Digital Applique

A constant contributor to both industry events and trade publications, Jimmy Lamb is also the manager of communication at Sawgrass Technologies. Learn more about Sawgrass Technologies at

Appliqué has long been considered among embroiderers a great way to reduce stitch counts on large-area designs—a truly viable consideration. But the reality is that appliqué is a creative form of apparel decoration that should be used as an artistic tool, rather than simply as a method of stitch reduction. A big part of that is utilizing the fabric insert to add a higher level of vibrancy and originality to the design.

Unfortunately, the fabric portion of a typical appliqué is virtually ignored during the design process, treated as filler material rather than a vital component of the overall presentation. But with the right approach, the fabric insert can not only add an unparalleled element to the design; it can literally become the primary focus of the final decoration.

The first step when taking on appliqué is to consider fabrics that are a natural companion to the design. For example, if working with a large sailboat design, consider using appliqué for the sails. Look for a material similar to sailcloth to use in the fabric sections. True sailcloth would probably be too heavy, but there are plenty of polyester materials that would be suitable for the task.

The next step is to identify ways to bring the fabric sections to life so they are a focus point rather than a background element. One method is to add embroidery details on top of the appliquéd fabric, but typically, that just adds a few extra details and limited texture while doing very little for the overall design. A far better way to get the job done is to use printed rather than solid fabrics.

Printed fabric appliqué inserts can have eye-opening results with very little effort and cost. Precise graphical details, vivid colors and photorealistic images can all be added into an appliqué via printed fabrics, something that can’t be accomplished with embroidery alone. 

For example, we used fabric printed with exotic animals for an appliqué design targeted at zoos with the appliqué fabric as the prime focus of the design. The embroidery element of the design was very simple, but was stunning because of the unique fabric pattern. 

This same approach can be used with virtually any targeted market, such as appliquéd letters for a high school using fabric inserts printed with the school mascot and colors. Or maybe a modernistic hoodie for a college bookstore that uses colorful abstract fabric within the appliqué. For the corporate market, the printed fabric can be used to promote a brand. And then there is the artistic approach that combines a more subtle print with embroidery to create attention.

Grand as this concept sounds, there is one limiting aspect for this type of application: finding the right fabric. Traditionally, you would have to scour fabric stores and attend fabric shows to find really cool prints to fuel your appliqué designs. Besides being time-consuming, there was no guarantee you would be able to source the same design in the future. And, in the case of dealing with manufacturers, you had to buy huge quantities of fabric. But with all the advances in digital printing, you no longer need to source printed fabric. It’s a relatively simple process to create your own using sublimation or digital transfers. We call this digital appliqué.

Printing and fabric considerations

With the low entry-level cost of sublimation and digital transfer systems, you can easily create custom-printed digital appliqués without a huge investment. For example, an 8" X 8" full-color design can be sublimated for as low as $0.43 including ink and paper costs (depending on the printer, inks and actual design details). Combine that with the reduction in stitch count by using appliqué in place of fill stitches, and you have a very cost-effective decoration that can command a significant markup due to the uniqueness of the embellishment.

So which method of printing works the best? The first concern is in the fabric content. Sublimation only works with polyester fabrics whereas cotton fabrics will require the use of cotton transfer inks and media that can also be heat applied. 

To get the best results, stick with a fabric that is not a blend, as this will yield the highest level of detail, resolution and vibrancy when printed with the appropriate digital ink. For example, using a cotton ink on 100 percent cotton fabric will provide a higher-quality result than using the same ink on 50/50 blend. That’s not to say you can’t do it, but the results will vary when you apply the ink outside of its normal boundaries.

The fabric characteristics will also play a part in making the right selection for creating a digital appliqué. Polyester holds up nicely to long-term wear and tear, and sublimation prints do not fade, crack, shrink, or peel with multiple washings. Most blank polyester fabrics have a bit of a sheen which may or may not support the look you are trying to create with a digitally-printed appliqué. 

Cotton on the other hand tends to have more of a matte finish and possibly a textured surface as well, which provides a lot of options for fabric selection. Though typically durable in nature, cotton does have a tendency to shrink, which may affect the appearance of the appliqué spanning multiple launderings. In addition, it’s common for cotton inks to fade due to washing. And while digital cotton printing is advanced enough to generate high-resolution images on fabric, sublimation typically outperforms when photo-realistic images are necessary. But overall, cotton works well for digital appliqué.

In production

Creation of digital appliqué is relatively straightforward. It starts with laying out the image in a preferred graphics program. It’s best to pay close attention to the overall look of the design, which means thinking about the embroidery aspects while designing the digital aspects. For example, what aspects of the printed fabric need to be prominent in order to deliver the visual message? Make sure they are placed where there is no obstruction by the embroidery. In the case of basic shapes, it’s really no big deal. But if you are using abstract shapes or open lettering, graphic placement details become critical.

Another point to consider is dark versus light fabrics. Sublimation and cotton transfer inks must be used on white or light-colored fabrics. But this is not really a hindrance to the process, as any background color can be created via the digital appliqué process. Simply start with white fabric and add in the necessary background colors when setting up the image. For any areas of the design that need to be white in color, simply leave those areas open so the white fabric shows through.

Once the design is satisfactory, print it onto appropriate transfer paper and apply to the blank fabric using a heat press. When pressing is complete, discard the transfer paper and get ready to apply the digital appliqué fabric to the garment using one of two basic appliqué methods.

Either way, digital appliqué can add a whole new level of excitement and creativity to any garment and/or logo. It’s quick, easy and inexpensive. And best of all, it commands decent markups, while setting you apart from the competition.

The laser method of appliqué production

Recent technology has introduced the textile laser into many embroidery shops. The use of this cutting-edge equipment greatly simplifies the appliqué process, especially when dealing with complex shapes, multiple segments and reverse appliqué.

1. Place the fabric swatch that was just created on the garment in the proper location. 

2. Sew the tack-down stitches.

3. Activate the laser, which will trim the fabric right to the edge of the tack-down stitches. (The design file must be loaded into the laser controller.)

4. Sew the final border stitches to permanently secure the fabric in place and give a nice finished look to the edges.

The traditional method of appliqué production

1. Cut out the appliqué shape from the fabric swatch that was just created digitally. (This can be done with scissors. For large runs you may wish to contract it out or invest in a cutter system.)

2. Sew the outline stitches.

3. Apply the pre-cut appliqué fabric using some form of light adhesive. Use the outline stitches as a reference for placement.

4. Sew the tack-down stitches to secure the fabric in place.

5. Sew the final border stitches to permanently secure the fabric in place and give a nice finished look to the edges.