T-shirts might be a staple of the garment decoration world, but that doesn’t mean they are easy to embroider. Erich Campbell offers some sure-fire tips that will see you stitching them with ease

The T-shirt is the quintessential decorated garment, and yet it presents a host of problems for embroiderers. Its instability, fragility and texture interact poorly with embroidery, frequently making this popular garment for the print world into a burden for those who stitch. Luckily, with a holistic approach to our substrate, design and stitching process, we can prepare for those times when customers demand a combination of the classic look of a tee with the timeless charm of embroidery.

Functional selection

There’s a yawning gulf between the experience of embroidering a burnout ‘tissue’ tee and a 205gsm heavyweight shirt. When customers demand tees, be prepared with a curated selection that will hold up to the stresses of stitching. Caution your customer: the lighter the garment they select, the less stitching it can safely withstand.

Erich’s straightforward tips will help you embroider with style on T-shirts

Dive into designs

Taking into account some basic truths about tees – ie that they are incredibly stretchy, particularly in the horizontal aspect of the garment, that the jersey knit structure that defines them has a vertical rib that lends a grain to the fabric, and that the material in most tees is light and pliable – it’s easy to see that certain designs are more likely to cause trouble than others.

Fully filled, multi-layered designs and those with fine vertical lines or vertical fills will overly distort the fabric and interact with the grain, losing details or showing too much of the ground through the fills.

Whenever possible, use light, airy designs, reduce densities by using structural underlay to lift up top stitching, and avoid vertical fills and lines that can ‘fall’ into the grain. The lighter the tee selected, the lighter the design should be, resulting in a garment with less distortion and a good hand.

Even on this lightweight and fine-ribbed tee, the difference between the vertical and horizontal stitches is marked. The edges of the top and centre bar of the capital ‘E’ are more jagged by far than the spine, all due to the ‘grain’ present in jersey knits. Careful underlay and stitch placement can help

These fills both share the same low, half-coverage density. It’s plain to see that the horizontal fill is loftier, looks more solid and has cleaner edges than its vertical counterpart, which is sinking into the garment’s grain. The effect is exaggerated by omitting underlay in these pieces, but the difference is still clear

Stabilise and conquer

The soft, light tee with its defining stretch requires a dimensionally stable backing for any moderately dense stitching. Sadly, even a medium cutaway stabiliser can often show through a thinner tee, or the cut edge of the stabiliser will be revealed through the pliable material. Using a no-show poly mesh stabiliser can greatly reduce this show-through while maintaining the necessary resistance to stretching.

Tear-aways can be tempting, but the thin material of most tees is prone to tearing itself and can rarely take the stress of tearing away excess stabiliser unless one uses extreme care; moreover most designs benefit from the continued reinforcement of permanent stabiliser that won’t degrade with wash and wear.

This T-shirt design utilises light, painterly fills and a loosely-stitched central motif to avoid distortion. Due to the light nature of the design, an entirely water-soluble backing was used leaving no stabiliser whatsoever in the finished piece. Tension could have been kept a little tighter, though, as it can be seen in this angled shot that the stitches were just a little on the loose side in the light fills once their stabiliser was washed away. The full lifecycle of the pre- and post-wash must be taken into account when embroidering tees

Hoop with care

Tees are prone to pucker and ripple: though this would seem to be from loose hooping, it can also occur when a tee hooped with its material overstretched rebounds after being released from the hoop. When hooping a tee, take care not to stretch it more than you’d reasonably expect it to stretch when worn.

If your material is overly shifting, even with the addition of underlay that marries it to the stabiliser, consider using an adhesive backing or an embroidery specific spray to adhere it to the stabiliser. Avoid cutting or ‘burning’ the material by hooping too tight, and employ a ‘window’ of stabiliser atop the garment for more fragile tees.

In short, by selecting the most stitch-friendly garment, sticking to designs that complement the substrate, and hooping carefully with the correct stabiliser, you may find the humble T-shirt taking a more prominent (and profitable) role in your product line.

Credit: All photos courtesy of Celeste Schwartz

This hand-cut reverse appliqué was a winning idea for this tee on account of its extremely light stitching and high impact, though it does suffer from some distortion due to differing weights of jersey knit in the decoration. Luckily, the design ethos of distressed pieces allows for some leeway in execution. While other garments utilised a standard fully-embroidered version of the logo, the brand’s willingness to stretch its logo for this light and inventive retail-inspired take allowed for larger lighter coverage on tees

Tone-on-tone logos like this are fantastic for tees. Distortion is minimal due to a fairly drastic lightening of density; here it’s about 35-40% lighter than standard full coverage. That same lightness for a flexible hand and very little disruption of the garment’s line when worn

When using a peel-off backing to frame a tee, one can simply hoop the backing intact and score the area of the cover sheet with a pin to create a ‘window’ in the sheet. The stabiliser where the embroiderable area of the garment will be adhered can then be revealed lifting the corner of the scored rectangle and carefully peeling away the carrier.

The area to be embroidered is then smoothed in place, from the centre towards the edges, without stretching the fabric. It is pressed firmly into place, leaving the area to be embroidered entirely smooth and held fast. This all-over adhesion eliminates a great deal of stretching and distortion during the embroidery process. It is advisable, however, to underlay your design in such away so as to permanently marry the material to the backing before the heaviest stitching starts.

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.