Applique with Flair

Kicking it up a Notch

 Competition is fierce in the decorated apparel market and so it should be part of our job description to be watchful and educate ourselves about creative techniques that will set out work apart from the shop across town—or, with the wonder of the Internet—across the globe.

We can also keep our “back burner” bubbling and take the time to try new techniques or combinations that enter our “I-wonder-if” thought processes. Nothing ventured, nothing gained…so if you have a thought, try it out. Yours may be the next craze to hit the shirts.

 Think before you buy

 The advancement of the embroidery machine is a wonderful thing to behold. Most of the major brands, including SWF, Barudan, Highlander and Tajima bring you the option of sequins, boring, cording, chenille and a combination of many of these things on one machine. So, if your goal is to venture into the dazzling possibilities that lurk beyond the ordinary, do your homework. Whether you are looking to add a machine or are purchasing for the first time, visit trade shows, surf the Internet and even just walk the malls and examine garments to discover what is there—and what is not. You never know when inspiration will strike.

And while you are examining the marvels of the latest and greatest embroidery machines, check out cutting equipment. For a relatively low investment you can purchase a cutter like the GX-24 and cut film, fabric, printed transfers and more. The flat-bed cutter requires a larger investment but, for jobs larger than the GX-24 will handle, you can always contract out your needs until you know that your business will support a larger investment.

With an ink jet printer you can create your own designs on fabric and move simple appliqué up one level. I have purchased several books at local stores and online that explore the many ways of printing your own fabric.

Sublimation equipment allows a different kind of printing on polyester fabric where the printed design becomes a part of the shirt fabric.

Direct-to-garment printers allow for a large print on the shirt which can be embellished and enhanced in many ways.

Equipment by Roland (EGX 350) also allows you to create templates for rhinestone applications that allow for faster and easier application if your job is more than one-of-a-kind. (An added bonus is the ability to create engraved badges!)

Don’t forget simpler things to add that flair to your custom look including buttons, bows, fabric paints and air-brushing equipment. Even production oriented companies can benefit from the end-users desire for unique garments with flair—just hire some part-timers to hand-embellish the final product so you can offer more fashion-oriented garments.

 Who’s Doing What?

 Design your own shirt sites are popping up all over the ‘Net. From the simple to the sublime, instant gratification is available with the click of a button and a little imagination. Check out for some exciting examples of what can be done. And they even allow you, as an apparel decorator, to take over the embellishment process. You can purchase a custom shirt, have your own (or your customer’s) special print dyed into the fabric before the garment is sewn, add a crystal transfer application that adds dimension and sparkle to the whole print or just a logo. You can get that shirt private-labeled and order the final decorative embellishments to apply yourself—or they will do it for you. They offer studs, rhinestones, nail heads, water-based inks, foils and felt transfers.

 I see that as a wonderful learning opportunity as well as a profitable partnership with a domestic company that knows more than a little about dazzle. Imagine the possibilities you can offer to your clients, moving your business to a level that offers professional consulting for shirts with real flair.

 Work WIth What You've Got

Even small embroidery shops have an ink jet printer so perhaps your creative journey can start simply with custom-printed fabric instead of the run-of-the-mill solid fabric appliqué. Custom designing your own fabric also allows you to avoid the copyright tangles that often arise when using store-bought fabrics (many don’t realize that there arecopyright restrictions with using by-the-yard fabric bought by the yard in items for resale).

Imagine an all-over print with the company logo or even parts of it used to create the appliqué (maybe the name of the company) or consider using the print as a second layer behind a solid-color appliqué. Don’t forget to take your tack-down and final edge stitching into account when creating a second-layer appliqué piece. While “rules of thumb” are great staring places, if your stitching is going to cover too much of your carefully-crafted fabric, you can make the back layer larger to allow for more of your artistry to show.

You can also create above-the-ordinary designs with your digitizing program. Dimensional effects can be exciting and it’s simply a matter of learning how to anchor the stitches so the bobbin threads can be cut, allowing the thread to swing free. This is a wonderful way to create tassels, mustaches, hair and animal effects. Imagine a horse logo with a “real” mane or fetlock…a riding school could sell a lot of shirts to customers. Add some bling in the way of crystals , rhinestones or nail heads to the bridle and you’ve got a winning combination!

I often find examples of this kind of digitizing and multi-media creativity in the realm of the home hobbyists. But there is nothing to say that we can’t borrow a little of that creative spirit when we pitch our new-and-different in the commercial sector.

Peggy Severt (Coldwater, Ohio) of Pegboard Crafts ( has created a simple design of a cat on a pillow, but the addition of tassels and hot-fix crystals and pearls takes it above the ordinary appliqué. The crystals, which have adhesive in place, can be applied using a wand with a tip that heats up and holds the individual crystal inside, melting the adhesive. When touched to the fabric, the crystal adheres and is pulled from the tip of the wand. Use a metal bar to permanently adhere the heated crystal to the thread. A different tip will apply the pearls. 

Don’t forget the special-effects thread when you are seeking the unusual and unique. Heavier thread (use the correct needle and density to accommodate the thicker diameter) can fashion realistic fur and horse tails with real drama. Threads that create a texture can change a hum-drum fill into a dimensional delight.

Dean Roscoe, a digitizer (Paramount Embroidery used 100 weight cotton thread as well as many stitch effects on four different colors of flock fabric to produce his prize winning appliqué . It was entered into the Printwear and Promotion trade show in the United Kingdom and took first place in the best embroidery design category. The design honors a squadron of  U.S. pilots from World War II nicknamed The Flying Tigers.  A  double zig-zag underlay under the bamboo adds dimension to create a 3-D effect. The tiger fur is created using split satin stitches and motif fills comprise the AVG text. When you add creative digitizing effects to fabrics and top it off with a unique thread choice, the results can be quite above the ordinary.

I recently attended a show at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City called “Pricked Extreme Embroidery.” It was not a large exhibit and many of the examples were hand embroideries. But a few included machine stitching—one was even combined with a video of a machine stitching the exhibited design. The real show stopper for me was a large (42” x 10’ 2”) pewter-hued shantung panel called Death of a Blinded Philosopher. The figure of the skeleton is worked in an appliqué process using silver fabric and hues of metallic silver thread. The leg and foot—talons and all—of a cockerel explode from the eye and are stitched with multi-colored threads in shades of pink and peach using a patterned fill to suggest the scaly skin texture. Exploding from the eye punctured by this talon is an ink-blot style design fashioned from blood crimson fabric that has a soft, velvet look and is surrounded and augmented by satin stitch fronds and feathery floral effects created with embroidery stitches. These are studded with red crystals which are also used to suggest the droppings of the satin stitched cock roaches and flies that seem to be drawn to the blood soaked appliqué.

Crystals, rhinestones and studs are a wonderful way to add dimension to any design, appliquéd or not.

Consider using a light density fill over an appliqué piece to bring added color or sheen to the end product. Other design elements can be stitched on top of this fill—or buttons or other embellishments added for fun effects.

You can add real buckles to a horse halter. Check the button department at the local fabric store (they go on sale quite often) for some dimensional additions. I once scanned a watering can and carrot buttons into my digitizing program and added some satin elements to indicate the soil and the grass and some running stitches (metallic thread) for water. After the design was stitched, I sewed on the buttons!  Sewn on the back right shoulder of the shirt, it really created a lot of interest.

If your shop equipment already includes a cutter and heat press (and many add this early on as they are inexpensive ways to offer more to your established clientele) learn how to use the cutter to carve out perfect transfers and investigate all the fabrics and foils that can lead you in creative directions. Learn which ones you can easily combine (temperature and dwell time) and experiment with new and different combinations.

Remember that the more elements you combine, the higher the perceived value—but don’t forget to charge more for these custom, art pieces…called wearable art.

Remember, too, that too much can ruin the end result. Just as with puff embroidery effects, you want to add elements as accents and not overwhelm the design. Mix solid effects with bling and dimension in creative ways and don’t forget to consider the colors. Scan your sew out and look at it in shades of gray to make sure that your value choices are not all the same, which will cause the beholding eye to see it as all one color…not nearly as exciting as choosing hues that are two or more steps from each other in darkness/lightness. I consider color choice an important part of the mixed media process…it is just as much a part of the design element as the rhinestones or the tassels.

 Get Excited!

 I often use the word “possibilities” when writing about embroidery as well as mixed media applications. And it is a word that just about covers it all. Taking some time to explore the possibilities in machines and embellishment techniques and supplies can really jump-start the creativity in you—even if you didn’t know you had any!

Keep your eyes open when you are out—garment-watching is the best part of people-watching. It keeps you on the cutting edge to see what’s out there and allows your mind to investigate how you can make it better and different.

In a world where consumers are always looking to take that better and different and own it, why not be the one to supply it?