Erich Campbell shares his failsafe tips to help you get ahead with embroidered hats

Nothing upsets embroiderers quite as much as hats. In fact, they can cause so much trouble that some shops refuse to work with them, even if they risk losing clients to the competition. It’s certainly true that hats can be hard work. Even easily decorated examples require special digitising, consideration for limited decoration area and careful hooping. The worst headwear offenders that I’ve faced have caused any number of issues, from hooping problems and registration errors to maddening stoppages caused by thread breaks and broken needles. Here, I’ll examine two of the most challenging hat designs to work with and give you tips on how to tackle them, concluding with alternative decoration options to help you conquer even the most uncooperative headwear.

Structured hats

Structured hats often have overly coarse plastic support materials in the crown. This material can make needles deflect and track poorly. Even sharp needles that survive these barriers may generate a plastic ‘dust’ that fouls the machines and decoration as the design is punched through the stiff shell. However, what makes these caps notorious isn’t the mess, it’s their tendency to break needles. As a design crosses the folded and taped centre seam of a six-panel cap, needles breach two layers of the folded outer shell material, two layers of folded support material and the folded edges of the seam tape — a dense stack of six strata with a gap in the middle. Given that, needle deflection, and even breakage, shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

Stiff crown solutions

Make it malleable There are two recommended approaches for softening these ‘hard’ hats: heat and what I’ll generously call ‘mechanical intervention’. Heat is straightforward — some embroiderers apply a garment steamer, others a cap heat press and some use a heat gun. The ‘mechanical’ approach is more hands-on: either ‘rolling’ the crown in one’s hands or ‘tenderising’ the central seam with a plastic or rubber mallet. I favour steam, but any softening method reduces breakages and deflection over the seam.

Know your needle Some decorators turn to titanium-coated needles, even choosing to go up in size to prevent deflection. While it may help, I’ve had the worst caps break even these needles. I’ve also found that small details are harder to execute cleanly with the larger needles and I’ve faced quality issues and thread breaks. It’s far from a miracle cure.

Buy better There are many similar styles of standard structured hats from any number of distributors. Part of your job as a decorator is to recommend the best garments to achieve your customers’ aims. Unless there is a deal-breaking difference between a difficult hat and a smoother-stitching alternative, or you are unavoidably stuck with customer- supplied goods, you should direct your customer to your tested hat styles – those that decorate easily and cleanly.

As you can see from these distributor samples, with a large enough direct order, you can both avoid decorating stiff hats and benefit from them having been decorated pre-construction. Peak embroidery and all-over embroidery and printing are just a couple of the possibilities open to you

This tough hat is about to be tamed by the judicious application of steam. There are many ways to soften a hat, from heat pressing and heat guns, to pounding the seam with a plastic mallet. I prefer a less hands-on approach, but some hats require a lot of intervention

Knit caps

Knit caps stretch and have extreme textures, and stitches sink into them like quicksand. They envelop small text, shift elements out of registration, warp around designs and poke their knitted ribs through fills. Unlike stiff-crowned hats, however, these are readily tamed. Knit hats are no problem provided you avoid simple hooping errors and digitise with the correct compensation.

Measure the stretch Warping and registration errors persuade embroiderers to increase the stability of the decoration area. Unfortunately, many attempt this by hooping knit materials too tightly, over-stretching and ultimately increasing warping, even if design registration benefits. As stitching marries the design area to the stabiliser, the material under the design is trapped in a state where it is stretched beyond the natural stretch it would experience on a head. When the hat is unhooped, it rebounds to its natural state, rippling, wrinkling and distorting as the free material gathers around the stitched-down design. For the best worn-look, you can mitigate this by ‘measuring the stretch’. With your cap on an average-sized mannequin head or willing co-worker with a normally- sized noggin, you can find a happy medium of stretch for hooping.

Though this particular backing is far from the worst I’ve seen, it’s certainly stiff. Imagine those six fabric layers where the panels’ edges are rolled under and covered with tape, and you can see why the centre seam causes so many problems with stiff crown support material

Here’s how it’s done: first, choose a number of knit ribs that’s easy to count — say eight ribs — and use a fabric tape to measure the distance from rib one to eight on the hat as worn. Then, hoop the hat, stretching the hooped fabric so that eight ribs are that same distance apart as measured. The hats may not look perfect laid flat, but will lay well and look less warped on customers’ heads.

You won’t have to measure each hooping in perpetuity; after a little practice, seeing the proper distance between the ribs becomes second nature. That said, every hat style is somewhat different — you may have to repeat this exercise on any new knit styles you encounter. 

Measuring the stretch can also help you to combat problems with stitching the back of stretch-to-fit hats or even stretchy exercisewear. Simply make two marks with a removable fabric marker or chalk and execute the same measurement to find out by how much the material will stretch when worn, then hoop accordingly.

Stitch structurally This requires help from your digitiser, but it’s well worth the trouble as it fixes so many knit hat headaches. Mastering knit hats means keeping them stable, taming their texture and avoiding design elements sinking into their loft – all of which can be aided or achieved through structural underlay.

For simple, thick-stroked lettering or satins, a one-two punch of edge-walk or contour underlay followed by zigzag or double zigzag underlay will do wonders. Edge-walk secures the hat to the stabiliser and provides a ‘rail’ for the edges of the zigzags and top-stitching to ‘grab’, making edges look cleaner. The zigzag compresses the hat somewhat, holding back the texture while lifting top stitching away from the knit. For detailed designs, unsupported text, open elements, thin strokes or any design that suffers through interacting with the furrows in the knit, a light mesh underlay in the garment colour provides excellent support.

Some digitisers use full-density fills to flatten knits, but this method is lighter and more efficient. Create a shape under your design, extending just beyond its edges. Fill that shape at a 45° angle with a tatami or fill stitch, with its lines of stitching spaced at 2mm rather than full four points/0.4mm coverage. Replicate that shape directly atop the first with an opposing 135° angle fill placing its start point at the end point of the last fill, and you’ve created this magic mesh. With a well-matched colour, particularly if you employ matte-finish threads, the area will look debossed. The material is smoothed and held in place with stitching, making a smoother, more stable substrate for your design, which all but eliminates the need for speciality topping materials or other textural treatments.

In another distributor sample, you can see how the design, which, in this instance, hasn’t been stretched quite enough when hooped, shows quite a bit of warping around the logo. This isn’t the worst kind of warping by far, but it does show how the difference between the stitched-down decoration area and the natural-stretched garment as worn can cause distortion of your design and make your hat lay somewhat poorly

By measuring a hat on an average head, you can better judge the right amount of stretch for later hooping. Not all logos will require you to be so careful about distortion, but knowing your natural stretch can help you to avoid excess rippling from material rebound; this general guideline helps keep your hooping consistent

Alternative decoration methods

Sometimes stitching isn’t an option. If your hat can’t be hooped or a needle won’t comfortably pass through it, here are three ways to decorate these unstitchables.

Patches/appliqués Heat up the cap press and either produce or purchase some patches with heat-seal backing. If you don’t have a press, some patch suppliers produce self-adhesive appliqués for non-permanent applications. There are caps that don’t respond as well to the adhesives and when that happens, stitching may be more necessary (and provides the most permanent attachment). Even when you have a heavy seam that’s hard to pass through, you can usually do the minor amount of stitching necessary to attach a patch. Stitching down the patch can be achieved with careful pathing via an appliqué-like placement and stitch method on your embroidery machine, or manually with a post-bed sewing machine.

Heat pressing Simple single-colour designs can be made quickly with heat-applied cut-films, while more detailed pieces can be achieved by ordering digital full-colour transfers. Adding something embroidery can’t achieve will score extra points with customers that want something more. Custom rhinestone, glitter-flake or foil transfers add a flare even metallic thread can’t touch. Heat pressing also allows printed decorations on finished bills and straps that would be difficult or impossible with embroidery, and provides an easier option for decorating thin, unstructured hats that don’t stitch easily, like those meant for cyclists and runners.

Hat bands For hats with a brim, a simple hat band provides an easily-stitched substitute for direct embroidery. Even when a supplier doesn’t include them as an option, they are simple for anyone with even a hobbyist’s knowledge of sewing to create. You can even resort to wide, woven ribbon and non-sew adhesives to create your own in a pinch.

Light mesh underlay can work wonders, keeping thin lettering and the edges of satin stitches looking crisp, clean and above the surface of even a heavy knit. Moreover, it gives the surface an interesting debossed look that can be used as a textural design element. 

Though you can clearly see the grid when close and at an extreme angle, from any regular viewing distance, this light and efficient mesh almost disappears


Headwear doesn’t have to be a hardship. Start by testing stock so that you can discover those easy-to decorate, go-to hats that provide the best production value for you and the best quality for your clients, and you may never need to resort to the solutions I’ve discussed. If you do, just remember to keep your seams pliable, your hooping relaxed and your underlay stable; everything else will fall into place. No matter what happens, there are always alternatives. Learn to decorate even difficult hats well, and you can find yourself both figuratively and literally dominating that top-of-mind space with your customers.


Erich Campbell is an award-winning digitiser, embroidery columnist and educator, with 18 years’ experience both in production and the management of e-commerce properties.He is the programme manager for the commercial division of BriTon Leap.