Improve Capabilities

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.

One of the foremost premises for embroidering on headwear: Caps are not flat; the machine is. The very best way to find the caps that work best on a particular machine is to tear some caps apart. Purchase samples and remove the brim. Place that brim on the curve of your cap gauge and check for gaps. The better the cap shape follows the gauge, the better the hooping you can achieve. 

Hooping a bucket style hat. (Image courtesy Janet Valdez) 

A regular round hoop can be used to stitch the back of a flexible fit cap. (Image courtesy the author)

If you absolutely have to use a cap that doesn’t fit snugly, shim with backing or, my favorite, waxed paper, to get as tight of fit as possible. But consider stitching some great samples of caps that work for you and offer only these to customers in your showroom. Take the hassle out of caps by showing, not telling, how great your cap selection can work for the customer and you will be happily stitching caps that are a joy to have on the machine.

Machine considerations

In regards to our workhorses, make sure the machine is clean and tuned. The best techniques and hooping styles can’t overcome a poorly-tuned machine. Keep the bobbin area clean and check it often—especially when stitching caps with buckram backing as the needle chips that buckram and it rains down into the bobbin assembly. Also, check the bobbin area often for thread build up so the needle doesn’t get too close to the point of the hook.

Find the sewing speed that works for you. Many recommend slowing the machine down when embroidering caps because of the movement of the frame and the less-than-flat surface. But, sometimes a faster speed can prevent drag. Keep a card or log on what works best for each type and brand of cap.

Also, if your machine has a special raised-needle plate for stitching caps, now is the time to take the time to switch to it. This allows the circular cap to reach the throat plate. If you need to stitch a cap in the middle of a run of flat shirts, try taping an O-ring or washer around the hole of the flat plate.

Cap frames

Cap frames are adjustable. Tighten and loosen the screws on many to hold the cap material firmly. Don’t over tighten, as designs stitched on fabric that is hooped too tightly may distort when the hoop is removed. Check the screws on the cap frames often to prevent loss of the screws and registration and store cap frames in a safe place where they are not stacked beneath each other or other things.

Some of the new frames just snap in but, if yours has screws, ensure all of them are tightened down. Screws can be recessed and easy to miss.

Fold out the sweatband and slip the braid over the brim when you prepare to stitch a cap front. (Images courtesy the author)

The better the cap shape follows the gauge, the better the hooping you can achieve.

Preparing and finishing

Using a cap press to heat and soften the front panel of the cap will help the fabric accept the needle and stitching. This will also freshen up the cap after shipping and help flatten any center seam. 

Some poplin caps have a tight weave that will deflect the needle, so the more accepting you can make the fabric, the better the stitching—and the stitching experience. Especially if there is a slick finish on the cap, the fabric softening also helps prevent thread breaks and frays. You can always spray the cap with an after-market finish to restore any luster lost in the preparation. 

Use the same heat press combined with a moist cloth to remove any topping used during the embroidery process. A spritz of Magic Sizing can make the cap malleable. Frame it for stitching while it is still damp and warm from the heat press. That creates real cap bliss!

Shape the bill with your hands to ease the fit on the frame and pull it taut on the framing device, securing it with the clips at the bottom of the area to be embroidered. This prevents taller designs from being pulled during stitching. Finally, slip envelopes or plastic bags on the bill of the cap to prevent oil, dirt or abrasion against the cap shields from harming the fabric.

Needle pulling thread

Use the correct needle. A sharp needle will stitch through any fabric—an 80/12 sharp is a good choice. Coated needles can help reduce the residue that is formed by the heat of the needle as it stitches through heavy fabric, especially buckram, and a reinforced needle can prevent the upper thread from rubbing against the center seam which can cause thread breaks.

A needle too large for the job may cause skipped stitches while finer, tighter stitching results when the machine is threaded properly. Polyester thread is strong and can stitch through the extra layers in caps and their backings. 

Always start with a full bobbin. Cotton thread in the bobbin helps create crisp details and fine lettering. Clean the bobbin case more often, however, as cotton throws more lint than nylon or polyester bobbin thread.

Slide an extra piece of heavy backing under the cap or a piece of folded copy paper (copy paper is smooth and will not snag the thread.) Add backing under the cap to help the bobbin thread. Even a cap that needs no backing will form stitches better with backing added to the equation. A longer bobbin thread is needed to reach the slightly raised cap and form a good stitch. Fuse a piece of backing to the cap with your cap press to add a layer to help the stitches reach.

Design your graphic and lettering side by side to get more use out of the limited real estate on the cap front. (Image courtesy the author)

Tightening the bobbin a bit can prevent it from pulling to the top of the goods, as it is want to do when sewing “in the round” as you do on caps. Heavier thread can provide better coverage. Slide waxed paper under the cap to reduce thread breaks. This also lubricates the needle as the wax melts during the heat of stitching—and it can prevent gooey build up in the eye of the needle which can result from the heating of some fabrics.

Design and digitizing

Add underlay to “fill the ditch” on a cap with a center seam so there is no show-and-tell where the seam runs under the design. Digitize designs from the inside out to push any extra fabric away from the design to prevent puckering and bubbles under the stitching. Designs that stitch from bottom to top will roll the fabric ahead of the needle and avoid a bulge between the stitching and the brim.

Use the real estate on the cap as an advantage. Consider alternate placements for parts of a logo/message. The side of the cap, the back and even the top are all fair game. Websites and phone numbers on the back of the cap, above the keyhole, allow for non-confrontational perusal. Stitch the name and graphic next to each other on the front of the cap to buy more space and bigger stitching elements.

Open the backs of the caps and scan them. Use the scan as a template and your stitching will follow the arch of the keyhole perfectly. Name the templates after the caps to be able to locate them easily.

Design your graphic and lettering side by side to get more use out of the limited real estate on the cap front. (Image courtesy the author)

Keep in mind that the sides of the caps may not be straight. They are often constructed at an angle. Plan your lettering or design accordingly—a tilt of 7 to 15 degrees will work well.

Use a series of small stitches at the beginning of your design to anchor the thread before the design begins. These stitches can be used to mark the center. Finally, learn and study the fabrics of your caps. Through thoughtful consideration, it may be easy to determine that a corduroy cap will need flattening underlay to tame the ridges to make a design shine, where a tight twill may require running edge underlay to prevent a saw tooth look.

The best embroiderer is an educated one. Learn the terms so you can dissect a cap, determine its style, decide on a digitizing and stitching strategy and explain the advantages or drawbacks to your customer. 

Another tip on purchasing caps—if you know of a large cap manufacturer that also does embroidery—and the machines are the same brand as you have—don’t let the threat of “competition” scare you off. Their caps will fit your machines. And, when you are adding the curve of the cap to the flat of the throat plate, the best fit will put you way ahead of the game when stitching caps.