Zazzle, the site that lets you custom-design and sell everything from T-shirts and hoodies to sneakers and skateboards, has launched a new feature that may well put it leagues ahead of its competitors: embroidery. And while the prospect of having an embroidered shirt may not sound appealing at first (I’ve always associated embroidery with tacky nametags emblazoned on polo shirts), Zazzle’s new feature is very impressive and will likely draw a large number of new customers.
In the past, most custom shirt designs from Zazzle and its competitors have used flat prints that are essentially glued on top of the fabric (these are higher quality than the iron-on products you’ll find in stores, but look similar). These look fine enough on T-shirts, but tend to look much cheaper (and tackier, depending on the item of clothing) than designs that are actually sewn into the fabric, and don’t hold up as well to multiple washings. Now, Zazzle’s new embroidery option is giving users the chance to have their designs sewn into their clothes, resulting in items that are much better looking and durable.
The process for producing an embroidered item is a bit more involved than for a standard Zazzle order. After selecting a suitable (non-copyrighted) logo or design, users upload their image to Zazzle and choose how large they’d like it to appear on their pieces of clothing. Zazzle then has to “digitize” this image – converting it into a format that is compatible with their automated sewing machines. To do this Zazzle uses a computerized system that does around 50-70% of the work, and then passes the files on to a large team of human workers who manually ensure that every design accurately reflects the image that was uploaded. Prices to have an image digitized vary depending on the number of stitches required (average prices seem to be around $10-$20), and the process takes 24-48 hours. But you only need to do this once for each image – once you’ve got your digitized file, you can apply the same stitching to any item of clothing on Zazzle without having to go through the process again.
The digitization process is simple for the user (you just upload the image), but Zazzle’s Bobby and Jeff Beaver say that the technology behind it is very complex – a team of Zazzle engineers has been working on it for over two years (surprisingly enough, this custom clothing company has a heavy focus on technology, with around 30-40 engineers). The difficulty associated with the embroidery technology ensures that it will be hard to replicate by competitors, and the team has also protected its IP where appropriate. Each image has to be converted to an instruction set of stitches, maintaining the complexity of the original design while still restricting the final output to fall within the physical limitations of the sewing machines.
To ensure that the customer will be satisfied with the final product, Zazzle has built what amounts to a sewing machine emulator – you can watch a clip of how the stitching will be done in the machine, and see exactly what the final product will look like down to each individual thread. These movies are a great safeguard for customer satisfaction, but they’re also really cool – I never thought I’d find myself watching a sewing video for fun (you can see a sample movie above).
As with other Zazzle items, users will be able to sell their creations on the Zazzle marketplace. The Beavers say that besides their mainstream customers, this option will give professional embroiderers a place to showcase their wares, explaining that they haven’t really had a place to do so online.
Zazzle’s embroidery option is likely to be a big seller, especially as the holiday season approaches – a custom embroidered jacket or shirt makes for a great gift. The new technology also helps separate Zazzle from competitors like CafePress (which only does pseudo-embroidery using sew-on patches).