As a commercial embroiderer, I’ve tended to favor techniques that use time-tested, embroidery specific materials. Fairly often, the adamant claims from my home embroidery friends that one or another product from the kitchen, hardware store, or some other odd source should be applied rather than the materials that have been made for our machines will find me less than entirely interested. After horror stories about machines damaged or sullied by odd materials used to replace stabilizers and such, I tend not to advocate for inventive solutions unless I have good reason. One of my techniques that I teach often and give specific material recommendations for is patch making with water-soluble backing; That’s why I surprised myself when I decided to try a new method for making patches that had me rolling out to a local discount ‘big box’ store for supplies.
Here are the basics of the technique; without much alteration or preparation of your embroidered file, you can stitch a solid, fully covered design on what a friend of mine referred to as ‘bog standard’ 20 gauge clear vinyl material from any fabric store, tear away the excess and the resultant patch would hold up well and be usable as any patch made with my traditional methods. I didn’t believe it the first time I saw it being done, but a confluence of two people displaying the technique from very different sources got me to give it a try. First, an online acquaintance of mine, Tom Farr of Buzzards Bay Embroidery displayed exactly the aforementioned method with vinyl directly off the rack; his results looked good, and he swore that his torture tests of washing and machine drying hadn’t deformed the patches. Still hesitant, I found that a large-scale distributor of embroidery supplies was trying something very similar in a commercial product. Armed with these experiences, I couldn’t help but give it a try.
After a quick trip to the big-box store, I was armed with a roll of cheap, clear vinyl and I was ready to make things happen. Though I’d like to give everyone a detailed how-to list of all the steps, they are so few that they don’t bear much mention. I tightly hooped a single layer of clear vinyl, loaded up on of my favorite small designs, this one I designed depicting a Viking Age silver ‘Valkyrie’ pendant from an archaeological dig. With my hoop in place on the machine and my valkyrie, with its edge-to-edge covering and solid satin-stitch border loaded on the machine, I stitched.
To my great surprise, not only did the vinyl stitch without incident, once it was done, I popped out the design from the hooped vinyl, and saw that the edge quality of the patch was decent and nothing much seemed out of place. So shockingly simple was this process that I took a design created for a one of my old TV clients in the days I did rush patched for filming, and ran that in the same fashion; this time with a much larger piece with heavy coverage; once again, it ran without incident and produced what I’d call a viable patch. Seeing was believing; I applied a little heat to the edges of the patch (a hair dryer or heat gun would be a safe bet, but I played it dangerous with an indirect lick or two from a lighter) to tighten up any small bits of excess vinyl that didn’t quite tear away, and found that it made a patch with an edge quality roughly comparable to most embroidered edges I’d seen.
While I can’t exactly advocate for the method in its entirety as I still see a more traditional, fabric- backed method making better patches overall, I think that the ‘plastic method’ is a good tool to have in one’s arsenal. So long as your design has full coverage and the outside edges are made of good, solid satin stitches, I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t want to try making at least one patch in this unconventional way. As long as your overlaps are deep enough to prevent two elements from separating and making perforations and you run your dense border element last, your design may be ready to become a free-standing emblem.
As surprised as I was at the relative success, this method of patch-making does have some drawbacks; here are my pros and cons to hep you making your decision on whether or not this new method works for you:
- No need to use support materials like the water soluble stabilizer I always use.
- Using thread alone to create the patch eliminates the need for cutting and for specialty color base materials for solid-colored patches
- The vinyl being clear material means that the small amount of material showing at the edges is not obtrusive to the look of the patch
- No washing or wetting = no waiting for patches to dry, ensuring a quicker path between stitching and a finished patch.
- The high stitch counts needed to cover an area completely make for long run times. Cut materials may take an extra step, but they can significantly reduce time spent on the embroidery machine
- Distortion and problems on the machine can cause complete failure. During an early testing run, a problem in the bobbin case caused a small knot This caught on the needle plate, prematurely ripping away the emblem at 75 percent completion for a total loss
- If you want a thicker, more substantial emblem, the thread-only method will require additional application of support materials. Without those materials, these patches can be fairly flimsy.
I’ll say this much; though I might not be longingly looking a plastic patches to replace my entire technique, I am surprised by how good the results can be. Give it a try, the most it costs you is a little vinyl, thread, and time. It’s worth the risk.
Erich Campbell is the Partner Relationship Manager at DecoNetwork, 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 Printwear, Images Magazine UK, and Wearables 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 embroiderers. A small collection of his original stock designs can be found at The Only Stitch