What could be better than the time-tested quality and luxury of embroidery? If anything, it might be adding to it the unparalleled versatility of print or the unmitigated shine of rhinestones. Nothing conveys an immediate sense of increased value quite the way that multimedia can. Combining decoration methods has never been more accessible nor attractive as it is now, with the rise of digital and heat-press printing, the amazing range of easily-cut press materials, and the ready-availability of rhinestones and rhinestuds in both pre-configured and custom templates.
There’s little stopping anyone with a heat press and embroidery machine, let alone any shop that runs its own cutter, direct-to-garment printer or conventional screen-printing equipment. Small single-head shops and multi-machine power players alike will find multimedia decoration is within reach. With a few technical tips and tricks, you can avoid the most common multimedia problems and increase your chance of producing quality results from moment one.
Tip # 1: Precision Placement
The most common difficulty in almost any multimedia application is achieving the proper placement of each decoration element. Alignment and registration hinge on accurately layering each decoration over or around the previous one applied.
When possible, you can and should plan your decoration in such a way that it allows for some small amount of give in both registration and alignment. This way, a layer of the design being a degree or two off-angle or a couple of millimeters left or right of center won’t ruin the look of your finished piece.
Even so, plan ahead for proper placement. When printing a garment that will later be embroidered, ensure proper placement by printing a registration mark in an area that will be hidden by the embroidery. The center of the mark serves as the programmed origin point of the embroidered design. Paired with the cross-hairs, it can be a reference for how true one has hooped the design to avoid rotation errors.
In designs where angular alignment is paramount, you can even program a second reference point, dropping in a single removable stitch on a known point in the print. If the needle can travel reliably to a second point from the starting reference, you are aligned in both placement and rotation, and thus, sure that the layers of your design will be registered.
If you can’t hide a registration mark, select an easily-identifiable point in the base layer of your design for a reference. I use readily-visible corners or sharp points where they are available, but anything to which you can align a needle point will suffice.
When creating transfers for sublimated appliqué, I cut my appliqué material into slabs that match the transfer size. The layers align to the cuts embedded in the page-sized slabs by simply matching the transfers’ edges, making production quick and fool-proof. Though there may be more time spent in setup and a small loss of nested materials, the gains in accuracy and reduction in rejects (my recent runs have had none at all) make up for the time spent in planning or the extra ink and twill.
In this reverse-appliqué piece, the two materials luckily washed and shrunk at like rates. You can easily have a puckered mess with two materials that shrink at different rates. Knowing how your materials will react to each other, and to normal laundry processes, is key.
Tip # 2: Design Specifically for Multimedia
Though I have successfully created multimedia pieces based on pre-printed garments or art that was not designed with multimedia in mind, these are despite-the-fact successes; exceptions to the rule. Unless you have no option, adding multimedia elements as an afterthought is better avoided.
One of my favorite pieces combines a quilted screen print with three-dimensional, free floating embroidery elements. I didn’t have the luxury to re-design or reprint, and the piece suffered somewhat from the lack of preparation. Rather than consciously leave areas in the design for my embroidery, I was forced to cover and replace existing printed elements. To do so, I had to maintain similarly-sized embroidered elements without any measured points of reference, and with little leeway for misalignment. Elements that shouldn’t have been visible in the final product peeked out from my under my embroidery, hurting the overall look of the piece.
I’ve seen much the same happen in rhinestone production, where rhinestones, limited by their fixed sizes, are added to existing embroidery designs that decorators can’t edit. The rhinestone elements, being made to fit into an overly small area, looked pinched and made for a poor, low-resolution outcome of the intended design element.
No matter what processes you intend to use, each element should be designed with the others in mind, and envisioned as a whole. This allows you to work with the nature of each process and to cater one element to the next. Think in order, and think of the finished product as a cohesive whole.
Tip # 3: Know your materials
It’s no secret that various fibers, inks and threads behave differently in use and when laundered. And this doesn’t even take into account how they may behave in relation to each other or to the other processes used in the application. Luckily, most of the materials we use have been well tested and well documented. Read the vendor’s instructions for both the application and care of the materials you use, and take them to heart.
The same should go for any garment you intend to decorate—know how it will wash and wear, and how your multimedia treatments will affect it. Though most materials will work well enough together, no product is worth selling if your customer will find it falling apart after the first wash.
Case in point: I created a reverse appliqué design that initially looked wonderful… only to find that the two fabrics I used shrunk at radically different rates when I washed it. The garment never made it to an initial wearing, as I had intended the wash to aid with distressing the edges of the rough cut appliqué. Instead, the shrunken appliqué material puckered the garment horribly.
In the end, I learned that the best measure you can take is to test combinations for yourself. Not sure if your thread will take the heat of sublimation without distortion? Test it. Wondering if your rhinestones will stick to an embroidered fill? Test it, wash it and pick lightly at the stones.
If a vendor can’t tell you whether or not something you are using will work in your intended application, get a sample, test it, and record your findings. Not only will you have learned about the materials, you may discover novel ways of using your materials in the process, and you can share your findings with the grateful community of decorators.
With these simple, open-work designs, there was little room to hide any sort of large registration mark. Instead, key points were identified in the print to use as guidelines. Due to the distressed nature of the piece, the placement could stand small variances.
Tip # 4: When all else fails, let it
Just because you can force materials to work together, or make a highly-elaborate design work once with a great deal of hand-holding, doesn’t mean it’s a profitable use of your time. When you first create a multimedia sample, consider whether or not your methods will scale if you are forced to mass-produce like decorations. Sometimes, even when your initial methods are too time-intensive, you’ll still be able to either procure equipment or hire contractors to more efficiently handle a part of the process.
For example, if you are hand-cutting a difficult appliqué material, you may find that hiring someone who does laser cutting will save time, making the process quicker and, thus, more profitable. However, if you find that you are fighting with your materials and methods and have to spend inordinate amounts of time in making the multimedia treatment turn out, it might not be worth the trouble.
It’s fine to show off capabilities and creativity, but we must eventually achieve profitability or we won’t be in business long. Play, learn and even venture into the territory of the artistic amateur, but remember your bottom line when it comes to the bulk of your customers’ orders.
Tip #5: Try it
Ultimately, the only way to see if multimedia is right for you and your clientele is to try it. Produce some samples, share them with your social media followers, hang them in your showroom, and see how they are received. Avoid the pitfalls, keep your materials in mind, and your execution clean and well-aligned, and you’ll produce samples ready to win over any retail-minded shopper. You never know when a show of versatility and value might be the differentiator between your shop’s offerings and the otherwise capable, but less eye-catching, displays of your competitor.