Kidswear embroidery is an opportunity to have fun with your decoration techniques, just remember to follow some basic pointers, says Erich Campbell

The prospect of embroidering on childrenswear can seem daunting. The garments are small and hard-to-access, the styles are different to those you use in business-to-business applications, and the decorations may at times require materials that you would rarely use in commercial embroidery. Moreover, the finished garments must be comfortable to wear for the most sensitive of your little customers, meaning that the hand- feel of the garment and decoration are critical. However, there’s nothing involved in the embroidering of kids’ garments that any detail-oriented embroiderer couldn’t achieve provided they are willing to research, acquire some speciality materials and factor in some added finishing detail to the embroidery process.

Hooping the hard stuff

From infants to youth sizes, a primary challenge when embroidering for children is simply fitting garments in the hoop. However, there are solutions to make the process simpler. One option is not to hoop the garments at all. Though we’ve recently seen the advent of speciality clamps, the use of flat frames is a common sight when decorating childrenswear. These thin metal windows sit flush with the needle plate, descending from arms like a standard hoop, and are used with speciality stabilisers. The frames are available in sizes we’d expect, such as a standard left-chest, but it’s the smallest that run down to a size that can fit inside the smallest socks that generate the most interest here. Once fitted with an adhesive stabiliser on the reverse of the frame, the embroidery area of a garment can be adhered, with the small area of the thin frame taking up much less of the room inside of small garments and pockets than a traditional hoop.

Even with conventional hoops, it’s relatively simple to ‘float’ garments as the home-embroiderers do by hooping a span of adhesive backing and revealing the design area for adhesion to the garment

Chain-stitch and motif stitches are a popular way to lend a hand-worked feeling to machine-applied designs in childrenswear

Relatively large appliqués dominate much of retail kidswear, with pieces like this dino featuring raw edges, simple motif stitching and a heat-press adhesive to permanently fix the appliqué a common sight

Home and craft embroiderers refer to this method of adhering a garment to stabiliser without a hoop as ‘floating’. The thin frames make this method much simpler to achieve; however, it can be attempted with standard hoops – just hoop a span of adhesive stabiliser, tear away the cover sheet from the decoration area and adhere the intended spot for stitching to the revealed adhesive. With very small garments, such as baby’s polo-shirt, users will first need to roll back the other side of the polo that is not being decorated and clip it with a binder clip or similar so as not to stitch both sides as the same time. The walls of a standard hoop can make this tricky, but using this method, combined with securing the remainder of the garment, can enable you to decorate pieces that can’t accommodate standard hoops or the cylinder arm. For applications like these, I suggest starting with a global underlay to tack the material inside the design to the stabiliser before running your top stitching.

Clamps like these can replace your standard hoop to grant easier access to small areas and difficult to hoop items; all-in-ones, gloves and even rucksack straps are no match for the right clamp

Passing the safety test

Before you embark on the production of decorated kidswear it’s important to make yourself aware of the legal issues surrounding children’s apparel in your area or the area in which you intend to sell your wares. Most threads and stabilisers will clearly identify their independent safety certifications; however, embroiderers should confirm that all the materials they use are safe and free of chemical components that could cause problems. Pay particular attention to potential safety issues relating to the garment itself – drawstrings on kids’ and babies’ hoodies, for example. Avoid any decoration that could create sharp edges, has small parts that could come free or that poses any kind of choking hazard, and be aware that any item that’s intended to be used as sleepwear should be flame-resistant, including threads and other materials applied in any decoration. Start with common sense, but be aware of the legal requirements long before you start to produce product.

Matte finish threads add to the warm look of many children’s designs like this large design on a child’s all-in-one garment. Note the backing on the inside of the garment in the second picture

Keep it comfortable

Many children’s clothes require the embroidered decoration to be stitched on a layer next to the skin, yet comfort is paramount and children’s decorations can’t ever be scratchy. There are a few simple things you can do to ensure your embroideries deliver the desired comfort levels.

Drop the density Though it’s tempting to get total coverage on a design, running high densities is doubly problematic on kids’ apparel. Many of the garments are made of thin, easily distorted materials, and the stiffness and build-up of thickness common to highly dense decorations will make designs ‘poke’ the wearer. Test your densities on the new materials you encounter and tune your coverage to both colour/ contrast combinations and the garment’s structure, defaulting to as little density as produces the desired look.

Add appliqué Not only does appliqué save stitches, it is often as pliable as the garment itself, does not protrude into the garment and provides large areas of colourful coverage with very little stitching. This is particularly true in the case of appliqué materials that are laser cut and sealed or otherwise prevented from fraying. Non-fraying materials may be added without full-coverage edges, requiring as little as a straight stitch to tack them on and potentially the use of a heat-set adhesive to fix them permanently to the garment.

Stabilise sparely Use only the necessary stabiliser to ensure the decoration is well supported. Light designs on sufficiently stable materials may need little to no stabiliser, while others will be fine with a tear-away, wash-away stabiliser that leaves only a small amount of fibre trapped beneath the stitching. When cutaway is necessary, start with the lighter, performancewear-specific stabilisers that offer dimensional strength in the thinnest possible package. No matter the application, aim to use the least amount of stabiliser you can and remember to cut away carefully; even moderately stiff stabilisers shouldn’t be cut in such a way to leave sharp corners that might adversely affect the feel.

Cover your back Last, but certainly not least, one should apply a speciality post-embroidery backing material to cover the offending stitching. While this may not be necessary for some lightly-stitched appliqué, conventional embroidered decorations – particularly those with heavy densities or small satin-stitch details or knot-like dots that can create nodes on a design’s reverse side – should have a layer of covering material to protect the wearer. Most stabiliser companies offer a sheer polyester knit material with a heat- activated adhesive that can be easily pressed on the interior of the garment. Once it is firmly adhered, the soft surface keeps the abrasive embroidery covered, while the diaphanous material is completely smooth to the surface, presenting little in the way of a discernible edge on the reverse. This material is largely invisible to the customer and doesn’t show through on the front of the garment.

Think outside the box with placements and garments. Pieces like these denim shorts are doubly useful to the embroiderer – note that this simple, open piece required no remaining stabiliser on the stable denim fabric. With simple designs that don’t register, soluble stabilisers are a perfect choice

Material inspiration

The fun of working with childrenswear is that the usual limitations of corporate apparel and sportswear can take a back seat to whimsical decorations. Whenever you find yourself floundering in the search for fun techniques and treatments, look at retail childrenswear for inspiration as to the finishes and fabrics you can employ to create eye-catching designs.

Consider cotton Desirable not only for its relative softness, but also for its reduced flammability and for the warm, hand-worked look it provides, cotton thread can be a great addition to your embroidery arsenal. This thick thread provides coverage at lower densities and can create yarn-like effects that pair well with the colourful, craft-like designs often seen in the childrenswear space.Master metallics These threads have the potential to scratch more than standard poly, however the shine and sparkle of metallic threads works well with kidswear designs; eye-catching, jewellery-like effects can fly in this segment – just be sure to cover the reverse carefully.

Retro revival Transitioning into summer apparel, bright, saturated and even neon colours reminiscent of the 80s are a sure bet for beach-inspired decoration. Solid, primary-coloured decorations will always have their place with kids’ designs.

Furry friends Felt, fuzzy and furry appliqués and materials are common in retail displays for kids. With judicious use of structural appliqués, everything from fleecy fabrics to all-out faux fur can be tamed. Moreover, this is a great place to employ more traditional multimedia: heat-pressed flocking material is fantastic as either an easy and fast embroidery replacement or as a faux appliqué to be combined with light stitching elements for a fuzzy finish.

Applying patches, pockets or even a faux-pocket panel over an embroidery is easy to do on any embroidery machine with the proper preparations. Appliqué patch pockets are a proven way to add layering and texture to your piece

A simple fur shape can create plenty of texture that is forgiving when using bold details and a colour- matched edge cover

Simple, straight-stitch tacking complements this cut, loose, jersey appliqué on bib design

No matter the style you choose to use, the world of clothing for kids opens up a potentially lucrative and engaging market for decorators. Avoid the temptation to abuse copyright with licensed characters – create designs that use materials in a novel way instead – and don’t be afraid to experiment with decoration styles and locations that you would never sell to your corporate clients. With your work done in testing materials and taming the technicalities, let your imagination run free – it’s time to play!


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.