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Headwear Update: The Fabric of Caps

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 (www.embroideryline.net), 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 www.Helenhart.com.

As if there wasn’t enough to think about with embroidery on caps. . . .

They can be unstructured or structured, six-panel with the attendant center seam, five panel or sloped. They have high-, mid- or low-profiles, self-fabric or leather back straps with buckle, Velcro or other closures. The visors can be sandwiched, pre-curved, or extended, and the back can be mesh or fabric. Factor all these variables in with all the different fabrics and it’s no wonder caps puzzle even veteran embroiderers.

I am a great believer in offering only caps that fit the embroidery machine. (No, they don’t all fit the machine!) I level my playing field and create classier stitching on caps by making sure the arc of the cap and the arc of my cap frame are compatible. Gaps lead to poor registration. Any remaining gaps can be filled with extra layers of backing or, my favorite, waxed paper. So, get some samples, remove the visor from one of them and place it on the cap gauge. If it fits smoothly, the embroidery will go smoothly: Simple as that. (Here’s a tip: Find a cap manufacturer that offers embroidery and stitches with the same machine you do. Buy your caps there, and you won’t find a better fit.)

Once you find the “perfect” cap, digitize your design center-out and bottom-up to roll any excess fabric up out of the way as the machine sews. This prevents puckers in the center and buckles between the visor and the bottom of the design. Remember to add extra underlay to flatten and tame that center seam. If you add a mesh of underlay under the whole design—marrying the cap to any backing you are using—your surface will have greater stability. This works especially well for caps made of stretchy fabrics. Cotton caps may need no backing at all.

A curved surface can be tricky so I use pull compensation to beef up satin lettering and details to make sure they stand out. And make sure the design fits in the allowed target area. Too tall and the crown will pull as the pantograph reaches too high; too low and the seam between the visor and the front panel(s) will compromise the quality. Think about reducing the size of your design on an unstructured cap, especially the low-profile style, so the design will fit well and not distort during stitching.

Also, hoop the cap correctly. When you hoop a cap well, you minimize movement, reduce the issue of flat-throat-plate-versus-curved-cap and provide a smooth area for the stitching. Just as with any other garment, don’t stretch the cap in the hoop or you can have registration problems or holes around the edge of the design.

Now stop and think: Even after you have taken into consideration the curve of the cap, the special digitizing needs, the careful placement and hooping, you have to consider the fabric. Fabric makes a cap just another garment, no matter how it curves or aggravates.

Learn the language and construction of the most common fabrics and you will be able to determine the needs of any fabric that comes on the market by looking for similarities and noting differences—comparing them to the standard fabrics whose needs you already understand. Divide and conquer, compare and contrast, set standards and determine any variables . . . and you will be well on your way to a cap stitched with superior quality.

Some fabric facts

The hand or feel of the cap’s fabric is dictated by fiber content (man-made or natural), whether it is woven (and how) or knit, the thread count (altering density makes the fabric stiff or soft), and the way in which the fabric is finished.

Most particularly, the weave and the finish of the cap’s fabric make a difference in performance and can affect the embroidery process. It makes sense if you think about it.

Let’s look at some of the materials from which caps are made and see how to compensate for their particular qualities.

A simple cotton, fashioned with a plain weave, will accept embroidery stitches nimbly but may need backing and special attention to underlay.

A twill weave, which has the filling threads passing over or under more than three of the warp threads at a time, has diagonal ridges in the weave, which can pose a challenge when trying to create smooth edges on satin stitches, and lend a saw-tooth look to lettering. I use a series of running stitches inside the overall designs and/or each segment, to give the top stitches something to grip on the edges.

Brushed twill has a softer hand, which seems to soften the ridges in the weave, and it stitches more easily (than other twill). I use pull compensation on lettering and satin details, in proportion to how “nappy” the surface is. I want the design to pop, not disappear into the brush. Be aware that brushed twill (and other fuzzy surfaces) sheds and the resulting “lint” sticks to everything, including the cap. This requires extra attention when preparing caps for delivery, as well as cleaning of the bobbin-case area to prevent this kind of residue rain from building up and compromising the function of the bobbin.

Caps made from canvas can have the same ridge affect as twill weave so use the same advice for running stitches, especially along the edge of lettering, to prevent a ragged saw-tooth look. Synthetic canvas can pucker under heavily stitched segments, so try a lighter density.

 Corduroy requires some pre-planning of the stitching in order to fill in the valleys of the weave and level the wales that characterize this material. I use manual underlay as automatic underlay may not follow the path necessary to close the gaps of the fabric. This is stitch-thirsty fabric, so use pull compensation and try to keep your lettering at 6mm or larger. If you must use smaller lettering, consider using what I call “the magic box” to level the corduroy behind small lettering that would disappear into the weave of the cap if stitched directly. It consists of two layers of diagonal underlay, stitched in opposite directions, creating a diamond-netting effect which is “stitched” together with a loose density satin to hold the edges together. When stitched in the same color as the cap it provides a unobtrusive platform for lettering. Stitched in a contrasting shade it can become a dynamic part of a logo. Use average to heavy underlay with corduroy and moderate to heavy density on top stitching. Use pull compensation to create thick lofty letters and satin details. If the fabric tends to grab the thread, lighten the density on lettering and fill stitches. Remember that this fabric has a definite nap—proper density will tame that.

Wool fabric pulls down on stitching which gives a clean edge, but can make columns look skimpy. Add pull compensation to letters and other columns and use enough underlay to give a nice loft.

Microfiber is a synthetic fabric woven with very fine fibers. Although made from acrylic, nylon, rayon or polyester, it is often blended with natural fibers such as cotton, linen and wool. The result is a very stitch-friendly fabric.

Nylon  is durable and flexible and can handle high stitch-count designs.

Poplin is a good, stable, woven fabric that offers a smooth surface for embroidery. It is often confused with twill but does not have the complicating ridges found in twill fabric.

Ultrasuede is considered a knit because it stretches. It has the hand of suede and  requires only average density. I use more underlay and less density on top, letting the underlay to do most of the covering work.

Foam-backed fabric wants less density so the fabric is not completely perforated during stitching. The underlay should be at an angle opposite that of the top-stitching. Use wider columns and/or pull compensation. Some waxed paper between the fabric and the machine will help prevent the foam from pulling in the thread.

Common denominators

I always start a cap order with new, sharp needles. I use a cap transfer press or a steamer to soften the fabric for embroidery and replace any sizing or stain repellant when the stitching is completed.

Always seek common denominators when looking for solutions. This is true when learning to use your multi-needle (or multi-head) machine: Learn to thread and troubleshoot one and you’ve mastered them all. This same approach can be helpful in many facets of this industry with its many variables. It can be especially helpful when determining the target fabric and the game plan for taming and stitching it. First determine if it is woven or knit. This tells you if you need more pull compensation (recommended for stretchy goods) and if you need to consider any or more backing. Evaluate the surface for nap, patterned weaves or chemical additives. Compensate for nap with compensation and density. Deal with the additives by removing them for stitching and replacing later, or by adding waxed paper or a Teflon-coated needle to combat the grabbing and residue that often goes hand-in-hand with treated fabrics. Tame the patterned weave (such as twill or corduroy) with creative digitizing techniques that not only confront the issue but can also add to the design.

Emulate the carpenter

Don’t let the shape of the fabric throw you. It doesn’t matter if it is a cap, a shirt or a circus tent. Choose well, digitize with all variables in mind, hoop perfectly and it won’t matter if it is curved or flat.

Consider the seasoned, professional carpenter. Unlike the ordinary handyman, he knows his woods. He understands floors must be made of a hard wood such as oak or cherry to be flat and long-lasting. And he knows which woods require pre-drilled holes for nails and screws in order to prevent splitting. Learn all you can about fabrics and you too will be a true professional. The by-product will make those caps less challenging.