In the first of his exclusive series of articles for Images, award-winning digitiser Erich Campbell explains how to create lasting embroidery for hard-working garments

Workwear is tough and hardwearing by design. Dense, damage-resistant material is the norm; reinforced seams, secure closures and speciality finishes, including stain-resistant and waterproof coatings, are common. Workwear is also characterised by an array of design features, such as pockets, straps and snap closures, which add valuable utility. However, it’s often these same features that make items of workwear a particularly challenging canvas for decoration.

With the care and attention to detail that goes into making workwear durable, it’s essential that decorators shore up their stitching for this labour-friendly gear. View this challenge as an opportunity: business owners, frustrated by the failure of an embroidery long before a garment was ready for retirement, have become long-time loyal customers of mine after I retooled their designs for durability.

With the following tips, your shop can serve up damage-resistant design treatments that keep contractors coming back for more.

Environmental concerns

As with any decoration, success starts with a thorough customer interview. We create the best workwear solutions when we know the environmental conditions in which a garment will be used; make sure to ask for details about the work your customer does and the way the garment will be washed before you design.

For example, is the customer likely to scrape the garment against rough surfaces, expose it to chemicals, or encounter extreme heat? Will your customer wear or use a decorated item outdoors, exposing it to more than the average dose of UV light? Will they industrially launder the garment and, if so, will the cleaners use chlorine bleach in the process? Will it require dry cleaning? Knowing these conditions is key to making decisions throughout the decorating process.

Material matters

Thread choice is critical to all embroidery, but it’s never more so than when stitching workwear. Knowing the properties of a given thread type lets you make an educated decision about whether it matches your customer’s specific requirements. When selecting thread, heat-press printing material, appliqué fabric, or even stabiliser, you should always know what treatment your materials are made to take.

Washing out

Be certain of your thread’s colourfastness, particularly when customers intend to industrially launder their workwear. Nothing makes business customers more frustrated than thread colours bleeding on new, costly workwear after a single wash. A quick look at any thread vendor’s colour card reveals laundry care symbols and instructions like those you see on garment tags. This information can (and should) be used to provide washing instructions specific to your customer’s decorated apparel.

The symbols on the rayon thread chart in the foreground forbid the use of bleach, unlike the polyester chart in the background; however, the rayon can take a hotter iron than the polyester – good things to know when choosing a thread for your next workwear project. [Photograph courtesy of Celeste Schwartz]

Text on a jacket back is one scrape against a rough surface away from shredding, but this edged fill stitch is smooth and low to the surface of the jacket, thus less likely to snag than a lofty, wide satin-stitched letter. [Photograph courtesy of Celeste Schwartz]

When in doubt, pick polyester

Polyester is the go-to thread for almost any workwear. Polyester thread tolerates bleach, has a higher resistance to breakage and abrasion than rayon, and it survives standard dry-cleaning as well as rayon can. Though many embroiderers prefer rayon’s sheen and though it can be ironed at a higher temperature, polyester holds up to more abuse overall. Moreover, new matte-finish polyester threads on the market eschew the shine of traditional threads, but exhibit extreme colourfastness in outdoor, UV-exposed applications. They are fantastic for subdued looks that blend well with coarse materials, like the classic duck cloth (tightly woven cotton canvas fabric) so often seen in workwear.

The exception to the polyester rule is – fire. For firefighters and powerline technicians, polyester can be unsafe. Use flame-resistant threads and stabilisers for any garment worn on these worksites (and others where flame-resistant clothes are required, such as welding businesses). Do this whether the piece is expressly designed to be protective or not. A flame-resistant garment decorated with conventional thread has an open path for fire to penetrate; the cost savings aren’t worth the risk to your customer.

Designing against destruction

Digitising may be the most critical step in creating durable decorations. Though materials strongly affect how embroidery endures, there’s a key difficulty that only digitising can fully address – namely, snagging. The most heavily-used workwear tends to be those items that are made for those who work outside, with work jackets being central to many workers’ uniforms. With jackets come large jacket-back designs, almost always featuring text executed in satin stitches. And there’s the rub… Quite literally. When workers slide past textured walls or push through branches wearing jackets emblazoned with large satin stitch lettering, snagged and torn stitches are the common result. The very nature of satin stitches is the problem; when executed properly, they are long and lofty, sitting high above the substrate. After a couple of good snags, these columns of largely untethered loops can unravel until they hit a short stitch or locking stitch sequence.

Knowing that your design must survive some scrapes means omitting as much of that loose stitching as you can. With larger text/elements, a standard fill stitch bordered by a thin, tight satin edge will provide a lower profile and will be much less likely than a satin letter to unravel if snagged. I prefer the look of satin-stitch lettering with its discrete segments and directional shine; however, my customers’ ‘torture-testing’ has proven that a fill with a short stitch length is a better choice and most often survives the odd contact with a rough surface.

For smaller text, thicker borders or other elements classically rendered in satin stitches, a split-satin stitch could be employed: simply make sure you use a fairly short maximum stitch length. Split-satins maintain some of the shine of a standard satin, but stay tighter to the garment surface, helping to eliminate snagging. They won’t wear exactly like a fill, but they are much more likely to stay intact compared to an equally wide satin stitch.

It’s important to also use a sufficiently dense, structural underlay combination (think edge-walk/contour followed by one or two passes of zigzag underlay) to make sure that the extra stitch penetrations in the top stitching won’t allow the ground material to show through.

This apron has seen the worst of a snag. Even though in these letters I’d likely stay with a satin stitch, you can see how an cut paired with a well-meaning attempt to pull at a loose end can lead to disaster. Shorter stitches aren’t always the best choice, but they can help keep a design from coming apart in some cases. [Photograph courtesy of Celeste Schwartz]

Split satin stitches like those seen here allow you to maintain the dimension and some of the shine of traditional satin-stitch lettering, while reducing the likelihood that a long, loose thread will catch or snag. The wing-tip also shows splitting in the longest satin stitches for the same benefit. [Photograph courtesy of Celeste Schwartz]

Adding appliqué

Appliqué provides another worthy option for durable decoration. Standard roll-cut polyester twill is incredibly tough on its own. When attached with a tight satin-stitch border and secured to the garment with heat-press adhesive, it provides large areas of coverage with very little chance of material failure.

Some customers may not like the shine of standard appliqué twill, but it can still be used to lighten a filled area without compromising the look of stitching. A light density fill placed over the same or similarly coloured appliqué gives the semblance of a fully-stitched area. This technique is also useful when customers want to move large full-back designs from jackets to their lighter workwear: the lightly-filled appliqué area creates a much lighter hand and causes less garment distortion than a solid fill.

If your customer doesn’t mind the texture but wants more visual interest than an unbroken block of twill provides, standard white polyester twill is easily printed through sublimation. This allows the addition of anything from a custom colour or pattern to a full-colour photographic print.

Patch it up

The alternative to correcting embroidery designs that can’t survive the same destructive forces as their garments is to plan for replacement. Emblems are a fantastic option for hardy workwear that regularly outlasts embroidery thread. Any emblem, from the classic stitched-on patch to the hook-and-loop backed removable variety usually seen in military and law enforcement uniforms, can allow a garment’s decoration to be replaced with fair ease.

Gaining greater awareness of the end-use of your products, the way the materials perform, and the best way to design your embroidery to address the conditions in which your garments will be used is important: it will help you to create quality products that stay looking great in the long term, no matter how or where they are worn. And though many decorations aren’t required to withstand extreme treatment, you are sure to win the appreciation (and repeat business) from those customers for whom durability is critical.

Erich Campbell is an award-winning digitiser, embroidery columnist and educator. He works for Black Duck Embroidery and Screen Printing in New Mexico, US.