How to Make Patches with your Embroidery Machine
Learn how to make custom patches on any embroidery machine

I’m convinced that everyone who has ever dropped a needle on a garment wants to know how to make patches with their standard embroidery machine. No matter what else I’ve taught in my career, if I have one of my custom-shaped patch sample anywhere in my trade-show kit, someone will ask me how to create emblems with a finished edge. Keep in mind, this is always about doing so without having to manually use an overlock stitching machine to ‘edge’ the patch after the design is stitched as you’d see in a traditional example. Those who have a Merrow edging machine in-house already know how to make traditional patches. This is about doing the job entirely with existing embroidery equipment. It’s such a prevalent question that I’ve written on the subject several times for multiple trade magazines, industry sources, and even for blogs suited for home embroiderers and fiber artists. I can teach anything, as long as I also leave time to teach patches.

Full Jacket Back patch for Motorcycle Club by Erich Campbell

Big back patches always draw attention.

Luckily, making patches and badges isn’t terribly difficult. With simple materials, any one of a few methods will result in an emblem with a clean edge on nearly any embroidery machine. So long as you create a design that has a wide (generally greater than 3mm) satin-stitched edge to capture the fibers in your patch material and/or free-standing thread patch design, you’re likely to get a decent patch with relative ease. The steps don’t vary much with the different materials and methods you can use and the process is generally more forgiving than direct garment embroidery, as patches are traditionally executed on materials that are both smooth in texture and dimensionally stable, meaning that there’s little distortion involved in stitching. At its most basic, patch making can be described in just seven steps.

Tacking down cut patch blank pieces on water soluble stabilizer

Fibrous water-soluble stabilizer + cut twill pieces = a patch in the making!

Seven Simple Steps to Stitching Patches

  1. Hoop the proper stabilizer or other support material. To obtain the clean, thread-wrapped edge, you can use a water-soluble stabilizer that melts away when washed/rinsed or a plastic film that tears cleanly away after stitching. I prefer a fibrous water-soluble stabilizer as it is more able to stand up to the stresses of stitching than either water-soluble films or some plastic films.
  2. Stitch a line to show the placement of the patch material, whether this material is pre-cut, or will be cut in-hoop by hand or laser.
  3. Place the patch material in the hoop, carefully aligning it with the placement stitching to cover the initial outline. If the material shifts too easily, you will want to use a light spray of embroidery-specific adhesive to secure it.

    Patch Starting an Applique Cut

    Without a commercial plotter or laser, you can still cut material by hand, in the hoop

  4. Stitch a tacking run that holds down the base patch material. For pre-cut materials, this will likely be a zig-zag stitch, while you will usually use 1-3 passes of straight stitch to define the edge of the patch material so that you can cut away the excess material as close to that stitched line as possible.
  5. Run any central design on the patch. The main decorative body of the design should run before the outline, as the satin outline has the most chance of compromising the stabilizer and causing the patch to shift or prematurely pop out of the stabilizer, particularly with plastic films.
  6. Stitch the final, full-density satin-stitch border. I like to use a combination of edge-walk underlay and double zig-zag underlay to give the border a lot of body.
  7. Remove the patch from the hoop and remove the excess stabilizer by washing/rinsing it in the case of water-soluble stabilizer or tearing it away in the case of plastic films.

    Rinse away the water-soluble backing to leave a clean edge.

    Rinse away the water-soluble backing to leave a clean edge.

The Plastic Film Patch Method

The steps become less complicated if you are creating the using the plastic film method as you can create the emblem entirely with embroidery. With the plastic film method, a full span of non-soluble film is hooped and used as a base material for the patch, either using commercial systems with prepared sheets of plastic film or a traditionally hooped span of 20 gauge clear vinyl. Often when working on a non-soluble plastic film, digitizers will create an underlay mesh underneath the background of the main filled area of the patch design. This allows the thread to hold together, stay stable, and have some body in the finished piece.

Mesh Underlay on Commercial system

This mesh underlay creates body for the final piece.

With this kind of execution, one simply hoops the film, runs the background underlay and fill, moves to the central design, and finishes, as always with the border before tearing the patch out of the plastic film. Home and craft embroiderers would recognize the main background underlay as being somewhat similar to the mesh-like support fills used in what are commonly called ‘freestanding lace’ designs. Like those ‘FSL’ designs, the thread is meant to stand largely on its own, even though the plastic material is still present in the finished piece. You can opt instead to use applied material with this method as described in the seven original steps, but if you intend to hand-cut material, you will have to be extremely careful not do damage the plastic film.


Hot Knife Cutting

Another common variation on patch-making is done with the use of a ‘hot knife’, a manual tool that resembles a wood-burning pen or soldering iron. In the case of hot-knife patches, you’ll have to use a polyester material for your patch, but you will not be cutting the material either before stitching or before executing your border. For hot knife patches, you’ll simply stitch the design, border and all, through your patch material, later using the knife to cut carefully and smoothly against the satin-stitch border, melting through the patch material for a fairly clean edge. Personally, I find the edges to be less even than the other methods; add that the fact that it takes much more manual work than using soluble or film backing, it’s not my favorite method. Even so, it is an effective method. If you want to see how it’s done, check out the following video: Hot Knife Patch Demonstration

Finished Harvest Heroes Patches

With edges like these, it’s hard to hate the water-soluble method.

Resource Round-up

Rather than belabor the detail or drag you through the finer points of digitizing for patches, I’m going to give some link love to the people for whom I’ve written articles on this topic before. For more detail on my patch making methods, please visit the articles listed below.

I made these patches for NBC's The Night Shift with the same methods you can use at home.

I made these patches for NBC’s The Night Shift with the same methods you can use at home.

The article that started my adventure it teaching patch-making is here: An Indirect Approach to Difficult Substrates – right from the pages of Printwear Magazine.  This piece also goes into the technique for using pre-made patch blanks to create your own emblems.

I recapitulated my water-soluble patch method with a summary for the good people at Images Magazine in the UK as well. The material is much the same as the previous piece, but it’s condensed for a quick read: No Catch Patches.

I followed that one up with a treatise on the plastic film methods: The Power of Plastic – again with the good people of Printwear.

Last, but not least, if you want to get in on just what everyone was using these patches for, I even wrote a bit about the rise of the patch trend: Patch it Up: How to get in on the Patch Trend.

High-end commercial machine or home-setups like the one I used for this tiny Valkyrie patch can readily make emblems you'll be excited to wear.

High-end commercial machine or home-setups like the one I used for this tiny Valkyrie patch can readily make emblems you’ll be excited to wear.