Elevated Embroidery

Pairing embroidery with rhinestones, laser appliqué and other techniques adds to a garment’s perceived value – and a shop’s profit margins. Learn what types of equipment you’ll need to invest in to create multimedia designs.
    By Theresa Hegel

Picture a flaming guitar, with the words “Cleveland Rocks” emblazoned across the neck. How would you render the intricate design on a T-shirt? A digital direct-to-garment print would show off the vibrant colors of the guitar, but perhaps end up looking a little flat. Embroidery wouldn’t be able to capture the fine details, and the stitch count would be through the roof. So, why not combine the two? And while you’re at it, throw in some distressed laser appliqué to give the shirt retail-ready flair.

In the last few years, advancements in technology have fueled seemingly endless opportunities for creative multimedia designs and shop diversification. For the shops with the resources to acquire lasers and other high-tech equipment, “It was like magic,” says Paul Gallagher, president and CEO of Hirsch International. “In the last decade, the embroidery industry has really transformed into the decorated apparel industry. Decorators who’ve embraced the new technology differentiated themselves in the marketplace and ended up with more customers.”

For example, incorporating an embroidery machine with a built-in laser allows decorators to create complex appliqué designs without the hassle of manual cutting and positioning. With a typical sports-team appliqué, that could translate into a time savings of as much as 70%, Gallagher says. In that way, “Multimedia makes perfect sense,” he adds. “It allows decorators to be more profitable or do more business. Either way, it’s a win-win.”

Multimedia designs also give decorators an avenue, besides price, in which to compete, especially since there still aren’t too many shops willing or able to tinker with the high-end trend. “Anybody can lower their price, and if you’re doing basic stuff, pretty much anyone who’s halfway decent can compete with you,” says Charlie Taublieb, a decorated apparel consultant from Colorado and outspoken advocate of multimedia designs. “As soon as you throw in extra elements, it knocks out the crowd. You can be the go-to person.”

Mixing and matching embroidery, appliqué, laser etching, rhinestones, spangles, sublimation and other techniques takes some creativity and often a significant capital investment to get started, but proponents say the rewards are worth it. Here are several embellishment techniques that pair perfectly with embroidery – and the decorating equipment you need to create standout multimedia designs.

Laser Focus

Laser appliqué brings the richness of embroidery without the high stitch counts, says Ed Balady, president of BITO USA, which specializes in textile laser-cutting equipment. “We’re bringing back the sophisticated age of embroidery in a very, very automated way,” he adds. Though a laser bridge machine comes with a hefty price tag, in the hundreds of thousands for some models, decorators with the business to support one can expect a return on investment of only about a year, he says. “This is definitely a power tool,” he says. “When it’s on at full capacity, all the machines below it are humming and producing at top-dollar income.”

Unlike some other multimedia techniques where you risk design uniformity by moving artwork between multiple machines, laser bridges allow you to combine appliqué, etching and embroidery in an efficient, production-friendly manner, with little room for error, says Gina Barreca, director of marketing at Vantage Apparel (asi/93390). “We can be very specific and exact and hit many requirements,” she says. “If you don’t have to hoop or frame a garment more than once, you bring down your variance.”

Creating a multimedia design requires a logo to have interesting details to work with, Barreca says. She points to a high-pile fleece garment Vantage decorated with the Smirnoff vodka logo. The artwork has a background image etched into the fleece, with a red ribbon-like appliqué atop it. White lettering is embroidered across the appliqué. The multimedia elements add “more dimension” and textures to what could have been a flat-looking design, had only one technique been employed, Barreca says.

The laser bridge also allows decorators to replicate retail effects, like the vintage-looking appliqué popularized by stores like Abercrombie & Fitch. “They made the distressed thing fashion-forward,” says David Setchel, owner of Quality Embroidery in Lexington, NC. His contract shop often combines screen printing and laser-cut appliqué, like a T-shirt given out as a safety award to Kellogg’s employees who remained accident-free. Two layers of appliqué, in red and gray, spell out the company logo over a screen-printed image of Tony the Tiger in a hardhat. Because the appliqué is made of a soft jersey fabric, the edges roll up when washed, allowing the bottom color to show along the edges.
    That effect would have been impossible without the laser, Balady says, because the soft layers are too prone to curling. “It would never have made it to the embroidery machine intact,” he adds.

Bling It On

If you’re an embroiderer with a heat press, the natural next step is to add some sparkle, whether with rhinestones, sequins or spangles. The glittery trend has been ascendant for several years, and industry insiders don’t see it waning anytime soon. “There’s no cheerleader in the country that you can’t go up to and show a cheer shirt with rhinestones and you can’t sell it,” says Mark Stephenson, director of marketing at ColDesi, a Tampa, FL-based company that distributes decorated-apparel equipment.

Rhinestones and sequins have a much broader appeal than just the cheer market, however. As Greg Gaardbo, president of Des Plaines, IL-based Shockwaves Apparel (asi/87144), puts it: “We’re in a blingy world right now, and I don’t think that’s ever going to end.” Gaardbo, for example, added a border of iridescent sequins to a complex full-back design on a men’s blazer. The artwork for Silver Wings Merch included puff embroidery and appliqué, among other techniques.
    The nice thing about bling machines, Stephenson says, is that, like embroidery equipment, they fit in a relatively small space and aren’t messy like some other add-on techniques. “If you do direct-to-garment or any kind of printed shirt, it’s a little more of a production,” he says.

Bling also gives decorators a lot of bang for their buck. Adding just a dollar or two in materials, perhaps a spangle outline around the names on a girls soccer jersey, could bring in anywhere from $5 to $10 more per garment, Stephenson says, adding that, “It’s kind of a ’what your market will bear’ approach.” Because few competitors are offering comparable services, clients have less leverage to shop around for a lower price, he adds.

Stephenson recommends decorators skip right to a spangle transfer machine, rather than less expensive rhinestone machines, because it creates designs with almost no hand, and the supplies are one-seventh the cost of rhinestones. “Spangles create something that is absolutely soft like embroidery and always lead-free,” he says. “People put them on baby onesies and lingerie because there’s no weight.”

Sublimation Fixation

Sublimating designs onto performance fabrics is a hot technique in the apparel world, but it can also be a versatile tool in your multimedia arsenal. Gaardbo, for instance, has experimented with sublimating directly onto a field of white plastic sequins to give the finished artwork an extra sheen. It’s a multi-step process: First, Shockwaves creates two designs, one for sublimation and the other for sequins, making sure they’re the same size. Then, the shop attaches the sequins to the garment and prints the sublimation paper. The sublimation paper is cut out, matched to the sequins, then heat-pressed to transfer the image to the sequins. Oftentimes, Shockwaves will add another sequin border around the whole design “to button it all up,” Gaardbo says. He adds that a client who services the collegiate market is “eating up” the innovative technique, continually coming back with new orders.

Kristin Williams, president of Minnesota-based VSA Custom Apparel (asi/700739), likes to give her appliqué some extra punch, by sublimating patterns and artwork onto the fabric. “Regular old twill is a tired concept,” she says. A custom varsity jacket her shop decorated for the Greek market features a chenille patch spelling out “Legacy” on top, a twill patch in the center with the customer’s own artwork sublimated on it and embroidered lettering below. Other designs pair paisley or leopard print patterns sublimated onto the “traditional preppy collegiate look” for a new twist on the classic, she says.
    Sublimated appliqué is a premium many customers are willing to pay for, especially in the youth and college markets, Williams says. “They don’t want to look like everybody else,” she says. “Whenever we present multimedia as an option, it’s always met with a lot of excitement.”

THERESA HEGEL is a senior writer for Stitches. Contact:; follow her on Twitter at @TheresaHegel.