One of the first ways many of us come into contact with machine embroidery is through the world of patches. Whether it’s the classic merit badge, the manifold patches of militaria or the roughly tacked-on band logos on our brutalized school-age jackets and bags, patches remain one of the most visible and well-loved ways to display machine embroidery. As impressive as they look, it’s actually a fairly simple matter to produce one’s own patches on any embroidery machine. I personally rekindled my love of patches after making the patch-styled designs above and below. Though I made real patches commercially with great regularity, designing these slight subversions of the military patch style, even though they were direct embroidery, really got me excited to create physical patches for myself again.
The ‘proper’ patches we all know and love require the use of a special merrowing machine to make that tough, bound edge- if that’s an absolute must for your project and you don’t mind working with standard shapes, you can always order ready-made blanks. They are available in a wide variety of shapes and color combinations and provide a stable, smooth surface. Setting up for a stock blank is as easy as creating an outline shaped as the blank that runs before your design. This placement line makes sure your design lands on the patch just where you expect. Aside from the optional addition of a post placement run of basting-stitches just inside the edge to temporarily secure it during embroidery, no further design editing is usually necessary.
To embroider stock blanks, you simply hoop some sturdy tearaway backing, run the placement outline, adhere the blank with a quick shot of light embroidery-specific spray adhesive and run the design as usual. After the run, remove any basting stitches and carefully tear the backing away to reveal a sturdy, professional-looking patch. This can do in a pinch, but though there is a plethora of colors, sizes, and shapes on the market, ready-made blanks force you to tailor your design to fit the area/aspect ratio of a given patch and the palette of colors is still limited. For that reason, I almost always choose to forgo the merrowed edge to create custom-cut patches.
You can create custom cut patches in nearly any shape you can imagine, using any thread for edging, from any number of base materials. Though specialty equipment like plotter/cutter machines and purpose made materials greatly speed their creation, you can embark on a custom-patch project with little more than a sharp, pointed scissor and water-soluble backing. If you are a plotter-user or a laser-cutter wizard, I don’t need to tell you how you can cut materials by feeding vector art into your favorite machine. Needless to say, whether you start with a technological solution or you utilize patterns for manual cutting, or work entirely in the hoop, the process of patch-making is within your reach.
In all cases, creating a custom-cut patch starts with much the same method outlined for stock patches. The difference being that we’ll be edging the patch with our embroidery machines, meaning we’ll need more than a placement line in our files. We have to find or digitize our shape with the placement line, a zig-zag tack-down stitch just narrower than we want our finished edge, and finish with a dense satin-stitch border about 3mm wide, and overall larger by just under a millimeter than the base material we’ve cut. For an extra-clean finish, use a color-matched bobbin thread for the final border for that wrap-around look.
Both pre-cut and in-the-hoop patch making starts with solid water-soluble backing. I recommend a ‘fibrous’ water-soluble backing rather than a film. The thin film meant as topping for textured garments will not be sturdy enough to hold up to heavy stitching without tearing or loosening. If you can’t find fibrous water soluble backing, be sure to use layers of the thick films specifically marketed for the creation of patches or badges.
The easiest way to manage the stitching steps on your machine is to put each element on a new color change in your software so that the machine stops between stages. With pre-cut material, the first color of the design should be used as a standard placement line, after which we’ll lightly adhere our cut piece to the backing. For in-the-hoop hand-cut patches, we’ll place a piece of fabric larger than our finished area on the backing before we run the outline. After the initial outline runs, we’ll remove the hoop from the machine, leaving the backing hooped, then carefully cut away the excess patch material outside of the line.
From here out, the processes converge. The next step is to sew that wide zig-zag tacking element. After your patch material is married to the backing, you’ll stitch your central design, leaving the last color change for the satin-stitch edging run. This makes it less likely that the cutting action of the final border’s dense stitching will release our patch prematurely from the backing.
Once our patch is finished, all we have to do is dissolve the backing. To save time in the rinse stage, cut away as much of the excess water-soluble backing as you can from your patch before rinsing. Follow the instructions for removal that the manufacturer recommends for your specific backing. My favorite backing melts away readily with a simple rinse in running water. Once your patch rinses clean (no residue or foam, or it may be stiff/sticky later), you’ll have a clean finished edge with thread cleanly wrapping to the back of the emblem.
For such a simple process, patches offer a world of possibilities for expression. Moreover, there’s nothing like a patch for a non-sized, easily shipped way to make wearable art that you can trade with your fiber-art friends. For me, the feeling of being a part of and being able to influence and tweak that language of fandom, affiliations, clubs and achievements that seemed like the secret realms of some initiated few when I was a kid keeps me coming back to emblems again and again.
Erich Campbell is an award-winning machine embroidery digitizer and designer and a decorated apparel industry expert, frequently contributing articles and interviews to embroidery industry magazines such as Stitches and Printwear as well as a host of blogs, social media groups, and other industry resources.
Erich is an evangelist for the craft, a stitch-obsessed embroidery believer, and firmly holds to constant, lifelong learning and the free exchange of technique and experience through conversations with his fellow stitch-workers. A small collection of his original stock designs can be found at The Only Stitch