BOSTON--They do a lot of Mickey Mouse stuff.
And then there are the stars, the shells, the lettering on licensed goods, the logos on all those baseball caps. You're seeing it on ladies' sportswear and on pajamas, sheets, towels, children's wear. It's everywhere on trademarks and brands. It's applique, and it's in.
"We do an awful lot of Mickey Mouse stuff," quips Coleman "Coke" Schneider, president of AA World Class Embroidery, a company that counts Disney-licensed apparel among its clients.
Schneider, who has authored three books on embroidery, says applique can substitute for embroidery or be used in conjunction with decorative stitching--generally for half the cost of direct embroidery.
Many embroiderers are combining direct embroidery with fabric applique to produce large designs with minimal stitch counts. And while some embroidery purists shun applique, the effect can be very similar when the new cutout applique technique is used.
Schneider's company markets a product called Loloft. Loloft and cutout products like it are a third option: patches of actual embroidery that are heat-bonded to apparel.
"An applique is a cutout, like a patch," he explains. "You cut it out. You paste it on. Now, if you are doing lettering, say, like Champion, what we would do is stitch that and cut off all the goods [around the embroidery].
Even space between and inside the letters would be cut out, Schneider says.
Products like Loloft can be used for designs as well as lettering. When used for lettering, however, the letters must be connected so the patch can be cut out in one piece. The strung-together lettering is then heat-sealed to the apparel.
Non-embroidered applique is also increasing in variety.
At Creative Embroidery in Connecticut, Steve Diamond says he uses fabric applique in conjunction with screen printing. Several purveyors reported great success with novelty fabrics like fur, leather, velvet, vinyl or foam.
"I've even seen a Mexican company embroider on balsa wood and then use the decorated wood as an inlay, a sort of applique, on a wine box," exclaims Walter Floriani, embroidery consultant of Floriani International.
A fifth-generation embroiderer, Floriani extols the virtues of applique.
"It's exciting. It's simple. It's great for the little guy who wants only one design," Floriani says.
And by reducing the time it takes to produce the garment, it can reduce costs by about 30 percent when compared with direct embroidery, he says.
Creating an applique is a multi-step process so volume producers can significantly reduce the cost per garment. For large designs, an applique can pare stitch counts by 30 percent or more. For smaller designs, the process cuts costs by eliminating the time it takes to program a design, test fabrics and dies, and experiment with toppings and colors.
"For the little guy," Floriani says, "that can save a lot of steps."
Big guys want to save, too. And combining applique with embroidery lets them cover larger areas cheaper and faster.
"It did considerably reduce our turnaround time," says Doug Kaufman, manager of strategic planning for Champion Products. "When you have to turn around a 10,000-stitch design, it takes a lot longer with direct embroidery."
But does the applique really look like embroidery? Purists are skeptical.
"Nothing looks like embroidery except for embroidery," insists Barbara Gerwit, whose namesake company produces women's casual and sportswear coordinates. In Gerwit's market, moderate sportswear, uniqueness and quality of the design may play a more important role than in other product lines.
"You're not supposed to say this and don't say I said it," said one manufacturer, "but there is a ceiling on the price that the consumer might pay for a hat, and direct embroidery might take it out of that price range."
An applique can rescue such a product from drowning in red ink. For goods with a higher markup, with a little more leeway on the profit margin, observers said, consumers might not consider applique a satisfactory alternative to direct embroidery.
"We used to use it but we discontinued it in January," comments Steve Flint of Antigua Sportswear. "With larger designs, maybe 20,000 stitches, you could probably cut [your stitch counts] down. But ours are only 5,000 stitches. For our type of business, it just wasn't worth it."
No one disputes that it takes very little skill to apply an applique.
"You push a button. That's how simple it is," says Floriani.
For a moment, he is wistful for the way things were.
"I think the computers have taken some of the art form out of it," he laments.
Applique or otherwise, he insists, there will always be embroidery.
"It's a way of making a personal statement," Floriani says. "People need that."

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