Embroidery is an oft-misunderstood (and therefore often underutilized!) element of the custom apparel world.
In a fun display of oxymoron, custom embroidery is typically lumped into two totally opposite categories: either a complex, time-consuming and labor-intensive process OR a simple, outdated stitching method that your grandma can do on the couch while watching reruns of The Price is Right.
Here’s a little insider info for you: the reality of custom embroidery lies somewhere in between.
Here, we’ll break down the embroidery process step-by-step—following a design’s evolution from concept to tangible, threaded item. You’ll be on your way to custom embroidery enlightenment in no time!
Now, don’t get me wrong: It takes a team of experts like ours to create high-quality custom embroidery work on a large scale. But you don’t need to be an expert yourself to understand the reality of how embroidery works...so grab the remote, throw on The Price is Right, and let’s do this thing.
This might be the most engaging part of the embroidery process for you—because this step is all about getting the creative juices flowing, and coming up with a design that captures your vision. While these processes are satisfying on their own, seeing that vision realized on a garment? Downright satisfying.
Embroidery designs are typically smaller than standard screen printed designs. If you want to go bigger though, try to keep it in the range of 10 x 12 inches. Larger designs can potentially get tricky (and if they’re too detailed, they can end up just looking kind of gaudy), because they have to be loaded onto a bigger hoop in our embroidery machine.
Having a machine to do the heavy lifting is extremely beneficial to overall efficiency—but it can also present its own unique challenges. One of such challenges is printing a full front design on a jacket. The stitching needed for the design to flow seamlessly across the zipper is a bit too complex for machine production—such a project would require hand embroidery to get a quality result.
Along with design size, file type is another important element to consider. Most visual files like PDF, EPS and JPEG are good options, but Vector files are the best, because we can manipulate them in real time to adjust to stitching requirements.
Curious how this differs from prepping a design for screen printing? Check out this guide on how to prep your design for screen printing.
Once your design is finalized, has been sent over to our embroidery team, and we’ve digitized it, the next step is fitting your desired garment to an embroidery hoop. The hoop secures the desired embroidered area of your garment to the machine, keeping the material taut and stable—which helps prevent any issues from arising during the stitching process.
Once the hoop is on, you just place it into the machine and you’re ready to go.
Side note: with the amount of hooping our team does, we’re basically qualified for the NBA. Watch out, Lebron.
Now this is where the meat and potatoes of the embroidery process happens. They say that “snitches get stitches,” like it’s supposed to be a bad thing... But if they (whoever “they” are) ever saw our embroidery machine do its thing, they may change their minds.
In its simplest form, embroidery is just looping thread and puncturing fabric consistently to create a design. The thread on the bottom, called the bobbin, forms the base loop for the desired top thread to go through.
The machine then cycles back and forth between the top and bottom, creating the stitches that bring your design to life.
If you're interested in learning more about the screen printing process, too, check out our guide on how screen printing works.
There are two types of stitching, satin and fill. These embroidery stitches are interesting in that their orientation determines the ease of the process.
Satin stitching creates stitches back and forth horizontally. It’s mainly used for smaller areas and is the most common stitching method.
In fill stitching, the stitch direction can be adjusted to compensate for fabric structure and pulling. If you’ve ever seen stitches that curve, it was most likely fill stitching.
Sometimes, the type of thread used may impact the ideal stitching method, speed, and final product. Metallic embroidery is unique in that the thread actually consists of a rubber core wrapped in metallic thread.
In puff embroidery, a thick, foam-like material is cut in the shape of your design and is then stitched over, resulting in a design that pops off the garment and creates a 3D effect.
We recommend only using metallic or puff embroidery on smaller elements of your design (rather than the whole thing), or on thicker garments, as both of these styles are more prone to breakage than standard embroidery.
Interested in trying metallic or puff embroidery on a garment? We recommend checking out some of our favorite hoodies and sweatshirts.
Real Thread sets itself apart from other custom embroidery shops by slowing down the stitching in order to maintain control over the quality of the finished product.
While some shops pump out as many as 11,000 stitches per minute with machinery like ours, our team chooses to max out around 800 stitches per minute—ensuring that the job is done to the highest possible quality, regardless of how many units are in your order.
Because the fabric is pulled taut, the embroidery process can cause tears and garment warping if not done carefully. The thinner the fabric or the faster the stitching speed, the higher the risk of damage.
Thicker garments like hoodies, custom tote bags, and sweatshirts can handle higher stitch counts and speed—making them easier to add embroidery to than something like a breezy tank or a satin pillowcase.
That being said, with embroidery, the fabric that your garment is made of matters less than the shape of the garment itself. In order to be loaded into our embroidery machine and ensure stability during the stitching process, a product should ideally be laid perfectly flat. For this reason, some of the most complicated pieces to embroider are baseball caps/dad hats, due to their shape and rigidity.
We’re finally at the end of the process. Your design is fully realized, and the fruits of our collective labor are ready to be reaped...
...Wait, hold up—is that a loose thread? Here is where the last step comes in—it’s time for the cleanup process.
Flyaway stitches are a natural part of the embroidery process—and luckily they’re an easy fix with a simple snip of the scissors. If that doesn’t completely clean the design, a heat gun is used to shrink the stitches and refine the design.
After all this, now your design is finally ready to be packaged and sent out to be seen and appreciated by the whole world.
Is your interest piqued? Visit our embroidery homepage to get even more information on the embroidery process, our product offerings, some FAQs, and more. If you still have any burning questions then get in touch with one of our product specialists and they’ll be happy to help!
Fill out our embroidery request form or reach out to a product specialist and we will have you on your way to reppin’ your brand in style in no time.