Packing and Shipping Embroidery

By Susan Dawson

This article first appeared in NANthology, the NAN newsletter, in fall 1995.

One of the hardest parts of becoming a professional embroiderer, or an exhibiting needle artist, is facing the reality that embroidery must be entrusted to strangers. Shipping is always approached with trepidation, but many problems can be avoided with forethought and planning.

The first thing to consider is who will be handling the work. Do not assume that someone else will care for your work as you do. It is not a reasonable expectation. Most people are doing the best they can, but they simply are not aware of the problems that may occur and have their own concerns:

  • The shipping companies are concerned with getting packages between two points with the least amount of average damage. They are not concerned with individual packages.
  • Whether the work is going to an exhibit or a teaching situation, someone must unpack it. The person doing this will not know exactly what is inside the package or how the pieces have been packed.
  • After the work is unpacked, it will be displayed. At this point the project will get the most recognition, but there is still little known about the individual pieces.
  • After presentation, it will be repacked, quite possibly by someone other than the person who unpacked it. They may have limited experience with packing embroidery.

Work will then be handed over to another shipper.

This process may occur once or several times depending on whether the piece is going to a teaching situation, a traveling exhibit, or back to the artist. The trick is to make the process as easy as possible for each person that will handle the work. Each person – the one unpacking, the shipper, or the packer – will have definite needs:

  • The shipper needs a strong box, one that can survive all the planned trips.
  • The unpacker needs to be able to open the box and remove the piece without damaging either the piece or the box. The unpacker, or packer also has to get the packing materials back into the proper box.
  • The individual setting up the exhibit has to show the piece to its best advantage and handle it before, and after, the exhibit without risk of damage.
  • The packer will have to figure out how the project goes back into the box, possibly without having seen it come out of the box.

The single most important thing that you can do to help everyone is to label everything with your name: the box, the packing material (all of it) and the piece. On the project put your name and contact information, address, and phone number. On the rare occasion when a package is destroyed by a shipping machine the contents are sent to a central (or not so central) lost and found. If there is complete contact information, the shipping company will use it to return your project.

Begin the process by getting a good box. (If you are submitting several pieces to a juried exhibit, each piece should be packed in its own shipping box, thus allowing the jury committee to return any pieces not accepted.) A corrugated cardboard box is an excellent choice because it is strong, light weight and, if properly packed, durable. It must be large enough to hold the piece with several inches of padding on all sides. (Remember the box will be opened with a knife.) The box must be new enough that the corners have not been crushed. Strength comes from the folds; if they have been compromised then the box is weakened. A good box should be able to make two or three round trips, if packed properly. It should be easily opened without damage. Four flaps are the most common and most easily understood. If you are cutting down a box, a poor, but sometimes necessary choice, make sure that the flaps are large enough to cover the opening without the necessity of a lining piece of cardboard. The liner is a notorious piece to lose.

The second step is to prepare the piece for shipping. The most likely damage to a framed piece is banged corners. Cardboard corner protectors can be purchased at an art supply store and can be used repeatedly. In addition to protecting the corners, they act as spacers. The second biggest shipping risk is friction. Nothing should rub against the embroidery. Wrapping the embroidery in a bag, either cloth or plastic, protects the work from abrasion by the packing materials. If the piece must be folded, pad the folds. Do not assume that someone will press or reshape the work before the exhibit; they won’t. Sandwiching the framed piece with its corners protected between pieces of cardboard is also a good idea.

If the piece has multiple parts, protect each part individually and label the protective material indicating what goes with what. If there are many pieces, include an inventory list for the person who will be packing the project for return shipping. If the protection for the piece is complicated or requires special handling, include simple, boldly written instructions on the box. Put all written materials in a separate envelope, or some way separate it from the piece so that the ink cannot transfer to the embroidery.

Pack anything that is needed for displaying the piece separately from the piece. There may be some display materials available at exhibits, but teaching pieces do not have that luxury. If the piece is to be displayed upright, an easel should be included. If a box is to be displayed open, then a prop, if needed, should be included. If the piece is to be hung, include a hanger. If the display is complex, include simple directions.

The third step is to obtain sufficient packing materials. To maintain a friendly relationship with the unpacker or the person repacking, DO NOT USE LOOSE PACKING PEANUTS! Loose packing peanuts are aggravating, annoying and messy…and you do not want to have to label all those silly peanuts! There are many better alternatives:

  • Large pieces of foam rubber. (Little bits of foam rubber are even worse than peanuts.)
  • Large pieces of Styrofoam.
  • Sealed plastic bags loosely filled with packing peanuts or little bits of foam rubber.
  • Wadded clean, uncolored paper. Not newspaper.
  • Clean plastic bags. Ever wonder what to do with all those plastic grocery bags that are stuffed into kitchen drawers? Now you know.

The important thing about packing material is that it should be easy to handle and there must be enough of it to protect the project. It is better to have too much than too little. If the box is not completely full, it is easily crushed and, once the edges have been bent, the box is no longer good protection for the contents. Remember, packing material settles in shipping, and there is no way to add more packing materials later.

The last things to go into the packages should be any instructions; a shipping label (or labels) if the package is to make several stops; and a self-addressed stamped receipt postcard(s), if you want a document to verify receipt. Do not ask the person unpacking the project to note its condition when received. It is meaningless and holds up the process if every detail is to be noted…it is also annoying to the chairman. If there is a problem, you will be notified soon enough. However, a card requires nothing more than being dropped in the nearest mailbox, is not a problem and it may also be comforting to you to know that your project has arrived safely. A return shipping label should always be included regardless of whether or not the shipper provides one. It is appreciated by the person repacking and is helpful to shipping companies if the project is damaged.

Finally, it is time to seal the box. If the box opens with other than four flaps, number the opening order on the flap and seal with clear packing tape so that the person unpacking can see how the box fits together, and where to cut the tape. Black out any advertising, bar codes or addresses printed anywhere on the box that do not relate to the box’s immediate destination.

With a little care and planning, the piece will be on its way and, after the planned event, it will return safely. With success comes confidence, and soon exhibiting needle art and teaching pieces, will be a comfortable way of life.