The Latest Apparel Decoration Techniques

  • Jun 10, 2013

Back in the day, if you wanted corporate branding on shirts, jackets, or caps, you had two choices — screen printing or embroidery. In 2013, the landscape is a lot broader. These standby techniques are still there, of course, but other options abound. Let's start with a primer on the basics, and go from there, with lots of pictures along the way.

Screen printing, like every method, begins with the artwork. Except for one-color prints, the first step is color separation. A separate piece of film must be made for each color, and that is used to burn a screen — a type of stencil that is exposed to high-intensity light and then sprayed with water to remove emulsion from the image area. The material is similar to a window screen; ink will be squeezed through the small holes. These holes are larger than the dots that make up offset printing images, so screen printing in general tends to be somewhat coarser.

But 21st century screen printing is not your grandfather's screen printing. In addition to the traditional, many special effects are now possible. Some of them are shown below.

Texture can be added to a screen printed shirt for an impressive effect. 

Color discharge, diamond plate, leather ink, glitter, metallic shimmer and more are available to decorate apparel 

Embroidery also begins with the examination of the art. Certain features, such as gradients and small lettering (smaller than 1/4"), along with very fine detail, do not translate well to stitches. It is better to alter a design rather than risk a poor result. Next, the art file must be converted by a process known as digitizing. Specialized software maps the stitches that must be made to embroider the design. The resulting file includes instructions for the machines for when to switch colors. The digitizing is modified depending on the type of fabric that will be stitched. Stronger fabrics embroider better than soft ones, but as long as the fabric is known, a good digitizer can create a file to do a quality job.

To keep the embroidery stitches stable, a stiff fabric backing is applied to the inside of the garment, and the area is locked in a hoop before passing through the embroidery machines. The hoop can leave a temporary ring on the garment, but that is removed when they are steamed, the next step in the process.

While printing design places emphasis on the number of colors, with each color adding cost, embroidery is different. It's all about the stitch count (which is counted by the thousands of stitches). Changing thread colors is no big deal — the instructions are built into the program.

Embroider with as many colors as you like 

One of the newest techniques is Laser Cut Applique. An applique is in essence, a patch. This is a retail-inspired decoration, often seen on a jacket back. It is a three-dimensional process, yet more economical than embroidery. By sewing a solid piece of fabric down, a background can be created without using thousands of stitches. It's also a great way to get a distressed look, all the rage in retail.

The solid background is fabric in this applique design
Note the detail in this applique
Distressed appearance makes old look cool
Both embroidery and applique can be used together
Outlined with stitches, this applique gives a unique look

Another category that is gathering attention is laser etching. It can offer a very classy, upscale look, including a lot of detail. Often the choice is for a subtle, tone-on-tone appearance, for a monochromatic look. This works great on polar fleece, micro fleece, and poly blends, particularly performance fabrics.

Fleece shows a strong texture change when etched with a laser
Etching can go right across a zipper with no problems
Denim can have a dramatic look when etched
Polyester blends respond very well to laser etching

At the opposite end of the spectrum from these subtle effects is the world of bling. Embedded rhinestones, along with glitter effects, are very popular with the young crowd.

Whatever effect you'd like to achieve, APTCO can help you do it. We're ready to be your apparel partners.

Rhinestones add sparkle to a shirt

Did You Know?

APTCO offers a wide selection of apparel for businesses and organizations of all sizes.

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