The Evolution of Embroidery from 1828 to 2023

digitizing board, jacquard tape

Join Erik Mickelson, a seasoned embroidery expert of 26 years at Northwest Custom Apparel, as he takes you on a journey through the rich history of embroidery. This blog will provide a concise overview of the evolution of this craft, from its early beginnings in the 1800s to the present day in 2023, showcasing how it has blended art with technology over the years.

In 1828, Josua Heilman invented the first hand-loom embroidery machine, which began a long journey of innovation and creativity in embroidery. Each milestone in its timeline has brought significant progress, transforming embroidery from handmade precision to digital excellence while retaining its artistic flair.

This blog will inspire you with the visionary individuals and milestones that have helped to weave embroidery into the fabric of our lives, making it a dynamic and ever-evolving art form. Join us on this enlightening journey through the colorful world of embroidery.


Joshua Heilman invented the first hand-loom embroidery machine. It was constructed by Koechlin of Mulhouse and sold to Houldsworth in Manchester, England, a year later.


Isaak Groebli, a Swiss Jacquard weaver, became interested in combining hand-loom technology with existing sewing machine technology. He aimed to develop a machine that uses a continuous thread from a spool, and to achieve this, he decided to incorporate the lock stitch technology. The use of the lock stitch technology completely revolutionized machine embroidery.


Mr. M. Wehrli from St. Gallen, Switzerland, supported the development of Grocbli’s first experimental machine. The schiffli machine, which means “small boat” in the Swiss-German dialect, has 24 needles, but only one works correctly. Mr. Reiter, a machine maker from Winterthur, took over the development of the schiffli.


Swiss Jacquard weaver Isaak Groebli became interested in combining hand-loom technology with existing sewing machine (or lock stitch) technology in a single machine. He aims to develop a machine that uses a continuous thread from a spool. The use of the lock stitch will completely revolutionize machine embroidery.


Schnoor and Steinhouser in Plason, Germany, developed a hand-loom machine resembling Rimmeyer’s. The firm was successful and sold 2,325 units by 1882. Other companies that later became prominent in hand-loom manufacturing include Martini and Tanner and Adolph Saurer Co.


Kursheedt Company of New York imported 12 hand-loom embroidery machines into the United States, with Jacob Klaus accompanying as the machinist.


We have taken the first orders for exporting Schiffli machines. The Kursheedt Company has ordered 18 machines, and Arnold Groebli, Isaak’s son, accompanies the shipment as the machinist. Also, Kursheedt has purchased the patent rights for the U.S.


Saurer & Sons in Arbon, Switzerland, began building a Schiffli model.

Another schiffli maker enters the market. Vogelandiacher Machine Works A.G.E., also known as Vomag. Vomag will soon be considered the leader in Schiffli technology.


The first mechanical Schiffli automaton operates in New York, although no punching system will be available for six years.

The early 1900s

Robison Textile Co. has opened in New Jersey, producing and selling rayon yarn to the schiffli industry.


From 1890 to 1906, the schiffli industry experienced significant growth in the United States. During this period, entrepreneurs established 143 factories, which operated 616 machines. In contrast, Switzerland was using 6,000 schiffli machines at that time. The U.S. schiffli industry thrived mostly in Hudson County, New Jersey, due to its proximity to the industry in New York. Moreover, Plauen and Saurer introduced 10-yard schiffli machines.


Vomag’s chief engineer, Robert Zahn, invents a mechanical automaton that surpasses existing models on the market.


The United States embroidery industry has experienced significant growth and currently encompasses 241 Schiffli factories that operate 1,013 machines and employ 5,900 individuals. Moreover, 248 hand-loom factories utilize 1,159 hand looms and provide jobs for 2,500 workers. Singer Sewing Machine Co. has advertised a pantograph-driven multi-head embroidery machine with six heads. However, the company discontinued the production of this machine in the late 1930s.


In Freiburg, Germany, Rudolf Schmidt and his partner founded Burkhardt & Schmidt, a company that produces sewing and embroidery threads. Later, this firm would become known as Madeira Garnfabrik.


Fashion designers use much embroidery, resulting in a high demand for Schiffli embroiderers. They create complex designs, such as the “Spanish shawl.”


In Connecticut, Dominick Golia established New Haven Embroidery, a contract embroidery operation that would eventually become Ultramatic Embroidery Machine Co.


Mr. Wurker, from Dresden, Germany, commissioned an engineer to design and build a card-reading automation for sewing machines. The result was a multi-head machine with a small mechanical automation. The prototype had only one head, but soon a 3-head model became the standard. Eventually, by 1940, 3,000 3-head Wurkers were in use.


Paul Gunold founded a business in Plauen, Germany, which provided designs and punch cards for embroidery in the city known for laces and embroidery.


E.B. Meister and his brothers from Cleveland, Ohio, invented the Meistergram, a pantograph-driven machine that produces monograms with a hand-stitched look.


Geoffrey E. Macpherson establishes Geoffrey E. Macpherson Ltd. in Nottingham, England, to sell yarn and fiber.


In 1941, the Schiffli Lace and Embroidery Manufacturers Association Inc. was established in the United States by the non-profit organization formerly the Embroidery Bureau Inc.


The embroidery industry thrived during World War II due to increased demand for emblems made by U.S. schiffli machines.


Embroidery workers in the U.S. earned low wages, with watchers only making 19 cents per hour in 1942. By 1946, experienced watchers earned $1.50 per hour.


Harry Hirsch from New York established Albihirsh International, a company that sells knitting and finishing equipment.


Paul Gunold and his family left war-torn Plauen for West Germany in late April. Three weeks later, Gunold was producing designs from his new shop in Stockstadt.


Erick Gross modeled the first mechanical multi-head in the U.S. after the Wur-ker machine.


Embroiderer Lenny LaVeghet-ta creates an electric thread watcher that uses a bell or light to notify workers of any thread breaks.


Zangs begins manufacturing mechanical multi-head machines.

Mid 1950s

The Textile Workers of America successfully organized embroidery factories, achieving an 80% representation level. However, over the next 20 years, representation would fall to less than 50%.

The Schiffli plants have started to migrate towards the southern states, such as Carolinas and Georgia. They are establishing their headquarters there.

After the war, multi-head technology saw significant advancements, with the Wurker serving as a basis. German firms Markscheffel Co. (Mar-co) in Hamburg and Zangs Co. in Krefeld were among the first to introduce new models at European exhibitions in 1952 and 1953. Zangs and Marco were the primary multi-head suppliers to Japan.

Erick Gross Embroidery Automat Inc. in Bergenfield, NJ, manufactures multi-heads in the U.S.


Erick Gross invented the jump-stitch device to move the frame and prevent the needle from penetrating the fabric. However, he would abandon the invention a few years later.

Mid 1960s

In Germany, Paul Gunold’s son, Heinz, founded Stickma, a firm that marketed embroidery threads and other supplies.


The Tokai Industrial Sewing Machine Co. of Tokai, Japan, has begun manufacturing Tajima automatic multi-head machines.

The late 1960s

Haggar Bros. has developed a practical color-changing system in Paterson, New Jersey.


The Golia family of New Haven Embroidery became the agents for Germany-based Marco mechanical machines in the United States and Canada.

In Kyoto, Japan, the Eltac Company started manufacturing embroidery machines and was the first to introduce electronically controlled 8-channel tape automats for multi-head machines. However, the company ultimately went bankrupt, and the Happy Machine Company took over the production of machines.

In Tampa, Florida, Sidney O. Beck, a watchmaker at an Air Force base, created the “Tape Monogrammer,” a panto-graph-driven machine that produced precisely embroidered military lettering on name tags.


Barudan introduces its first multi-head embroidery machine. Coleman Schneider publishes “Machine-Made Embroidery.”


Electronics have been incorporated into schiffli machines, paving the way for the next generation of technology.


Bill Childs and Randall Melton founded Meico Industries in Denver and began developing a computerized punching system.


Geoffrey E. Macpherson’s company has started distributing the Baradan machinery line in Barope.


The Golias introduced an electrical, computerized embroidery machine; Average speeds are 300 to 400 stitches per minute. A new division, Ultramatic Embroidery Machine Co., was founded to handle the new product.

The early to mid-1970s

Jeans with embroidered back pockets become one of the hottest fashion trends, simultaneously spurring the public’s acceptance of embroidery, the sale of embroidery machines, and the activity level in the embroidery contractors’ segment.

Mid 1970s

Reportedly, Japan has around 13,000 multi-head machines, most of which are mechanical. There is a competition to create fully-computerized machines.

Mid 1970s

Harry Hirsch started importing Tajima mechanical multi-heads through his company, which he named Hirsch International.


Rudolf Schmidt Jr. became the sole owner and CEO of Burkhardt & Schmidt, the company his father had founded. He incorporated the company under the name Madeira Garnfabrik-Rudolf Schmidt KG. The company expects to welcome Schmidt’s two sons, Michael and Ulrich, as they join the family business soon. Madeira Garnfabrik-Rudolf Schmidt KG plans to expand its operations in the United States, Great Britain, and Singapore.


Neil Macpherson, Geoffrey E. Macpherson’s youngest son, has arrived in the United States to establish a distribution branch for Barudan machinery.


Melco Industries introduced Digitrac, a computerized digitizing system.

Meistergram introduces its first computerized monogramming machine.


Tajima Industries Ltd. introduces the TMBE, its first computerized multi-head model.


Barudan introduces its first computerized multi-head machine.

The mid to late 1970s

Increased competition eventually forced Erick Gross to close his machine manufacturing business.

The late 1970s

Three significant advancements have occurred: automatic trimming, color changing, and the development of electronic reading devices for 8-channel tapes. Moritz. Embroidery Works became the first company to computerize their schiffli machines using the Electrocard, a device produced by Wilcom.


In Sydney, Australia, Canadian Bill Wilson and Australian Robert Pongrass established Wilcom, a firm to develop uni-market computerized digitizing systems.


Melco introduced the first single-head machine, incorporating automatic arcing and stitching in a circle.

Contract embroiderer Jim Yates, who owns Yates Monogram Corp. in Fort Worth and El Paso, Texas, forms the Southwestern Embroidery Design & Equipment Co. with Harry Hirsch of Hirsch International. The firm, known as Sedeco, will distribute embroidery equipment. Yates eventually assumes full ownership of Sedeco.


Gunold + Stickma of America has opened in Atlanta, offering thread and digitizing services. They later expanded their product line to include digitizing equipment, software, and supplies.


To provide better technical services to the U.S. market, Tajima established its Technical Center in New Jersey. 

Ken Paige and his wife, Eva, established Madeira U.S.A., the branch office of the German thread-maker. In about six years, the U.S. office in Laconia, N.H., established branches in Florida and California and expanded its product line to include various other embroidery supplies and tools.

Mid 1980s

Dennis Smith, an employee of Macpherson Inc., developed the first frames for embroidering finished caps.


Macpherson Inc. purchases Meistergram of Cleveland and moves it to Greensboro, N.C.


Barudan has become the first Japanese embroidery machine maker to set up manufacturing facilities in the United States.


The team launched Stitches Magazine in May and mailed around 7,000 issues as a bimonthly publication. However, they decided to increase its frequency and turn it into a monthly publication after publishing only a few issues. Six months later, the magazine hosted its inaugural Embroidery Conference.


Melco introduces its Epicor peripheral system, making it the first firm to offer an embroidery machine computer independent of the sewing head.

Tajima introduces automatic top and bottom trimmers on its cap machine, an option reportedly only available from some other manufacturers then.


Nomura (America) Corp., the manufacturer of Toyota embroidery equipment, has unveiled a new 6-needle peripheral. Accessory Resource Corp. has opened its doors in Denver as a full-line supplier of embroidery materials.

The late 1980s

Pantograms becomes a dealer for Toyota’s computerized embroidery machines.


Barbara J. Behm authored The Business of Computerized Embroidery, the first book to address the business and management aspects of the embroidery industry.

The founders established The Embroidery Trade Association in Gilbert, Arizona, in September. The association offered memberships to embroiderers and other industry personnel in January.

Both Barudan and Tajima announced their plans to open service centers in Moscow.

Saurer Group Holding Inc. of Arbon, Switzerland, acquired a controlling interest in Melco Industries.

Stitches Magazine and the Japan Embroidery Association started an annual exchange of contest winners in the Stitch-Off and the All-Japan Embroidery Contest.

Stitches Magazine sponsored its first Embroidery Conference in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, which embroiderers from four nations attended.


A new book called “From Thought to Thread” has been released by Fred and Wendy Griffiths of Opal Embroidery in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Aisin Seiki Co. Ltd. has launched the first embroidery machine that a Macintosh computer can drive. The machine, PO.E.M. 500, weighs around eight pounds and has a sewing field of 4 inches by 4 inches. The machine is distributed by Toyota/Pantograms in Tampa, Florida.

Affiliated Embroidery Services released the first video training for multi-head machine operation, the Video Embroidery School. It is rumored that the video set will be translated into Spanish a year later by affiliated embroidery.

Melco Industries produces the first U.S.-manufactured embroidery head at its Denver headquarters.

At the I.M.B. show in Cologne, Germany, Gunold + Stickma, a German embroidery machine manufacturer, we presented new single-head and two-head machines for non-U.S. markets.

After a brief absence, the Marco Co. reappears in Europe and the United States on the multi-head scene. However, by the spring of 1992, the company decided not to pursue the project further.

Wilcom and Melco Industries exchange proprietary technology, with Wilcom licensing Melco to use its patented stitch processor technology and Melco licensing Wilcom to use its arc patent and connect directly to Melco machinery.


Wilcom and Mark Steinberg, the owner of Graphic Applications, have merged to form a new company called Graphic Applications.


Erik Mickelson, a second-generation embroiderer, graduated from Washington State University and joined his father, Jim Mickelson, who founded Northwest Embroidery in 1977. Erik started his career as the company’s purchasing clerk at a time when customers had to call or fax their orders in. 


The first order entry system that worked for the embroidery industry, called Shopworks, was developed by Jay Malaga. 


Wireless networking enabled the transmission of digitized designs from a server to an embroidery machine, eliminating the need for floppy disks.


Jeff Hoch, founder of Century 21 Promotions, revolutionized the embroidery digitization industry in China by establishing the first digital office. This move caused a significant reduction in the cost of embroidery digitization, from \$25.00 to \$6.00 per thousand stitches, forcing many domestic digitizing companies to shut down.


Kelly Richardson, owner of Richardson Headwear, purchased new Tajima cap machines from Kris Janowski at the Hirsch company. This acquisition made Richardson Headwear the USA’s largest domestic cap embroidery company.


Northwest Custom Apparel has purchased the first model of Kornit Storm 2 from Hirsch Industries. This technology is a significant breakthrough in the custom apparel industry as it allows printing multicolored designs on a single t-shirt without requiring screens to be burned as in traditional screen printing. 


To increase the sales of embroidery machines, many distributors took old machines to Tijuana, Mexico, for refurbishment and then sold them to garment plants. The NAFTA treaty made it easier to move embroidery machines across the border between the two countries.


The pandemic forced embroidery shops nationwide to shut down until the government permitted their reopening. As face-to-face sales were no longer feasible, the traditional sales method shifted to online sales of embroidered goods. Companies that already sold online recorded huge profits, while shops that relied on old-school sales techniques struggled. Thankfully, the government bailout enabled these shops to endure this challenging period.


Northwest Custom Apparel has partnered with Hirsch to purchase new TMARK multi-head embroidery machines. The aim is to increase the capacity of their embroidery shop. Geb, the top salesperson from Hirsch, recommended getting 2-3 single heads and the multi-heads for sample orders. These samples will help WOW customers with gifts. Jim Mickelson from Northwest Custom Apparel and Kris Janowski from Hirsch are forward-thinking entrepreneurs who predict strong embroidery sales in 2024.

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Antonio Massey

Production Team: Folder

Antonio Massey recently joined NWCA in June of 2022. His role on the Production Team has greatly improved our processes and productivity. Antonio is always willing to lift heavy boxes or help his co-workers during busy times. In his free time, he enjoys playing with his dog and mastering video games.


Alicia Wada

Shipping Clerk

Alicia Wada is passionate about helping her co-workers at Northwest Custom Apparel in any way that she can. She works in our Shipping and Logistics department. Alicia, who goes by Ali, has a bachelor’s degree in Applied Mathematics. She lived in Japan for ten years and recently brought her family to America in 2019. She is interested in learning crafts and textile art from around the world.


Erik Mickelson


Erik Mickelson’s position as Manager is more than a job, it’s a passion. It’s always fun and exciting because he enjoys marketing, computers, and coming up with innovative ideas to help NWCA grow. He majored in accounting and finance at Washington State University, graduating in 1996, and returned to school to obtain his Master of Business from WGU, graduating in 2016. Erik continually strives to advance his education through podcasts, audiobooks, and industry tradeshows. He is married to a remarkable and caring wife named Wendy, a Registered Nurse, with whom he shares his many hobbies and a love for the outdoors.



Ruth Nhoung

Production Manager

Ruth Nhoung is our Production Manager and Northwest Custom Apparel is lucky to have her. Thanks to her vast knowledge of machine embroidery and dedication to creating a comfortable and supportive work environment, the production plant runs smoothly and customers are pleased with our work. She is a loving mother and grandmother and enjoys spending quality time with her siblings. She says, “I love everything about Northwest Custom Apparel: the people, the atmosphere, the work, and the customers. I love what I do and I embrace all of NWCA’s core values”.


Steve Deland

Art Director

Steve Deland has been our amazing Artist since 2017. He loves working at Northwest Custom Apparel because he appreciates the goal-oriented, progressive-thinking management style. He is most passionate about his art, which includes scroll saw woodwork, and his five grandchildren.



Taylar Hanson


Taylar Hanson is a highly acclaimed Saleswoman at Northwest Custom Apparel. She has a BA in Apparel, Merchandising, Design, and Textiles from Washington State University. “Go Cougs!” The best part of Taylar’s job is getting to work with longtime customers who trust us to do the best work and take care of their needs. She is passionate about appreciating nature, traveling, and spending time with friends and family.


Nika Lao


Nika Lao is very knowledgeable in how the business is ran because she began as an Embroidery Machine Operator and has worked hard to become the excellent and personable saleswoman she is today. She enjoys the stress-free environment and the many chances to connect with her co-workers over potlucks, BBQs, and bowling parties. Nika is a proud sister of two highly successful brothers and can boast mastering three languages herself: Khmer, Thai, and English. She is an avid camper, enjoys going to farmer markets, and loves cooking.


Bradley Wright


Bradley Wright has been a vital team member of NWCA since 2017. As our accountant and knower-of-all-things, Bradley is proud to work closely with his wonderful colleagues. He studied at the University of Washington. These days he dedicates his free time to his new house.


Dominic Nguyen

DTG Operator

Dominic Nguyen recently joined our Direct-To-Garment department. He says he loves the family work environment at Northwest Custom Apparel. In his free time, Dom likes to listen to music, hangout with friends, and play video games. He comes from a very big family which can be very chaotic at times, but is always exciting.


Sothea Tann

Production Team: Trimmer

Sothea Tann recently joined the Production Team in 2022. She finds Northwest Custom Apparel to be a good working environment with helpful and friendly staff. In her free time, Sothea spends quality time with her family and, overall, focuses on a peaceful and happy lifestyle.


Brian Beardsley

DTG Supervisor

Brian Beardsley has been with Northwest Custom Apparel since 2018. He is our DTG Supervisor. Brian loves that he gets to work with high-tech machines in a fun atmosphere. He has a bachelor’s degree in Graphic Design. He said, “I always wanted to create visually interesting assets in a variety of mediums”. In his free time, he enjoys building and painting models, playing video games, designing, and playing his guitar.


UT Tri Tran

Embroidery Machine Operator

UT Tri Tran loves Northwest Custom Apparel so much that, although she has already retired after a long career in machine embroidery operations, she is happy to return part time. She says, “I love the family style work environment and how everyone shares food, laughter, and fun on a regular basis.” In her free time she is dedicated to living a healthy and peaceful lifestyle with her friends and family.



Embroidery Machine Operator

BunsereytheavyHoeu, who goes by Theavy, won our Operator of the Year in 2021. She takes on many roles in the production team. She says, “These are not my co-workers, these are my family! I cherish all the memories we make together”. When she goes home to be with her family, she makes the most of her time with them by holding family get-togethers and even karaoke competitions.


Sreynai Meang

Embroidery Machine Operator

SreynaiMeang is a hard-working Machine Operator. She is most passionate about helping people. Sreynai, who goes by Nai, likes to exercise in her free time and talk with her family in Cambodia.


Kanha Chhorn

Embroidery Machine Operator

Kanha Chhorn has been an Embroidery Operator with Northwest Custom Apparel since 2018. She is delightful and always makes everyone smile and laugh. Kanha takes on additional tasks that allow us to exceed our customers’ expectations. In her free time, she can be found at her local temple or spending quality time with her family and friends.


Savy Som

Embroidery Machine Operator

SavySom is one of our Machine Operators who is passionate about embroidery and sewing. She enjoys working at NWCA because of its flexibility. She has two teenage sons and loves spending time with her family on the weekends.



Embroidery Machine Operator

SorphornSorm has been a Machine Operator since 2011. One of her four sisters works here as well. Her other relatives are in Cambodia. In her free time, Sorphorn studies English, listens to music, and enjoys exercising.


Jim Mickelson


Jim Mickelson, after a successful career with a major oil company, founded Northwest Embroidery in 1977. This was the first commercial embroidery in the Pacific Northwest. Over the years, Jim has become the guru of embroidery never refusing to answer a question or offer advice to his fellow embroiders. Jim and his wife Leeanna raised four wonderful children who went on to successful business careers.

Northwest Custom Apparel
Northwest Custom Apparel
163 Google reviews
Steve McMains
Steve McMains
Great place to do business with.
Hector Aponte
Hector Aponte
Splendid service by this team. I needed a job done in one day and without hesitation I was helped. Besides the no notice, need now accommodation, the overall quality of the job of superb.
anthony mckenna
anthony mckenna
Amazing service and quality of work.
katie latimer
katie latimer
This small business is excellent! Great turnaround times and pricing. We've completely switched over to them for our uniform needs. The embroidery looks amazing and very professional. We have gotten jackets, vests, safety vests, hats and uniform polo shirts with them. The screen prints are very resistant to numerous washes. They have been super flexible and patient with us and going through getting PO set up with our company.
Dave Lambing
Dave Lambing
I am the Quartermaster for the Tacoma Fire Buff Battalion. We use Northwest Custom Apparel to produce our uniform articles. Their work is always perfect and done is record time. I can't recommend them highly enough.
Kyle Keehnel
Kyle Keehnel
Our company has been going to NWCA for years and have always encountered friendly service and quality products.
Smokey B3ar21
Smokey B3ar21
Super friendly staff , wonderful products for our company and couldn’t be happier with them
Chuck Schilling
Chuck Schilling
Working with NWCA was like hitting the EASY button! Ten days from our initial meeting to completed shirts and we couldn't be more pleased.
Bret Lauritzen
Bret Lauritzen
Prompt service
Cassandra Johnson
Cassandra Johnson
Words can't describe how much I appreciate the outstanding customer service I received from Northwest Custom Apparel! I placed an order for two coats that I needed in one week for a Valentines' day gift and Nika made it happen! She was proactive, quickly responsive, and understanding of me needing to see different looks of our company logo. She was incredibly sweet, accommodating, and made every effort to make my order the way I wanted it. A part of me felt bad asking to see the different looks, but she reassured me it was not a problem and was on top of her game! Every staff member I interacted with when I came to their shop was very pleasant, welcoming, and attentive as well. All around great work! Will absolutely use them again and highly recommend!!! Thank you Northwest Custom Apparel!!!