Erich Campbell shares his top tips for embellishing those difficult-to-decorate bags

Bags vary greatly in terms of construction – from open-sided totes to the multi-pocketed surfaces of tech bags – and ease of decoration. But whatever the style, by learning how to decorate bags you‘ll be able to bring new add-on sales potential to any apparel programme. The following tips address the two most common bag decorating challenges and will help you to profit from a wide range of new products.

This messenger-styled bag, with the asymmetrical line of its front flap, is a stunner. While it does offer a fairly wide pocket, the thick webbing strap stitched to the front panel cuts down on the available embroidery area, and the narrowing of the asymmetrical flap makes the available room for the decoration smaller than it might seem at first. A design with a horizontal aspect would work well here, especially if you used a low profile clamp system to allow more area than the standard hoop could accommodate. [Image courtesy of Celeste Schwartz]. 
This bag is the sort of standard bag you‘ll often be asked to decorate. Though the decoration area looks large, much of it is inaccessible to the embroidery machine. Even so, this is a fairly easy bag to decorate because the back of the embroidery can be hidden in the slim front pocket. The wide zipper opening allows the cylinder arm of the machine a good amount of travel in the pocket and it is deep enough to fit a standard hoop for logos a bit over 5“ wide, if desired. [Image courtesy of Celeste Schwartz]. 

Confounding construction 

The outside of bags is often festooned with pockets, zippers, piping, thick seams and fittings while the insides sport linings, pouches and clasps, sometimes behind the only clear areas on the outer shell, while tougher tool bags may even have large plastic or metal reinforcements. These design constraints can make hooping and stitching difficult or, on occasion, well nigh impossible. The more features your bag has, the more likely you’ll fight with finding a place to securely hoop it, and even when you find a clear pocket, it may be too small for your cylinder arm. Here’s how to tackle these challenges:

1. Use alternate hooping methods 

Clear areas sporting thick seams or panels that stop hoops tightening may work with machine-mounted clamps or flat adhesive-backing frames. If you don’t have such tools you can hoop adhesive backing and adhere the decoration area unhooped. Heavy bags may require support during the initial steps of stitching. Increase stability by using long, removable basting stitches or a hidden global underlay to tack the bag to the backing before stitching the main design. 

2. Embroider indirectly

For impossible- to-embroider bags, such as hard-shelled cases with non-removable fabric shells, you can use patches. Creating custom patches with water-soluble backing is simple and, paired with permanent fabric adhesive, offers an option for impenetrable, insulated or water-resistant bags, allowing you to avoid compromising linings or coatings.

3. Heat-printing

Transfers are great for difficult-to-decorate bags that can handle the heat and have an area that can be pressed. Padfolios and tablet sleeves with permanently attached padding, integrated binders and panel reinforcements may make embroidery impossible but can still be printed, especially with a heat-press pillow or heat-press foam to selectively raise the print area while allowing protrusions to drop away. Just make sure closures and tools can take the heat, too.

This small tech bag made for tablets didn‘t offer much in the way of embroidery area without closing and thus ruining the front pocket. As you can see, this bag failed my first test for accessibility – though I‘m a big guy and most normal-sized people have fists larger than the cylinder arm of an embroidery machine, it‘s a good guess that if my hand barely fits in a pocket and badly warps it front and back that hooping will be difficult and the machine won‘t have the clearance it needs to stitch a normal-sized logo without interference. To combat the tiny pocket problem, we decided to print these bags. While not our first choice, switching to print allowed us to have a larger, centrally placed logo on each bag. Though we could have gone with an adhered patch, the smooth and sleek look of this compact, modern tech bag would have been thrown off-balance by the thickness of an added patch. Opting for print meant we could retain the clean lines. 

Taming texture

Bags with tight, coarse weaves and rough surfaces can disrupt your stitching, binding the needle or creating uneven edges and coverage as the fabric’s threads deflect the needle. The resultant rough or ‘sawtoothed‘ edges may not be distracting in simple designs with large elements and low colour contrast, but may detract from the finish of those designs with fine satin details or in any design where the colour contrast between bag and thread is pronounced. To cut through the coarseness:

1. Use sharp needles

A medium ball-point needle serves a great deal of apparel, but coarse weaves deflect ball-points, causing a stepped-edge effect. A sharp needle passes through base yarns rather than around them, avoiding deflection. 

2. Use structural underlay

Edge-walk or contour underlays just inside the finished width of satin create a ‘rail’ on which the topstitching can catch; stitches hang on these rather than pulling inside the intended shape and force them to follow a shape’s edges rather than create a stair-stepped edge that tracks the weave of the substrate.

3. Pre-decorated appliqué

If areas are rough but accessible, you can use appliqués rather than adhering patches. Embroider detailed designs on durable, fine-grained material and include a straight-stitch cut-line around your design. Cut and apply the appliqué panel with a thick satin border to cover and capture the cut edge. The direct embroidery border looks smoother and more integrated than a loose-edge patch. Heat seal adhesives and a quick heat press can make these appliqués truly look like part of the bag.

It‘s easy to see how the thick strands that make up this natural fibre tote have pushed the ball-point needle I used back and forth, leaving a rough, toothed edge. In the case of this tone-on-tone design based on a piece of Viking-age art, I chose to allow for this rough-edge to elicit a rustic hand-crafted feeling. While this edge quality may be fine for fashion or bohemian pieces, this definitely wouldn‘t fly for contrasting colours or corporate logos. 
This wine tote immediately screams trouble. While the felt is well able to accept detailed embroidery, the narrow tubular shape is not best suited to embroidery without specialty machinery. We might have managed a small logo in the neck of the tote, maybe 1.5“ in diameter, but the company culture demanded bold logos for their promotional gifts. This meant that print was a natural choice to get the most decoration area covered. 
It may not be as textured as heavy canvas bags, but even this bag is textured enough to cause stair-stepping and distortion in small lettering and lines. As you can see in the detail of the Challenge logo though, small lettering and outlines can be cleanly executed with the use of the proper needles and structural underlay. 
In this small lettering sample, you can see that I‘ve opted for durability on a piece that is likely to see some abrasion. Though I‘d usually go for a turning satin stitch on lettering of this size, the tight- fill stitching and thin satin border make for a clean finish that keeps close to the substrate and resists snagging. 

Durable designs

Bags are doomed to be dragged in and out of cars, dropped on floors, and run into rough surfaces. Bag decorations must account for some abuse.

1.Digitise durable stitches

Consider using split satins or fill stitches rather than long satins that are likely to snag. Shorter stitches and fills lay flatter; surround a short-stitched fill with a narrow satin for an attractive, clean raised edge that’s unlikely to unravel. It may lose some satin shine, but it will outlast longer stitches. 

2. Pick polyester thread

Polyester resists abrasion, UV light and harsh laundering better than rayon.

3. Stay away from the wear

Don’t stitch areas prone to rub against the wearer or drag on the ground when the bag is laid down. It’s not common, but some customers may demand decoration in these areas; don’t do it without explaining the risk.

This purse provided many decorating challenges, as many fashion pieces do. In order to decorate the stretchy faux hide, I was forced to remove and replace an inner seam in the lining of the purse, something that is rather difficult to justify in pricing work for a client. Not only that, but the fact that traditional hooping would mar the exterior of this piece meant that the only method available for hooping was the adhesive method; not the easiest for a fairly large and heavy bag like this. Too often, bags require babying, but if you have motivated clientele willing to pay the premium for such custom work, you can turn a profit and produce some stunning results, even when you break all the rules to get it done. [Image courtesy of Celeste Schwartz]. 

Use better bags!

Difficulties with construction, fabric type and access multiply when customers specify or self-supply bad bags. Search and catalogue your best-stitching bags of every major type and offer them first. Choose products that have been specifically designed for decoration; products that are easy to support during the decoration process and which include strategically positioned and easily hooped flaps, large open pockets or zip-odecoration panels that keep your hooping and stitching simple. The best of these brands also provide clear instructions that show precisely how and where their bags can be decorated, including advice on maximum print areas and embroidery hoop sizes. In short, curate your stitchable bag offering and explain the benefits of opting for these products to your customers. 

Whether you solve your problems with tested techniques or avoid them altogether with selective sales, bags can prove a tremendous addition to any branded gear; few things are more visible, useful or appreciated by customers. Help your sales and help your customers’ brand awareness – make bags work for you.

This huge tote looks like a dream to embroider with its fully open top and sides, but there are still some difficulties to contend with. When you look at the close-up of the strap you can see both the seriously coarse texture of the material and the thickness of the straps – you definitely won‘t want to hoop close to the five layers of canvas in these thick handles. If you are trying to decorate close to them, you‘ll have to clamp the bag or use an adhesive hooping method. [Image courtesy of Celeste Schwartz]. 
The classic backpack seen here is everything we want a decoratable bag to be: big, open pocket with an accessible embroidery area and very few roadblocks to hooping. Sadly, this is not the case with many bags. 
This small and simple zipped bag is light on features, but big on embroidery area. With a pocket running the entirety of the bag and no excess structure or pockets in the way, this bag can take a fairly large logo. Admittedly, these no- frills bags are not expensive so you may find that the decoration costs more than the blank. While not necessarily the best selection for anyone who wants a feature- rich bag, this spartan bag perfectly fulfilled the brief for a convenient, prominently-logoed, promotional carry- all for gym programme info during a local fitness challenge. 
Tool bags like this don‘t offer much purchase for embroidery. None of these pockets are large enough to accommodate the cylinder arm of an embroidery machine, and if that weren‘t enough, a metal bar set into a sleeve just inside the edge of the zipper prevents almost any kind of hooping or purchase. In the end, given the small available area for decoration, we were able to persuade our customer not to use these bags

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 partner relationship manager for DecoNetwork in the USA.