Break Away from Boring Embroidery

By Jeremy Picker, Contributing Writer

Shown is appliqué incorporating canvas on felt. Bean or chain stitches are ideal tack-down options, and felt also helps achieve vintage and streetwear looks. Photo provided by AMB3R Creative.

March 10, 2020

Although hand embroidery and appliqué have been around for millennia, computerized machine embroidery is only about 40 years old. Prior to its advent, the Schiffli embroidery machine was invented in 1863 which was a fully automated machine that later used punch cards to embroider designs.

Sports jerseys always have been the most popular form of appliqué in our industry, followed by prep and collegiate looks. Appliqué — sewing piles of fabric on top of a background fabric — was modernized with digital machine embroidery, which significantly accelerated production and made it more cost efficient. Abercrombie & Fitch, Starter and many vintage streetwear brands helped pioneer how we use appliqué in custom apparel.

Today, appliqué and specialty stitches — beyond the satin and fill varieties — can help you break free from basic, flat embroidery and give your customers a garment that will stand out and create higher perceived value. Anyone can digitize a logo and add it to a garment, but have you sought other stitches that have more interest and retail appeal?

Here, I will share stitches I have used or seen in retail that could fit your needs, depending on the design style and overall look you want to achieve.

Specialty Stitches
Bean: This stitch type is more common with thin script fonts or creating outlines of chunky fonts or motif designs. Options include a single-row bean stitch that has two to three stitches or a chunkier look with five to six passes to give the appearance of hand-embroidered thread.

Chain: This stitch type mainly was sewn by hand until the 1800s when a machine was created to replicate it. You need a special machine to create a true chain stitch, but a normal embroidery machine can create a faux chain stitch. It basically uses triangles layered on top of each other to give the appearance of a chain loop. I like this stitch because it can take on many design styles.

Whip: Joe Kramar, embroidery designer for Arizona-based X-treme Apparel, and the former senior digitizer and R&D specialist for Abercrombie & Fitch, clued me in about this stitch. It’s basically a satin stitch with multiple passes on same spot. It resembles a “chunky” ladder and gives a more horizontal bar look compared to the vertical bean-stitch look.

Lofty and Loose Satin: This look is achieved by using washaway felt underneath the stitch, but on top of the garment. By creating a loose satin stitch, the felt escapes during a post-production wash. Burmilana or cotton-wrapped polyester threads give this stitch type a vintage, hand-sewn look.

Cross Hatch: According to BriTon Leap’s Erich Campbell, some specialty stitches, such as cross hatch, can be made easier to execute by your software. A specialized tool for point-and-click assignment or a special fill type that respects each “cross” on a grid can be activated so as not to crop or split them at the edge of a defined shape.

Specialty Threads
Burmilana, a 50% acrylic/50% wool thread, has a natural yarn appearance. Kramar says it’s best to delay cam timing with this thread type to give the hook more time to grab the loop. Because of the thicker thread, there is more friction than your typical polyester/rayon thread. Use polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) backing with this thread type, as it completely washes away in the first wash. If you don’t have access to PVA backing, use a tearaway variety.

Other specialty threads include Spun Poly, an alternative to Burmilana thread with more tensile strength and a vintage look. Matte Frost is a true matte-finish polyester embroidery that is an alternative to typical thread that has sheen.

Coloreel technology is an innovation that instantly colors embroidery thread during production with unlimited colors. The unit can be added to any existing commercial embroidery machine as a head attachment, enabling unique designs and vastly improving overall production efficiency.

Appliqué & Fabrics
Appliqué is an underused decoration method that can yield significant value for your company and clients. Modern technology enables this technique to be accomplished with a laser. Unlike 10 years ago when it was difficult to source appliqué domestically, manufacturers are introducing more affordable lasers so it can be done in house.

A few suppliers also offer pre-made appliqués that can be applied either via embroidery or heat press. Below are some common and specialty fabrics that will help you get acquainted with appliqué.

Tackle Twill: These can be letters and numbers using nylon or poly twill that provide an athletic look. When cut with a laser, the synthetic fabric’s edges can be singed so it looks best with a zig-zag or satin-stitch border.

Felt: This fabric provides a typical prep/collegiate look and is ideal for fleece. It also can be singed when cut, so using multiple laser passes with less power will help minimize any burnt appearance. Bean or chain stitches are ideal tack-down options, and felt also helps achieve vintage and streetwear looks.

Jersey: Using single or multiple layers of jersey gives a soft, pliable look. If the edges are exposed, the fabric will curl up once washed. If you use Multiplayers, Use contrasting colors with multiple layers to add visual interest.

Other fabrics, such as cotton twill, canvas, Bedford twill and denim, also will fray with exposed edges, resulting in a vintage look that has been repeatedly washed. PU Leather, which features a polyurethane finish, and micro suede can be etched, debossed or embroidered directly. They give a rustic look and are ideal for the outdoors and farming/ranching industries.

What Big Brands Do
The goal is to make your embroidery or appliqué reflect a style that looks authentic. Decorators do it via screen printing, so why not here?

To learn about what’s popular on the market, start a Pinterest board to gather pieces that are diverse and eye-catching. Add vintage pieces, sports styles and streetwear looks to cover most audiences. Brands like Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister, Aeropostale and American Eagle all have a lot of eye candy for embroidery and appliqué. Multimedia decoration via screen printing and appliqué also is popular with such brands.

Take notes on apparel colors, textures and typography. Modern brands like Superdry, Ralph Lauren and Jack & Jones frequently use specialty stitches and appliqué across many styles. Don’t forget to get more creative with your clients in the process. While the presented examples may not resonate with your clientele, become a branded-apparel expert and show what is possible when timeline, budget and audience are considered.

If you don’t have the experience or equipment to do this in house, look for strategic partners that can help. With the right vendors in place, you can offer more for clients and the net profit will be more than what you can achieve in house.

Don’t hesitate to experiment with specialty stitches, threads and appliqué — even if you use an existing design. Your brand is a great way to show what you can do for customers. If you are looking for more resources to increase your skill level, contact me and I’d be glad to point you in the right direction. Just remember: Thread is not dead.

Jeremy Picker is the creative director and CEO at AMB3R Creative, a Colorado-based apparel-design firm. He has more than 20 years of experience in the fashion industry and has deep knowledge of custom design, screen printing, embroidery, appliqué, finishing and promotional products. He has helped numerous brands launch, grow and manage merchandise for major-label brands. For more information or to comment on this article, email Jeremy at jeremy@amb3r.com.

Pitching & Selling

“Novelty is a tremendous driver for sales [of appliqué and speciality stitches], and you needn’t have a massive departure from the norm to create it,” says BriTon Leap’s Erich Campbell. “Any appliqué can create a coverage area that saves stitch count and leaves a large coverage area with a lighter hand; add contour stitching — or a special motif in the edge-tacking — and you have additional texture, as well as increased impact without adding greatly to labor.

“Even if a customer doesn’t choose to employ your creativity, simply being a standout shop that can do more than just embroider with competency provides you with expert status in the medium and the credit for pushing your medium to new heights,” he adds.