When we imagine the “best” and “worst” fabrics for embroidery, we are actually thinking about the level of difficulty we have in creating clean, good looking embroidery with the least amount of deformation of the material on which we embroider. We want an attractive design with clean edges and a distinct lack of rippling, puckering, or any other such warping of our garment. This is a function of three qualities of any given fabric that can affect our embroidery:
- Texture. This is both the surface texture and the general coarseness of the material. If a material has excessive texture, such as deep pitted or ribbed knits, small stitches and/or unsupported stitches in a certain angle will “fall in” to the texture’s low points, damaging coverage and making the embroidery look rough. Excessively coarse and dense materials, like heavy, low thread count canvas found on some tote bags, can cause poor edge quality or “stair-stepping” in a design as the needle deflects around the large bundles of fiber in the coarse weave. Lofty and loopy material like faux fur and terry cloth can also cause issues as the loops/fibers can stick through embroidery or over-shadow a design’s edges as it is swallowed into the deep pile. It is easier to achieve fine detailed work on materials that are fine grained, or smooth.
- Dimensional Stability. Does the material stretch, and if so, does it stretch preferentially in one direction? Unstable materials may shift in the hoop due to the stress of embroidery or may be gathered by the tension of the stitches, causing puckering in both cases. If a material stretches too readily, it will often cause warping and registration problems due to the material’s ease of shifting and deformation during stitching. It is far easier to achieve clean embroidery on materials that resist this stretching,
- Durability. Some materials are either so thin or easily torn that they don’t hold up well to being repeatedly pierced by a needle, nor to the tension under which they are placed by the embroidery. Tissue Ts, burnouts, light handkerchiefs, and some performance materials are so thin and fray so easily that embroidery can leave them full of holes and/or the process of hooping, and stabilizer removal subjects the material to too much strain. It’s easier by far to embroider and finish a piece that’s sufficiently durable.
With these qualities in mind, you can see that the best materials would be smooth, stable, and durable. That said, many difficult fabrics can be fairly easily tamed with the proper approach, and you’ll find that many fabrics have one or two of the qualities represented, but not the third. For instance, heavy tote-bag canvas is very durable and doesn’t stretch or deform easily, but it does have a troublesome course texture (pictured above). It’s still a favorite of many embroiderers due to the relative ease of embroidering, but will generally have a tendency to disrupt small lettering and elements.
In my experience, my simplest materials to work on are medium-weight twill-think an easy-care button up dress shirt, the outer shell of soft-shell jackets. Despite some thickness and strain, they do have a wonderful, clean texture that makes fine detail easy. Medium-weight cotton piqué can also be simple-think the classic cotton polo shirt. Despite texture in a piqué, it is a nice, stable knit, and I can compensate for the textures easily.
The most complicated materials to work on are performance materials; they are slick, thin, and stretch easily. They deform and slide in the hoop, though they often have impeccably smooth textures, following those are caps that have an excessively heavy buckram layer behind the crown front. Sometimes that layer is coarse or exceedingly stiff, this causes needle deflection, deformation as the cap stands too far away from the needle plate during stitching, and can even cause needle breaks over the central seam in the cap.
This leads me to my final point-it’s also the construction of any given garment that can cause you trouble. A fine-grained, stable bag made of smooth ballistic nylon can be quite easy to stitch cleanly, but if the bag is festooned with zippers, straps, buckles, rivets, and reinforcements that prevent me from hooping normally, there’s no fabric content or style that makes that a great garment for embroidery.
When you are looking for your next material, think in holistic terms. Does it stretch/deform? Does it have a smooth texture? And will it hold up to stitching well and drape well with the extra thread/material? Then, be ready with the proper stabilizers and hooping procedures unique to the piece. Ultimately, though there’s a lot to control, you also need to find and curate a selection of easy-to-embroider garments and put those in front of your customer first. This is especially true with caps; you can save a tremendous amount of time by being prepared in this respect.