In the world of spiritwear, new, unique and different make all the difference in the world, yet working within the parameters of a school’s colors and mascot only leaves so much room for creativity. After all, how many different ways can you apply a three-color cougar paw to apparel???? Hmmmm…. But all is not lost, as there really are some cool tricks in the bag of apparel decoration that will let you expand your spirit horizons, one of which is digital appliqué.
Digital appliqué utilizes printed fabric rather than solid fabric such that it becomes the focus of the design, rather than just a method for reducing stitch counts. But it’s not about going out and buying colorful fabric from a local fabric store, rather digital appliqué revolves around creating your own fabric via in-house digital printing using sublimation, transfers and/or DTG. And while it does serve as a method for reducing stitch counts, digital appliqué adds a higher level of vibrancy and originality to any design and also separates your products from those of the competition.
With the ease of creating custom fabrics via digital printing, the fabric insert can not only add an unparalled element to the design, it can literally become the primary focus of the final decoration. Precise graphical details, vivid colors, and photorealistic images can all be added into an appliqué via printed fabrics, something that can’t be accomplished with embroidery alone.
In the high school spiritwear marketplace, a common design is a three letter appliqué on the front of a sweat that utilizes the high school initials and colors. For example, my kids attended LHS whose colors are royal and gold. A couple of years ago polka dots were all the rage and we wanted to create a 3 letter appliqué that had polka dots in the color of the school. Plus we wanted to put it on a pink shirt since it was targeted to the female audience. Certainly pink was not an official school color, but if the logo contained the right colors, then the shirt color was immaterial. Grand as this concept sounded, there was one limiting aspect for this type of application – finding the right fabric.
Traditionally, we would have had to scour fabric stores and attend fabric shows to find really cool prints to fuel our appliqué designs. Besides being time consuming, there was no guarantee that we would be able to source the same design in the future and in the case of dealing with manufacturers, we had to buy huge quantities of fabric. But in our case, sublimation changed all that as it opened the door to DIY (do-it-yourself) custom fabric.
With the low entry level costs of sublimation and digital transfer systems, you can easily create your own custom printed digital appliqués without a huge investment. For example, an 8” x 8” full color design can be sublimated (ink and paper costs) for as low as $0.45 depending on the printer, inks and actual design details. Combine that with the reduction in stitch count by using appliqué in place of fill stitches, and you have a very cost effective decoration, that can command a significant markup due to the uniqueness of the embellishment.
So which method of printing works the best? The first concern is in the fabric content. Sublimation only works with polyester fabrics whereas cotton fabrics will require the use of cotton transfer inks and media which can also be heat applied.
To get the best results, you should stick with a fabric that is not a blend, as this will yield the highest level of detail, resolution and vibrancy when printed with the appropriate digital ink. For example, using a cotton ink on 100% cotton fabric will provide a higher quality result than using the same ink on 50/50. That’s not to say you can’t do it, but the results will vary when you apply the ink outside of its normal boundaries.
The fabric characteristics will also play a part in making the right selection for creating a digital appliqué. Polyester holds up nicely to long term wear and tear and sublimation prints do not fade, crack, shrink, or peel with multiple washings, which is definitely a plus. Most blank polyester fabrics have a bit of a sheen which may or may not support the look you are trying to create with a digitally printed appliqué.
Cotton on the other hand, tends to have more of a matte finish, and possibly a textured surface as well, which provides a lot of options for fabric selection. Though typically durable in nature, cotton does have a tendency to shrink which may affect the appearance of the appliqué over multiple launderings. In addition, it’s common for cotton inks to fade due to washing. And while digital cotton printing is advanced enough to generate high resolution graphics on fabric, sublimation typically outperforms it when photo-realistic images are necessary. But overall, cotton works well for digital appliqués.
Another point to consider is dark fabrics versus light fabrics. Sublimation and Cotton Transfer inks must be used on white or light colored fabrics. But this is not really a hindrance to the process, as you can create any background color you wish via the digital appliqué process. Simply start with white fabric, then add in the necessary background colors when setting up your image. For any areas of the design that need to be white in color, simply leave those areas open so the white fabric shows through.
Production of digital appliqués is relatively straight-forward. The first step is to create the embroidery file which is just standard appliqué digitizing – outline stitch / tack-down stitch / border stitch. Nothing different is required for digital appliqués.
The second part of the process is to create the graphics for the appliqué fabric. Begin by laying out the image using your favorite graphics program. It’s best that you pay close attention to the overall look of the design which means thinking about the embroidery aspects while designing the digital aspects. For example, what aspects of the printed fabric need to be prominent in order to deliver the visual message? Make sure they are placed where there is no obstruction by the embroidery. In the case of basic shapes, it’s really no big deal. But if you are using abstract shapes or open lettering, then graphic placement details become critical.
Once you are satisfied with your design, print the fabric using your chosen method of digital printing and then prepare it for the embroidery part of the job.
Here is a simple Step-By-Step approach to help you visualize the process:
1. Create the custom fabric. Adobe Illustrator was use to create the polka dot pattern. (You can find tutorials on You Tube.) In this case it was printed onto sublimation transfer paper.
2. Print the custom fabric. Use a heat press the transfer the image onto the fabric, then discard the transfer paper.
3. Cut out the appliqué. Use the embroidery file for the appliqué to create the proper cut file for a cutter or to generate a cut pattern if using scissors.
4. Sew the outline. This determines where the appliqué will be positioned.
5. Apply the appliqué. Using some form of light adhesive, apply the appliqué fabric component to the garment. Spray or heat backing will work.
6. Sew the tack-down. The tack-down stitch will hold the letter in place until the border can be applied.
7. Sew the border. Typically a satin stitch is used as a border to all of the appliqué sections which provides stability and a clean finish.
Recent technology has introduced the textile laser into many embroidery shops. The use of this cutting-edge equipment greatly simplifies the appliqué process, especially when dealing with complex shapes, multiple segments and reverse appliqué.
The laser method of appliqué production works basically like this:
- Place the entire fabric appliqué on the garment in the proper location. No cutting out required.
- Sew the tack-down stitches.
- Activate the laser, which will trim the fabric right to the edge of the tack-down stitches. (Obviously you have to load the design file into the laser controller.)
- Sew the final border stitches to permanently secure the fabric in place and to give a nice finished look to the edges.
Of course there are far more unique designs than just three-letter appliqués with polka dots. For example a repeating pattern that utilizes the school’s mascot. Or maybe a soccer MOM appliqué with a combination of soccer balls and mascots printed on the fabric. Either way you cut it, digital appliqué can add a whole new level of excitement and creativity to your spiritwear products. It’s quick, it’s easy and it is very inexpensive. And best of all, it commands excellent markups, while setting you apart from the competition.
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