Embroidery on Fleece

With over 35 years in the embroidery industry with particular emphasis on writing, education, and digitizing, Helen Hart Momsen is widely published in the trade press. Momsen founded and moderates the Embroidery Line (, the longest continuously running internet forum for apparel decorators. A sought-after speaker for many years for THE NBM SHOW, Momsen has authored two ground-breaking books on professional embroidery, available at

Knit fabric with a brushed pile on one side is known as fleece. The fashion and accessory world has embraced the comfort, warmth and versatility of fleece and we find it everywhere. But the best known fleece garment is the sweatshirt.

More often than not, when blankets, baby clothes, coat linings and more are discussed, you will hear people say, “It’s made of sweatshirt material.” When we talk about printing or embroidering on fleece, it’s usually a sweatshirt that is being squeegeed or stitched.

Over eighty years ago the word “sweatshirt” was coined to describe shirts worn by athletes to warm up or cool down. A sweatshirt is typically a long-sleeved pullover with a knit neckline, cuffs and, generally, waistband. Champion Products and Russell Athletic are two of the well-known manufacturers who claim the prize for “inventing” the sweatshirt.

Knickerbocker Knitting Co. manufactured the early prototype of the sweatshirt, a gray pullover that was more useful than fashionable. Knickerbocker became Champion and is said to be responsible for the first sweatshirt. It also patented a process for adding raised letters to shirts, which became known as “athletic” wear. Champion’s claims to fame include the first football jerseys fashioned of cotton, and the first sweatshirts now known as hoodies.

Russell also claims the honor of producing the first sweatshirt in 1926. Then, in 2006, the company launched an intense campaign to toast eight decades of sweatshirts which included the introduction of sweatshirts made with high-performance fabrics.

For all its amazing history, the craze of embellishing college and university names on sweatshirts didn’t move from idea to reality until the 1960s. The two-piece jogging suit hit the streets in that same decade and other apparel made from fleece followed.

Ten years later, in the 1970s, the sweatshirt started competing with the T-shirt in the “tell it like it is” arena—helping wearers express themselves withy quotations and slogans.

Who would have guessed that the sweatshirt would evolve into clothing worn by Every Man, at every age, to stay warm and look cool? Sweatshirts have become a tradition and are right up there with T-shirts and jeans when we think of casual style.

Embroidery on fleece

It’s important to remember that fleece is a member of the knit family, so requires a soft cutaway backing. The function of the backing is to offer stability and control the stretch which equals a nice steady surface for embroidery. Over the years, I have found that taking the time to turn the garment inside out and adhere the backing to the inside with spray adhesive—or use one of the new backings that adhere with the use of water—will offer even more stability and lead to high-quality stitching and perfect registration. This process marries the knit of the sweatshirt to the backing and allows you to hoop them as one which eliminates any shifting at all between the shirt and the backing. Use the smallest hoop and needle possible. Use round wooden hoops if possible but, if plastic is all you have, place a piece of backing, tissue paper or waxed paper on top of the fabric before you hoop, then tear away an access window for your embroidery. This will prevent hoop burn. The round hoops offer the best and most uniform tension on the fabric.

For a quality product, check the construction of any garment before you stitch. This is especially true of the sweatshirt which doesn’t have a placket or buttons to use as guides when placing left- or right-chest logos.

I don’t like to pull on the shirt after I hoop—I prefer to start over—but if you have to make any adjustment after the garment is hooped, pull gently in the direction of the least stretch. Overstretching can result in puckering of the fabric when the hoop is removed and can even result in unsightly holes around the edge of the embroidery. The backing should be caught all the way around to assure quality stitching and registration.

Use a ball-point needle; remember this is a knit fabric. Add some topping if the fleece is thick to keep the embroidery on the surface of the goods. I actually prefer carefully placed and denser underlay instead of topping as the topping is water-soluble and will wash away when the garment is laundered. I prefer the durability and longevity of stitches. Round the corners and trim any long threads for the comfort of the wearer.

Digitizing for fleece

Designs with low stitch counts are always better when stitching on stretchy fabrics. Consider digitizing an overall underlay under the area to be embroidered. Use the hue of the shirt for this first stitching and your stitching area will be even more stable. This not only marries the backing to the shirt but also provides underlay for the entire design, allowing the elimination of any underlay under individual sections. You can still add underlay to portions that you want to loft or sculpt for dramatic effects. The underlay should sew in the opposite direction to the top stitching. This initial stitching will help create an even sewing surface and the result will be the best stitching surface for crisp embroidery with no distortion.

Add compensation to your design when it is destined for a knit fabric. Overthrow stitching on letters such as “O” to get a round result, and shorten columns, as they will push up when sewn. Consider using more density in the underlay and then less in the top stitching and you will find that your design will be as soft as the shirt. Try layering that underlay, adding the density a little at a time, and you will need less push and pull compensation. Fill stitches should be light and run at an angle to the nap of the fabric.

I love low-stitch designs on fleece, especially sweatshirts. Designs “drawn” with line stitches can have a dramatic effect. You can create a sculptured effect (trapunto) using run stitches to outline letters—creating the lettering with the negative space. Add to this some puffy backing and the results are dramatic. Tone-on-tone designs created with line stitching and negative spaces lend a subtle but classy look to the garment, making a sweatshirt seem a little “dressier.”

Try filling the interior of the area to be outlined with low-density cross-hatch, stitching in a different color from the garment. The combination of the thread and the hue of the shirt will mix new colors in the viewer’s eye.

Appliqué and CAD-cut fabric can be fun and create dramatic effects. Remember, appliqué saves stitches but adds labor, so factor that into to your price. Also remember that using dry-clean-only fabric on a washable garment will create a dry-clean-only product.

Consider setting the stitches as one of your finishing steps. Use a heat press with medium pressure at about 290-310°F. Turn the garment inside out and press from the back against a pad of fabric to preserve the texture of the embroidery and the pile of the unstitched part of the shirt. Pressing embroidery like this makes the stitches appear more even and gives a fine finished look to the embroidery.

Try something different

Print a design on white tackle twill fabric and your appliqué can take on a whole new dimension. Print a picture of the mascot of a team in an all-over design on the fabric, then cut out the name of the school and appliqué this to the garment. Offer creative and different to your customers and your business will be top on their lists.

Place a contrasting-color fleece under the garment, in the hoop. Sew outline lettering, then cut away the top layer (the garment’s fabric) which will reveal the contrasting color underneath. This method only improves after washing. The wider the letters, the more contrast you will have. You can also just slit the top layer of fabric and let it roll back and expose the contrasting fabric underneath.

Sometimes the “different” can be rearranging the sweatshirt. Cut four different color sweatshirts apart and rearrange them into four new color-blocked garments. If you don’t sew, pay someone—perhaps a retired seamstress—to make the change. This process works best if you select shirts with different hues but the same value. Value is the word used to describe how dark or light the hue is. An easy way to determine value is to use your scanner and print or just view the shirts in grayscale.

Imagine combining the color block shirt with the “contrasting color fleece” trick described above; you could even have words in contrasting colors under each block of color in the shirt.

Get fleeced

Today, with all the innovative performance-fabric processes, many companies are offering fiber combinations that present a more stable and friendly fleece surface for embroidery, particularly the sweatshirt.

Fleece is inexpensive, warm, cozy, comfortable, versatile and seems to be popular with all ages. What more could we ask for, than to add our embroidery to something so popular?