If you’ve ever seen an old image of pioneer women sewing with a hoop, you’ve probably seen basic embroidery. Humans have been using colored thread to put images into cloth since dyed thread was invented. Instead of using stitches to hold an article of clothing together, the stitches are used to create a pattern or an image.
When done by hand, embroidering complex images take a lot of time. Imagine drawing a picture, except that you had to put in each individual pixel or dot of ink by hand, and stop to re-fill your pen every time you wanted to change colors.
Machine embroidery takes that slow process and makes it much faster. Digital images are translated into a format that the machine can recognize. The machine then quickly sews the desired pattern onto the provided article of clothing. Essentially, the machine “prints” a pattern by stitching onto cloth.
A commercial embroidery machine is full of various needles, each with a different color attached. This means that the machine can change colors quickly, allowing for more complex designs. The speed and accuracy that these machines have allow them to turn out identically finished products almost every time. Since nearly any kind of fabric can be embroidered, you will find embroidery on hats, bags, and even shoes.
Embroidered images stand out from the surface that they have been sewn onto. This creates a textured pattern, and a striking look that can’t be achieved through other methods. Instead of re-dying the fabric, you are actually adding an extra layer of thread.
This has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, embroidery tends to be long-lasting, and has a high-quality feel to it. The design won’t fade over time, especially if high quality dye is used in the thread; even then, the sewn stitches will still be clearly visible. Many sports teams have the players’ names and numbers embroidered on their jerseys to stand out.
On the other hand, embroidery can make a piece of fabric far heavier and will lose some of the initial flexibility of the cloth. For this reason, embroidered designs are usually relatively small in proportion to the item. You might see a team number on the cuff of a t-shirt, but you aren’t likely to see a large image across the front of it.
If it’s made of cloth, you can probably get it embroidered. Popular items include shirts, jackets, hats, and bags. Athletic wear is commonly embroidered, since the finished design is resistant to the wear and tear of the sport.
Think about how large your design is going to be, and how the fabric will feel after it has been embroidered. Getting an image sewn onto the top of a hat will look amazing. Having the stomach area of a shirt completely sewn over is going to feel awkward when you wear it. If you want a large, full-shirt design, screen printing or digital printing is probably going to be your best bet.
The next think you need to consider is how many colors are in your design. The more colors there are, the more times the machine has to switch needles. This generally leads to a more expensive finished product, but can be worth it depending on your purpose.
When you’ve settled on a design and know where you want to go, make sure that your image is high quality. Pixelated images don’t translate well when printed on paper, and they aren’t going to look that great when embroidered. The cleaner and higher resolution your image is, the better your final product is going to look.