Custom Embroidered Apparel Buyers Guide

These days anyone can buy an embroidery machine and set up shop with very little money.  Unfortunately, embroidery is much more of an art than a science, which means than it takes a lot more than a shiny new machine and some software to do a quality embroidery job.  This guide will help you to understand what it takes to produce great looking embroidered designs.

Creating Your Embroidered Design

The most important part of any embroidery job begins with the designer or (sometimes called a digitizer).  Their job is to take your logo or design and convert it into a series of stitches that will be stitched on a garment.  While there are software programs that make this job easier, there is no software program that can reproduce the talent of a good designer (even though many software companies claim otherwise).
 

Elements of a High Quality Embroidery Design

 
Thread
Generally speaking, there are two types of threads used for embroidered designs, Polyester and Rayon.  Rayon produces the best looking embroidered designs, however it can be prone to breakage during stitching and it is slightly less durable than Polyester.  Polyester is quite durable, however it does not always produce great looking designs on all types of fabrics.  Many people choose Rayon over Polyester thread because it looks great on all fabric types.
 
Thread Color
Choosing the right thread color is probably the most important thing you will need to think about.  You need to be concerned with how the colors in your design will look with the color of the garment that you choose.  In general, less contrast between the garment color and embroidery color is best since this tends to hide imperfections in the stitching. 
The threads in fabric form a "grid" with series of microscopic openings.  The thread that makes up the embroidered design is passed through these small openings as the design is stitched.  Fabrics that have relatively large openings (knits) tend to cause the edges of the design to be slightly imperfect.  An experienced embroidery designer can optimize the fill stitch so that your design will look great on a variery of fabrics.
 
Fill Stitch
Filled in areas of the design are made up of tiny stitches arranged in a pattern.  If there are too many stitches, they will tend to pull on the fabric and create small gaps in the fabric around the outside of the design.  To few stitches and the fabric will show through the design.  To make matters worse some fabric types are more sensitive to stitch fill than others.  For example, a design may look great when stitched on a woven baseball cap, however when stitched on a polo shirt the results may be disappointing.  An experienced designer will create a design that provides an optimal stitch fill for a variety of fabrics.
Backing materials
Backing materials provide support and structure to an embroidered design and are critical to a long lasting design.  A sheet of backing material is placed behind the area where the design will be applied.  The design is then stitched through the fabric and the backing material. 
There are two types of backing material "Tearaway" and "Cutaway".  As the name suggests, tearaway backing can be torn off without tools after the design is stitched.  Cutaway backing must be cut around the design using scissors after the design is stitched.  It is very important to match the backing to the type of fabric being embroidered.  Tearaway backing is typically used with woven fabric such as dress shirts.  Cutaway backing is used on knit fabrics.  As you would probably guess, tearaway backing is the easiest for the embroidery shop to use since it is easy to remove.  Some less reputable embroidery companies use only tearaway backing or worse no backing at all!  A quality embroidery job should be using backing appropriate for the fabric.
Topping
Some fabrics such as fleece, have a rough texture with many "loose" fibers.  Sometimes these fibers can get caught in between the stitches of the embroidered design and look unsightly.  To prevent this, a transparent sheet of topping material is placed over the design area.  The design is then stitched through the topping, fabric, and backing material.  When the design is complete, the topping material is removed by wetting it with water.  Topping is not always needed and depends on the type of fabric being stitched. 
 
Choosing Apparel
Brand, color, and style of the apparel is completely up to the consumer.  As with anything, there are good quality brands and poor quality brands.  If you are going to spend $3.50 - $5.00 to stitch an embroidered design it makes little sense to stitch it on a garment that will wear out long before the design.  When ordering a large number of garments it makes sense to get a sample of the garment that you will be buying so you can judge the quality of the garment for yourself.  A reputable embroidery shop will arrange for a sample to be shipped to you for review.  Remember to ship the garment back when you are finished with it or you may end up getting charged for it (samples are usually not free).
 
Stock Designs
A good embroidery company will have a book or catalog of "Stock Designs".  Stock designs require very little in the way of setup and stitch very well on a variety of fabrics.  Most stock designs can be made 10% larger or smaller as needed.  Stock designs are the best way to save money on a custom embroidery job. 
 
Embroidery Locations
The locations you can apply an embroidered design vary by the type of garment.  The embroidery charge is based on the number of locations you choose.  Most people choose to embroider the primary location since it is the most visible, however there is no limit to the number of locations to embroider.  The default embroidery location for jackets and shirts is on the left chest.

The following table describes possible locations on different types of apparel:

Primary Location

Secondary Location

Locations Available by Special Request

Short Sleeve Shirt

Left Chest

Left Sleeve

Center Back, Right Chest

Long Sleeve Shirt

Left Chest

Center Back

Right Chest, Upper or Lower Arm

Baseball Hat

Center Front

Center Back Over Clasp

Left Side

Bag

Center Front

Center Back

Call for other options

Blanket

Lower Corner Straight

Lower Corner Diagonal

None

Kids/Infant

Front Chest

None

None