If you plan to increase volume appreciably, and if you can afford the payments with your current volume of business, go for what you will need in five to 10 years. There are two benefits to doing that: 1) You and your employees will have to learn to operate only one machine, not two (the intermediate machine and the larger one you'll eventually need). There's a learning curve, lots of short cuts and maybe even multiple uses you can discover only by using a piece of equipment. 2) You will benefit from the increased efficiency of the larger equipment long before you actually need it -- it even might accelerate your growth.
On the other hand, maybe you want to remain a one-person workroom, or at maximum a two-person workroom. You are physically able to produce only so much and that definitely limits your income potential. But by adding the right equipment, you can increase your output and income -- sometimes dramatically -- and yet remain small.
Many workrooms shy away from making pinch pleat draperies for several reasons. The first reason I hear is that they can't be produced profitably, therefore these jobs are farmed out. Undoubtedly, you never will make the profit margin on draperies that you can on fancy top treatments. That's a given.
However, more than once I have heard designers say they will not work with a workroom that does not do all of its fabrication in-house. As a wholesale workroom, if you flat-out refuse to take orders for draperies, it places an extra burden on the designer who then must take part of the job someplace else. The designer may decide it's not worth the trouble of dealing with two workrooms.
You can make a profit on draperies if you have the right equipment. You can get attachments for a straight-stitch machine that can be used for sewing buckram and straight pleats. Buying attachments would be far less expensive than buying a pleat sewing machine, although the pleat sewing machine would be far more efficient at doing the job. Of course, there also are pleat marking machines and tabling equipment that can greatly reduce your production time as well, and with these machines you also will reduce stress -- both mental and physical.
Pleat Marking Machines
Doing the math required to calculate pleats is quite a challenge to some people, and many will say it's the reason they don't fabricate pinch pleats. In many workrooms, the owner is the only one who has the knowledge and, therefore, is the only one who mark pleats. If there are several employees in these businesses, this is not an efficient use of the owners' time. Several types of pleat marking equipment are available to make it quite easy to train anyone to mark pleats.
All the pleat marking systems have a few things in common. First, they all come with charts to tell you space sizes and number of widths. That alone is an invaluable tool. They also use either disappearing ink pens or fluorescent ink pens/pencils/chalk only visible under a black light. If you are using the disappearing ink, you should pre-check it on the fabric to be sure it will disappear. You also must have a black light over your marking area as well as over the machines you will use to sew pleats.
The real beauty of these systems is that with minimal to no math you are able to locate seams right beside pleats where they will be practically invisible!
At one end of the pleat marking scale is a system that is not even a machine. It's the Drapery Pleating System by R.H. Rowley Co. For under $100, you get the device, a workroom form pad and a calculator to tell you the number of pleats, space size and the number of widths. The one thing this system does that other systems don't is make all pleats in all widths in a panel the same size. This is accomplished by trimming fabric off one of the outside widths.
While doing this certainly accomplishes the goal, don't be afraid of the other systems in which the pleats vary in size from width to width. This difference in the pleats usually is minimal, and only a very trained eye can discern the difference once pleated. In fact, if you don't want to trim fabric off the panel, you can still use the Rowley system and have the pleats vary in size from width to width.
The next step on the scale gets into the hundreds of dollars price range. You may want to shop P-D Products LLC or Morantz Inc. for these pleat markers that are a bit more efficient. Both are lightweight and portable. They could be mounted from the ceiling on a pulley system or on the side of your table to drop down out of the way when not in use.
Both systems have individual space markers calibrated in inches and made to mark five pleats to the width (48-inch wide fabric), but with very little trouble they will mark six pleats to the width (54-inch wide fabric). Marking railroaded fabric merely requires you to divide the panel into width-size segments.
With the Super Speed-O-Pleat by P-D Products, using the space size from the chart provided, each space marker is set to the appropriate size and the spaces are marked on the panel with disappearing ink. The Morantz Pleater Gauge comes with an adjustable holder for a pair of fluorescent pencils. After the pencils are adjusted to the space size on the provided chart, the panel is marked by centering in each space block.
One nice thing about the systems already mentioned is that they also can be used to evenly space grommets, buttons, tabs or anything else that needs to be evenly spaced, and they do it without measuring each one.
From here, the next range is into the thousands of dollars. At the least expensive end is the MP Pleat & Fold machine by Morgan Mfg. & Engineering Co., Inc. This machine is very similar to the previous two machines, but it also marks for folding the pleats.
On the higher range end of the scale, Morgan and Creative Engineering & Mfg. Corp. have free-standing pleat markers that operate with air pressure. Of course, these are far more efficient. The space size is set into the machines, which automatically adjusts the fluorescent ink pens. Then all the pens come down at the same time to mark the panel instead of the operator individually marking the spaces.
Of course there are even higher-end pleat marking machines for factory situations. One made by Merlin Machine Co. can be manned on both sides to mark twice as many panels at the same time. This machine is 20 feet long and can mark 50 pleats. Two people working on this machine could mark 2,000 widths a day!
With the wide price range available for pleat markers, any workroom doing pinch pleats (from one pair a week on up) should have one.
Measuring panels to length is one of the most critical procedures in fabricating draperies and, again, there are a variety of machines available for this process.
In the hundreds of dollars range, there is the Sizemaster and Super Sizemaster by P-D Products. These are portable bars with clamps that stretch across the table to hold fabric in place while you mark the length. The Super Sizemaster will tighten and release all the clamps at the same time. This means you do not have to run around the table to release the other side. Either machine is available to fit tables up to 12 feet wide.
In the few thousands of dollars range is the Morantz Upright Tabler. This machine comes in two models. One is manual, the other is motorized. The pleated and unhemmed drapery panel is attached to the upper bar on very strong pins and the bar is cranked to the top of the frame. The lower bar is cranked to the finished length using measuring tapes on either side of the frame. The hem line is marked against the bar with fluorescent crayon. With this system there is no extra fabric to be trimmed as the panels are cut exact in the beginning.
The non-motorized machine requires no electricity or air pressure and can be custom built to any width. However, the big challenge is that it must be 10 feet tall. It can be custom-made taller, but shorter dramatically reduces its efficiency.
In the higher dollar range is the Vertical Tabler by Creative Engineering. This machine is air-operated and has a computer. After mounting the panel with the header on the top bar, the finished length is programmed into the computer. With a push of a button, the bar takes the panel up to the desired height. (You may have to jog it a little to get perfection.) The combination knife and marker automatically cuts off excess fabric and applies fluorescent ink on the hem line.
The photograph also shows the extra bar on the Vertical Tabler for working with top treatments. The upright tablers can be used to measure length for any kind of panel you can pin or clamp to them: rod pocket draperies, bedspreads, shades and anything else you can think of. Besides enabling you to give draperies a final inspection while actually hanging, vertical tablers also allow you to inspect top treatments with floor length jabots! And they provide a great way to pre-hang Roman and balloon shades to be sure they go up and down straight.
The next step up is slant tables. Morgan Mfg., Creative Engineering and Merlin Machine all have slant tables that are air-operated and come with a computer. These machines take up more floor space than the upright tables, but they can fit into areas with eight-foot ceilings. You even can set up sewing machine work stations under the highest portion of some of these tables so you don't lose that much floor space.
With all these systems, the bottom hems are put into the panels first. The panel is clamped to the table and taken to the top. At the bottom, fabric is automatically trimmed with an electric knife and self-adhesive buckram is applied. Headings are easily finished off and ready for pleating. Two people using the Merlin slant table can table a pair of three-width lined drapery with buckram in the headers in less than four minutes. The portable Morgan pleat marking machine can be used right on the slant table to mark pleats without having to move the panel to another location. What a great time-saver!
Obviously the tablers are very efficient time-wise, but one of their biggest assets is they are so much easier on the operator's back. Not having to bend over a table to work with large panels greatly reduces fatigue and back problems.
As you shop for equipment, here are some additional thoughts to keep in mind: How much space can you allow for new equipment. It's a good idea to have a scaled floor plan. With a little rearranging, you might get more space than you thought. Ask about the versatility of the equipment. Can you use it for other things than for what it is intended? What is the equipment's rate of productivity? With your current and anticipated volume, how soon would it pay for itself? Will it eliminate the need for hiring an employee? Do your own research to determine customer satisfaction with the companies you are investigating. A good place to do this is through networking at trade shows and on the Internet.
All the equipment discussed in this two-part article is designed for efficiency, i.e. saving time. The intent of these articles is to let you know the equipment that is available and to help you think a little bigger in terms of your production ability. As a workroom, you sell time. The more you can produce within your production time frame, the more valuable and profitable will be your time.
Yes, it is scary to assume a loan for several thousand dollars or even to commit to a lease agreement, but this is how successful businesses not only stay successful, but become more successful and more profitable!
A special thanks to the following companies for supplying information for this article:
Creative Engineering & Mfg. Corp., (800) 626-5388
Merlin Machine Co., (717) 356-7718
Morantz, Inc., (215) 969-0266
Morgan Mfg. & Engineering Co., Inc., (800) DRAPERY
P-D Products LLC, (517) 369-9037
R.H. Rowley Co., (800) 343-4542