How-To with Puff Foam Embroidery

A Whole New Dimension

Kristine Shreve EnMart

Kristine Shreve is the Director of Marketing for EnMart and parent company Ensign Emblem. She developed and writes two blogs—the EnMart Threaducuate blog and the SubliStuff blog. Shreve also maintains the EnMart Twitter account and Facebook page. She can be reached via email at

3D embroidery, puff foam embroidery, puff embroidery, puffy foam embroidery… whatever you call it, everyone loves the look of it on caps and other garments. But, not everyone knows what goes into creating the three-dimensional images that make an ordinary embroidered design stand out in a crowd. To create an embroidered design that stands head and shoulders among the rest requires a special material and a specially-digitized design.

Foam Facts

For those unfamiliar, puffy foam is colored foam generally sold in 2 mm and 3 mm thicknesses, but can be found in sheets as thick as 6 mm. The foam is water resistant, washable and non-toxic, but cannot be dry cleaned and is flammable. The thickness of the foam determines the loft in the finished design; thicker foam will yield more puffiness

When choosing your puffy foam, there are a few factors to consider. One is the colors of the finished design. Because the foam is available in a variety of colors, most embroiderers try to match the color of the thread they use to the color of the foam. This allows for a more seamless look and also reduces issues should a small bit of foam show through the embroidery. Another issue is the stiffness of the foam—make sure the foam tears easily and is pliable. The excess foam must be removed when the embroidery is complete, so choose foam that is easy to tear and which tears cleanly. Quality of foam also matters. If you’re having an issue with one type of foam, try a different supplier or a different brand.

The myth that “all Chinese printers are cheap, low-bid products that fall apart quickly” is no longer true. The reality is that you get what you pay for.

The thickness of the foam should also be considered. The thicker the foam, the greater the loft, which seems like a good thing, since creating a 3D effect is what embroidery with puffy foam is meant to do. The potential issue here is the fact that the thicker foam is also harder to tear and may require many more stitches to cover. In general, it is best to use the thinnest foam necessary to achieve the effect you desire.

Digitizing tactics

Embroidering with puffy foam requires a specific technique and designs that are digitized specifically for use with the material. A standard embroidery design will not provide the result you desire, so make sure any designs you purchase specifically for use in 3D embroidery are digitized for that application. 

When embroidering 3D designs, it is important to have files digitized specifically for the application. (Images courtesy Erik Wogen, NBM Inc.)

Designs digitized for use with puffy foam need a placement guide, a tack stitch, and a cover stitch. The placement guide marks where the puffy foam will be placed. A tack stitch does just what the name implies, and tacks the foam down to the design for stitching. The cover stitch is used to cut the foam and, as a result, is often a high density satin stitch. 

It is imperative to use a design that is specially digitized for puff foam embroidery, created by a digitizer who understands the special requirements of this type of embroidery. Certain types of shapes and designs create a better finished product than others. Designs with circles or shapes that end in a point are often good options for 3D embroidery. Alphabets and monograms are also good choices for created puffed embroidered designs. The best designs for 3D embroidery are those with closed ends that prevent the puffy foam from showing or spurting out the end of the design. The digitized design should also have a satin stitch that is large enough to encompass all the foam.

Embroidery Execution

Once the design is complete, it’s time to move it to the machine, and the first step, as always, is to hoop the item you wish to embroider. Embroider the portion of the design that will not be three-dimensional first. After that portion is complete, place a piece of foam, big enough for your design, on top of the item you are embroidering. 

There is a matter of debate regarding the use of adhesive with puffy foam. Some experts recommend using an adhesive spray or tape to hold the puffy foam in place. Others say it’s unnecessary to use any sort of adhesive to hold the foam in place, as the machine will sew it into place with the first few tack stitches. I have found that, for flat garments, adhesive isn’t necessary to hold the foam in place. But for caps, you may find that adhesive helps to hold the foam in place until the first few stitches are sewn out.