Caps are a very big part of the commercial embroidery industry. They provide an excellent source of revenue while remaining inexpensive and appealing to the customer. Modern embroidery machines feature a wide variety of cap frames and special drivers to make the job easier, yet sewing on caps still presents a challenge for most shops. In fact, some embroiderers are so uncomfortable with cap embroidery that they take great pains to avoid it altogether. Don’t let this happen to you! With a bit of understanding and research, as well as some trial and error, it’s possible to hoop headwear without a headache.
In order to understand hooping procedures, it is first necessary to understand some of the typical problems caps present. The primary challenge is caps’ curved surface, which makes it easier for the material to shift during the sewing process. This is one of the reasons that a design digitized specifically for caps is digitized from the center out. Keeping the material moving away from the height of the curve and towards the outside helps provide smooth embroidery with much less chance for distortion or puckering. Other typical problems include:
Registration issues: The designs have areas that shift out of position due to the cap moving around during the sewing process, especially when improperly hooped.
If the cap features a sweatband, it needs to be folded back and out of the way to enable the cap to slide onto the front of the hooping gauge.
Flagging: The fabric bounces up and down during sewing, which causes thread breaks, bobbin thread to show on top, needle breaks and sometimes the cap frame can even pop open.
Outlines that don’t line up: Stitched borders don’t line up to the areas they are surrounding.
So what makes caps so problematic? For one, the curve. Embroidered logos are designed to be flat, while caps are designed to be curved. Flattening a cap for the embroidered logo can cause distortion.
Also, the horizontal curve of the crown doesn’t match the curve of the frame. This is a significant problem. The cap frame is designed to hold and support the cap in its natural shape during the sewing process. If the two don’t match up, it’s a recipe for disaster.
The vertical front panel of the cap has curvature, while the frame does not. Don’t confuse this with the horizontal curvature. Most popular cap crowns today curve back and away from the bill. Yet, most cap frames don’t accommodate this characteristic, which leads to cap distortion from the minute it’s hooped. (Note: 270-degree cap frames are an exception.)
Finally, center seams cause abrupt fabric depth change. It isn’t necessarily the thickness of the seam that causes problems rather, the abrupt change in thickness. Watch closely and you will see that most thread and/or needle breaks occur at the edge of the seam rather than the middle.
There are two basic rules for cap embroidery that, if applied correctly, will eliminate about 80 percent of cap problems.
Rule Number One: The design must fit the cap. The single leading cause of cap problems is trying to sew a design that is too large for the given cap. Caps are not created equally and some can handle larger designs than others. In general, limit the design size to 2" H X 4.5" W and you should be able to sew on just about any style of cap. In actuality, it’s possible to go larger for some caps, but if you make it a standard practice to work with tighter parameters, you will be better off in the long run. Also, having the customer focus on the smaller size helps get an order started on the right foot. It’s much easier to increase the size for a larger cap than to decrease it for a smaller cap. While 2 inches tall is the rule of thumb for a low-profile cap, you can usually get up to about 2.25 inches on them and 2.5 inches tall on a traditional cap.
Securing the back of the cap with clips can help provide extra tension on the cap and reduce any movement.
Rule Number Two: The cap must fit the frame. The second most common mistake made by embroiderers in regards to sewing caps is trying to use a cap that doesn’t match up to their machine’s cap frame. Each frame has a built-in curvature that needs to mate with the horizontal curve of the cap to be sewn. If these two surfaces don’t match-up, the cap will have to be forced to fit into the frame, which will lead to distortion of the sewing surface. And, of course, the final result is poor sewing.
Ensure that the curve of the cap frame matches the curve where the bill meets the crown. One trick to test how well a cap lines up is to remove the bill, then place the curved portion (that used to attach to the crown) over the curved portion of the cap frame and visually inspect the match-up. Of course, this destroys the cap, but better one than a dozen. Unfortunately, there is no great master list of which brands and styles work best for each machine brand. It comes through trial and error. And because cap manufacturers change specifications frequently, what works best this year may not do so next year.
A standard cap frame is designed for normal front-of-cap embroidery. With this type of a frame only the front of the hat is embroidered. If the sides of the hat need embroidery, additional hoopings are required.
The 270-degree cap frame is designed to allow for embroidery on the front as well as the sides of the cap. Typical applications for this would be a single design that wraps continuously from one side of the cap to the other or a front design and one or two independent side designs that are able to be sewn in a single hooping.
There are also several specialty frames available for hooping caps. These devices are generally designed for the backs of caps. A quick-release lever on some models makes it easy to secure and release the material. Other models utilize one sticky backing to hold the cap in place and another to hold the material in place.
The back of a cap can also be hooped with a standard 9CM or 12CM hoop. Since hoops are mostly used for the front of shirts, many people do not think of this simple method when it comes to hooping caps.
Key hooping techniques
Cap hooping gauges are designed to provide optimal hooping for the frames being used. A gauge is a stationary frame that matches the embroidery machine’s hoop mechanism. This holds the frame in place allowing for hooping without fighting to hold the cap in place. If the cap features a sweatband, it needs to be folded back and out of the way. This will enable the cap to slide onto the front of the gauge.
Another trick: securing the back of the cap with clips can help provide extra tension on the cap and reduce any movement. When using this method, only two clips (one on each side) are necessary.
Finally for one of the best kept secrets in headwear hooping: use bubble cap backing. It is a very soft piece of foam (not to be confused with dense foam for 3D puffy foam) that fills the space between the visor and the back of the hat which significantly reduces flagging and significantly increases quality.
With embroidery, there is no single formula that works on every product in every situation. Headwear can complicate this as the range in manufacturing is so widespread. However, following these techniques will help ensure a pleasant experience when dealing with caps… and won’t leave you scratching your head.