How to Embroider on Performancewear

From digitizing to choosing the correct thread and needle, try these helpful tips for embroidering on today’s active apparel.

By Alice Wolf, Contributing Writer

With performancewear, a ballpoint needle is preferable to a sharp one, which can pierce fine fabrics, causing them to “run.”

March 13, 2015

Is the thought of embroidering on today’s popular performancewear sending you running in the opposite direction? Don’t let this lucrative, long-lasting trend pass you by; there are reasons — billions of them — to master embroidering on this sometimes slippery, shiny, stretchy, skinny stuff.

If you haven’t already encountered such a request in your shop, you will. The performancewear portion of the apparel industry is growing faster than any other fashion segment in the United States and around the world. This is probably due to its overwhelming popularity. According to Cotton Inc.’s Sports Apparel Study, more than nine out of 10 (93%) consumers wear their athletic apparel for activities other than exercising. Why? According toMarshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at market research firm The NPD Group, New York, “This is not a fashion trend, it’s a lifestyle trend. There is functionality mixed with fashion.”

Camilo Lyon, managing director at Canadian banking and financial services company Canaccord Genuity, reported to investors, “During the past two to three years, the growth of athletic apparel companies has consistently outpaced the growth of traditional apparel companies.” Lyon cited four key factors driving the shift: “The availability of better athletic fabrics thanks to advances in technology; the ever-increasing fashion component found in performancewear; fantastic brand focus; and last, but not least, the fact that people are exercising more.”

And it’s huge. According to Global Industry Analysts, the worldwide sports and fitness clothing market is expected to reach more than $126 billion by 2015. The global sports apparel market — which includes women’s activewear — is set to grow to $178 billion by 2019, according to Boston-based research firm Trefis. In 2013, sales of women’s activewear in the United States alone reached $11.5 billion, a 9% jump from 2012.

“It’s hard to fathom how much more [the performancewear market] can grow because it’s already grown so much,” Cohen says. “But as more and more consumers accept activewear as streetwear, it will continue to keep growing.” He adds that he expects the women’s activewear market to keep a similar pace for the next two to three years.

Clearly, it’s time to embrace performancewear. Mastering your ability to embroider on this ubiquitous apparel option will keep customers satisfied and your company front-and-center in fulfilling their desires for embellishment. Whether branding, personalization, corporate identity or personal flair, here are some of the most important things to remember for the best results.

We all know that while woven goods stretch only on the bias, knits are known for allover stretch. And performancewear is designed not only to stretch, “give” and wick moisture away from the body, but then — almost miraculously — it also will return to its original shape and appearance.

You can encourage and enable this by thinking light with your embroidery: a design with a low stitch count; a backing that is lighter in weight than the fabric on which you intend to use it; a needle that is as small as the thread will allow; and a low-density setting that will keep thread buildup to a minimum. Lightening up both the bobbin and top tensions as much as possible without producing looping on the top of the design also will create the least amount of stress on your fabric.

Since performancewear is designed to “give,” a heavy, dense design will work against the purpose of the garment. If you’re up against a client who is adamant about keeping a logo true to its original design, suggest an outline form, or maybe just a portion of the element. Sometimes it helps to go out of your way to have a piece of performancewear on hand that has been “over-stitched” with a heavy logo to show how the design can reduce the performance properties of the garment.

The performancewear trend has been around long enough that backing manufacturers have taken up the challenge and created products that will successfully stabilize the garment to be embroidered. A nylon mesh no-show backing is recommended, by itself, for embroidering a lightweight design of less than 7,000 stitches onto performancewear. When the stitch count grows — along with the fear of destabilizing the stretchy garment — you may want to add a second piece of mesh no-show to support the design.

If the stitch count increases or the garment is particularly unstable, add a piece of lightweight tearaway backing instead of the second piece of mesh for more stability while embroidering. With the nylon mesh no-show next to the garment and the tearaway backing on the outside, you’ll have a clean, finished appearance and a soft feel against the skin. In designs where metallic thread is used, you may want to include a soft, sheer finishing fabric (sometimes called Comfort Wear) that prohibits chafing or unnecessary irritation.    

If a slight amount of stretching is not used when hooping, the embroidery can cause enough strain on the garment when worn to cause small holes to appear around the stitching. Try to imagine the impact points of the garment and hoop accordingly. Too much stretch will distort the garment. While hooping, remember that once the embroidery is applied, you have eliminated the stretch from that area. Thus, again, think light and small designs or logos.

While you might think the predominant polyester fabrics in performancewear would work best with polyester thread, the opposite is true. Rayon, which is made from the naturally occurring fibers in wood pulp, is softer and its luster is more subtle than polyester. A design stitched with rayon embroidery thread will provide a softer hand and more comfortable wear than one stitched with polyester. However, polyester thread will hold up to harsh laundering that includes bleach. Use a size 70/10 ballpoint needle with 40-weight thread. The ballpoint is preferable to sharp needles, which will pierce the fine knit and put “runs” in the fabric.

Don’t shy away from specialty threads, as long as designs have been digitized for them. Some 50-weight metallics are interchangeable in a design for general-purpose 40-weight thread and can add a unique, custom look. Matte-finish thread that is particularly resistant to the sun’s ultraviolet rays may be the best choice for performancewear that is exposed to a lot of sunlight. And for small lettering or fine detail, you should still depend on 60-weight thread.

Similar to designs for baseball caps, performancewear designs should be digitized so that you are working outward from the center. This will cut down on stretch and prevent distortion and puckering. Stitch density should be kept to a minimum, but an underlay can be used as compensation to stabilize, fill and eliminate unnecessary weight. Remember to avoid designs with too much density, a 45-degree stitch angle and high stitch count; any of these three factors can cause puckering.

Digitizing for performancewear requires sensitivity to the push and pull of the fabric. In lettering, try thickening the columns by about 10%-15% and shortening the ends of columns by the same amount. The resulting letters will line up better. Finally, remember that practice makes perfect. Invest in items with similar fabrics or extra pieces so you can practice before starting your production run. But by all means, get into the performancewear game!

Alice Wolf is the marketing communications director for Madeira USA. She began doing marketing and public relations for the art industry in New York, then migrated north to Madeira’s New Hampshire headquarters. For more information or to comment on this article, email Alice at awolf@madeirausa.com.