Decoration Techniques

With so many look-alike styles in promotional apparel, you need a way to distinguish your recommendation from the competition. One way to do that is through exceptional knowledge of both the garment and the techniques used to decorate it with your clients logo.

With so many look-alike styles in promotional apparel, you need a way to distinguish your recommendation from the competition. One way to do that is through exceptional knowledge of both the garment and the techniques used to decorate it with your clients logo. Here are several classic techniques along with a few twists to rise above the commodity sellers.


Embroidery has a long tradition of stitching decorative designs by hand or by machine to embellish a piece of cloth or clothing. For the purpose of branding promotional apparel, embroiderers typically use computer-driven equipment to guide needles to stitch the desired image onto a garment.

Where you can really change the look of embroidery is with thread. "Clients have been looking to dress up wearables with sparkles for a long time now," says Alice Wolf, marketing communications director at Madeira USA. "Decorators are often pressed to come up with something special… a piece that will stand out from the crowd."

There are many metallic threads on the market, and most embroiderers are at ease using them. Ask your decorator what experience they have and what type of metallic thread they would recommend. "There are smooth metallics and others that are manufactured with a twist, reflecting light and giving a sparkling effect," Wolf says. "As long as the design is chosen carefully, or the logo is digitized with the appropriate stitches (not too small or dense for some metallics), distributors should be able to deliver the bling."

Tip: Though metallic thread will push the price of goods up by around 20%, this, in turn, raises the price that distributors may charge.

›› Case Study

Rich Medcraft, owner of StitchWise Embroidery Design in Eagle Point, Oregon, chose a subtle, affordable upsell when he literally "gilded the lily" for the corporate logo of a local winery. Red Lily Vineyards shows off Medcraft's digitizing and his use of a 45-weight smooth metallic thread in the flower portion of the logo, while some of the detail in the wording of the logo was achieved with the use of a 60-weight thread. The look is classy, unique, upscale, subtle and, based on the professional digitizing and custom look, upsell-able.

Sequin Embroidery

An even fresher take on ordinary embroidery involves sequins, which starts with digitizing the art, much like traditional embroidery. "To run the logo, a special attachment is used on the embroidery machine to drop each sequin individually, tack it down and cut it," says Gina Barreca, director of marketing at Vantage Apparel (asi/93390). "The needle is also a little thicker than a standard embroidery needle. Regular threads are often combined with sequins in the same logo to achieve small details, add more colors or just to achieve the appeal of multiple substrates."

Sequins can be used for lettering, design fills or design outlines. Depending on the artwork or desired look, an artist may choose to use single or multiple lines of sequins. "The artist can also manipulate the type of tack down during the digitizing process," Barreca explains. "The more tack-down stitches, the more secure the sequins will be on the garment. Sequins can be done on a variety of fabrics but we see it most on T-shirts, fleece, denim and other smooth jackets. Sequins are a great way to dress up ladies' T-shirts, and opens up the opportunity to do an additional ladies-only piece as part of an overall apparel program."

Tip:  Lettering size can be challenging with sequin embroidery. "For best results, a minimum of 3/4 inch-high lettering is suggested," Barreca explains. Simple letters, such as a "T" or an "L" are not as difficult, but at smaller sizes, artists need to be careful of parts of letters that can close up, such as the top of the "e" or the bottom an "a."  

Laser Tech Appliqué

This fashion-forward decoration option can be used in a variety of ways. "We're etching designs on simple shapes of the material to produce what we call a tech patch," Barreca says. "The logo has a tonal mark on the patch and we're able to achieve details as fine as .3mm."

To accomplish this, logos are digitized to run on an embroidery machine with a laser bridge. The laser is used to cut the fabric and etch the design. "The tech appliqué fabric can also be used to outline lettering or simple logo designs," Barreca says. "It can be used on any fabric that can be embroidered, but we recommend using it on performance fleece, bonded jackets, caps or heavier knits such as fleece. We've had several clients use the brown tech appliqué to simulate the look of a leather patch. It looks especially nice when used on a garment that has leather accents."

Heat Transfer

This staple of small-batch imprinting uses a heat press to apply a heat transfer onto a garment. You can create a transfer with an output device such as a printer or vinyl cutter, or order them pre-made from a transfer supplier. These transfers are backed with an adhesive that, when applied with the right amount of heat and pressure, will adhere to the garment.
  An apt example of using the heat press is jersey lettering and numbers. If you have your own heat press in-house, you can order pre-cut numbers to decorate team uniforms, a valued-added service for your school and league customers.


A blinged-up version of a heat transfer can be made simply with new equipment called the ProSpangle bling machine. Spangles shine like sequins but there's a difference. These colorful, lead-free spangles are punched out of a reel of material directly onto transfer paper – with no holes! The difference between spangles and sequins are the lack of that hole in the middle, a legacy from the embroidered sequin machine days.

Decorators Kim and Tony Rossi, owners of Stitch and Dazzle, made a strategic decision to add more bling to their capabilities, choosing the ProSpangle to expand. The Spangles fit many of the clients they service, such as schools and sport teams.

They explain: "We do a lot for competitive cheer teams and baton-twirling groups as well. Cheer competition and travel teams are the best marketers for our stuff since they travel beyond our location. We get customers now from all over the United States."


For a classic appearance that's not embroidery, consider a Woven-in logo "Your fabric is woven from scratch, using threads of different colors and premium-quality Satin Polyester, Jacquard woven fabric," says Bob Stevens, president of Footprints USA (asi/55030).

"With the custom fabric kept in stock, it's easy to customize a selection of product without a minimum. When your design, timeline and budget allow, this can provide the highest level of quality.

›› Case Study

When the Southport Cardinals needed to raise money for uniforms, it chose a classic Woven-in embellishment. Initially, the team was wary because they had been stuck with unsold merchandise in the past.

Because the distributor chose the Woven-in Spirit Gear program from Footprints USA, which provides 50 mix-and-match pieces such as belts, visors, flip-flops, tote bags etc., the team more than met their goal, selling 895 pieces netting over $7,000 in profit, enough for uniforms and a trip to the finals.

Dye Sublimation

This form of printing uses digital print technology that produces full-color photographic-quality images. Sublimation dyes are fused into polyester or poly-coated substrate using heat and pressure.

It can be used to decorate a garment with an all-over print or an apparel accessory such as flip-flops. "We start with white poly-satin fabric and dye it using the customer's design and background colors," Stevens says. "This accommodates lower minimums, faster turnaround and full-color process capabilities."

›› Case Study

Sublimation works well for patches too. "If I Need Help" is a California nonprofit corporation that reunites lost children with their parents. With the help of Imprints USA and Penn Emblem Company (asi/77120), the organization began using patches sublimated with scannable codes providing individual contact and emergency information about a child.

A QR code ID recently proved priceless for one California family. While at a large sports tournament, a five-year-old with Autism was separated from his parents in the crowd. The family began desperately searching the large park.

Fortunately, as they were looking, a mom in another part of the park noticed the boy and his QR code ID. She scanned his code with her smartphone and reunited the boy with his parents. Everything worked as designed.


An innovative process called InFusion takes the idea of sublimation even further. "It's the new untouchable decoration," says Nadia Baggetta, digital marketing coordinator at Trimark Sportswear Group (asi/92122). "Once the garment is decorated, you won't be able to feel the decoration even if you try."

The fabrics used for this technique are specialty fabrics engineered with specific yarns for InFusion. They are a proprietary combination of high-spun polyester and cotton. The fabric and technique become one, resulting in a branded garment that is completely breathable and undetectable to the touch with razor-sharp detail.

The process is ideal for clients with colorful logos or photographic detail. You get unlimited color for one setup charge. "Every detail becomes one with the garment," Baggetta says. "It decorates over seams, zippers and large locations for a trendy, retail feel."

Tip: Distributors can use InFusion's distinctive traits to upsell apparel programs requiring something on-trend, youthful and untouchable.  

›› Case Study

To celebrate "Dia de los Muertos" (Day of the Dead), lots of detail and color was important. "This case study used the Sarek tee in apple heather and it came from our customer, Matt Herod Agency," Baggetta says.

The decoration used colorful fine lettering and intrinsic tribal and floral detail. The new InFusion technique was the best option for this branding because of the large number of colors in the logo, amazing detail in the sugar skull, soft touch, breathable application and large imprint size.

"InFusion made this T-shirt come alive, and Matt Herod's customer couldn't believe how much the colors and detail helped embrace the celebration," Baggetta says.


Debossing creates a tonal 3-D look with an impactful amount of detail. It also does not puncture the garment, which is great for technical fabrics.

This technique is applied by compressing fabric with a metal plate under very high pressure and temperatures. This re-forms the fabric and creates a brand image pressed right into the garment.

"Debossing also works well with oversized locations creating a bold yet subtle look," says Baggetta. "For an apparel program with waterproof jackets, deboss decoration maintains the jacket's waterproof technology because it will not puncture the garment, thus maintaining its waterproof capability. This is a great selling feature of deboss design for corporate and alternative jacket programs."

Tip: The fabrics best used for this technique are 100% polyester and other fabric blends such as micro-polyester, polyester/spandex blend and polyester jersey and textured knit.  

›› Case Study

Deboss was the appropriate decoration for a jacket that evoked the pride of a company's employees. "This case study used the Sitka Hybrid Softshell Jacket and it came from our customer Teamsales Sports and Corporate Wear," Baggetta explains.

The decoration used fine script and block-lettering detail of each employee's name shaped into a crest with a sword in the center. "Teamsales said their customer could not believe the level of detail achieved with deboss on a full back," she says. "They were pleased the decoration kept the jacket's integrity – including its waterproof fabric technology – and loved the bold-yet-subtle look of the decoration. The names on the shield left a huge impression."

Screen Printing

Screen printing is a stencil-printing process using woven mesh that tightly stretches over a frame. This screen is coated with an emulsion that, once dry, creates a stencil when exposed to light. A film positive leaves opaque and water-soluble areas of the film. Ink is applied to the screen and pushed through the open areas onto the garment.

Screen printing can be used to imprint spot-color to full-color images. Imprint placement can be limited to a front or back of the garment or restricted to a smaller spot such the left chest of a shirt. The type of achievable effects with screen printing is vast with the application of specialty inks.

Among the special and unique printing techniques offered by PXP Solutions (asi/297068) is UV printing – also known as photochromics (PCs). These PCs change color in response to ultraviolet (UV) light, usually from the sun or a black light, going from clear to color.

"The UV light causes the PCs to absorb color (like a dye), and then change back to clear when the UV source is removed," says Bruce Jolesch, president of PXP Solutions. They can cycle thousands of times depending upon the application. They can also change from one color to another by combining it with a permanent pigment. The inks become intensely colored after only 15 seconds in direct sunlight and return to clear after about five minutes indoors."

Scott Mitchell, vice president of operations and production at PXP explains that the UV ink lays down very similarly to plastisol. "We typically use a lower mesh (110) to allow more ink to flow through," he says. "Registration is important since you won't be able to see ink as it lays down. We have used a black light in the past to make sure our registration is tight. Dryer temperature has to be lowered and monitored just to make sure the ink doesn't turn a light brown/yellow color."
  The end result is an interactive screen print that allows advertisers to intrigue viewers with a tease and then a revealed message.

Tip: UV inks perform best on white 100%-cotton shirts. "It's something that can be used for a special event, such as going to a beach location for an incentive trip," says Bruce Jolesch, president of PXP Solutions, "and you can blend both plastisol and UV inks on the same shirt so only a portion changes color when exposed to sunlight."  

Tonia Cook Kimbrough is a FL-based contributor to Advantages.