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Embroidering Athletic Wear: The Challenges and How to Overcome Them

Laura Gomez is the content specialist at Ricoma Embroidery Machines. Ricoma engineers, manufactures, and distributes embroidery equipment worldwide. To support both the industry and its customers, Ricoma regularly creates blog and video content to give both beginners and experts the confidence to start or grow their custom apparel business with embroidery. For more information regarding Ricoma, visit or click here to view Ricoma embroidery machine specifications. To contact Laura directly, email

While consumers gravitate to the comfort of this thin, stretchy material that allows them to move around freely, it’s those very same qualities that also scare a lot of embroiderers off.

Yup, you guessed it: 100 percent polyester material—also known as athletic performance wear.

So what exactly are the pains of embroidering on this material, and how can we alleviate them? read on for the most common issues and fixes. 

"My material keeps pinching and puckering!"

First things first: Proper and careful hooping is key. Use extra caution when you hooping to avoid unwanted pinching and puckering. Because this stretchy fabric is more prone to pinching, you really want to make sure you are not hooping too tightly or stretching out the fabric when hooping. Although this may seem like a no-brainer, it’s even more important to make sure the backing is fully covering the area of the hoop when you’re embroidering this type of material.

You’ll also need to make sure you are using the smallest size hoop that the design will fit in. This will keep the fabric near the design in place without stretching the entire garment out too much. In addition, you'll also want to choose the correct backing. Many embroiderers use a combination of adhesive spray with cut-away. Others use specialty adhesive backing. Either of these adhesive choices will help keep the stretchy garment in place. If you use adhesive tear-away, you should be extra careful when removing this backing because tearing it off may cause you to stretch the material or pull the stitches.

"My design looks stiff, and the backing is showing through!"

This is usually the result of selecting a heavier backing than the garment should take. Luckily, embroidery supply stores carry the solution to this—poly mesh backing. Although this specialty backing is more costly than regular cut-away at times, it gets the job done right. This soft backing will ensure the design comes out smooth and flat to the touch. At the same time, this no-show backing will ensure it won’t show through your garment, which is a typical issue we encounter with light fabrics. The number of sheets you should use depends on the fabric, but many embroiderers use two sheets of poly mesh depending on the weight of the backing. You can also pair the adhesive spray with poly mesh backing to ensure your design is both soft and in place when hooping to avoid pinching. Some people even like using a combination of the adhesive spray, one sheet of poly mesh, and one sheet of cut-away to stabilize it more.

"My design keeps losing registration!"

By now, you’ve probably realized the importance of proper stabilization. Using a heavier backing or doubling up on backing can help relieve this issue. When a design is dense, it can cause the outline to lose registration because the dense center of the design is pulling the stretchy fabric in, causing a gap between the border and the fill. This is also solved by proper stabilization. You can also consider making the border slightly thicker in the digitizing phase to accommodate for that.

"My design isn’t showing up well on my garment!"

If you’re embroidering small logos and text, you’ll need a good solvy or aqua-top topping to make sure stitches turn out flat and don’t get lost in the fabric, especially if it’s textured. Consider using smaller size needles such as a 70/10 needle versus the standard size 75/11 needles. This will result in cleaner, better quality stitches when embroidering small letters. Be extra cautious when removing topping to avoid pulling on any of the threads.

Because you can wash away this stabilizer, it’s best to spray it with water and remove the excess carefully. You’ll also need to use solvy if the design is more complex or has too much density. You may also consider using lightweight threads for more detailed designs. In both instances, you could try slowing down the speed of your machine to about 600 stitches per minute or less, depending on the maximum speed of your embroidery machine.

"My thread keeps shredding!"

Ballpoint needles are the cure. In general, 70/10 ballpoint needles are the best type of needles for sewing on moisture-management apparel. Use lightweight polyester or rayon threads. Rayon tends to look and feel better and softer, although polyester thread may hold up longer. Shredding could also be caused by a burr on the needle, so make sure you’re using a good needle from the start.

"I’ve tried everything! What else could it be?"

In any case, a poorly digitized design will produce poor results. While digitizing on its own is a whole other craft, and most embroidery businesses outsource their digitizing, you should still be familiar with the type of stitches and designs that work best for this fabric. Light, low-stitch-density designs work best for this type of gear. Reduce intricate details and small stitches, as this can cause shredding. Instead, go for simple fill stitches and longer satin stitches.

Check out Ricoma's blog for more embroidery insights.