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How to Get Great Looking Machine Embroidery on T-Shirts

Updated on June 21, 2013

Many embroiderers have shied away from T-shirts, with their past efforts leading them to believe they are too flimsy or shapeless to gracefully accept a stitched decoration. This does have to be your experience, however, if you choose the right T-shirt to work with and use the proper techniques when working with them.

Here are some tips to guide you in establishing your own process of embroidering tees.

Picking the right shirt

T-shirt manufacturers traditionally cater to the needs of the screenprinting industry, so be cautious selecting appropriate garments for embroidery. There is a wide variety of choices available in knit types, weights and fabric content. Heavier, less-stretchy knits provide the most stable canvas for stitching. These include the 100 percent cotton tees now available. Be sure you choose guaranteed pre-shrunk or minimum shrinkage garments to avoid the pull that results when the garment shrinks after laundering, while the embroidery stays the same size.

Less-expensive, lightweight blends may be embroidered just fine by using caution and good preparation. Obviously, lightweight knits will not support heavy embroidery designs laden with fill stitches.

Tees are no longer just shirts. There are a variety of styles for you to choose from, including oversized tees, which are great for beach cover-ups or nightwear; shorts and long pants, which are color coded to match tops; little and big girls' dresses; tunics; and jackets-all these and more are available.

When choosing your T-shirt for embroidery, however, keep in mind that anything less than a 5 1/2 ounce fabric weight may be too flimsy to attempt embroidery. However, once you begin sewing tees, you will most likely receive requests for lighter weight (less expensive) T-shirts.

In addition to fabric weight, consider the opacity of the garment. White or very light colors will allow the cutaway backing to show through the front of the garment. In fact, even on heavyweight whites, you still get some visual impressions of the backing. Be sure to let your customer know this may happen. Also, be sure to choose garments with guaranteed colorfastness, so the embroidery colors don't take on the color of the garment when laundered.

Which designs work best?

While it is common sense that a large, dense design with lots of fill stitches will not be appropriate for T-shirt embroidery, other appropriate choices are not so obvious. A design that is spread out, with lotsof "white space" or unembroidered spaces, will do better on an opaque, darker garment where the backing will not become a visual factor in the finished design. Here again, make sure the customer understands the dynamics involved when he makes his garment choice.

Where possible, lessen the density of the design to minimize fabric pull, and shorten stitch length, to avoid the fabric piece of it between your fingers, the fabric will pucker between stitches. To achieve the results of tighter hooping, try recessing the inner hoop to bring it closer to the sewing surface of the machine and achieve better tensioning.

Choosing a backing

Backings for T-shirt embroidery can be somewhat tricky. One choice is cutaway backing, which can be hooped with the garment. Another choice is a lightweight woven fabric, which will help retain the soft hand of the garment. Tearaway backing is not recommended, as the removal of this support makes the heavy embroidery stand alone on the garment. The embroidered area will sag and pull at the surrounding areas, destroying the silhouette of the garment.

Add additional backing support beneath the hoop. Again, visualize the final look desired. If embroidering a heavyweight opaque cotton, for instance, add as much backing as the design will stand without destroying the suppleness of the garment. We chose four layers of cutaway backing (in addition to the backing hooped with the garment). It is also possible that fewer layers could have been used. One way to get a feel for the amount of backing that will be acceptable is by experimenting and then laundering the garment.

Also, additional layers of a thin, woven fabric can be used. I recommend using a nonwoven cutaway for at least part of your backing support, as woven fabrics will fray over time and leave the design standing alone, basically same result as using tearaway backing.

A dilemma exists when embroidering a lighter-weight fabric. While the need for extra support is even greater, the heaviness of the backings can cause the fInished sew-out to pull on the garment. Water-soluble toppings can add stability to the sewing process, with the garment sandwiched between the hooped bottom and top layers. Again, hoop the topping so all sides are caught in the hooping frame. Keep your design compact; a left-chest design might be the best choice. A compact design, with few ins and outs can be trimmed close to the edges and yield a pleasing final look.

Technical Bits and Pieces

Here are a few suggestions for your consideration:

  • If achieving registration on outline or fill stitches is a problem, try reducing your sewing speed. This will give the goods more time to recover from the rapid movement of the pantograph.
  • Be sure to choose the right hoop. Use the smallest hoop frame available for the design you are running to maximize the desirable fabric tautness.
  • Do you have a design with heavy stitch coverage that you must use? Try reducing the density as far as possible, then use a lightweight material beneath the stitching to complete the fill. You can also convert the design to an applique, again using a lightweight fabric with a soft hand.
  • Hoop and run the garments upside down. Not only does the shirt tail area offer easier loading, any machine oil which may come into contact with the garment will be in the tail area, as opposed to the chest, neck or sleeve area.

The final step in establishing your own T-shirt procedure should be laundering the garments with the normal care you would give your own wardrobe and viewing the results.

With careful planning and by visualizing the finished design, you, too, can embroider on T-shirts with a minimum of difficulty. But keep in mind the special considerations required for T-shirt embroidery.

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