Monday, March 24, 2014

Butterfly Embroidery Machine Details Part 2

I have received lots of questions on my experiences with my Butterfly 1501B/T embroidery machine from folks looking to step up to a commercial machine.  I have mentioned before that I have done some upgrades and replaced some parts, so I want to explain that in detail for those that have the Butterfly on their list of machines.



Quick stats of the Butterfly 1501B/T. Note that some of these specifics are different than the official documentation on the butterfly 1501B/T because the official documentation is wrong.

Needles - 15
Auto thread cutter - Yes
Auto Bobbin Cutter - Yes
Max embroidery size - 450mm by 300mm
Minimum Stitches per minute - 100
Maximum Stitches per minute - 1200
Usual Run Speed - 700 to 750 spm
Pattern Loading - USB or Ethernet
Pattern type - DST
Memory - 15 million stitches
Maximum stitch count per pattern - 15 million
Max designs stored in memory - At least 250


I purchased the machine from http://www.butterflyemb.com which is owned by http://www.plrelectronics.com/, except I used their listing for the machine on eBay because they wanted to charge a additional $250 fee for not using cash unless I used eBay.  I don't understand this policy since PayPal fees on their side are actually more than a regular credit card.  I have also learned from previous issues with merchants that using PayPal funds can leave the buyer open to issues, so I used my credit card with PayPal as an intermediary just to be safe.  That way, if something went really wrong, I could call my credit card company and they could assist me.

The machine was delivered about 3 weeks later via LTL on a full pallet.  It was packed very well, and there were 15 spools of RA thread in it that the company must have used for testing when they received the machine from china.  The crate it came in was made of 1/4" plywood with steel corners and it probably took about 2 hours to unpack including all the thread that had gotten tangled up in the machine from the transport.  I ended up recycling the steel edging as part of the extra stand I built for the machine.  There's probably still enough left to build another 1/2 stand.

I spent a day or 2 setting the thread tension with a tension gauge (absolutely required) and testing out different settings.  I found that 150 gram on the top thread and 25 gram on the bottom seemed to work the best for 40 weight polyester from RA, Merida or Marathon.  For 30 weight rayon, I use 200 gram top and 30 gram bobbin. those are still the settings I use today. 

Don't try to guess, use a tension gauge.  I tried guessing by pulling at first, and I ended up with between 100 and 250 grams when I thought they were all roughly equal.  I am much better now by just pulling and can get between 140 and 160 grams without a tension gauge.The first design I made was the biggest Rarity I could fit in the machine.



This is where I learned that the maximum size was not the 500 by 400mm that was advertized.  The maximum Embroidery Field size is 500 by 400mm, which is much different than Maximum Embroidery Area.  The field is measured by maximum hoop size plus hoop bracket size that will fit in the machine.  The machine can't actually sew to the edge of the hoop, the pantograph can't move that far, it hits limiter stops in the machine well before that.  Even if it could move the full 500mm wide, it would have to sew though the hoop and bracket itself, which obviously won't work.



I measured a maximum embroidery area size of just over 450mm wide by 300mm tall.  This is only 67% of the advertized maximum embroidery size of 400 by 500mm.  In all honesty, I did not care overmuch.  I only needed 300 by 300, so anything over that was icing on the cake.  If I needed the full 400 by 500mm size, I would have been very unhappy.  I told them of the error (I assume it is a typographical error) but they have not fixed it yet. I have only made 4 or 5 patches that have been bigger than 300 by 300 (12" by 12"), such as Applejack here.  The small patch of AJ is 4" tall and the squares on the background are 1" by 1".







The first thing that broke on the machine was the reciprocator.  This is the part that changes the rotational motion of the motor into the up and down motion of the needle.  The reciprocator also has quite a few more functions, such as grabbing the needle bar that connects to the needle and releasing it to 'skip' stitches.  This part is plastic, and is made to break if the needle hits something that can not be moved; such as the embroidery hoop.  That way, something more important such as the motor, shafts, belts, or needle bar don't break. Think of it as a fuse.

Butterfly Reciprocator Assembly


What happened on my machine is that the pantograph pulley slipped because it was not tightened down during manufacture or had loosened while being shipped.  The pantograph only moved left and slipped to the right, so the hoop moved all the way to the edge.  The needle then hit the hoop at about 800 stitches per minute, which caused the plastic part of the reciprocator to snap off and fly 16 feet straight up into my ceiling.

I tried contacting the company I ordered from since I expected this to be covered under the 5 year warranty (seriously, 5 years!).  Even if it wasn't covered under warranty fr some reason I needed to get a replacement.  the warranty is good, I was told it 'covers everything' when I asked.  I took that to mean it covers replacement parts if something breaks, but not labor to put them in.  My guess is that PLR would cover labor if the machine was brought to them in TX. After a week of no response from PLR, I started getting creative.

The part numbers in the manual for the reciprocator would not come up anywhere. I called a few local embroidery folks to see if they knew how to replace a reciprocator or if they knew a reputable service company. None of my friends or acquaintances could replace it (or even do maintenance on their own machines), and the service companies wanted around $250 to come out and just look at it.  To be fair, that's a great deal to have someone come to your house to fix an embroidery machine. My PE770's cost $150 to have looked at by a shop and I had to bring it.  However, I don't have qualms about taking stuff apart, so I dived right in to get the reciprocator out.



According to some videos I watched like the above (because videos are the authority, right?) it should take a tech around 4 hours to replace a reciprocator.  I used that video (and others) to research how to replace the reciprocator on my machine and decided to do it myself. It took all day to do the first time, but I was successful.  I also took lots of pictures as I was disassembling it in case I had an issue putting it back together.


I found a cool company called SewManyParts that sells commercial embroidery machine parts and supplies.  Their website is dated and to use the search you have to know what you are looking for to find it, but it had the most important part for me; pictures!  I started browsing for hours going though pictures trying to find the reciprocator that is in the reciprocator assembly.  I picked 5 part numbers that looked like they could work. Remember, I had only a broken part to go off of, so I wasn't positive what it looked like in 1 piece.  Of the 5, one was close, but not exact.

Close, but not exact. Part 080210240S3A
Part number 080210240S3A was really close, but that black bar you see on the right was shorter by about 1/2 inch, which I determined when I got it.  This is where a lever in the machine pushes to disengage the reciprocator from the needle bar.  Since I had nothing else to do, I put together the assembly and tried it out by manually moving the needle bar and the disengage motor.  There was more than enough for it to work, so I left it in the machine and reassembled it.  I tested again by manually turning the machine, which worked.  So I made a design that was 90% jumps and set the machine as slow as it could go to test it again.  just like before, no issues.  So I slowly cranked the machine speed up to max, and again no issues.  I took the machine back apart to look for anything out of the ordinary (such as wear patterns) and found nothing amiss.  So I called it a win and went back to using the machine as normal. The obviously wrong reciprocator gave me no issues.

After about a month of emails and phone calls to PLR Electronics, I gave up with them.  Surprisingly, about 2 weeks after I gave up, I got a replacement reciprocator assembly from them in the mail with no contact from them at all.  Super strange, and not very good service.  The issues I have had with the machine I can't really blame on PLR, and they do have good training material on how to do things with the machine including repair, but I still don't get why they couldn't return an email or phone call on the issue.  Just for funzies I tried ordering a replacement hoop from them and suddenly they were all back in the office and would reply to email.  I don't know if this was just because of the holidays (this started around mid-december) or if they were just super behind, but since they didn't respond to me, I am left guessing.

After a few months, the replacement reciprocator I got wore out.  This was the 'not right, but still works' reciprocator.  The bearing was sticking, and was not always grabbing the needle bar.  Since I had the replacement from PLR, I took a bunch of pictures of it and measured it, then sent the pics and measurements to SewManyParts hoping they would be able to order one since I didn't see anything close on their list.  I wasn't really expecting them to answer since I had only placed one order with them, and it would take work to compare my pictures to theirs.  I figured it woudln't be worth it to them and they would ignore me.  I was pleasantly surprised when I got back an email in about 5 hours with a guess as to the part number, and it was one that I had not ordered but was on their site.  The picture they had took just made it look like it wouldn't fit my machine.  I ordered one and it was a perfect match. Since then, I have replaced it 3 times.  I can now replace it in under 30 minutes.

Because of that and other awesome service I have gotten from them, SewManyParts is now my go-to place, even if they are more expensive.  I should also point out that I have never returned anything from them that did not fit my machine when I was shotgunning parts.  It's obviously not their fault that I don't have correct part numbers, and restocking stuff is a pain (I know from experience).  So I have a big box of parts that don't fit my machine.  I'll probably mail it back to them as a gift or something since they have been absolutely awesome and I can't use them.

Correct springs, Part 507605030044


While I was replacing the reciprocator the first time, I came across something on the machine that annoyed me as an engineer.  The needle bar springs were cut from a longer spring to fit. I am almost positive this has nothing to do with PLR and is from the manufacturer.  I just ordered a dozen different springs from SewManyParts and figured out which was the correct one.  Part 507605030044 is the correct one by the way.  I have used more than 30 since I got the machine; they are the fastest wearing part besides the bobbin case.



At the same time, I noticed the vast majority of the cap screws and bolts were the wrong length (too short) as well, were cross threaded, or the wrong pitch for the tapped hole.  To fix this, and to verify that every single bolt, cap screw, screw or other fastener was up to snuff, I replaced them after cleaning the threads in the machine.  Every single one.  Let me repeat that, as it bears repeating.  I replaced every singe bolt, cap screw, set screw, washer, or other fastener that was in the machine.  Lots of them were lose, and more than 90% of them were too short.  the only ones I did not replace were the 4 that hold on the feet to the bottom of the machine.  The total cost for that was about $800, and I highly recommend that if you get the butterfly machine that you replace them as well.  It was cheaper to buy them as an assortment than it was to get them one-off from the hardware store, so I did buy way more than I ended up needing (probably enough for another 5 machines).  So if you do end up getting a butterfly machine and want to replace all the fasteners, let me know and I can send you replacements for way less than the hardware store since I have extra.

Rotary Tension Case
Though the past year, I have also replaced other parts on the machine as they wore out.  Here's the ones that I have written down in my notes, but I have lots more in my parts box that I can look up if needed.  The Reciprocator is funny to me because the body is a SWF while the insert matches a Tajima part.  The butterfly machine seems to be about 40% Tajima, 40% SWF and 20% someone else.  these fit my machine, but as always, your mileage may vary.  Always test.

Presser foot (exact) - 090460070A00
Presser foot bushing (exact) - 090460040020
Disk Tension Spring (exact) - 507725010012
Reciprocator Insert (exact) - 080210270S49
Reciprocator Insert (not exact, still works) - 080210240S3A
Reciprocator Body (must replace the reciprocator) - 03040BM-CT01
Needle Bar Spring (exact) - 507605030044
First Tension Set (not exact, works) UD1100000000
Rotary Tension Disk (exact) - 0C0230120011/FN0901010000

Stuff that I have replaced so far that I can remember off the top of my head: (cost doesn't include shotgunning)
Every fastener - $800
Reciprocator - $150 (replaced 3 times completely, 1 time insert only)
Needle Bar - $24 (replaced 4)
Needle bar springs - $3 (replaced 30)
Presser Foot - $20 (replaced 5)
Needle plate - $50 (replaced 2)
Rotary Tension - $15 (replaced 5)
Hoops - $50 (about a dozen)


The reciprocator is the only repair I would call a major one.  However, I did have something else break that a lot of people would have a hard time fixing.  the pantograph moves on 2 arms on each side of the machine.  The arms each have a cover over them, and the bracket that holds the cover on snapped off.  It was not spot welded correctly when originally made.






I ground off the paint and used my mig welder to weld the bracket back on. Cost was only $2 for paint, but that isn't something that can be done by a tech; the part would have had to have been replaced, and this is one that would have had to come from PLR.  Fixing it probably only took an hour, most of which was spent lining up the bracket so it would go back into the machine.  It's kinda hard to unweld something if it is welded on incorrectly, so I took a lot of time.  After testing it out, I painted it again.  I didn't bother sanding down the paint to feather and make it look better since I'm the only one who will see it.  I just used a grinder to remove the paint before welding it. Still got decently close on the paint color.

Overall Impressions
Would I get this machine knowing all I know now?

I would definitely take a longer look at the original machine I was going to get, the SWF-1501C.  That machine is about $13,000 vs the $8,500 for the butterfly.  However, I have spent about $2.5k repairing/improving the butterfly over the past year and a half or so, making the cost about 10k to 13k.  I am much more familiar with the butterfly embroidery machine now, and I have actually considered getting another so I can sew custom designs faster. I haven't gotten one because I still haven't paid off the first one, but if I was doing this for profit, I would have paid it off long ago and would get another.  However, I wouldn't get the butterfly immediately just because it is cheaper, I would get the butterfly because I know the machine.  This is definitely a case of "The Devil you know vs the Devil you don't".


Saturday, December 21, 2013

Butterfly Embroidery Machine Details

I have been asked a few questions on the machines I use to embroider different designs.  I have a bunch of different machines, but for today, I am going to show you my 15 needle machine. The machine is the Butterfly 1501B/T which I bought about a year ago.  This is the same machine that I brought to BronyCon and had at my booth (and hope to do again this year).


The machine has 15 needles, so it can do designs with up to 15 colors without needing to change thread.  That means the Lunar Guard and Sapphire Shores can be done without changing colors, but designs like Cadence and Shining Armor require them.  Doing more than 15 colors is a pain because the process to switch colors takes a good amount of time.  On my PE770, I can switch a color inside of 5 seconds while it takes about a minute on the Butterfly.
 

The Butterfly has several features that make it well worthwhile over a machine like the PE770, Dreamweaver and the PR series machines from Brother.  The Butterfly has 15 needles so the colors don't have to be changed between colors.  It will auto-cut the thread when the design calls for it and switch to the next color automatically and continue on.  Often, I only have to touch the machine every 45 minutes to change out the bobbin. The Butterfly will also sew way faster than those other machines, topping out at a true 1200 stitches per minute.



The PE770 will sew about 90% of stitches at 350 stitches per minute even when set to 650.  Same with my ULT 2001 and 6800PRW.  The pantograph (the part that moves the fabric being embroidered) can only move so fast on those machines, so unless the stitch is really small, it will be sewn at 350 or slower.  On the Butterfly, 90% of stitches are sewn at the speed you set the machine which can be anywhere from 100 to 1200 stitches per minute.  I generally sew around 750 because past that, my house starts vibrating in time with the machine.  It will start slowing down when the combined horizontal and vertical speed are farther than about 25mm.  Here's Braeburn's mane and hat being sewn at 800 stitches per minute.




The Butterfly machine has a built in LED light, and I added another to the front from Allstitch which helps if I have all the lights in the house off. The different lighting options help quite a bit depending on what I am embroidering.



Those are the different lights; front, back or off.  The hoop that you see is the largest hoop that the machine can do which is about 12" by 18".  The Butterfly can use hoops from about 90mm to 400mm wide.  I have a decent collection with 90, 120, 150, 180, and 210mm circles along with some rectangles.  The most popular hoop that I use is a 300mm by 300mm hoop which allows a maximum embroidery size of about 250 by 250mm (about 10")

The pictures of the machine don't do a good job of scale, so here's a picture in comparison to a SE400 100mm hoop (max size for the SE400 or 6800PRW






Howabout to a PE770 130 by 180mm hoop; the maximum size for a PE770




Believe it or not, the entire PE770 machine itself will fit in the hoop for the Butterfly machine.

 The PE770 will fit lying down, but it won't fit under the head of the Butterfly machine, so I can't take a picture like that. It's a big hoop; the Butterfly machine can embroider really big designs.

The Butterfly machine also has a very small throat. it is about 1.5 inches across, so it can fit inside of purses, bangs and the like.  That makes it much easier to embroider weirdly shaped items.



The machine is also open under the throat, so long or bulky items can just hang down.  This makes it super easy to embroider blankets and jackets that just won't fit in the throat of a PE770 or other home machine.



The bobbin is vertical instead of horizontal on the Butterfly machine.  The bobbins are standard type L, which can be found prewound pretty much everywhere or can be wound manually. I generally use prewound ones.


Each bobbin is good for about 45 minutes of embroidery.  The bobbin case for the Butterfly machine only costs about $4 vs the $35 for the bobbin case on the PE770 or SE400 (they use the same case).  The bobbin case on the Butterfly and the others both last about the same amount of time; roughly 200 bobbins before needing to be replaced due to wear.


The Butterfly machine has a color display like the higher end home machines.



It has lots of buttons that do lots of things.  I don't even know what some of them do, but they look cool and they beep when you push them.

I also have a 270 degree hoop for hats, though I don't make many of them.  I have them for about $13, and for some reason they aren't all that popular.  Hats are pretty annoying to hoop, but they come out great.





Total cost of the machine was about $10k with the options, hoops and other stuff I have needed to do embroidery.  Overall, I am pretty happy with it.  It has broken a few times but I have been able to fix it without much of a problem.  Next time something on it breaks, I'll have to do a post on how to fix it.


Monday, December 16, 2013

Yum

A few months ago, I embroidered some cutie marks on to fleece for Toni from Sugar Tart Crafts for her MLP costumes which you can find here.  We also had a bunch of conversations about different sewing things.  This is dangerous because I get extremely verbose.  Emails that are pages long... Oh goodness. Today, I found a present waiting for me


So many yummy cookies, and the recipes are on her blog too, so you can make them yourself.  Oh my goodness, these are so yummy I'm going to eat every single one and no one can stop me!  Bwhahahahaha! So excuse me, I need to go eat a few.

Happy Hearth's Warming Eve everyone!
-E

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Random Embroidery & Business Questions Answered

I get lots of questions from people on all aspects of what I do.  Everything from Customer Service to Shipping, to how to embroider.  Here's some answers on some of the quick questions I have gotten recently.

Embroidery Questions

What Embroidery program do you use?
I have used quite a few of them over the years and have found for me, Embird offers the best software for the lowest cost.  I haven't found any software that is better than Embird, at any cost.  Having said that, I have not used all embroidery software that exists.  I have heard good things about SophieSew, but I haven't been able to buy a copy.  From what I understand, you can only get it with purchase of a new embroidery machine.  When I figure out how to try it, I will probably post a review.




What Stabilizer do you use?
I use a lot of different stabilizer depending on what the fabric and design is.  Stabilizer is the unsung hero of embroidery and can cause so many issues if used incorrectly.  I personally use 2 sheets of S-18 (1.8oz) and one sheet of HD (3.2oz) when making patches. For towels, fleece or Minky I also use a sheet of water soluble Solvy on the top to hold down the nap in addition to the S-18 and HD.






 What Needles do you use?
Home Machines: HLx5 Titanium Sharp Point
Commercial Machine: DB K5 titanium Sharp Point
Size for both: 75/11 with 120d/2 & 40 weight thread








What thread do you use?
Polyester and Rayon have a good rivalry going on right now in the embroidery world. Rayon used to be the only thread type that mattered due to high luster.  In the last 10 years or so, some advances in Poly have made it so Poly thread is now just as vibrant.  My personal preference for patches is Poly because it melts under a blowtorch instead of burn, which happens to Rayon.  My machines also seem to prefer Poly and break a lot less.  However, I do use Rayon for some colors because not all colors can be had in Poly.

I spent a while (and too much money) trying out lots of different thread brands.  My first set was from a company called Kolors which used very similar thread color numbers as Marathon.  So even today, I tend to match back to a Marathon number when I colormatch and document what colors to use for a design even when I don't always use Marathon.  I also use Madeira, Robinton Anton & Isacord.

The cost of thread isn't that much of the final cost of the design, so don't skimp on thread.  For example, I have complete sets of CTS & Threadart colors.  Both are junk and shred in my machines quite often.  The difference in cost for 1 patch is very small between using the cheapest (CTS) and the most expensive thread (Robison Anton or Isacord).  The cost isn't worth the hassle for the extra few minutes it takes to keep re-threading the machine when it breaks.


This is what I currently have. If you need to pick 1 brand to start out with and do not want to test, pick Robinson Anton or Isacord.
Robison Anton Polyester  - Nearly Complete Set
Isacord Polyester - Nearly Complete Set
Marathon Polyester - Complete Set
Madeira Polyester - Complete Set

I also have fill colors from other brands that are not available in the 4 brands above.  These are from Royal, Salus, & Ameth among others.

Have used these next 2 brands quite a bit, but they don't even come close to the 4 above.  These are not recommended unless you have way more time than money.   Neither will sew at all in my commercial machine without breaking roughly every 30 to 90 seconds.  My Brother machine can handle some colors of the Threadart without constantly breaking, but the majority of colors constantly break for me even in my home machines.
Threadart Polyester - Complete Set (Not Recommended!)
CTS Polyester - Complete Set (Not Recommended!)


How much thread do you use?
It depends on the design, but my recent average is around 300 yards per 4" patch.

Business Questions

How much does shipping actually cost?
This is one of the questions I get pretty often.  Shipping is one of the things where some businesses put in profit or end up losing money.  Shipping cost stinks, but is a necessary evil.  Here is my actual cost for shipping 1 patch in a bubble mailer (my most often used shipping method) and the breakdown.

#000 Bubble Mailer : 10 cents
Self Adhesive Label: 12 cents
1 sheet of paper: 5 cents
Shipping Tape: 2 cents
2mil patch baggie: 2 cents
USPS Postage: $1.64
Lost Package Replacement: 54 cents
Total per package cost: $2.46

The lost package replacement may be confusing if you haven't shipped a bunch.When a package goes missing because the postman was a MLP fan or Derpy gotahold of it, that means I have to send another.  the cost on that replacement isn't $1.95, it is $1.95 plus the cost of the patch (about $5.40).  This happens about 7% of the time, so the lost package cost is ($1.95+5.40)*7% or 54 cents per shipment.  Of course, this package also has another 7% chance of getting lost but doing trig to get to the cost of shipping a patch is overkill.

The reason I charge $2.16 to ship a patch is because some patches can be shipped in a regular envelope.  The cost in a regular envelope is lower at $1.44.  Averaging the 2 out comes to within a few cents of $2.16 with my balance of sales.

That's all the questions I have time for today, more to come.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Picking an Embroidery Machine - Part 1

It is that magical time just before Halloween where procrastinators like me want everything embroidered for their costume, and the early planners want to know how to embroider names on to Christmas stockings.  I get a ton of questions around this time from folks looking to get a sewing machine or an embroidery machine for the first time.  That means I get to write a blog post to answer questions!


Sewing Machines

There are tons of blogs and sites out there where you can read about all the different sewing machines and why one brand is better than another brand.  You can also find rants about one brand or another brand of sewing machine or how the users of Machine A are new to sewing and how experienced sewers use Machine B.  This annoys me actually, because out of the many, many sewing machines I have had or used, I never actually ran across a bad one.  I'll probably get some flack for this, but sewing machine functionality hasn't changed much since the first time a motor was stuck to a Singer in the very late 1800's, and an electric conversion on the hand cranked Singers became widely available in the 1920's. (some other time we can argue about vibrating bobbins vs. rotary hooks or chain stitch vs lock stich. Anyway, When you are picking out a sewing machine, below are the steps I suggest when you are trying to figure out what machine to buy. To be fair, this same process can be used for buying pretty much anything, and I use it all the time; from buying a car to buying lunch.

First and foremost, set your budget.  Keep in mind that a more expensive machine is not necessary a better one, so to get the most for your money, you don't need the most expensive machine you can afford.  If you have never done your own sewing before, you have the very first choice that can effect the whole process:  Do you want to go 'all in' or do you want to 'try it out' before investing in being able to sew your own stuff.  If you are 'trying it out' to see if you like sewing, you probably do not want to start with an expensive machine that you will not use after the first weekend.   When making your budget, make sure to include enough for thread, needles, and bobbins.  If you do not have any thread currently, I suggest that you put aside at least $100 for thread, needles, & bobbins. After a few months of use, you will also need to have some money in your budget for maintenance items such as machine oil, so save about $30 for those maintenance items.  They are not needed at the same time as the machine as the machine will usually have a decent selection when you purchase it.  Later on you will probably also want a sewing cabinet, thread storage, and lots of little things that make sewing easier, but are not strictly required.  Keep in mind that you will probably spend every penny that you set aside at some point, so setting a budget is easily the most important step.  If you are 'trying it out' I suggest a minimum budget of $180 with a machine in the $80 range, but if you are planning to do sewing for a while, I suggest a minimum of $350 with $150 spent on the machine itself, $100 for thread and such, and set aside $100 for later for the things you determine you can't do without such as a sewing cabinet.

Now that you have your budget set, you need to decide what are the most important features for the machine to have.  Some features will be 'must haves' for you, while others will be 'would be nice'.  For example, most of the higher end machines will have a button hole setting which makes button holes a snap to make.  But buttonholes can be made just fine using other stitches on the machine, it will just take longer.  If you plan on making a ton of button holes, a button setting is probably a 'Must Have'.  Spend the time now to figure out the features you need and want, and put them in a list when you go on to the next step.  This will help narrow down the machines to a manageable list.

Now that you have your feature list and you have several machines which will fit your budget, you need to decide on which of those is better for you personally.  For me, the 3rd most important thing is support from the seller. Research online and talk to other customers that have purchased from the seller if possible. See the kind of support that is given when something breaks or someone needs help.  Are they ignored and told to 'read the manual' or is the support personal or with hands on guidance? this step will usually weed out a few of the machines from the possibilities you have, or narrow down where to buy the machine.

Next up is research on the brand. I am going to get some more flack for this, but in today's world a brand doesn't mean as much as it used to.  For example, Singer used to be the only brand for sewing machines that actually mattered.  That changed about 15 years ago when Singer licened their brand and stopped actually making or designing the machines.  Their quality and support went way down to attempt to drive their profit up.  Now, a Singer is (to me anyway) at the bottom of the brand list.  Spending time researching a brand, determining who makes and designs the machines and listening to the folks that use recent machines of the brand is important.  This research probably isn't a deal breaker on a machine, but if you have several choices, this will help one or 2 machines come to the top of the list.


Embroidery Machines

Choosing an embroidery machine is very similar to choosing a sewing machine.  Set your budget, determine features, research the brand, and determine where to buy it.  However, unlike sewing machines, there are not a lot of places where you can get a real-world primer on doing embroidery and all the little finagley bits of stuff you need to do embroidery.  So I am going to focus on the features of embroidery machines and the non-machine little bits you will need to get started on embroidery. Up today is features! What features are critical on an embroidery machine?  There are probably only 3 that are deal breakers for specific machines.

The first one may sound a bit weird, which is do you want to sew on your embroidery machine?  A huge number of embroidery machines are embroidery only, you can't use them to do regular sewing.  If you already have a sewing machine, this won't matter.  But if dropped your regular sewing machine down a flight of stairs (which I did) or are looking at getting a new machine because you left the old one accidentally when you moved (which I did) then you probably want a combination machine so you can do both tasks.  You may also be space-limited where having 2 machines is a pain because you don't have somewhere to store both.

The second feature is how big the machine can embroider.  Technically, an embroidery machine can embroider infinite size if you take out the fabric, line it up, and embroider the next section.  In practical terms, getting the alignment correct is pretty much impossible once unhooping fabric.  With very few exceptions, that places an upper bound on how big you can embroider on any given machine.  Most entry level machines will have a maximum size of 100mm by 100mm (about 4" by 4").  This is enough space to go 3 letter monogramming, and it is also the most popular size you will find when looking for embroidery designs.  What I can tell you is that whatever machine you get, you will want a bigger hoop size the instant you embroider your first thing.  You will want to go bigger and bigger, and will be sad if you can't go to 5" or 6" or 10".  It doesn't matter what size you get, you will want a bigger one.  Having said that though, at least 90% of what I personally embroider is under 100mm.  Here is where I will make my first recommendation: get the biggest embroidery field you can afford, even if you think you will never use it.  Trust me, you will use it.  My biggest machine right now can do 12" by 18", and I still want a bigger one.

The last feature that is critical is if the embroidery machine supports loading custom designs via USB or something similar.  Lots of entry level machines will not support adding custom designs downloaded or bought elsewhere.  Some machines also require that you use a brand-specific loading device such as an embroidery card or something similar.  This adds additional cost for you, and more profit for the company making the machine.  If you plan on doing more than monogramming, you require a machine that can load custom designs.  If you plan on doing lots of custom designs, then you want a USB loading process for ease of use and low cost.

Those are the 3 things that will filter out the largest number of machines from a machine list.  Next up are features that are not required, but will make life a lot easier.

Automatic Thread Cutter - this will automatically cut the thread at the end of sewing a color instead of hand cutting it.  When sewing a design with 10 colors, cutting it by hand will get very annoying very quickly.  I highly recommend getting a machine with automatic thread cutting.

Bobbin Winder - An embroidery machine with a bobbin winder isn't as important as you may think at first glance.  First, the color of the bobbin thread doesn't matter as it can not be seen.  In general, it can only be found in 2 colors: black and white. An embroidery machine also eats up bobbin thread like there is no tomorrow, so you will be winding bobbins a ton compared to a regular sewing machine.  You will use so many bobbins that you will probably buy them prewound.  Prewound bobbins cost about $30 for 144 (a gross) with each bobbin having around 120 yards of thread for a total of about 17 thousand yards of thread per gross.  17 thousand yards of thread costs about $15 if bought in king spools. Then, add the time cost of winding it on bobbins (about a minute per bobbin) which for a gross would be more than 2 hours. Buying prewound bobbins for $30, or winding your own for around $15 plus 2 hours of your time; up to you.   For me, the choice was easy, I went prewound after winding about 30 bobbins, even back when I was buying them from a sewing store for about a dollar a bobbin.  Buying a gross lowered the cost to about 20 cents each. in all likelihood, you will not use a bobbin winder on an embroidery machine.

Multi-hoop capability - Some machines have optional hoops you can buy that will let you do larger than the maximum size that the machine can do normally.  For example, a 100mm by 100mm max machine may have a multi-point hoop available that will go to 100mm by 180mm.  The hoop has multiple points on it so you break an embroidery design up into pieces and sew it individually without removing the hoop from the fabric.  This fixes the 'impossible to align' problem I spoke of earlier.  The biggest gotcha here is that not just any design can be split, the design has to be built that way.


Stitch speed - Here's another option that doesn't matter much.  I have had a plethora of embroidery machines and different stitch speeds.  from 300 to 1100 stitches per minute.  The max speed doesn't matter much, because most machines can only hit their maximum speed on super small stitches.  For example, my SE400 has a stitch speed of 350 stitches per minute and my PE770 will do 650 stitches per minute. If I make Rainbow Dash, the total time on the SE400 is 59 minutes and only PE770 it is 54 minutes.  There is very little difference in the total time spent embroidering.

Compatibility on upgrade - If you are getting an entry level machine, there is the possibility that you will want to upgrade later.  Check if the accessories that your machine uses can also be used on the next few steps up of machine if you decide to upgrade.  The biggest expenses that won't move to a new machine easily is probably embroidery hoops, so if you upgrade you want to reuse those on the upgraded machine if possible. this is another thing to bring up with where you decide to get your machine; see if they have a trade-in policy.

I have only gone over a small fraction of embroidery machine capabilities, but this should help you get started.  Way more to come!