed in the back so she could take up permanent residence at Stitches In Time, lives and breathes embroidery. Baker, paid a part-time salary for full-time hours, feels guilt for not being able to contribute more, but that guilt is tinged with resentment.

“I can’t be married to the job,” she says in tears, the morning of Jagger’s first day at the shop. “I can’t keep working here if I’m not making more money.”

The resentment reached a boiling point a few months ago, as Fortney considered acquiring a nearby contract embroidery shop. For the last year and a half, Baker has been picking up extra shifts at the second shop to learn the ropes – and help supplement her income. After having the business appraised, however, Fortney determined the shop wasn’t worth the asking price and nixed the merger. Baker, left out of the decision-making, was upset that she’d invested so much of her time into a fruitless endeavor. “That’s why she’s so mad at me,” Fortney says.

With the shop expansion out of the picture, Fortney and Baker turned to Stitches and the indomitable Jagger to help them figure out their next move. Jagger spends her first morning poring over Stitches In Time’s books, with Fortney at her shoulder. The first step, Jagger says, is to repair the strained relationship between mother and daughter, and that means finding money in the budget to help Baker make ends meet. “You’ve got to bring up these numbers,” she tells Fortney, while Baker is occupied with a customer. “You’ve got to give her more money to stay. You need her, she needs you. Right now, she feels like a second-class citizen, and that’s not a good feeling.”

“That’s mutual. We’re too much alike,” Fortney replies quietly, but she listens attentively, as Jagger explains how she determined Stitches In Time’s hourly break-even rate. The shop must bring in $50 an hour to stay afloat. Incorporated into that figure is more money for Baker and payment for a second embroidery machine. In April, Jagger says, Stitches in Time brought in a little more than $30 an hour; its prices, she adds, need to increase. “Every single department needs to make money,” Jagger says. “Time everything out. That’s going to be a huge, huge eye-opener.”

Jagger points to monograms, the shop’s bread and butter. Fortney is currently charging between $6 and $8 for each monogram. “It costs more than that to wait on customers,” Jagger says. If you add in design setup, hooping, sewing and trimming time, how much money did you make for that three-letter job, she asks. A sober Fortney replies: “Nothing, absolutely nothing.”

Jagger recommends charging at least $10 for the shop’s smallest monograms, with a $25 minimum charge when clients bring their own items in to be monogrammed.

Time-Saving Tricks

After sorting through the shop’s paperwork, Jagger examines the production area. Though everything is tidy and well-organized, a few spots make Jagger wince. The heat-transfer area makes her stop dead in her tracks, mouth agape. “You’re not using the heat press on the floor, are you?”

“Where else am I going to put it?” Baker asks.

“Oh, my gosh,” Jagger replies. “You have to get on your hands and knees to check the temperature. Find a table for it.”

Another sore spot is the fact that Fortney has been using spray starch rather than a steamer to finish garments. “A steamer is so much better,” Jagger says. “You don’t get residue.”

Hooping Quick Tips

Hooping is one of the most critical parts of the embroidery process. Follow Embroidery Coach Joyce Jagger’s advice to improve your technique, save time and increase accuracy.

  • Invest in a hooping system. Jagger recommends the HoopMaster from Midwest Products to ensure quick and accurate design placement. It’s especially important to have a system in place when training employees. “Trying to eyeball it is not a good practice,” she says. “You may have been hooping for years, but once you need help, you cannot train them to eyeball the way you do. … Every shirt needs to be embroidered in the exact same location.”    
  • Consider buying magnetic hoops. Jagger calls the magnetic Mighty Hoop “one of the greatest inventions that’s come along in years.” The hoops allow for a tighter grip without marking the fabric, and help decorators hoop thick, heavy garments with ease.
  • Hoop tightly. Some embroiderers are afraid to hoop too tightly and mark the fabric, but it’s imperative to get your fabric taut to prevent puckering in your embroidery design, Jagger says. Use a hooping blanket, or cover the entire design with topping to help prevent hoop marks on thinner fabrics.
  • Steam everything. A quick pass with a steamer can easily remove hoop marks and excess topping from a garment. “Never wet your topping,” Jagger says. “It gets gummy.” Instead, use the steamer to form extra topping into a ball, steam the design for a few seconds, and then press the topping ball into the embroidery to lift off excess topping.

 

Above, an old sign overshadows the branding of Stitches In Time, making it difficult for the shop to lure foot traffic. At left, Stitches In Time owner Pat Fortney makes some adjustments before sewing out a monogram. Below, her daughter Marianne Baker waits behind the counter for customers to enter the Concord, NC, shop. Baker set up most of the retail displays in the shop.

 

Jagger also recommends covering the rainbow array of embroidery thread hanging from pegs on a wall adjacent to the machine with a sheet of plastic to help protect it from dust and dirt, which can lead to rot. She advises Fortney to use only white bobbins to save time. When Fortney protests that her machine tech told her to use black bobbins on dark thread, Jagger cuts her off: “Don’t listen to him. Listen to me. … You never need black bobbins or black backing. I like to keep it simple.”

Throughout her two-day visit, Jagger shares countless time-saving tricks, like keeping your machine loaded half with ballpoint needles for knits and half with sharp needles for wovens. That way, she says, “They’re always there, always set up.” She demonstrates her trick for quickly changing thread color: In a procedure Fortney describes as “slick as snot,” the machine operator loads the new cone of thread, throwing the end strand over the old thread, then tying the old color around the new and pulling through. No need to waste time rethreading the needle.

Next, Jagger brings out her trusty hooping grade and a slim bar of bone-white hotel soap and shows Fortney how to measure and mark logo placement, ensuring accuracy every time. “I love it already,” Fortney says.

Hooping, Jagger says, can make or break a design. She recommends Fortney use a hooping system, like the HoopMaster from Midwest Products, in conjunction with the hooping grade. The HoopMaster holds the top and bottom ring of the hoop, the backing material and the garment, helping to properly align and apply the hoop for fast and accurate repeat placement. Magnetic Mighty Hoops ensure easier hooping, especially on heavier items, like work jackets.

By the second day, Fortney is able to procure a steamer, and Jagger demonstrates a foolproof method for removing topping from a logo. First, use the steamer to ball up a wad of unused topping, and then move to your stack of waiting garments, starting at the bottom of the pile. Use the steamer to remove hoop marks, and then let it hover over the logo itself. After a few seconds of steaming, you can dab the embroidery with the tacky ball of topping to lift the excess from your design.

As Jagger’s visit draws to a close, Fortney is overwhelmed by the onslaught of expert advice and time-tested tactics, tearing up as she tries to thank the Embroidery Coach: “I’m just grateful.”

“You’re not grateful,” the no-nonsense Jagger replies. “You’re just teachable.”

“Every single department needs to make money. Time everything out. That’s going to be a huge, huge eye-opener.”

Joyce Jagger, The Embroidery Coach

A Stronger Network

Joyce Jagger, the Embroidery Coach, says networking is one of the easiest and least expensive ways to grow your business. Here are some simple ways to get the most out of networking events.

  • Wear your logo. Make sure your logo is prominent whenever you’re in public. Choose garments that you offer in your shop, rather than retail clothing. That way, when strangers admire your togs, you can let them know you have similar items available for order at your business.
  • Prepare a “signature speech.” When people ask about your business, have an engaging “signature speech,” or elevator pitch, prepared. Make it conversational and anecdotal, rather than stiff and rehearsed. You’re not just a decorator; you create unique branding opportunities for clients.
  • Have a servant’s attitude. Don’t make your networking interactions all about you, Jagger says. Instead, show an interest in the person you’re speaking with. Find out all you can about their business and how you can help them grow it.
  • Consider breakfast or evening meetings. If it’s difficult for you to get away from your shop during the day, seek out networking events before or after hours so you don’t cut into productivity.
  • Network everywhere. Networking isn’t reserved just for chamber of commerce or Rotary meetings, Jagger says. “You can network every place you go, even in church,” she adds.
  • Bring a gift. Giving gifts is a great way to build goodwill and help keep you top of mind with the people you meet. Try offering something that shows off your area of expertise. Jagger creates felt coasters with her logo and contact information embroidered on them. “I’ve been doing these for years,” she says. “People love them.”

Taking Control

Jagger spends nearly as much time behind the counter with Baker, critiquing the shop’s embroidery files, with Baker taking copious notes. Baker has been teaching herself the software, but there are big gaps in knowledge – which sometimes translate to literal gaps in the embroidery. Oftentimes, Baker has been using a fill stitch for monograms, running them without much underlay. That needs to stop, Jagger says. “A true monogram is a satin, not a fill stitch,” she says.

Jagger shows Baker how to break up the letters in a monogram into small segments – assigning stitch types and adjusting angle lines. “Sometimes you need to change them because they don’t always flow beautifully,” she says, as she clicks and drags the mouse. “You can get everything looking so elegant by doing little things like that.”

Baker shudders as Jagger manipulates the nodes outlining each letter: “Those dots give me anxiety.”

“They give you control,” Jagger retorts. “That’s what they give you.”

Jagger and Baker are working on a script monogram, “MJA,” going on a set of plush, ivory towels. Because of the thickness, the design needs a lot of underlay – zigzag, perpendicular and contour – so the embroidery doesn’t sink down, Jagger says. “There’s a reason we use them all,” she explains. Perpendicular creates two lines through the center of the design, zigzag covers up the loops, and contour gives the letters a nice, crisp edge, she says. After tinkering with the file for a few minutes, they send the design to the machine, where Fortney has the towel hooped and ready to be loaded. All three watch the edited monogram design sew out in gleaming gold letters.

“Look at the difference in quality,” Jagger says.

 

Above, Joyce Jagger, The Embroidery Coach, (right) points out areas where Pat Fortney (center) and Marianne Baker need to improve the quality of their embroidery. Top right, Fortney follows Jagger’s instructions on how to easily change thread colors. Bottom right, Jagger gives Baker pointers on how to edit digitizing files to optimize embroidery results.

“I’m standing here in awe,” Fortney breathes. “You can see it just off the bat.”

Get Noticed

Though Stitches In Time has a prime location in the fast-growing city of Concord, Fortney and Baker have struggled to expand their customer base. Part of their low profile may stem from the confusing signage on the building itself. Though a Stitches In Time sign is posted along the side of the building and in the front window, the red brick façade boasts the words “G.E. Lentz, Inc.” in giant blue lettering, overshadowing the embroidery shop branding.

“It’s been a pleasure to work with Pat and Marianne because they’re so willing to learn and are eager to make the changes to put out higher-quality embroidery and make their shop more profitable.”

Joyce Jagger, The Embroidery Coach

“The sign on the front has to come down,” Jagger says, noting that she nearly missed the shop altogether that first morning, despite the assistance of the GPS.

Removal could be a problem, however. Fortney is renting the building from a resistant-to-change retired plumber, who still considers it his “puttering place” and cried during a visit when he saw Fortney had moved his desk from the spot it had occupied for years. In the final year of her lease on the building, Fortney must decide whether the low rent and ample space are worth the landlord’s emotional involvement in the building.

In the meantime, however, Jagger says there are other ways for Stitches In Time to get its name into the public eye. She recommends beefing up the corporate logo-wear division. For higher-volume work, the embroidery can be farmed out to a shop with multi-head machines, and the markup from selling the apparel itself will still boost overall profits, she adds. Focusing on corporate clients is a great opportunity for cross-marketing as well, since they need to buy gifts in addition to logo wear. “Most people in the corporate world can’t do retail stuff,” Jagger says. She indicates Stitches In Time’s well-appointed retail showroom. “You’ve got the best of both worlds.”

About the Series

Last August, Stitches ran the first “Can This Shop Be Saved?” feature. The in-depth article, which included multiple videos and a photo slideshow, would go on to win a prestigious Jesse H. Neal Award for Best Cross-Platform Package. Due to the story’s overwhelming popularity, we decided to expand the concept for 2015, running shorter profiles of shops Embroidery Coach Joyce Jagger has worked with, in addition to a second installment of our “Can This Shop Be Saved?” contest.

Scan this code to check in with Linda Gadwood, owner of Logo Linda in Omaha. Featured in January, Gadwood followed Jagger’s advice to jumpstart productivity and elevate the quality of her embroidery.

Jagger suggested Fortney and Baker create a board in one corner of the shop, posting the logos they’ve done for corporate clients, much like the font board behind the counter is displayed for monogram clients. “It gives you credibility,” Jagger says. Once that’s established, create a brochure to insert in every single bag that leaves the shop, she adds. Give customers a discount for every successful referral they bring. “You have to motivate them to start telling more people about you,” Jagger says.

 

Joyce Jagger, The Embroidery Coach, called Stitches In Time in Concord, NC, “adorable.” She praised the owners for maintaining a clean and organized space and advised them to add more corporate logo work to supplement their retail sales. “Most people in the corporate world can’t do retail stuff,” Jagger notes. “You’ve got the best of both worlds.”

Jagger also advises the mother and daughter to begin regularly attending networking events, whether with the local chamber of commerce or through some other organization. “Don’t go in with the attitude of, ‘Here I am.’ Go in there with a servant’s attitude,” she says. Instead of talking about yourself, ask other attendees about their own business and find out how you can help them expand.

“Networking and referrals are the fastest and cheapest way to grow the business,” Jagger says.

Online Extras

Want to learn more about what happened during Joyce Jagger’s whirlwind visit to Stitches In Time in Concord, NC? Head over to Stitches.com to watch a video and see more photos from our second annual extreme shop makeover.


Video: Can This Shop Be Saved?In a video interview, Pat Fortney and her daughter Marianne Baker reflect on the difficulties of running a family business, why they were nervous to ask Stitches for help and what they’ve learned from The Embroidery Coach Joyce Jagger. Visit Stitches.com to watch the video.


Slideshow: Two Days at Stitches In Time During her two days in North Carolina, Joyce Jagger showed the mother-daughter team at Stitches In Time some time-saving embroidery tricks and software essentials, as well as unlocking the mysteries of pricing for profit and foolproof marketing strategies. Check out some pictorial highlights from Jagger’s visit on Stitches.com.

The Verdict

Jagger left Concord, confident that she’d set her newest pupils on the right path. “It’s been a pleasure to work with Pat and Marianne because they’re so willing to learn and are eager to make the changes to put out higher quality embroidery and make their shop more profitable,” she says. “I absolutely do think they’ll be successful.”

In the weeks that followed her two-day visit, Fortney and her daughter have already started to make changes. They raised their prices, and have started using Jagger’s forms to track how long their processes take. April was a strong month for sales, with Mother’s Day and graduation orders coming in. Several new corporate orders also helped boost the bottom line.

Baker attended a chamber of commerce meeting to network with other business owners, and the shop worked with Meals on Wheels, sponsoring a duck race fundraiser. Customers who chose to adopt one of the ducks from Stitches In Time received a store coupon along with a chance to win a prize in the Meals on Wheels fundraiser.

As part of the “Can This Shop Be Saved?” prize package, Midwest Products sent the shop several products, including a Mighty Hoop that Fortney has fallen in love with. “It’s so much fun to work with,” she gushes. “I can’t wait to get more sizes.”

The biggest change, perhaps, is the confidence both mother and daughter have gained from Jagger’s continued guidance. “We know we’re giving good quality,” Baker says. “And we’re not selling ourselves short by keeping our prices low.”

With sales picking up, tensions between Fortney and Baker have diminished. Each now has a firm grasp of their role in the shop and how to work together to grow the business. “We know our strengths,” Fortney says.

In the months ahead, there is still a lot of work to do, Jagger says. She’ll continue to work with Baker on mastering the editing software and help Fortney develop written embroidery procedures and standards. “I’m pretty excited about them,” she adds. “They definitely are doing what I asked them to do.”

THERESA HEGEL is a senior staff writer for Stitches.
Contact: thegel@asicentral.com; follow her on Twitter at @TheresaHegel.