With all of its curves and counter-intuitive surfaces, it's been said that headwear embellishment proves daunting. While taking time to take on a challenge can be less than appealing, approaching a new opportunity can also make an offering that much more unique, and in a cap's case, add another dimension for stand up, stand out promotions.
“Embroidery is the most common and classic way of decorating a cap,” remarks Torrye Kampen of Caps Direct. “Traditionally, we offer flat and three-dimensional embroidery as an embellishment technique that is common in the headwear market.”
A high-end finish and ability to decorate over seams with minimal loss to a graphic’s integrity are among embroidery’s benefits for headwear embellishment, according to Imprintables Warehouse’s Zach Ellsworth. “Embroidery also allows for some special-effect decorating, including puff,” he points out. Shoppers, he adds, customarily look for direct embroidery embellishment because of a perceived value provided at a minimal cost due to lower stitch counts in the small decorating space that occupies cap-front real estate. An embroidery machine with a cap attachment and file properly digitized to the particular cap at hand, and head, are the basic necessities, notes Ellsworth.
Amid those essentials are some manufacturer and decoration-dependant options. “There are embroidery machines with what they call a drop table, where the table drops down, allowing operators to put on the cap attachment instead of just a flat table up at the garment level,” reports James Ortolani, HIX Corporation.
As opposed to flat-table machines—used primarily to embroider flat or unfinished goods prior to assembly—the drop-table machines are adjustable for finished goods and are most common in the U.S., according to Frank Barbieri, Barudan America Inc. “There is also a cap frame assembly just for finished caps,” he adds. An essential when embroidering completed caps, every embroidery machine manufacturer makes such a setup to fit its machine.
“In the U.S., we have the largest finished-cap embroidery market in the world,” Barbieri reports. “It goes along with the fast-food, have it now attitude here. In places such as Asia, Europe and Latin America, the unfinished cap is common and vast.” The process of finishing, in these latter cases, involves embroidering and then assembling the individual panels prior to final cap assembly. In any region and regimen, embroidery tends to last longer than other applications, but is also more expensive, Barbieri explains.
The word substrate, as in direct to, also applies to headwear, and a couple D2 machine and equipment/supply manufacturers make a specialty cap attachment, extending the convenience and capabilities of digital direct printing to these dimensional garments.
Another means of getting attached to headwear embellishment falls into the screen-printing realm, with specialty press attachments made expressly for caps. “People worry about printing over that seam,” Ortolani says of the salacious sixth panel. “But it can be done if you have a good way to hold that cap down.” He describes one cap platen with a middle groove for the offending seam, and another attachment which spreads the seam apart slightly to receive ink across it, closing back up when removed from the platen.
In addition to attachments, stand-alone cap printers are another option for adding cap printing as a main product offering while keeping the T-shirt press free for flat work, states Ortolani. “Stand-alone cap printers require less floor space and are not as cumbersome as printing your caps on the larger T-shirt printing press. In fact, many stand-alone units are available for table-top use and can easily fit in tight quarters,” he says.
From her perspective as a customized-cap provider, Kampen adds that screen printing is another budget-friendly headwear-embellishment option. “Not only is screen print very affordable, it is very trend-right and a great way to show small details,” she remarks. “We have been doing many screen printed caps lately, especially in the monster graphics—very large blown-up images crossing many panels of the cap.”
Two basic methods exist for printing caps directly, according to Ortolani, one with the imprintable area flat, the other with it curved. “Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages; it really comes down to matter of personal preference,” he explains, offering some considerations for investigating which method is best. “Printing the cap flat feels comfortable to many because the squeegee technique associated with printing on a flat surface is one with which T-shirt printers are already familiar, whereas printing over a curved surface takes a little bit of practice.” A downside to flat printing, he says, is that loading it forces the cap out of its natural shape. “This causes some issues to overcome in the area of avoiding image distortion after the cap is printed and removed from the press.”
Curve or no with regard to the cap, screen printing headwear does involve an unavoidable learning curve, as this technique takes some degree of skill.
Transferring ideas to dollars
Rather than investing in a separate machine or attachment, many shops instead opt to produce screen-printed heat transfers for hats, according to Ortolani. Necessities down this avenue include a vacuum platen to hold the paper down while printing and a heat press with a curved platen. “Let’s say you’re a screen printer and you get an order for a thousand hats. You can either try to screen print those as a completed cap or you can buy a vacuum platen and screen print those on paper,” Ortolani says. “Gang up six to eight hat-sized designs on a piece of transfer paper, then just heat press them on. The waste factor is next to nothing.” With ganged images, multiple transfers are created every time the squeegee is pulled, as most artwork for caps will fit within a 3" X 5" area, he adds. An inexpensive option—with roughly two cents worth of plastisol ink on cap fronts—transfers, in Ortolani’s opinion, also look great.
“Two main types of transfer paper are available for making plastisol heat transfers,” he explains. “Coated transfer paper has a slick coating and is used to print cold-peel transfers with standard plastisol. The un-coated transfer paper is used for printing hot-split transfers using specially-formulated hot-split inks.” Off-the-shelf plastisol inks will suffice for cold-peel cap transfers, generally providing good coverage and opacity on dark backgrounds. “However, the print does have a shiny appearance,” Ortolani remarks. For hot peels, an ink available from most ink manufacturers specially formulated for hot-split transfers must be used. “This splitting action leaves a matte finish on the cap’s surface and resembles a direct screen print.”
Heat transfers continue to be a viable method for decorating caps, and Ortolani observes a lot of promotional headwear still being decorated this way. “Other types of heat-applied graphics for caps include flock transfers, digital transfers made with inkjet and laser printers, embroidered patches and die-cut letting.”
“The benefit of decorating headwear, or any wear, with heat-applied graphics is the ability to offer personalization on-demand with an unlimited amount of colors in your graphics,” remarks Imprintables’ Ellsworth. “All you need is a cap press and your design. You can cut your designs to order with a cad-cutter, produce full-color personalized graphics on a large format digital printer/cutter or pre-design an event-specific add-on graphic with pre-made transfers.”
According to Aaron Knight of Geo Knight & Co Inc., the curved cap heat press was introduced within a few years of the first T-shirt heat presses and is absolutely necessary when transferring to caps. “You really can’t do it on a flat press without mangling the cap,” Knight remarks, adding that a good cap press should have options for two or three different sized bottom tables for loading and correct infilling of the cap from behind. “We find that our mid-sized bottom table option is almost always needed in addition to the standard-sized cap form when doing low-crown and smaller curved caps.”
The youth/child size, he adds, is less-often needed. “The cap press is heavily used for embroidered appliqués, screen- and computer-printed transfer papers, sublimation, flocking/crystals and other odd things people like to stick to hats,” Knight comments.
Caps Direct’s Kampen mentions liquid metal and sonic welding as examples of heat applications that can make a brand pop on cap in both the corporate and racing market. Additionally, she names photo and graphic sublimation as one of the hottest headwear embellishments right now. “This is huge in the retail market on the foam-front trucker mesh caps, especially in neon colors. The photo sublimation carries high perceived value with low minimum order quantity and affordable pricing.”
The variety of heat-applied graphics available for caps has greatly expanded in recent years, says Ortolani. He reemphasizes Knight’s point about the importance of a correctly-sized lower platen and a press with interchangeable options accommodating crown-height variance from one style to the next, as caps have changed and are trending smaller in crown size. For example, today’s popular six-panel, low-profile and five-panel twill caps typically sport a 3" crown height as compared to the old foam-front caps with crowns measuring 3 to 4".
Along with crown height, paneling provides for interesting cap-decoration scenarios. Although five-panel caps sans seams make cap customization easier for the undertaking, there are ways of getting around pesky panel number six. “We’ve found that flock transfers go right across the seam,” says Ortolani of six-panel success. “A lot of the ski resorts will use a flock transfer. It’s a velour type and it fills across that gap pretty well.”
As for decoration location, front and center are no longer the parameters, and the possibilities are endless in Kampen’s estimation. “We screen print or embroider anywhere on the cap—from the under visor, seam taping, to the top button or sandwich, all of the cap components can have a creative twist that helps build brand awareness.”
Ellsworth names the underside of a cap’s bill as the most interesting print location he’s seen. “One of the Pimpashirt viewers, Jason McIntyre from Headz ‘n’ Threadz submitted a cap decorated under the bill with a digital heat transfer of his customer’s children, so every time Jason’s customer wore the hat and looked up, his kids were looking back down at him. It was very cool!”
Adds Ellsworth: “No matter what decoration method they choose, personalization is king. Not only can their decorations be value-added but they have the ability to be value-unique, which means more customers, more profits and more fun.” With so many opportunities to conquer the challenges in the curves, the only obstacle left will be counting the cap-order cash.
Embellishment Option: Laser Decoration for Headwear
by Ed Balady
One of the newest techniques in the decorated-apparel industry is laser bridge technology. This involves a laser-cutting unit that is built over a multi-head embroidery machine, programmed to move from head to head, cutting or etching fabric that is inside or on top of an embroidery hoop.
This process enables decorators to produce more sophisticated appliqué designs up to four times faster than traditional methods as well as opening up the doors to a whole new world of decorating options that were not production-friendly before.
Where laser bridge options were restricted in terms of decorating headwear, new technology in which the laser is connected to the embroidery machine head itself is opening up the doors to laser embellished caps.