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Custom Embroidery Terms and Buying Tips

Updated on February 13, 2019
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Heidi Thorne is the author of "SWAG: How to Choose and Use Promotional Products for Marketing Your Business."

Custom embroidery threads come in hundreds of colors.
Custom embroidery threads come in hundreds of colors. | Source

"I just want some hats, polo shirts and bags with my logo embroidered on them." Sounds simple enough, right? Wrong! When buying custom embroidery for wearable promotional products, buyers can be faced with a myriad of confusing terms. And if they don't understand what these terms mean and what they're buying, they could be in for some big expenses.

So let's cover some custom embroidery basics...

Custom Embroidery Preparation Steps

The easiest custom embroidery projects are those that are simple text. The buyer simply needs to select what text is to be stitched, what type font to be used (typical choices include script or block lettering) and where it should be stitched on the garment. The embroiderer then programs the text into the sewing machines applying the embroidery.

Logos, however, present additional challenges.

To begin the logo embroidery process, clean artwork—a vector-based artwork file such as an Encapsulated Postscript (.eps) file or Adobe Illustrator (.ai) file—is usually required to get the best interpretation of a logo into a stitched design. Other files may be able to be used; however, be aware that a promotional products distributor or decorator may assess additional fees to clean up and convert artwork that does not meet specifications.

Then the logo artwork must be digitized. Digitizing is the process of converting a logo into an electronic design file that an embroidery machine can read and interpret into a sequence of stitches. Not all embroidery machines are the same. When the file is created, it is created for use with a specific commercial embroidery machine brand. Typically, these files are unreadable by most computer users. But there's really no need to be able to do so. The promotional products distributor, decorator or supplier will upload these files into their systems to create a sew-out proof of the logo.

A sew-out is a one-off test run on the embroidery machines to be used for the complete project. These proofs are usually done on waste fabric or material so that the buyer can review and approve it prior to production. Today, these proofs may also be done virtually, with a photo of the sewn out artwork being emailed to the buyer for approval.

Sometimes the digitized files can be reused on future projects. There may be a limit on the time that a promotional distributor or decorator will retain these files for reuse. If the file has not been retained, the logo may need to be re-digitized, with a new sew-out proof, for future use.

Part of a very dense embroidery design that would require several thousand stitches.
Part of a very dense embroidery design that would require several thousand stitches. | Source

What Does Number of Stitches Mean?

One of the more confusing aspects of buying embroidery is the number of stitches that an embroidered logo design will require. What does it mean?

Custom embroidery costs are priced based on the entire number of stitches the machine will need to make to apply the design to each shirt, hat, jacket or bag. When a design is uploaded into an embroidery machine, the machine will indicate how many stitches the design will require.

Usually the pricing is based on thousands of stitches. If, for example, a design requires 6,457 stitches, the company doing the decorating will likely round up to the next thousand stitch increment of 7,000 when pricing.

As logic would dictate, the more stitches a design takes, the higher the cost. Many simple logos for hats or polo shirts may be in the 5,000 to 7,000 stitches range. However, if the design is very dense—meaning that the area is completely or almost completely covered in stitches—the number of stitches and cost can escalate quickly.

Location and Size Limits for Custom Embroidery

Limits to the area available for custom embroidery are dictated by the design of the item it is to be placed on, where it will be placed and, of course, the buyer's budget! While multiple locations may provide additional viewing exposure for logos and messages, additional locations can dramatically increase cost, too.

There are several common locations for embroidery on promotional wearable items and accessories including:


  • Left Chest. This is the most common location for custom logo or company name embroidery. Decorators may limit this area to a size of 3" square area or less for adult size clothing, though some may allow up to 4" square. That may sound like a very small area, but when viewed on the wearer, it is huge!
  • Right Chest. Often used to embroider a person's name on uniforms. Same size limitation as for left chest.
  • Back. The full center back of a jacket can be embroidered. This is done less often on shirts since it can stiffen up the shirt and make it uncomfortable for the wearer. A full back embroidery project can be very expensive due to the large number of stitches required to fill the area. Another back decoration option could be embroidering a small logo or message centered just below the collar.
  • Sleeve Hems and Cuffs. Depending on the design, some sleeves can accommodate small logos or text embroidered near the sleeve hem or on cuff of shirts. These areas are often quite small, but may be good for sponsor logos. On long sleeve cuffs and hems, it is done so that it's readable by the viewer, not the user.


  • Front of Crown. Most visible and popular location. Embroidery area available will be dictated by the style of hat.
  • Sides. Smaller area that may be good for sponsor logos.
  • On Back Above Closure. On a standard baseball style cap, a tagline, company name or other message can be embroidered above the closure adjustment strap.


Tote bags, business cases and backpacks can also be embroidered. Size and location of embroidery areas varies widely based on the construction and materials used for these items. Consult the product information for options.

How Many Colors Can be Used for Custom Embroidery?

The number of colors available for a custom embroidery design are dictated by the number of embroidery heads on the machines to be used, each head handling a different color of thread. Machines can have 1 to 12 or even more heads.

Even though there are literally hundreds of actual thread colors on the market, those available for a particular project may be dictated by those that the decorating company normally keeps on hand. Special request colors, including those that match Pantone Matching System (PMS) colors, are often available for an additional fee.

In a Supporting Role...

Some buyers are surprised when they receive their orders and notice a patch of plain fabric on the back of the areas that are embroidered. This is not a mistake!

Embroidery processes can be punishing to many fabrics, causing stretching or other wear. This can also distort the embroidery. (One can now understand why T shirts are rarely embroidered!) A backing fabric is often applied to the back side to provide support to both the item and the embroidery.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2014 Heidi Thorne


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