Lost in the Rhythm of Machines
A day in the life of an embroidery machine operator
The drone of mechanical tapping fills the back work room. Needle number nine of the Tajima embroidery machine embroiders the neck of a goose caricature on the front of a hat in 853 light brown, going at fifty stitches per minute. In between color changes the local radio talk show filters in from the stereo propped up on a shelf. The hosts end their morning segment before I press the green go button after the machine moves to needle four and begins tapping out the name of the shop the hats are for in a light silver (150).
It’s nearing 10am and there’s a small kick against my belly. My little one is always quite active when I get to work. It’s like the hum of the machines awake him from his slumber, and either he’s happy about the noise or his kicks and movements are evidence of his displeasure.
It was my day to open shop. I arrived at 8:50am and wove through the maze of dry-cleaning machinery and bagged clothing before clocking in. I traveled back through the maze before arriving at our shops double wooden doors and unlock them before going inside. Opening is comprised of a bunch of walking around and flipping on light switches and turning on the radios to the local radio station, whose headquarters are just a couple of blocks down main street. Once everything is ready I always head back to the work room to turn on the embroidery machines and begin the rhythm of the workday. My co-worker, the manager, arrives a couple of minutes later and we greet each other before she heads up front to check e-mails and get lost in her own rhythm.
Once the shop name embroiders out, I notice an error in the written color instructions as the machine settles on needle two, 1335, which is a dark rusty shade of orange. The problem is that the hats currently getting embroidered are already orange. My boss suddenly walks to the back, I quickly ask for her opinion on the colors.
“Let’s go with the green,” she says with a smile. “Don’t you think that’ll look nice?”
I nod my head before she confirms and takes off into connected small dry-cleaning business she owns with her husband.
I bring out a binder of instructions for manual color changes with the Tajima and go through the motions of changing the color before it settles onto the apple green color that was used for the goose’s hair. I press the green go button and the machine finishes up the hat design.
Tucked in between a dry-cleaning business and insurance company is where I work. It’s an embroidery shop in town that also dons a large help wanted sign like many other small businesses in the area. The shop provides embroidery ranging from corporate logos to personal logos and customized embroidery for customers that walk in. The shop also provides a sample size collection of corporate and culinary apparel, lab coats as well as scrubs and a thousand hats at the entrance and countless promo items tucked into my boss’s office.
I had been nervous walking in for the first time in March 2019. I had just moved with my husband (then just boyfriend) to Wisconsin from North Carolina a week before. Originally, I had wanted to transfer to another retail chain that I worked at in NC. The place was a forty-minute drive from where we were living, but that quickly changed as I realized that I, fresh from mild winter tempered North Carolina, did not know how to navigate a car in the snow that well compared to Midwesterners. It had snowed several times since arriving and it was intimidating even watching my boyfriend drive his Jeep around.
Despite interviewing for another store in the same area as soon as I got to Wisconsin, I had no luck. But after sending an email to the small embroidery shop, they confirmed they were still hiring. A woman with shoulder length curly brown hair greeted me with a bright smile when I came in and asked for an application. I sat down and filled it out before going back to the counter. One of the ladies at a large mint green colored machine– that I now know as the Tajima 6-head embroidery machine, alerted the manager that I was finished. The same curly haired woman as before came out and took my application.
I didn’t hear back from them.
A couple of months later after I completely butchered a state interview in front of a panel of three interviewers at a prison in a nearby town, I felt like I was never going to get a job. That same evening, I received a call back from the manager and got an interview scheduled. Long story short, I got the position the same day as the interview. The boss was impressed with me having hand embroidery experience from getting my bachelor’s degree, which sort of connected to the position. I found it all exciting because I had never seen an embroidery machine up close.
It had taken me six months to score a job since moving.
It took me a year and a half to feel comfortable enough to run the Tajima without bringing out the instruction the manual and even then, I still sometimes do check it for such things as manual color change because it’s so easy to get something wrong and mess up the machine. It’s a beast of a machine, she’s ancient (meaning she only takes designs saved on floppy disks) and my coworkers dubbed her as Bertha. She can be sassy at times and downright scary which becomes a problem when a head starts bunching bobbin thread or continuously breaking needles. Out of the 6 heads, I currently run 2-3 just to be safe because they run the best.
Around 10:30 I switch to the three single head Amaya’s that are against the back wall. Unlike the Tajima, they run from a computer and since they’re individual machines, each one can do a different design. Each head sports 16 different color spools and the needle speed can go up to 1100 stitches per minute which is way faster than the Tajima. They’re easygoing machines in comparison and stop when there’s a thread break or another error, unlike the Tajima. Which with the Tajima if you’re not paying attention to each head, one can go the entire time with a thread break and half of the design doesn’t sew out unlike the rest (in that case it can be fixed on the next run or you can use the Amaya’s to fix the error but it’s still quite frustrating to look over and half the design didn’t sew out). The Amaya's mechanical drone and beeping are still loud, but tolerable.
We provide embroidery for a range of businesses around town as well as the state, from large factories, the local police and fire departments, to other small businesses and restaurants and even a few places out of state. We embroider scrubs for nursing students at the local university and create and embroider designs for personal orders for people who walk in with backpacks, t-shirts, leather items, etc. My boss personally hand delivers a lot of our corporate orders by hand to businesses around also. What I’ve realized is that we are an integral business to the town, by providing embroidery that would otherwise be outsourced from other places. I personally feel extremely blessed to have gotten this job and have learned the processes to become proficient with using and maintaining the embroidery machines, which was something I honestly never thought I would get down.
I’ve been at my job for a little over two years now. I’ve seen some cool stuff embroidered out for businesses and customers wanting personal designs. I’ve also done 100+ piece orders by myself as we have limited help. When I first began there were six of us, then the older workers retired and then it was just three of us working there with our boss. Recently it has been two of us and has been difficult, so our boss managed to get a lady that used to work for her to help trim orders.
One of the things that is cool is that over the months you begin to recognize repeat customers who count on you for your great business. Many people also stop by from far away towns because of our reputation knowing that we do a good job. The customer service aspect of the job has been quite nice as well as you get to know people on a more intimate level than surface compared to big retail. One of the best moments is when a customer picks up their orders and are so happy with the outcome. It makes me feel like I've done my job well and I love seeing a smile on customers faces. But I must be honest and admit that I like working in the back because I don't have to interact with customers too often and just get lost in my own little world of repeat motions.
I work through the pattern of routine with the Amaya’s, grabbing each order from our back shelves, reading the paperwork and then hooping each garment into an embroidery frame. Then I go to the computer after making sure the thread colors are on the machine and plug the design into the embroidery program. I make sure the design is correct with the correct color list before sliding the hooped garment onto the machine and lining up the middle of the design with the red laser light. I grab the design template off and press the green button, the machine comes to life going to the correct color number before it begins to embroider. This happens over and over for hours with several orders. I usually grab a snack from my lunch bag around 11am and around 12:30 or 1pm in order to prevent nausea, which I’ve learned the hard way through my confusing first trimester. My coworker usually takes her lunch break around 1pm and then I have to take phone calls and customers that walk in if there are any.
Usually there’s not really any phone calls or customers during this time which is a plus since I'm not really a people person, so I work peacefully and then finally take my own “lunch” break around 2:15pm. I usually go to the back where we have a microwave and seating area in a corner and read articles on my phone while eating. This particular day I munch on chicken salad that’s in between a croissant as I go through posts of other fellow pregnant women on a subreddit. The thirty minute break always ends too soon and then I have to get back into it and continue on orders.
I’m back on the Tajima after break with more hats getting several different goose designs on them. It’s a long process of sorting through colors, changing the colors on the machine, getting the design programmed onto the machine, the hats all hooped, then the colors put in the machine and design lined up to the center before beginning. I sit and watch the machines run, stopping it if a thread breaks or comes out of the needle. I only get about four or so hats done before it’s already nearing 5pm. My manager has already began the closing procedures and I tidy up my work area before turning off the machines and lights to the back/break area and turn off the stereo in mid play of Ed Sheeran's Bad Habits which then shrouds the room in silence. Sometimes there’s the faint jingle of coins from the front where my coworker counts the money in the register, or sound of the printer printing off the daily sales total. I tell her goodbye before walking through the wooden double doors and through the dry cleaning maze which is all dark as those workers are gone home for the day. I clock out and exit through the front of the laundromat area and walk to my car in the far parking area. I sigh as I get inside. Another successful work day is over.