When the time comes and you have made the decision that this is the career for you, then it's time to plan for professional equipment. If you want to command professional prices, then you need professional equipment to do it.
I know a story of one designer who refused to work with a workroom because its owner did not have industrial sewing machines. Today's customers are more educated and realize that if you don't have professional and efficient equipment, it will take you much longer to produce the products. Not only will you have to charge more for that extra time, but the quality may not be quite as good as it could be.
Presently, there is a distinct shortage of workrooms. As a result, most workrooms have more work than they can handle and are working many long hours in an attempt to keep up. Many are unsuccessfully looking for employees. Before you decide additional employees are the answer to your backlog, evaluate the investment and the pay back for all the efficient equipment you can find versus hiring additional help. Over the long term, the cost of equipment will be paid back and then pure profit will be generated. This money will more than offset the ongoing training and retention investment for employees.
The following are what I consider the very basics for a custom workroom business. There is other equipment available, especially for pinch pleat production, but it generally is not a first consideration as most small, beginning workrooms do not have the space for too much equipment. Once you get into the business and have determined the volume of your output and which products, if any, you will focus on, then it is time to investigate the specialized equipment.
Working at the table is where you probably will spend most of your production time. Having the right table is very important. The minimum size you should have is five feet by 10 to 12 feet because most fabric is 60 inches wide and there can never be a table that is too long! If you don't have room for a table this size, perhaps you could add drop leaves that you could raise only when needed.
Invest in Cheryl Strickland's video, "Building the Professional Workroom Table" ( 473-9942; www.professionaldrapery.com) and you will see that you can actually build it yourself. The table must have a pinnable surface sauch as R-board on top of the plywood. Covering that should be special dense padding with a canvas cover. (These products are available from Rowley Co.) Then you need to grid the top of the table in one-inch squares being sure your grid is exactly square to the table.
The correct worktable should be your first investment. There are two major reasons for this:
1. Efficiency. Having a proper table and learning how to use it efficiently will dramatically increase your output.
2. Ergonomics. This means being kind to your back! I have heard of folks working with fabric spread out on the floor. Believe me, you can create severe physical problems by working on the floor or working on a table that is too low. I know, I once cut out a pattern on the floor and then spent four weeks recuperating flat on my back!
If you are going to make window treatment fabrication your long-term career, then you need to do whatever you have to do to obtain and use the correct table! The height of the table should be elbow height to no more than four inches below elbow height. The closer the table is to elbow height the better it is for your backbut you still need to be able to reach the middle of the 60-inch-wide table.
BASIC SEWING MACHINES
Industrial sewing machines are necessary. They are built to be more efficient and are many times faster than home machines. They also are built to last forever, which is why a good used industrial sewing machine works just as well as a new machine at maybe half the price.
Which type of machine you get first depends upon what home sewing machines you may have already and what your product mix is. Generally, the procedure that is repeated most often or the one that is costing you the most time (e.g. hand hemming) is where you need to make yourself the most efficient! Invest in the most efficient machines available for that procedure.
Here are the very basic machines required for a custom workroom. There are other specialty machines you may want to add later.
Straight stitch sewing machine: This is the most versatile. Not only is it fast but you can get many different feet for it: cording, zipper, hemming, gathering, and many other specialty feet.
Serger: This machine cuts off the selvage and seams the widths together. It also can be used to finish raw edges. It is faster and causes less pucker problems than the straight stitch machine. In addition, a serged seam looks so much nicer and more professional on an unlined drapery or sheer than a French seam.
There are three-, four- and five-thread models available. A three-thread serger is not adequate. I recommend the four-thread, but if you get a better price on a five-thread, then it would be fine.
Blindstitch machine: This machine has a curved needle and can hem much faster than using even an industrial straight stitch machine. However, if you are not regularly hemming, especially drapery panels, this machine probably should be purchased after obtaining the others.
IN THE OFFICE
As much as you would prefer to spend all your time at the sewing machine, there are office tasks that must be done. Most people do not like doing the paperwork so what better investment could there be than that which will make it easier and reduce your time doing it?
Personal computer: As we go into the new millennium, it has become just as essential for workrooms to invest in a good computer with an Internet connection as it is in good sewing equipment. In fact, I am torn as to whether to recommend a computer or the basic sewing machines first.
I have read firsthand the testimonies of many members of e-mail lists and forums on the Internet who have proclaimed how much time, expense and personal frustration their participation on the Internet has saved them. Twenty-five years ago trial and error was the only way to learn and, as you probably know, the time spent on this method can be enormous. Internet resources have probably reduced this mode of education by about 80 to 90 percent.
Even if a computer is not one of your first purchases, it is an investment you must make very soon if you want to run a professional business and be competitive in the marketplace. The longer you put off this purchase the more catching up you will have to do to learn what you need to know to survive with this technology.
Accounting software: Before you invest in any software program, be prepared to invest a great deal of time up front to learn how to use it. The time you save later will more than pay for the time you take to learn first. This is true for any software.
It is amazing how much time a good accounting program can save you in generating invoices, payroll, reports, mailing labels, etc. Not only that, it will make it easy to stay on top of your business progress and goals. Just the time saved each year at tax time is almost enough to make it worth the investment!
Estimating software: There now are programs that allow you to input your own calculation formulas and pricing. They can quickly generate estimates and work orders saving you valuable time that could be spent elsewhere. It will take a hefty initial investment in time to key in all your specific information and to learn how to use the programs, but in the end the time-saving reward will be well worth it. (There are several computer software suppliers listed in D&WC's annual Directory & Buyer's Guide and on-line at: www.DWCdesigNET.com).
Fax capability: Faxing has become an essential tool to communicate accurately and quickly with your clients and vendors. You can buy either a fax machine (plain paper, preferably) or software to allow you to fax directly from your computer. There also are machines that can fax, photocopy and print from your computer. The photocopy feature is certainly a nice advantage to fax machines.
It is very difficult to put equipment in a precise order of priority as each business has it's own unique needs. You need to evaluate your business and determine how much help you need in the how-to-fabricate arena and where you are spending most of your time in production.
Start by working on the areas where equipment could save you the most time. You also might consider making a major investment and purchase several machines at one time. Loans, leasing and second mortgages are financing possibilities. The sooner you increase your efficiency, the greater will be your productivity and income!
Kitty Stein, WCAA, is a 20-year veteran of the drapery workroom field, having owned and operated her own business for 18 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.