Headwear Decorating Options

At 21 years old, Lon Winters was the production manager for Ocean Pacific and started his 30+ year career reclaiming screens. His companies have won 50+ garment decorating awards and honors, and he's served 15+ years as an honorary Golden Image Judge, published hundreds of articles and columns, led various industry seminars and workshops, and consulted on projects large and small. He's the president and founder of Colorado-based Graphic Elephants, an international consulting firm and apparel decoration studio specializing in screen printing technical advances, plant design, layout, troubleshooting, productivity, quality analysis and complete apparel decorating solutions. He was inducted into the Academy of Screen Printing Technology in 2013 and is recognized for his contribution to the graphic printing industry.

What better time to talk about baseball caps than not too long after the Rockies of Colorado were represented in this years Fall Classic? I have been in the decorated-apparel business for quite some time. (Too late to be a doctor now, I guess.) In that time I have certainly decorated my share of hats, caps and headwear of many other types. Primarily those garments have been decorated with embroidery for many of the past years. We run multiple embroidery heads and have at least a couple set-up on hats nearly all the time.

In fact, I responded to a question for the Printwear “100 Q&A” issue a couple of years back on that very subject. “What is the best way to print a cap?” My answer was, and I thought always would be, “Embroider it!” Still my favorite hat decoration method, but certainly not the only embellishing choice popular at the moment. And we do what we have to do, just like most of you. Decorating methods are always changing, along with hat and cap styles themselves. This is an indicator of headwear trends we are seeing in the many marketplaces to which we cater as an industry.

Caps flow into the mainstream

Many, many years ago caps were reserved for baseball players and their fans, primarily. Part of a uniform. Hence the common term baseball cap that’s applied to everything from a golf cap to a tractor cap to a . . . well, just about anything with a bill. Both men and women, for many years, have also adorned dress hats for special occasions and, of course, the function of a hat or cap to keep our heads warm has all been part of headwear history. Before fashion, music and athletics, among other factors, drove our culture to where it is today, most folks did not wear a lot of casual headwear. Then again, there were those bad hair days in college in which we wore whatever cap and sweats might be lying on the floor, rather than get up early enough to shower and get adequately ready for class.

Caps are nearly as mainstream these days as T-shirts. Almost. Over the last decade or so we have seen a direction of form over function. It’s all about fashion and looking good, right? In an informal way, caps simultaneously indicate a person’s loyalty and individuality, from the world-champion Red Sox fan to the patron of Fat Jack’s Tavern to the farmer whose tender old scalp is protected by the seed-company logo’d cap. Today the cap market sees thousands of every imaginable style of headwear, from different fabrics, shapes and functions. As it has through the ages, headwear will remain functional and fashionable. Certainly, at retail, the buzz for some time has been about beanies, stockings and buckets, as well as non-constructed six-panel and five-panel foam trucker caps. As we know, caps can be sourced and purchased at wholesale ranging from around a dollar to many times that.

Pop-culture on TV

The high-profile, five-panel, foam-front/mesh-back printed “trucker,” “tractor” or “farmer” caps are all the rage, having staged a come-back a few years ago. The kids absolutely love ‘em. Hip hoppers, professional athletes and probably your 13-year-old son are all wearing them. The taller the crown and the flatter the bill, the better. These caps used to be dirt cheap, right? Some were under ten bucks a dozen, if I remember right from the early 80s. No longer. They aren’t all that much better constructed now, just much more expensive. Perception is everything. We are printing at least as many of these and other styles as much as we are embroidering six-panel caps. In fact, we are printing six-panel caps as well and even beanies and stockings.

I certainly never saw myself investing in a cap printing machine years ago, but now we print, embroider and transfer all types of headwear regularly. The market seems to be all over the place. One need only flip on the television, find MTV on the remote and watch for only a few minutes to see what is hot in headwear and most other wearables. (And a few minutes is about all most of us can handle of the pop-culture on TV. . . .)

So what do we put on ‘em and how do we do it? It seems as if, like anything, really, headwear styles come full circle over time. Retro is hot in the entire fashion market, and certainly caps are no exception. What was old is new again: distressed, worn, vintage. Distressed printing over seams is common. Tone-on-tone in both print and embroidery will never go out of style. And the technique is easy in embroidery and screen print. Usually a shade or two lighter or darker (than the garment) thread or ink is the ticket. The embroidery digitizing does not need to be quite as dense in a tone-on-tone application and runs faster than typical for that reason.

Knit beanies are here to stay, at least for the last few years and probably a few more. They too get plenty of play with athletes, rock stars and actors. Beanies, for the most part, are being embroidered due to the difficulty in printing knits, but we print ‘em too. Music and athletics seem to drive this look or statement as well, not unlike many of our style and fashion trends.

And let us not forget performance fabrics. Under Armour has created an enormous market in all areas, including headwear. The flexible-band-type caps made to look like fitted baseball-style caps and visors continue to hold their own. Both structured and unstructured remain very popular and are decorated equally in our plant, with both embroidery and screen print.

Location, location, location

Front placement, over the seam. Duh. Screen print or embroidery. We have special platens with a groove for the seam on six-panel caps, making them a snap to print: front, back, both sides, bill. We are sewing and printing all over the place. Certainly the back of the cap is, as always, solid, as many folks are wearing them backwards or even sideways. Symmetry is not all that important to people, it seems. Even off center and crooked placements. Right- or left-front and side placements are very common. The only consistency is no consistency. That goes for logo sizes too. The only limitations are platens, screens or hoop constraints.

Promotional type caps are the most commonly decorated. And certainly any real volume in decorated caps can be manufactured and decorated overseas. Asia, it seems, is the location of choice for obvious reasons. You can source decorated caps and caps for similar costs to that of blank caps and caps through distribution, in some cases. Time frames and minimums are the only obstacle and these, over the years, have begun to shrink. Additional trims can also be added, enhancing a cap with a personalized sandwich bill, or contrasting taping with logos or type. Logo-stamped buckles, embroidery on the bills and elsewhere is available and very reasonably priced.

The details are an important factor and make a particular headwear product distinct and custom for its marketplace. This is the time to do much of the decoration as well, especially embroidery. Caps can be decorated while they are in piece-form so huge wrap-around embroidery, even onto the bill, can be accomplished and look fantastic.

Special effects have made a huge impact in decorated-apparel industry as a whole, and headwear is no exception. 3-D foam in embroidery, along with patches and multiple appliqué techniques, have been solid for years. Sonic welding, liquid-looking metals and molded rubber and leather patches look great on headwear. Screen-printed special effects have application in this area and can be made to look like these other techniques as well. Hi-density inks to liquid silver to doming gels create some very convincing faux applications and many other looks as well. It takes quite a little R&D to work out all the details, but with a little sweat the end results are really nice. The fact that the logos are typically small compared to those on other more typical screen-printed apparel, can often more easily be accomplished using textured and dimensional applications of inks.

All that glitters

I would be remiss if I did not mention digital direct-to-garment inkjet printing. Many manufacturers provide a jig or cap attachment for their machines in this realm. Typically, this approach is very nice for full-color tonal and raster images on white and, of course, the personalization factor is perfect for digital.

And let us not forget about the bling thing. Gotta have the bling. Glitter is in full force on all fashion fronts right now. We put it on caps quite a bit these days too, especially in colors like pink for women. A few heat-applied rhinestones, custom rhinestone transfers or some sewn-in embroidered sequins will give you that high-dollar look your customer wants. And, a combination of a couple of the above in a multi-media application is always workable if the customer has the right budget. We get into some pretty high dollars there. And that’s what we want, right?

Wrap a decorated cap around a rolled up T-shirt sporting a similar image and technique, using a thick rubber band, and you have a very effective cap/T combo. Now we have an up-sale item to throw at our customer to increase our total sale. Gotta like that. There are countless combinations of other items to add to the headwear product to dream up if you give it some thought.

As with everything related to garment embellishment, decorating options have and will continue to evolve over the foreseeable future. Headwear decorating techniques are no exception. There are new inks, threads, applications and processes that make headwear embellishments spectacular. However, traditional techniques such as tone-on-tone and distressed vintage still remain and are as strong as ever. Cap decorating techniques really come down primarily to screen print and embroidery for the most part. The tools are a bit different than that of a typical T-shirt print or embroidery, and you must deal with a substrate that is not necessarily flat. But, with a few new tools and some old-school hard work, there are countless approaches to decorating the good ol’ baseball cap.