Apparel Decorating Techniques

Custom apparel is one of the most popular forms of personal expression today. Practically any design you want can be used to decorate your clothing, bags, and anything else made of fabric. As you consider creating your own branded apparel, it’s helpful to get familiar with different decorating techniques and how to use them.


Simply put, embroidery is decorative stitching. This stitching comes in many forms and is useful for intricate designs, permanence, and increasing the quality of an article. Since embroidery is added atop an existing piece of fabric, it can be done in different colors and different materials, including metallic or reflective threads, and other embellishments to custom apparel. This is extremely versatile and can be used for simple designs like flowers, dots, and borders or complex designs like entire pictures.

Most stitched decoration is flat embroidery, which sits flush on the original fabric, but 3D embroidery, also called 3D puff embroidery, makes these designs pop on the fabric surface. 3D embroidery inserts foam beneath the stitched design, which makes it best for simple designs like letters and logos on hats, bags, and other non-clothing apparel.

Embroidered patches are another popular decoration for custom apparel. Patches embroidered with logos and pictures are inexpensive, high-quality appliqués that offer high-contrast and textured additions for any apparel, especially bags and jackets.

Silk screen/Screen printing

Screen printing, also called silk screen printing, is a method for printing multicolored images onto fabric. The image is separated into its constituent colors, and the design is printed multiple times onto the fabric, one color at a time. Each color is printed through its own mesh screen, also called a silk screen, onto the fabric.

This type of printing is best for t-shirts, hoodies, bags, and other apparel with large, flat planes that can be oriented precisely enough for the different color layers to line up when it’s printed multiple times. In particular, since silk screen printing uses multiple stencils per design, it’s most efficient for designs that will be printed in bulk rather than just a few at a time.

Digital/Direct to garment printing

Direct-to-garment (DTG) printing is, as the name implies, a method where the entire design is printed directly onto the apparel. Using garment-specific inkjet printers, DTG can print very high-resolution images onto t-shirts and other flat-surface garments and bags. Instead of limiting designs to just a few colors as would be practical for screen printing, DTG allows the full range of color to be used in custom designs. This extremely versatile printing method is quick, and it comes in quality as high as 1,440 dpi. Since DTG printing doesn’t use halftones or dots, photorealistic images can be printed onto t-shirts, particularly in small quantities.

Heat transfer

Finally, heat transfer is a popular method of making branded apparel. Heat press involves printing a design onto heat-transferable material and then pressure-heating the design onto the clothing using a heat press machine that uses 400 degrees Fahrenheit to transfer the image onto the fabric.

Heat-transfer vinyl comes in many different colors and is useful because it requires a lower temperature and pressure to apply. It cuts easily with the most common vinyl cutting machines or laser cutters, and these images are quite durable on the garments they’ve been applied to. This method is ideal for very small batches of branded apparel, since each piece must be cut and pressure-heated individually.

Plastisol transfers are very similar to this method, as they involve screen-printing a design in plastisol ink onto transfer paper instead of screen-printing it directly onto the garment, as in silk screen printing described above. A sandy grain spread on the plastisol prevents blurring, and then the design is heat pressed onto the apparel. This method, again, is perfect for very small batches, but it is not well suited for bulk jobs.

Sublimation, or digital heat transfer, is a transfer method that infuses the ink directly into the fabric instead of letting it sit as a separate layer like heat-transfer vinyl does. This method allows for high resolution images and use of a wider range of colors than screen printing. Although sublimation can be a more expensive method, it results in inked designs embedded into fabric, which means they will never flake or crack.

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