Everything is NOT a Shirt

Aprons and Blankets and Bags, OH MY

 I recently attended an amazing exhibit of embroidery as art in New York City. As I wandered through the display, I thought a lot about the direction that embroidery has taken since the fireplace chair and wooden hoop were taken over by the fast-paced, multi-needled machines that would certainly shock our hand-stitching ancestors.

A whimsical moment had me wishing I could “see” what every professional embroiderer in the world was stitching at that very moment—an overview of where we are, what we do and why. I knew that I would see a lot of pure production embroidery and that is a good thing, as every business on earth needs the embroiderer, even when we don’t need their specialty.. But, I know I am not alone in wishing for, courting and producing more artistic products.

Some don’t venture into the artistic side of stitching because there isn’t enough time, or at the end of a day full of logoed apparel the desire to change the threads and rev up the imagination simply isn’t there.

Thinking about corporate embroidery work conjures up the image of the same corporate logo on dozens of placket shirts. Creativity can enter the picture if the customer lets you play with textures and/or colors in the design, but most of the time it is assembly line work.

Set form and set color is the toughest challenge for the creative. Add to that the customer who is set in his ways regarding a logo and you have little room to wiggle, let alone soar.

Enter the non-wearables.

 Making a List

 A roll call of things we can embroider that aren’t shirts is almost endless. Aprons, blankets and bags are only the beginning. We can stitch on floor mats, car upholstery, scarves, pet leashes and collars, ribbons, casket liners, paper and envelopes, laundry bags, can coozies, CD cases, umbrellas, chairs, name tape, and even bathroom tissue. We can embroider on tulle and add a design to a candle or soap. Wood can be embroidered—and I have even seen tortilla chips, lettuce and candy decorated with thread.

And the mention of food makes me wonder if even for those of you whose bread and butter comes from corporate-logoed shirts (and “playing” with spec stuff is not your cup o’ tea), you might find the desert of your stitching life by trying something different.

Some things in my grocery list of non-wearables are perfect choices for corporate gifts—the umbrellas, the can coozies, the CD cases—and you might be able to convince your customer to let your experiment a little. Others, like bags, are a canvas for any inspiration that comes to mind.

It’s in the Bag

 There is a bag for every occasion. Backpacks, fanny packs, tote bags, computer bags—men and women alike carry some kind of bag everywhere they go. Whether small or large, most are made with heavier than average fabrics and, although they are tough and stable enough to allow even the novice embroiderer a stellar result, a little preparation and common sense will help smooth the way.

 Needles, Thread and Backing

 Start with sharp needles (75/11 is a good choice) when stitching on bags made from canvas, nylon, twill, denim and corduroy. Use a larger needle (80/12) if the bag is heavy like Cordura nylon or canvas. The 80/12 has a more stable shaft that will not bend, break or deflect as easily while stitching. If the back of the fabric is coated, use Teflon needles or slide a piece of waxed paper under the hoop. Coated nylon bags tend to invite loops and the heat of the stitching melts the backing and gums up the eye of the needle and can compromise registration in your design. Waxed paper lubricates the needle, helps keep the eye clean and holds looping at bay.

When stitching on leather bags, choose a sharp needle, not a wedge point which can slice the leather and cut out the design.

Polyester thread is a good choice for bags as they are exposed to weather and sunlight. The colors are fast and the thread itself is stronger than rayon and frays less.

Don’t be afraid to try metallic and twist threads, fuzzy and heavy threads, for a unique look. Bags that don’t work as hard are good candidates for specialty threads.

Choose your colors with an eye to sharp contrast—from each other and from the bag itself—to ensure high visibility.

Backing isn’t a requirement for really sturdy bags, but denim has a stretch that benefits from backing and nylon resists puckering when teamed with a piece of stabilizer. Backing helps fabric hold the stitches so use a backing with high stitch count designs.

If the fabric tends to grab at your table top, use waxed paper, bond paper, or even a piece of tearaway under the hoop to help smooth the movement. This extra step will also keep residue from any coatings from raining down into the bobbin assembly.

A piece of backing placed over the bag will keep leather and more fragile fabrics like velvet from hoop burns and impressions.

Really heavy canvas and any fabric with ridges like corduroy and some twills, can use a topping to ensure smooth stitching on the edges of the design.

 Hooping, Placement, Digitizing and Finishing

 If you have double high hoops (twice as tall as the standard hoop) use them when stitching on bags. They will give you a better grip and help prevent the bag from popping out of the hoop in the middle of a run. Remember to provide extra support for heavy bags, especially if you stitching them in the tubular fashion, so the drag on the hoop doesn’t compromise the registration or cause the hoop to come undone.

Consider using your cap frames for fanny packs or any bag that works well with that shape. Use sticky or water-activated backing when stitching on straps and handles—a good solution on really heavy bags, bags without pockets or transparent bags that might perforate.

Bags are often square or rectangular nad these parallel and perpinduicalr elements can draw the eye to any design that is off-center or crooked. You can make a template from cardboard or, a more permanent one from quilter’s plastic,  Punch a hole in the template and use tailor’s chalk or a water-soluble marking pen to mark the center of the design on the bag,

Snaps, straps, zippers and pockets can be a boon or a blessing when stitching on bags. Stitching on the straps or pockets is often the easiest choice, but when the customer wants the bag itself decorated, try for a pot newt the top. It is easier to hoop and most times does not require turning the bag inside out at all—which can be a challenge with some of the really heavy fabrics.

If the pocket can’t be easily stitched without closing the opening permanently, suggest an asymmetrical placement that can leave part of the pocket open for use. If you have to remove the pocket to accomplish the look your customer wants, remember to charge for the extra labor.

The best way to ease the production of embroidered bags is to choose bags that are “embroidery friendly” to start. A company that embroiders bags that they manufacture for sale is a good place to start. Order some samples and stitch some display bags for your showroom and be ready to write up an order for bags that make your stitching life easier.

When planning the design for your bag, choose lower density for leather as this results in fewer needle penetrations. Decrease the underlay for the same reason and you will have less worries about cutting out the design. Start in the center of the design and move out to the sides, at the bottom and work to the top,  to reduce to chance of puckering.

Use generous underlay (in the opposite direction of any subsequent fill stitching) when stitching denim. Although considered a woven fabric, all denim has some stretch. A good thought is to use a light density fill as underlay in the same color as the denim under the entire design. This will eliminate distortion and control the push and pull of the fabric in the hoop.

Although heavier fabrics don’t require a lot of underlay, coarse and ridged fabrics will benefit from the judicious use of a foundation that addresses not only the weave of the fabric but also gives the stitches the best chance at a smooth finished look. Two stitchings, using the first as a topping and underlay for the second is a really clean solution for textured bag fabrics. A single line underlay stitching around the edge and then a cross hatched loose-density fill when used as underlay will invite crisp edges and foil the puckers.

Fill stitches appear more distinct when the underlay around the edge has greater density. Wide satins should be avoided on bag designs because they can snag with heavy use but, when satins are desired, beefing up the underlay around the edges will prevent the coarseness of the fabric from blurring the edges—or creating a saw-toothed look. A walk stitch around the edge can sharpen the edge, just as on a fill, without adding a lot of stitch count. This gives those satins a toe-hold and results in a cleaner look.

When choosing a font, remember that block letters can result in a more a finished edge than a script which can look jagged when going around curves. This is not to say you can’t use a script—just pay attention to the underlay from the perspective of the design,  Sometimes it is the design that needs the stability even with the fabric does not.

With an eye to finishing a bag, which is often filled to overflowing, place tie-in and tie-out stitches where needed so you can safely  trim between the design segments. Things stuffed in a bag will break long connecting stitching and result in unraveling. Consider using a sealant to secure stitches and coat the embroidery. This can also help restore any weatherproof qualities of the bag.

 The Bag as Canvas

 Something as simple as experimenting with thread or adding an appropriate patterned fill to a logo can punch up a corporate log, But, if your customer is less than enthusiastic, flex your stitching muscles on a gift item, like a bag, and show them what is possible. Show, don’t tell, is often the key to the door of change and possibilities.

Think about traveling the mixed media route, printing a detailed background on a bag and then adding embroidery for accents. The result is a more elaborate design, often for less labor and money, that can make a real fashion statement as well as being useful. And, while you are thinking about that heat press, use it to set your stitches when your embroidery is finished to tighten up the thread that has been loosened during the stitching process and give a real polished look to the threads.