Time to Update Your Headwear

Exploring trends and opportunities in the decorated headwear market.

Is it time to update your headwear? Surely you aren’t just offering an old, stiff, high-profile cap with some lazy clipart embroidered on the front … are you? Hats are carving up the competition in the custom apparel categories this year. While decorating apparel has long been considered artistic expression on T-shirts and hoodies, hats have never been easier to creatively decorate.

In the realm of corporate and team sales, the right merchandise can make a world of difference. Among the options available, hats stand out as versatile, functional, and fashionable accessories that hold immense potential in marketing and branding strategies.

While we have been stitching logos on caps for years, this season has seen our clients open to and considering expanding their creative horizons. Retail has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to unique decoration applications, but with the increased availability of those decorations, shops like ours are able to affordably provide unique looks for lower quantities.

In 2023, applying custom patches has continued to be a leading trend for headwear decoration. Whether they are leather, faux leather, woven, embroidered, or PVC, patches have been an amazing way to decorate your team or corporate hats.

One of the most wonderful things about all these options is that not only can patches be added with embroidery, but these all have a heat-applied option as well. Let’s look at some of the most popular styles and techniques we’re using to help promote brands, events, teams, and communities through custom headwear.

On-field headwear

3D-puff embroidery with 3mm foam to add depth to the simple logo.

On-field headwear consists of a lot of six-panel caps. Usually, they are some kind of performance polyester or stretch fabric with either a snapback or a flex-fit (or whatever clever name the brand calls it) headband.

With lighter fabrics and more breathability, you’ll see more and more sports teams wear these at game time. The six-panel will have a seam down the middle of the front, but this won’t affect most decorations.

The nice thing about decorating the on-field caps is that they are commonly decorated with large, loud, and bright logos. This makes embroidery one of the easiest techniques. However, flat embroidery is a little boring. Often, we encourage customers to add some more depth to their logos by offering 3D puff embroidery. We accomplish this by adding 3mm or 6mm foam under the logos. This creates a professional, on-field look that mimics Major League Baseball caps. While 3mm is more common, the right logo can look awesome with 6mm.

Using 3D puff isn’t the only way to accentuate your team’s logos or mascot. If you don’t have an embroidery machine at your disposal, there are plenty of other decoration techniques to highlight your on-field caps, like PVC patches, 3D flexstyle, or polypress patches. Each style gives a multidimensional look while allowing multiple colors and great resistance to the outside elements.

The bonus is that they can be permanently adhered using only your heat press. Making sure you have the proper
hat press and accessories will benefit your applications tremendously. Using bottom heat is a best practice,
especially when those caps have performance fabrics, which may make them a little more susceptible to scorch marks if the top heat is too high.

Mesh-back headwear

In most cases, these are better known as trucker caps. They don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. They are built with a lot of different fabrics. You’ll see performance fabrics, twill, cotton fabrics, wool, and even foam on the front of these trucker caps.

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Woven patch with merrow edge on the bottom of a six-panel trucker cap.

The backs may be snapback, flex-fit, or even sized. This style is doing so well because it’s a comfortable, lightweight piece that lends itself extremely well to loads of decoration styles. It’s used for corporate headwear, promotional headwear, team headwear, and retail headwear.

The most popular technique has come in the shape of patches. Using a patch to decorate a trucker cap adds far more value to the piece than just your typical embroidery. While embroidery clearly will do the trick with some customers, most clients want the added value of riding the trend of custom patches.

4 1
PVC patch stitched onto the front of a trucker cap. You can see the sew channel around the edge to hide the stitching. This is also available to simply heat apply.

The woven patches can allow you to create patches with smaller type lettering, words, and details. They look great, and you can really get creative with the finished product. They also allow you to create a smaller patch, which you can apply to a more unique location, such as the lower side front, the back above the snapbacks or on the side. Leather and embroidered patches are perfect for trucker caps as well. Adding a laser-engraved leather patch gives your logo an authentic, rustic look.

The nice thing about adding patches to your caps is that in most instances, you can use either heat-applied backing or stitching to apply them. While patches add a ton of value and style to the trucker hats, let’s not forget that we can also screen print, use transfers, sublimate, or even use direct-to-film printing (DTF) on your hats, especially on the foam-front caps. This will keep costs lower for your clients and still give them a unique hat.

Here’s a pro tip: when choosing screen printing, DTF, sublimation or any other form of heat-applied graphics (with the exception of patches), look for a five-panel cap versus a six-panel cap. This will prevent you from having a seam running under the graphic you’re trying to apply.


Once fall hits, it’s essentially beanie season. There are so many options for beanies — fleece, microfleece, performance, recycled, cotton, wool, slouch, cuff, and no cuff — just to name a few. You can really find a lot of styles that could fit your clients’ needs and wants. Just like on-field caps and truckers, beanies can be decorated using multiple techniques.

Custom woven tags stitched on the cuff and bottom of beanies with the customer’s corporate logo.

Your decoration will really depend on your client. For a lot of our customers, we’re seeing more and more patches sewn on the front of the beanies, particularly if the selected beanies have a cuff. Some are larger, circle-woven patches with a merrow outline or a larger rectangle patch. Leather, embroidered, and woven patches are all great choices.

Classic embroidery is also still a top decoration style. One thing to be aware of when embroidering is the texture of the beanie itself. If you have a larger knit, it could cause issues legibly reading your stitched design. If this is the case, look to use some soluble embroidery stabilizer to help hold the stitch up or just opt for a patch instead. One of the favorites for our corporate clients is a simple woven tag patch applied to the bottom of a beanie. This is a subtle decoration that carries a lot of style.

You’ll see this tag on nearly every North Face, Patagonia, or trending boutique beanie. It’s a great way to add value to your client’s brand and make it appear to be retail-caliber merch.

Lifestyle and outdoor headwear

These are hats that roll in and out of trends throughout the season. Right now, two caps have set themselves apart as the trendiest style. No. 1 has got to be the five-panel trucker with a rope across the bill. Country clubs, sports teams, retail, pubs, and booster clubs have all jumped on this cap. The second is the unique, seven- panel style hat.

“FlexStyle” patch heat-applied to the trucker cap. This added dimension while maintaining all the smooth detail of the logo.

Both the rope trucker and the seven- panel cap are being decorated in nearly every way possible. With the front panels leaving a perfect decoration space up front, you are seeing embroidery, printing, transfers, patches, labels, and sublimation all being used to create a distinctive look.

Other outdoor caps, such as boonie and bucket hats, have been more popular with not only the retail resort gear but also with coaching staff and team gear.

I know it’s hard to believe, but one of the main purposes of hats is to block the sun from your face and eyes. Boonie and bucket hats have a wide brim to block the UV rays. These hats are being decorated primarily with embroidery and now DTF.

You’ll also see some workwear-style hats, such as wax-covered caps. These are used for people out in the elements all day. They are typically waterproof, waxed cotton designed to handle wet and rugged outside elements for extended periods of time. Embroidery and woven labels are acceptable ways to decorate this hat, but leather or embroidered patches permanently sewn to the cap really reinforce the tough and rugged style of the hat.

Hats hold a special place in the world of corporate and team sales, offering a canvas for branding and style. By understanding the diverse styles and the art of decoration, businesses can leverage these accessories to their advantage.

Furthermore, keeping a finger on the pulse of industry trends ensures that your merchandise remains relevant and appealing in a dynamic market landscape.

Why is headwear so popular?

  • Functional and practical — Unlike some promotional items that might get stashed away or thrown out, hats serve a practical purpose. They provide protection from the sun, keep the head warm in colder weather, and can also be a fashion accessory. This means people are more likely to use and keep them, increasing the exposure of your brand.
    Etched leather patches
    heat-applied to different hat styles ranging from sublimated, rope across the bill, and trucker caps.
  • Long-lasting — A well-made hat can last for a long time, especially if it’s made of durable materials. This means your branding can continue to be seen for months or even years after it’s distributed. Hats are the last thing you put on before you walk out the door. They can be worn casually on weekends, at sporting events, while running errands, and even in more formal or professional settings, depending on the style and design.
  • Customization options — Hats can be customized in various ways to suit the specific needs and style of a brand or event. You can choose different materials, colors, styles, and even add embroidery or other design elements. They are the best canvas for unique techniques in the industry. You’ll see screen printing, embroidery, sublimation, leather patches, woven patches, 3D puff, DTF, glitter, PVC, rhinestones, and more.
  • Audience appeal — Hats are generally well-received by a wide range of demographics. They are not limited to a specific age group, gender, or occupation, making them a versatile promotional item. In the case of events or team-building activities, providing hats can create a sense of unity among participants. It helps them feel like they’re part of a group, which can enhance the overall experience and memory of the event.
  • Low cost per impression — Compared to other forms of advertising, the cost per impression for promotional hats can be relatively low. Considering the potential exposure they can provide, hats can be a cost-effective marketing tool.
  • Customizable for various occasions — Whether it’s for a specific event, a trade show, a product launch, or just general brand promotion, hats can be customized to fit the occasion and the message you want to convey.

Remember, the effectiveness of any decorated item, including hats, depends on the quality, design, and how well it aligns with your brand and target audience. It’s also important to consider the context in which they are distributed to ensure they have maximum impact.

Staying abreast of industry trends is paramount in maintaining a competitive edge. As fashion preferences evolve, so, too, should the offerings in corporate and team sales. Embracing emerging styles, materials, and decoration techniques can create new opportunities for market penetration and brand recognition.

Adam McCauley

Adam McCauley

Adam McCauley is the co-owner of Sandlot Sports, a custom screen printing, embroidery, and promotional company that specializes in spiritwear, team uniforms, corporate workwear, and event T-shirts.

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