Lotus

Taming T-Shirt Embroidery

Erich has more than 18 years experience as an award-winning digitizer, e-commerce manager, and industry educator. He empowers decorators to do their best work and achieve a greater success. A current educator and long-time columnist, Erich takes every opportunity to provide value to the industry. Find more information on Erich and his publications here.

You can almost see the puckered mess before you finish taking the order. You protest, "Why not go with a nice polo? Better yet, how about a button-down, easy-care number?" But your customer is adamant that they want embroidered T-shirts. For some, this is a nightmare scenario. T-shirts are thin, unstable, stretchy, and sometimes translucent. They distort easily, reveal hooping damage, tear readily, and show embroidery backing—all while subjecting the wearer to the rough reverse side of the embroidery.

Still, many customers crave both the comfort and informal air of a T-shirt and the timeless quality and dimensionality of embroidery. By examining the qualities of these thin knits, the best-suited designs, and stitching materials and methods to combat their shortcomings, you can learn to make T-shirts a profitable staple in your embroidery business.

FIND THE RIGHT T

Within the T-shirt category, there’s a wide range of substrates. Though any given T-shirt is likely made of jersey knit, every other quality varies from shirt to shirt. Decorating on tissue-weight Ts is different from stitching lofty 6.1-oz. heavyweight shirts.

Both stretch horizontally and have “grain” because of the vertical ribbing in the knit. This can cause vertical stitches that are parallel to these ribs to sink in and vertical fills to split. Both are also thin and pliable enough to drape on a body, showing the edges of any stiff backing outside of the embroidery design. That said, a lighter T requires more help to stabilize the embroidery, prevent rips during finishing, and cover the stabilizer, especially if it's clumsily trimmed, overused, or too heavy.

Keep in mind that garment selection is the first crucial step in T-shirt embroidery, and matching the right garment, design, and materials is key. For a customer who wants larger, denser coverage, use a heavier T, and inform your customer that selecting a thinner T requires concessions in the design and a type of stabilizer for a smooth and wearable finish. Even the best-quality Ts battle distortion and show-through, but the differences in stability, durability, and stretch enhance the final look. By helping customers decide what garment qualities and designs are most critical to their vision, you can steer them to the best compromise.

A PROPER DESIGN

Given a T-shirt’s willingness to wrinkle, warp, and pucker under stress, choose a light, open, and airy design. Ideally, eliminate as much density as possible. To avoid the worst puckering and wrinkling, keep the design light and sequence it so that it doesn't pinch material against existing tacked-down elements.

The best T designs feature low-density coverage and stitch somewhat from the center out—like smoothing a wrinkled sheet. Almost all garments are made from smooth, fully filled materials, and as we add embroidery, threads wedge between the existing ones. This stretches the material to accommodate the new thread, and fewer wedges lead to less cupping and rippling in the stitched garment.

Great T-shirt embroidery designs include single-color engraving, which tends to be light and open, and tone-on-tone renderings because the low contrast allows for less density. If such work isn't an option, choose designs with low-contrast color palettes and light, painterly fills for wearable results. Only use the minimum stitching necessary, and if a customer insists on a densely filled logo, recommend a heavier T and reduce the density while maintaining good coverage.

STABILIZING THE EMBROIDERY

Once you select the proper T and manage your design, choosing the proper stabilizer is the last critical step in ensuring high-quality T-shirt embroidery. The stabilizer distinctly impacts the quality and longevity of the finished piece. Because stabilizers are typically worn in direct contact with the skin, it’s tempting to use ones that completely disappear, such as wash-away or heat-away stabilizers. Unfortunately, this is often the worst approach.

For light, open-work designs, such stabilizers may work. These designs don't add much bulk or weight; thus, they don't cause much distortion. With heavier designs, however, the need for added stability, even in wear and washing, means that heavier backings are often necessary. A single layer of dimensionally stable cutaway backing often provides enough stabilization for a well-made design.

When hooping, avoid both excessive stretching and marking due to abrasion or crush damage with the “window” method, where a layer of stabilizer is hooped atop of the garment with a window cut from the embroidery area. This protects the material under the hoop. Unfortunately, this method doesn't address the stretching that often occurs when hooping Ts, and the stretched material’s rebound after unhooping causes puckering.

You may want to seek an alternate hooping method. Adhesives, for instance, are a great, no-stretch way to hoop Ts. You can use any of the backing-mounted or wet-to-stick adhesive backings on the market or light, embroidery-specific spray adhesives with a precut overspray shield to coat the backing.
In either case, the adhesive hooping process is simple. Hoop the chosen backing, reveal or apply the adhesive, and carefully lay the embroidery on the adhesive backing from the center of the hoop to the edges. Smooth the area without stretching the fabric. If done correctly, the T is flat and firmly affixed to the backing without stretching or compressing. The stretching and deformation are also greatly reduced because the fabric is firmly married to the stabilizer.

To avoid abrasion on bare skin, consider a post-embroidery backing. There are some available products that can be cut to the rough size and shape of your design and permanently heat pressed in place. These backings offer a smooth finish but add some bulk and weight to the design, so consider the trade-offs. For heavier shirts and children’s wear, a backing may be the best option for comfort, but light shirts may not stand up to the added material.

Considering the work it takes to embroider Ts, it's tempting to tell customers that printing is the way to go. After all, T-shirts are the traditional medium for both screen printing and direct-to-garment printing. That said, there's no reason embroiderers can't participate in this market. If you carefully match the type of shirt, the style of design, and the materials, you'll find that embroidering T-shirts can diversify your business.