The first thought most workrooms have is to hire help. In many cases, this is a good and necessary decision. However, there are times when the workroom owner really doesn't want to take on the additional responsibility of adding employees. Unfortunately, many others add employees thinking it is cheaper in the long run than adding equipment. But is it really?
If you hire an employee who costs you $7 per hour including Federal Insurance Corp. of America (FICA) tax, workman's compensation, etc., in a year's time that employee will cost $14,000. Presuming the new employee does a great job and you give him or her a raise, the employee will make more the second year. So in two years, that person has cost you more than $28,000! And you thought spending $10,000 once for a machine was too much?
Even for a one-person workroom that wants to stay that way, purchasing multi-thousand dollar equipment may be a wise decision. The key here is to think through and plan the frequency of use and the versatility of the desired equipment. If the equipment can at least increase your output enough to cover its cost, then once it's paid for that's pure profit!
Style and Efficiency
When you get involved with equipment beyond sewing machines, you will find many different ways to get where you're going. It may be possible to perform one function by using a half dozen different machines with varying degrees of efficiency, which is generally directly related to the price. The more you want the machine to do and the faster you want it done, the more you will have to pay.
Remember, your time is valuable. Consider how much of your time will be saved by a machine to be spent in another area of the workroom where you would be increasing production.
Inspection, Measuring, Cutting Equipment
If you have ever had to unroll a 25-yard-plus bolt of fabric, and then reroll it by hand (and maybe even do it by yourself), then you know how much of your time has been lost. If you have ever unrolled a fabric you've had for a few weeks only to discover unusable flaws that necessitated returning the fabric and missing your customer's deadline, you know how seriously your relations with that customer were hurt. If you ever have had a job come back because of flaws in the fabric that you couldn't see because you didn't have a light to run the fabric over for inspection, you know the serious blow it was to your reputation and the dollar cost to you to replace the fabric and the labor.
For these reasons, I believe an inspection machine is an invaluable asset to the drapery workroom. Most inspection machines do double- or triple-duty. They can be used to measure the fabric accurately as well as to cut the fabric.
Just think how much time you could save if the machine could measure and roll fabric and tell you the measurements between flaws. You could quickly determine if there is enough fabric for you to cut around the flaws. Instead of pulling out all the fabric and pin marking -- sometimes over and over again if you have several different lengths -- you could spend just a few minutes mathematically calculating cuts. Then, if the yardage is good, you could cut quickly because the machine would keep the fabric straight. Wouldn't it be nice not to have to physically pull the fabric and spread yourself over the table to straighten it out to cut it? There are machines to do these things, and some even come with a stacker so you wouldn't have to fold the fabric!
There are several companies that manufacture and sell inspection and cutting machines. One of the prettiest machines is the Fabric-Master Re-roller made by Bookhaven Enterprises, Inc., Cumming, GA. It is made of maple and has an optional horizontal light surface. A nice feature of this machine is that the cradle for the fabric is low, so it's easier to lift bolts of fabric onto it.
Press a foot control to start the re-roller. When the desired yardage is reached, run your scissors on the track for cutting. This machine is extremely useful in fabric stores for measuring and rolling yardage for the customer to take home.
Just this year, Morgan Mfg. & Engineering Co., Inc., Jefferson, IN, introduced it's Lil Drapery Mate, a portable inspection, measuring and cutting machine. Two people can lift it onto the worktable for use and then set it on the floor in a corner when not needed. It has a vertically slanted inspection light positioned in front of the operator making it easy to view the fabric and a holding bar to hold the fabric neatly as the cuts are made. A hand motor easily attaches to the roller you want to activate for forward or reverse rolling.
Also available is an electric knife for cutting, which is much easier on the hands than scissors and much faster as well. Programming cut lengths is done on the computer control situated at eye level on the front of the machine. The company offers several models that increase in price according to the increase in efficiency and the amount of productivity needed.
Another company that manufactures several cutting machines is Creative Engineering & Mfg. Corp., Crestwood, KY. Its most popular cutting machine is the Junior Cutting Machine. It is air-operated and completely motorized. A flick of the switch will roll or reroll the fabric.
It also has a slanted vertical lighted inspection surface and comes equipped with an electric rotary knife, a computer to pre-program cuts, a stacking bar and a bin to hold the fabric cuts off the floor. With this machine, it also is possible to slit your widths in half vertically very quickly using the electric knife.
On the higher end of the scale is the Short Cut cutting system (not an inspection or measuring machine) made by Merlin Machine Co., Catawissa, PA. This machine is definitely for very high-volume companies.
The main part of the machine rides up and down the table. The operator moves the mechanism to the end of the table where it grabs the cloth. The operator then moves it to the desired length. With a flick of a button, the fabric is cut from the bolt as it is released at the other end. Just to give you an idea of the speed of this machine, 10 60-inch lengths can be cut in a minute! This is only one of many high volume machines available.
I have mentioned some of the companies most familiar to our industry, but many more companies manufacture a range of inspection, measuring and cutting machines. As you shop for one of these machines, some questions you should ask include: How accurate is the cut? (Be sure your idea of perfectly accurate is the same as theirs.) How accurate do you believe your cuts have to be? What are the add-on options? How do you cut 118-inch widths?
Anyone who decides to make draperies for a living learns quickly that you must be able to lift and move many yards of fabric at a time. If you are seaming long panels, you must keep pushing that bulk of fabric past the machine as it sews, then bring it all back to seam another width. This constant manipulating and pulling on the fabric is hard on the body and is quickly fatiguing. If you have to sew long, heavy panels frequently throughout the day, you may want to investigate moving tables.
The Sewveyor is a conveyor-belt-style table manufactured by Creative Engineering. It can be attached to an existing serger or blindstitch machine and powered by the sewing machine motor. In order to operate this belt properly, the operator must sit at an angle to the belt and the machine head.
The Synchronized Joining Table made by Merlin Machine Co. and the Puckerless Joiner made by Morgan Manufacturing & Engineering are larger moving tables similar to each other in design. The moving tables are attached to sergers and move in sync with the serger's speed. The operator must stand to operate the machine and the whole table moves forward and back. (By the way, generally, it is much easier on your body and less fatiguing to stand rather than sit to operate a machine.) That means you would need a fairly large area to accommodate this type of system.
The inspection, measuring and cutting machines and the moving tables are generic equipment that probably could be used no matter what products you sew. Evaluate your needs carefully for the present and the future before shopping for these machines.
As you shop, here are a few specific questions you should ask: What volume of production can you expect in your type of operation? Is it electric or air-operated? Air is much more powerful than electricity, but you would have the additional expense of an air compressor and air lines. Will neighbors mind the compressor noise? Is it 220 volts or 110 volts? If a computer is involved, what is the turnaround time for repair? Can the basic machine be repaired easily by you or local machinists? If it must be repaired by the manufacturer, what is the turnaround time? Does the price include the company delivering the machine, setting it up and training you on it? If not, will they do it? And what's the charge for it? What is the warranty on it? What exactly does it cover? Is customer satisfaction guaranteed? (This is probably one of the most important questions you need to ask.)
You also should talk with past customers of the company to determine realistic rates of production of the equipment and customer satisfaction.
Next month, I will discuss pleat markers and tablers, which generally are thought to be used just for drapery panel production. This assumption is not necessarily true. These machines may not be as cost prohibitive as you might think, and there is quite a selection of each from which to choose. Planning and careful evaluation of your current production time, your current volume of work and your anticipated volume in the next five years are what is needed to make a wise investment in any equipment.
A special thanks to the following companies for supplying information for this article.
Brookhaven Enterprises, Inc., (770) 887-8850
Creative Engineering & Mfg. Corp., (800) 626-5388
Merlin Machine Co., (717) 356-7718
Morgan Mfg. & Engineering Co., Inc., (800) 372-7379
Kitty Stein is a 20-year veteran of the drapery workroom field, having owned and operated her own business for 16 years and having taught classes on window treatment construction. Until 1990, Stein and a partner owned a workroom with nine employees. She since has opened her own smaller workroom, Workroom Concepts, that has just one employee. She also does workroom consulting, seminar speaking and is the author of Order in the Workroom available through Draperies & Window Coverings.