The Final Stretch: Embroidering on Compression Fabric

Sewing on performance apparel requires adjustments to your hooping technique.

Performance apparel is one of hottest trends. Thanks to companies like Under Armour and Nike, what was traditionally athletic-centric apparel is now mainstream fashion. The signature characteristic of performance apparel is its moisture-wicking capability, which absorbs perspiration into microcells within the fabric. The wicking effect makes it very comfortable during summer heat and winter chill. In fact, despite most products being polyester, performance apparel is more comfortable than 100% cotton apparel in the heat.

Performance apparel has two distinct variations: loose fit and compression fit. Loose fit products are simple to embroider. Though stretchy, you use the same basic hooping and sewing techniques to get the job done.

Compression fit is a different story. A compression garment is designed to fit tightly against the skin. When the wearer puts it on, it has to stretch to fit. (Think Spandex.) Thus, it provides two distinct challenges for embroidery, the first being hooping, the second being comfort.

The golden rule of hooping is that the garment needs to be taut, but not stretched. Not so with compression apparel. Since the product is normally worn in a stretched state, it should be embroidered in a stretched state. Thus, it must be stretched when hooped. The trick is to figure out how much stretch to apply. 

Keep in mind that when worn properly, a compression garment isn’t really stretched all that much. Thus, you don’t have to go crazy with applying stretch during hooping, but you’ll definitely be going beyond the concept of taut.

Backing should be a soft cutaway. Initially, it might seem that an adhesive backing would be ideal for helping to hold the stretch in place. But trying to stretch the garment and apply adhesive backing at the same time is a bit of a nightmare. A simpler solution is to spray the garment with a temporary adhesive, then loosely apply a cutaway backing. Don’t allow it to dry. 

Now, hoop the garment normally, and then apply your stretch to the garment, not the backing. The garment should slide while the backing stays in place. Backing doesn’t stretch by design.  Firmly tighten the screw on the hoop. Once that’s done, apply some pressure to the backing so that it bonds temporarily with the garment. Make sure it dries completely before sewing, or you’ll gum up the needles.

For sewing, I suggest a 75/11 ballpoint needle, which I use on pretty much everything I do. It should be fine for this application. Use polyester thread, as it has some stretch and holds up to heavy-duty washing quite well.

Once the sewing is complete, you’ll see that at rest the fabric looks puckered. When stretched to the normal wearing state, it’ll look fine. 

It helps to be able to do some test sewing to get comfortable with the process. Obtain a sample garment, and then experiment with different degrees of stretching. Have someone wear the garment after each sewout to compare the quality. Tip: You can do a lot of testing with a single shirt.

Beyond sewing, there’s another challenge with compression garments – the feel of the embroidery. Obviously, the fabric is going to apply pressure on the skin, which means the backside of the embroidery may be uncomfortable. To fix this problem, make a patch to cover the backside of the embroidery using a piece of soft fusible backing. Typically, it can be applied using a clothes iron. This should eliminate any discomfort caused by the threads rubbing on the skin.

Performance garments have a high perceived value, which means greater margins for you.  Take some time to get comfortable with the production process, and then grow your sales with this super-popular product.

By the way, if you want to diversify your decoration abilities, sublimation goes hand-in-hand with poly-performance products, as it bonds at a molecular level with the polymers that make up the fabric, which means full-color graphics that won’t crack, peel or fade when laundered.


Jimmy Lamb is an award-winning author and international speaker with more than 25 years of experience in the apparel-decoration business. He’s the manager of communication at Sawgrass Technologies.