Hats have a full brim all the way around, while caps have just a bill in the front . . . or nothing at all. We stitch more caps than hats in the world of embroidery—and the baseball cap has become a billboard for advertising businesses and events of all kinds.
Popular as they are, caps ever present a challenge to many embroiderers because they are curved and never sit quite as close to the throat plate as other goods. But, just like any other hurdle, if we learn to use common-sense solutions, the cap will become as popular with us as it is with those who wear it.
Stacking the deck
I believe in stacking the deck where caps are concerned. Unfortunately for the embroiderer, caps and the frames that hold them are not created equal. Thus, for quality embroidery with ease, select caps with the best fit to the equipment. Choosing a cap out of a book can be a recipe for disaster. Instead, purchase samples from the manufacturers, try them, and hang onto them for reference.
Selection tip: Do some homework and investigate the cap manufacturers who also offer embroidery. While some see them as the “competition,” I prefer to see them as providers of the perfect cap. If they use the same machine I do, chances are really good that they build their caps to specs that match their cap frames.
The best way to judge the fit of a cap is to take it apart and place the curve of the visor against the frame. A center gap there will invite flagging (bouncing up and down) during stitching. Gaps at either end may result in loss of registration.
You can shim with extra backing to fill smaller gaps. Raise the throat plate with a sticky square (used to mount lightweight items on the wall) secured with good tape. You can slide extra backing, waxed paper or felt under the cap to level the stitching field . . . but nothing beats choosing the best cap in the first place.
Choose caps that fit your frame, then offer only those to your customers. You can find a selection that will please anyone. If someone marches in with a box of self-purchased caps, do your best to determine the fit for your machine, but don’t be afraid to refuse (or at least forewarn) if things don’t line up.
The cap and the machine
Once you have the right cap selected, stitch it on a machine that is well tuned. The tensions should be correct and the thread path smooth and free of nicks and burrs. Check to make sure that the bobbin area is clean of any residue—and make sure that your bobbin is full. Be sure to tighten down all the screws when attaching the cap sash to the machine. Some are recessed and can only be seen when the sash is centered.
If your machine has a raised throat plate for caps, be sure to use it. Taping an O-ring or a rubber washer to this plate can also allow the cap to sit flatter on the surface.
Remember that cap frames are adjustable. Tighten or loosen them to hold the material taut. Just like flat goods, if the cap is hooped too tight, there may be distortions when it is removed. If hooped too loose, you may have loss of registration or excess flagging that will cause the thread to abrade and break.
Cap prep and hooping
Now that you’ve found the perfect cap and the machine is ready to run, make the caps even more embroidery-friendly. Use a cap press (a heat press with a curved platen designed to apply transfers to a cap) to iron out any shipping wrinkles and press flat any center seam. This will also help the cap fit the frame better. With a smooth surface, the thread will stitch better and the finished cap look better. (You can use this same platen, with a damp cloth across the cap front, to remove any topping used during stitching.)
Pressing loosens any sizing and softens the cap, opening the weave, allowing the needle and thread to pass through with minimal deflection or abrasion. Spraying Magic Sizing on the cap makes it malleable. If you frame it while it is damp or warm from the heat press, it will mold to the shape of your frames. Remember that you can always use spray starch or finishing products to replace the factory finish when the stitching is completed.
Use your hands to shape the bill to ease the fit on the frame. When hooping caps, fold out the sweatband and loop any braid to the inside of the cap. Bring the strap of the cap frame across the cap and fasten it, making sure it is even with the seam between the front panel and the bill. Pull it taut, securing with clips at the side when the frame calls for them. Place the clips at the back, pulling the fabric taut but not over-tight, ensuring that taller designs will not be pulled during stitching.
Hoop cap backs in a regular six-inch hoop. Use tearaway, open the back of the cap and stitch as any flat fabric.
Needles, thread and backing
Sharp needles are most efficient for caps, especially buckram-backed brands and those with tape and seams. An 80/12 sharp is a good choice. Be aware that a needle too large for the job may cause skipped stitches. If the lettering is small, a 75/11 will work but smaller needles have a higher break-incidence on thicker fabrics.
Change needles often when stitching caps as the buckram and heavier fabric dull needles quickly. Heated buckram also blocks the eye of the needle during stitching. Consider using one of the Teflon coated needles to help reduce heat residue and look to a reinforced needle to prevent the upper thread from rubbing against the center seam.
Polyester thread is impervious to sweat, salt water, and weather. The strength of poly can stand up to the stiffest cap fabric and a good quality thread decreases thread breaks. Consider using thread heavier than the average 40-weight for better coverage rather than increasing density if your design needs more weight.
When adding backing to a cap project, use a piece long enough to catch in the frame during hooping to avoid shifting. You can use double-sided tape or adhesive spray to secure the backing to the cap, but watch for gummy needles. Slide a piece of waxed paper under the embroidery area to cut down this gummy residue.
Manila file folders or the cardboard cap forms can be used successfully as backing. Some embroiderers frown on this, but the substance is perforated during stitching and removes completely so only you will be the wiser. I started stitching before there were backings or lists of taboos so I am more tolerant of processes that support recycling or offer alternatives when backing runs low in the middle of a job.
Hoop the backing with the cap and use a piece of bond paper under the cap to keep any residue (especially when buckram is present) from raining down into the bobbin case. Always be ready with extra backing or (my personal favorite) waxed paper to fill in any gaps that you notice when stitching begins. By filling even the smallest space, you prevent flagging and improve registration.
If you are stitching the sides and front of the cap simultaneously, use separate pieces of backing. Overlap them so the backing can bend to the cap shape during stitching and prevent pulling and puckering.
Digitizing and placement
There isn’t much real estate on the cap front for your message, so consider creative ways to make the most of what you have. If words or contact information are too small, recognition will be diminished and any advertising effect the cap will have will be minimized. This is the time to remember that the sides and back are fair game for stitching, so consider putting the website or phone number there, leaving more room on the front for name and logo. Contact information on the back is less confrontational, allowing a potential customer to read it without being “in your face” about it.
I like to place elements of the design side-by-side in order to allow them both to be larger and to avoid, whenever possible, any center seam. Asymmetrical designs can be more pleasing than a stacked, predictable logo and name.
When digitizing for a cap be sure to make a note of any special effects such as appliqué or puffy foam. If you contract your digitizing out, be sure to communicate any of this information to the digitizer.
Stitching rolls the fabric of the cap, so digitize underlay under the area to be stitched in order to marry the cap front to the backing right at the start. Digitize from the inside out and bottom up to roll the fabric in front of the design as it stitches. This can prevent puckers and bubbles from forming and improve the registration of the stitching.
Use underlay to tame difficult fabrics such as corduroy. When stitching lettering, a single line of stitching will work, but a single or double zigzag can hold the backing in place, stabilize the target fabric and create a smooth, lofty letter or shape. Remember to add compensation to your lettering. This means that you make the stitches wider if they will pull in and stop short when they will push up. Vertical letters push out at the top and round letters pull in at the sides.
(Digitizing tip: When you are ready to digitize the phone number or web site for the cap back, use the cap itself as a template. Scan in the arc of the cap and use it for matching the curve of the cap back exactly. This simple trick will make you look like a pro even if you are stitching your first cap!)
Consider using a series of small (1mm) stitches at the start of the design to tie down the thread before the stitching begins. You can also use these starting stitches to tame any center seam. Use a run stitch from the bottom of the design to the top and then stitch a zigzag underlay to fill the ditch of the center seam, guaranteeing that the indentation will not be seen in your finished product. You can add a thin piece of foam or backing under the stitches to ensure that there will be no visual division in the design.
Keep satin columns under ¼" wide. Use split satins for wide columns to get the look of satin while fending off any thread snags. You can even use two columns, side by side, in a wide area, using a jagged edge on the joining side. Fills should be 0 or 90 degrees (horizontal or vertical). Other angles may push the cap and compromise registration. Use shorter stitches in your fills to help prevent puckering.
If your design calls for small lettering, especially if your cap is made with a difficult fabric, use a crisscross network of loose fill behind the design in the same color as the cap. It is unobtrusive and allows the small details or letters to stand on top of the fabric instead of sinking in to it.
The best embroiderer is an educated embroiderer and nowhere is this more true than when confronting the cap. Learn the terms and construction of the cap so you can converse with your customers in a way that makes them feel comfortable with your assistance with the selection of the cap.
Make a check-list that includes best cap, proper needles, backing and thread, quality digitizing, secure hooping and careful, considered design placement. When all things are in place, you will be able to push that start button with confidence, knowing you have laid the foundation for quality stitching. And your customer will ever be happy with the results that come from your cap-able hands.