Embroiderers are from Mars... and Venus


 I was tossing around some marketing ideas recently with a male colleague—not an embroiderer, but someone who works for a machine company. “Did you hear about the guy who is selling his forehead on eBay?” I asked.

“What brand of four-head?” He was serious. I started to laugh.

I heard about the auction while listening to the news.  When I heard the word “forehead”, my first thought was a multi-head embroidery machine But then reality set in. They wouldn’t use the term “four-head” on a news channel. That’s industry-speak.  I turned and saw the aspiring graphic artist being interviewed on national television about his off-the-wall idea for financing his higher education.                                                     

“Not a machine…the front of his head—for advertising purposes.” (The winning bid, by the way, was over $30,000 for one month of advertising, located on the 2” x 7” space between his eyebrows and his hairline.)

Then he started to laugh. “We need to get out more often.” 

I agreed. “If we heard about someone trying to ‘get ahead’, you’d want to send them a brochure and I’d want to invite them to join the Embroidery Line!”

Leave it to two embroidery industry aficionados to immediately think of a machine. It didn’t matter that he is a boy and I am a girl. Our training and history in this industry had both our minds thinking alike.

The exchange got me to thinking about the way men and women approach embroidery. We may both think “four-head” when we hear the word forehead, but are we as like-minded when it comes to the rest of the picture.     

Viva la Difference    

Olivia Judson, an evolutionary biologist at Imperial College in London admits, in an Op-Ed column in the New York Times (January, 2003), that she was once insulted by the mere suggestion that men and women intrinsically differ in perception, memory and judgment. But she now embraces the idea that males and females canbe distinguished from one another based on behavior and intellectual ability.

The reasons for her startling conversion can be found in her intense study of all species—and she can cite them, chapter and verse.

 While she makes the point that women, once considered incapable of being world-class musicians, were offered more jobs in professional orchestras when blind auditions were introduced in the 1970s, she also offers up the zebra finch as counter point—the male birds sing complicated and ornate songs while the females are incapable of singing a single note.

Elephants also demonstrate distinguishable traits…females have large vocabularies and “hang out in herds” while males tend to prefer “solitary splendor” and barely speak at all. (Sound familiar?)

Why is the mere suggestion that women and men are different seen as unfashionable and pejorative, inciting intense reaction? Judson suggests that the overlap in human appearance seduces the idea that we aren’t all that different—thus the uproar. But she asks us to consider the green spoon worm. Females are 200,000 times as big as the male—a disparity so great that it led the discovering scientists to think that the male was only a parasite living inside the female. Yet these mis-matched couples have the same genes. The sex of the green spoon worm is determined by who it meets during the first few weeks of life. If the larva meets a female, it becomes a male and grows up petite; if it doesn't, it becomes female and grows and grows (giving new meaning to the question that strikes fear in a man’s heart, “Honey, does this dress make me look fat?”)

Judson admits that the intellectual overlap in humans is also great. “It’s obvious,” she concludes, “that where there are intellectual differences, they are so slight they cannot be prejudged.”

 It is in the prejudging that the trouble begins. It is the often “high dudgeon” resistance to the idea that these differences might be rooted in fact and acceptable, that causes the trouble to persist.

I am often asked if I ever notice a difference in the ways that men and women approach embroidery. It is a question that fascinates me, yet has me running for cover—living, as I am, in a democracy where any suggestion of “unequal” talent or aspiration brings out the opposition in alarming volume.

Let me hasten to say that any observations on my part certainly don’t hold true for everyone—there are exceptions to every rule—but one can't help but gather those observations. You begin to wonder if that Mars-Venus mumbo-jumbo that the pop psychs talk about has business as well as personal applications.

Mars and Venus

Embroidery is almost a perfect case study for the “battle of the sexes” question. Over the years more men have entered the profession. Guys who would never admit to doing “embroidery” for a living, now own up to it with fervor. Is this the “big boys’ toys” syndrome at work…the mechanics and the beauty of the machine or computer making it acceptable to stitch for a living?  Or could it be, I ask tongue firmly in cheek, because the feminist movement has sent so many women crashing into former male-only fields, that a little payback is in order?

I meet a lot of folks from both Mars and Venus at the Printwear seminars. I try to get to know them at the beginning of the seminar in a ‘round-the-room, self-intro that highlights similar reasons for attending my presentation, but also starts more than one lively discussion on the differences—one of the most spirited being the dreaded art (or burden) of pricing.


I recently challenged my Embroidery Line members (www.EmbroideryLine.net) to raise their minimum price by a dollar—or two—and up the price on all their job quotes as well. I have been in this business long enough to worry when I see the price per thousand still at the same level it was over a decade ago.

 “I cheered,” one  (female) member wrote to me privately, “I hope they’ll listen. Why do embroiderers, particularly women, undervalue their work?   Women seem to feel guilty when charging for their work.  Male embroiderers do not seem to suffer from this affliction.”

This Venusian embroiderer admits that this was also true for her when she first started. What changed her? Her husband joined the business and removed the emotion. He believes that if it takes time, it costs money and she has become a convert.

“The folks who aren’t dependent on embroidery as their sole income or are just entering the business don’t seem to value their time,” she says. “They don’t get that they pay the cleaning lady the equivalent of $15.00 an hour but think nothing of spending hours fiddling to get everything perfect on a $4.00 item! I found out that I get far more respect from customers because I charge more for my embroidery.”

This whole exchange reminded me of a scene in the made-for-TV movie about Martha Stewart’s rise to wealth and fame. Stewart is a perfect meld of the homebody and the business tycoon, but she had to pay her dues. She set up a table to sell her homemade pies…advertising them for only a few dollars each. As the day wore on she had few takers. Inspiration struck and she raised her price. By the end of the day, her asking price was in excess of $20.00 per pie,  and the customers were lined up, eager to buy.

This gives credence to the idea that if you give your work away people assume it is worth exactly what they are paying for it. “When I get an item extraordinarily cheap,” my Venus stitcher confided, “I am suspicious, wondering what’s wrong with this? Is it going to fall apart in a week?”

Do you suppose the same thing applies to custom embroidery?

 I do.

 Many women (I am still protecting myself with the “exception” rule) seem to want to please…get it perfect, sell it cheap, make everyone happy. The result is the devaluation of not only their own work, but also the work of all embroiderers. It becomes difficult for the commercial or professional embroiderer to charge what custom work is worth and—a more devastating consequence—alters the perception of the entire process. What we do becomes “easy” in the eyes of our consumers…and thus not worth an adequate—or even handsome—wage.

My Embroidery Line and the books I write exist for the purpose of education…and that hard-earned education is the main reason to charge what our work is worth. The learning curve on the machine and the software, the due diligence paid in discovering the best backing, thread and garments, the cost of continuing education at seminars and trade shows—are all part and parcel of the ultimate price. We don’t just hit the button and let the machine do the work…and it’s high time that we stopped charging as if we do.

Men seem to understand this concept more. They are (at times irritatingly so) price-conscious animals. They sing their ornate songs, ruffle their proud feathers and charge for their services…even in the beginning when they are dazzling their new customers with yet-to-be-acquired brilliance. As small as the green spoon worn in their experience or expertise, they nevertheless have a real handle on their worth and the worth of the process.

 Trade Shows

Attending trade shows is a must for the serious professional in any industry. It’s important to stay current with what’s new. We all learn from each other, no matter how many years we’ve spent in front of the needles and the coming away with new tips, tricks and ideas can rejuvenate us and our business view at times when we didn’t even know we needed it.

Next time you attend a trade show, notice how men and women approach the vendors’ booths—and notice how the vendors respond to each. Our Mars unit is all business. “How much is this item? What’s the case price? Do you have stock, now?”

Venus, on the other hand, is full of praise, enchanted by creativity. (Nothing wrong with this, mind you!) “Oh, isn’t this cute?  What other colors do you have?”  Women are in true “shopping” mode instead of “what can this item mean for my business” mode, and they tend to stay there unless and until they have reached a business size that demands a different view.

 Growth is often the greatest educator of all.

Women tend to want to see everything— while men want to spend their time at the booths where they know they can make money. (To be fair to the ladies, men also tend to be more gadget and technology fascinated and will “waste” an inordinate amount of time looking at something that a woman won’t look at twice.) 

Let’s listen to our pricing convert on the subject of trade shows: “I know I look at trade shows very differently now as opposed to when I was new.  I’m not shopping—I’m looking for what’s exciting and what I can sell to my regular customers.  What new vendors have I met?  Are they worth the extra paperwork?  Am I spending enough time with my vendors—the ones who help me make money.”

Digitizing and Design

While reliability and a good turnaround time are important to all serious, professional digitizers, I’ve heard it said that the Mars digitizers are quick, accurate and easy-going—and I’ve heard it often enough to give it some credence. Although I know several women who are great corporate digitizers, the men seem to really enjoy the precision and predictability of the identity designs. They tend not to look for ways to make it stand out…but look to deliver as true a rendition as they can. While not adverse to detail, they still seem to deliver in broad strokes.

The Venus punchers are described as creative, leaning toward the artistic, take-your-breath-away designs. They will “fuss (if you will) over the smallest details and try different fills and directions, comparing and contrasting with an almost pious intensity. One embroiderer-only described her female digitizer as “high maintenance.” Lest I create a storm of protest, let me remind you that I paint these comparisons in broad strokes of my own…perhaps hoping to provoke a dialogue (feel free to write) but also to proclaim the differences as all-good but not all-inclusive in each                                            gender.  

It is interesting to note the competitive aspect of embroidery. Women enjoy the process of creating and competing…and, to be sure, winning. But it is the man who lists his wins for all to see with the intensity of a sportscaster on Super Bowl Sunday. Each notch in the belt is reminiscent of the triumphant roar when the well-aimed arrow takes down dinner-on-the-hoof. That’s not a bad thing…it’s just a thing.  And the gentler sex (did I say that?) would be advised to kick their rears into gear and spice of that resume, add to that curriculum vitae, take some credit and enjoy it. (But I still come down on the side of just enjoying the process and doing what is called “personal best.” I don’t enjoy competition—seeing who can digitize faster or better, stitch faster or more productively, hoop faster or tighter, trim faster or cleaner. That’s not a boy /girl comment or a Mars/Venus stand. It’s just me.)                                             

I was talking to a new embroiderer on the phone this morning. She talked about loving to just look at the threads and imagine what they can become. She has a yen to learn to digitize and can’t wait to get involved with the “creative” side of things. She shared a story about her husband that was very telling. He walked into the room where she was stitching and his first words were, “I don’t like the way that machine sounds.” A woman might have said, “I love the way that design looks,” but he was ready to pull out his wrenches and make that baby hum.

 Maintenance and Production

I love it when things work right and run well…but don’t like to be the one to get them into that state of perfection. I have a friend who wants to learn how to do my preventative maintenance and I am just thrilled. I am not stranger to the toolbox and timing, but would rather be dancing with the thread, contemplating color or finishing up a beautiful design. Mind you, I would not care if my maintenance-enchanted friend were from Venus, but I admit it is far more likely a Martian would apply for the job. 

In keeping with the whole point of this column—and in spite of very noisy history to the contrary—let me remind that it is not bad or denigrating to want to pursue what you do best. It is downright smart. I am not going to dig into the oil and grease just because I can. I am going to stick to the things I love …because I can. I “job out” a lot of things in my business to others—even though I am capable of doing the work—because I think life is too short to do anything but those things that make you happy. To that end, I am perfectly happy to let someone else tune the equipment.

Once that equipment is humming and production begins, I admit to not being tied to a stopwatch. I know men—and women—who count their profits in seconds spent…nothing wrong with that. But have you ever met someone who wants to glue that stopwatch right on the face of that machine? Someone who can tell you just how many inches the hooping station should be from the machine to eliminate that last little step, who can tell you how many seconds you can save with each color change elimination or by turning off the trimmers and paying someone to clip those threads? I have….and he was not a she.

Men will fuss for hours to make sure the timing is right, the needle depth is precisely the same on each needle—and good for them. Women will fuss for hours over stitching perfection, upset at the slightest loop, any hint of bobbin showing on the top…looking for perfect tension and perfect registration—and good for them, too.

The bottom line on the way to the real bottom line is that embroiderers, by virtue of their sharing, mutual education and sure-footed ventures into bailiwicks often viewed as “out of their realm” (or planet) are becoming a whole new life form…where a woman can grab a wrench and a man can be wrenched artistically between two shades of blue…and neither one of them loses a thing.

Where are we now?

What does all of this teach us?  Men and women can be different. Women can share—and even prefer—the characteristics that we historically associate with men in business. Men can be as artsy as women—and should not suffer a blow to their gender for daring to let it show. It can’t hurt to take a page from the book of the other guy (or gal). In fact, there is an inherent sadness in refusing to do so.

If you are the artsy type (man or woman) who is likely to undervalue your work, try sitting down with a hard-core business person (woman or man) to figure out your true value. If you are all business (woman or man) and carry your stopwatch in your hand and a ruler in your pocket, find yourself a creative mentor (man or woman) who can teach you the simple joy of watching a rainbow of beauty stitch.

Think about the broad application (no pun intended) of being in such an exquisite industry. We get to exercise both sides of our brain on a daily basis. We can explore the talents most people associate with the opposite gender. And we weren’t created as green spoon worms.

 Aren’t we lucky? And shouldn’t we charge accordingly? After all, it wasn’t easy getting here!