Embroidery for sporty embellishments

Stitch and Score: Embroidery Techniques for Athletic Wear

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 (, 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

Embroidery needs an extra dollop of care when athletics are involved. Some uniforms stretch, some are thick, and all need embroidery or other decorating methods that will last. At the best of times (during the pre-game program) we want it to look good; at the worst of times (sliding into home) we want it to wear well.

There are many choices that not only get the job done but also look great: appliqué, tackle twill, direct embroidery, cad-cut materials, printing and any combination of these. If you have sublimation capability, D2 (direct-to-substrate) printing or the ability to print transfers on an inkjet printer, you can apply a graphic to a patch or appliqué background, for a mixed-media effect that saves on stitching and is kinder to mesh fabrics or stretchy goods, including some of the new lighter-weight performance products.

Consider using a split-satin or a fill stitch instead of the more vulnerable satin or column stitch on lettering that is wider than 10mm. This tighter stitch type is also recommended for any lettering that demands more holding strength. It is much more resistant to any abrasion than the satin stitch and, thus, is able to withstand the rigors of the athlete and his pursuits.

Go the direct route

Fancy fill patterns can give a directional and textured look to lettering, and many digitizing programs have a function that allows lettering or shapes to be carved into the fill. If your team or school has intertwined letters or a simple logo shape that lends itself to a repeat pattern, learn how to use this function and make it part of your offerings. I once prepared a sample shirt with the team name stitched in a fill-stitch pattern that incorporated the initials of the high school, beating hands-down the other shops that offered plain stitching, appliqué or tackle twill.

Embroidery can also be added on the edges of chenille patches, between the letters, or created as a free-standing complete patch that can be sewn to the garment. Using a patch allows all the work to be done on a ground fabric so there is less risk to the garment itself. Embroidery can be placed on top of appliqué letters and shapes for a dimensional and different effect. The appliqué fabric provides a tight foundation for small lettering and details.

Think about adding a cross-hatch loose-density fill over the top of an appliqué piece that is a contrasting color to the main piece. The colors will mix in your eye and create a “new” hue, so be sure you understand what the results will be before making your color choices.

If athletic work is your passion, consider one of the new machines that create chenille. Many of them do direct embroidery and often add sequins as well. Be sure that any software you purchase has the ability to digitize your chenille designs, or find a digitizer who can do this for you.

Appliqué and tackle twill

Appliqué can take the place of fill stitches in larger areas of a design and is usually the dominant part of a design when it is used. The choice of vibrant colors and snazzy patterns can add even more pizzazz to the garment.

Appliqué can mimic chenille if it is stitched with terrycloth or other special fabrics as the base. Adding soft-loft backing, or even the foam used in 3-D effects, between the appliqué piece and the garment, creates dimension.

Tackle twill is appliqué using twill fabric and attaching it to the goods with a zigzag stitch instead of the denser satin border. This sparser stitch is more economical. Tackle twill is 100 percent polyester fabric with a satin sheen that is durable and colorfast. Letters and shapes are cut from it, then placed on a base fabric and stitched close to the edge. Twill is weather-resistant and can be dry-cleaned or washed with no shrinkage.

You can purchase tackle twill with or without heat-seal backing. The heat-seal is helpful on large letters and banners as it holds the twill fast to the ground fabric (while it’s sewn), avoiding shifting and puckering. Spray adhesive is handy for placement but don’t ever expect it to do the job that heat-seal will do.

Twill that has an adhesive backing will work well with the less dense zigzag stitch, as the fabric will be stable when it is heat applied to the goods. The border stitch becomes more of a finishing effect than a means to hold the lettering in place. Some shops heat apply the letters and numbers without edge stitching. This works well within the budgets of teams that change uniforms each year, and economy is more important than durability. Another benefit to using letters, numbers and shapes with heat-seal backing is that any added stitch border is locked into place with the final application of heat. The stitches may break during wear but they will not unravel.

Twill comes in specific team colors. If you want a more fashion-oriented application, ask your supplier if it has a selection of trendier fabrics. Check with companies that provide precut letters and shapes that look like athletic balls so you can add some realistic effects to your design.

Supply houses offer tackle-twill letters as well as cut appliqué pieces that have texture, are printed or are made from faux-chenille or metallic fabric. You or your customer can send purchased fabric to a supply house to be custom cut. Remember that the twill will fray if there is no heat seal. You can also purchase designs already digitized for letters, numbers and appliqué shapes. You can send your custom designs to any number of companies that will cut the letters, digitize the design and be ready to run. One of the benefits to custom cutting is that words can be prepared as a total shape and not as single letters, eliminating any troubles with registration that can be caused from shifting.

Most stock letters and numbers are die-cut so they may not always be consistent. They are made to be manually sewn and, unless you are using a multi-head machine and sewing identical letters, it is faster to sew tackle twill with a commercial or well-made sewing machine. There is also more expense involved if you use an embroidery machine for tackle twill, as you need a sew-disk for each letter and number.

Most software programs have a function that allows for selection of stitch offset along the edge of the tackle twill or appliqué pieces. Make sure that the needle penetrations do not fall along the edge of tackle twill letters as they can split the thread of the twill and cause unsightly projections of thread between the border stitches. An attractive offset is 80 percent on the edge of the fabric piece and 20 percent off. This gives a strong hold without distorting the edge of the design.

Some of the service companies can supply designs, letters and numbers with an etched stitch effect along the edge, allowing the piece to be heat applied only. Although this process may be more expensive, if time is a factor but cost is not, it may be the right solution for your decorating project. An added benefit is that there is no stitching showing on the inside of the garment.

Headwear is definitely an established aspect of the athletic-apparel industry, and embroidery a time-honored means of embellishing it. Fortunately, athletes other than baseball players subject such headwear to only mild abuse.

Award jackets

Letterman or award jackets are a must for many athletes in order to showcase their many letters, medals and awards. Chenille letters, team numbers and more tell the story of the athlete’s progress, affiliations and success. Tap into this by providing or contracting for the “complete” package. Chain-stitch machines that can make chenille letters as well as “write” team and personal names on the jacket are available for purchase. With a little dedication you or an employee can add this lucrative line to your offerings and contract out the service to other embroiderers.

If you haven’t the room or the interest, there are many shops set up already who can supply you with such decorative additions for letterman jackets, allowing you to offer a finished product to the teams and schools on your marketing list. Melton wool jackets, popular for award jackets, can be thirsty and soak up the stitches, so look for ways to add detailed information in embroidery on the edges or background of a chenille patch or appliqué fabric. Consider, too, using a cross-hatched fill behind any design or lettering, in the same color as the ground fabric for a subtle look, or a contrasting thread color to add another dimension to the design. This works on apparel made of fleece as well, as it flattens the fabric so that any subsequent letters or numbers look clean and clear and don’t sink into the loft of the fabric. Use larger designs and lettering on fleece and other thirsty fabrics to allow for best visibility.

The nitty gritty

Fabrics and the needles, backing and threads they require are an important aspect of the athletic market. Polyester thread is the best choice for uniforms that are frequently laundered and bleached. The best thread to use is #40-weight cotton-wrapped polyester sewing thread which is thicker than embroidery thread. Needle size should suit the thread and be large enough to penetrate the tackle twill pieces and the uniform. The point is determined by the target fabric.

Stretchy fabrics can be a challenge but can become part of your repertoire by paying attention to the fundamentals. Determine how the garment will be worn so you can stretch it during the stitching process if need be. Remember not to overstretch any fabric or the fibers along the edge of the design can break and cause unsightly holes. The design must appear correct and not distorted when worn.

Back the fabric well, hoop it taut, or with the required stretch, and use the right needle and thread. Use a ball-point needle when stitching on knits or other unstable goods; use a strong sharp point on heavy or thick-woven fabrics. Cutaway topping is generally used on knit goods, but two pieces of tearaway at opposing angles will often provide enough stability when the knit is tightly woven and of sufficient weight. Just be sure to use a backing heavy enough to keep the needle from driving the fabric into the hole of the throat plate.

Use the smallest hoop, smallest needle, smallest thread tension and smallest thread possible for a quality result. The smallest hoop provides the best holding power, the smallest needle and thread prevent runs and holes and the smallest thread tension can help prevent puckering.

Placement is crucial when decorating team items, whether unusual or traditional. The spacing beneath any shaped neckline, on sleeves, legs or the body of a garment should be consistent as well as properly measured. Nothing looks worse than a team lined up to salute the flag, with names, patches and designs at varying heights and angles. Team uniforms mean just that—they should look like a team and be uniform in style as well as decoration.

Remember that adhesive and heat-seal products will create a gummy substance that will coat and clog your needles and cause more thread breaks. Use alcohol on a swab to clean the needles. A piece of waxed paper under any stitching will help lubricate the needle and prevent the gum from forming.

An operator reviews available type styles before proceeding, and a chain-stitch machine adds custom touches that will make your services even more in demand if you opt for the capability.

Have a little fun

Non-traditional appliqué made from patterned, metallic or other specialty fabrics can be used in small amounts to add sparkle to any embroidered, tackle-twill or standard appliqué project. Put on your thinking cap and come up with ways to add 3-D foam, specialty threads or any process you can borrow from the sewing world. Keep your creative mind open to suggestions that come from other decorating processes.

Consider non-traditional placements and suggest them to your clients. A patch on the shoulder or rear shoulder blade can garner attention while a more common placement might go unnoticed.

Market your athletic line in complete and creative ways. Suggest a cover-up that will coordinate with the required uniform. Be ready with samples and suggestions for blankets, parents’ shirts and wind jackets, stadium seats and can coozies, umbrellas and more for a complete coordinated package, Suggest that some of these items be used for raffles and fundraisers and you will win their business by lining their pockets while bolstering your own bottom line.

Tough economic times call for creative marketing measures and athletic wear is one arena that is always considered a necessity, lends itself to fund- and spirit-raising and is seldom seen as a luxury item.

Time increases on many of these athletic decorating suggestions even though the stitch count decreases, so be sure to charge accordingly. Creating an original should command a hefty price tag—and most athletes and athletic departments are willing to pay for great quality and creative designs.

It may be January, but the athletic season starts before you know it and most athletic departments want a head start on the season. Use the winter months for creating and brainstorming and you’ll sail into spring with your unique athletic offerings ready to stitch.