This article possibly contains original research. (March 2011)
An embroidered patch is a piece of art which is created by using a fabric backing thread and some form of a needle. Embroidered patches can be attached with a pin or can be sewn on, but some of the more modern methods of attachment include iron-on, dryer heat activated adhesive, and Velcro backing. The art of making embroidered patches is decades old but the introduction of new high speed, computerized machines has brought a once rare, time consuming art into mass production.
Embroidered patches, an important identification tool for military and other uniformed personnel, trace their roots thousands of years ago to ancient cultures of the Mediterranean, Mideast, China, India and South America where the art of decorating fabric with thread stitching originated. Elaborate hand-stitched designs and patterns were used to embellish the robes of royalty and for religious artifacts.
Today, embroidered patches are used by government (including uniforms of the military, emergency services and other specialized workers) sports teams and companies in the private sector to denote rank, job, specific position or specialized unit. Youth groups, including sports teams, scouting organizations and specialized clubs often wear clothing emblazoned with embroidered patches. They are also used by space agencies on the uniforms of astronauts to denote the mission. Since 1971, the sole manufacturer of mission patches for NASA has been A-B Emblem of Weaverville, North Carolina.
Space mission patches as well as fire and police patches are collected by enthusiasts as well.
Before the advent of computer technology, patches were made by hand. The process, however, remains the same today. First, a fabric backing is cut to shape. To prevent fraying, the edges of the backing are heat-sealed. Then, the thread is stitched into place. Some designs incorporate the backing as the background of the patch, while others completely cover the backing with stitches. To finish the patch, iron-on adhesive is applied to the reverse. Obviously, in the early days, the final step was not done. Machinery created during the 18th and 19th century Industrial Revolution changed garment production with power looms, sewing machines, etc. making fabrics of more uniform quality and greatly increased production efficiency. Embroidery, once a time-consuming hand-made stitch-by-stitch process, was revolutionized by the introduction of the Schiffli embroidery machine, invented by Isaak Groebli of Switzerland in 1863. Like the game-changing sewing machine, it operated with a two-thread system. Early production from the multi-needle machine, powered by a hand-turned crank, wasn’t much quicker than handwork, but significantly, multiple copies of identical designs could be created. Groebli's machine utilized the combination of a continuously threaded needle and shuttle containing a bobbin of thread. The shuttle itself looked similar to the hull of a sailboat. "Schiffli" means "little boat" in the Swiss dialect of the German language, so his machine came to be known as a schiffli machine. An automatic machine, refined by Isaak’s eldest son in 1898, simplified the mechanical system so it could be run by a single operator.
Types of stitches, including chain stitch, buttonhole or blanket stitch, running stitch, satin stitch, cross stitch— are the basis of embroidery. Patches are often crafted from chain, satin and hemming stitches and machine work relies on the use of multiple threads.
Advanced technology allows virtually any design to be recreated in thread on an embroidered patch. Images previously created by hand in a time-consuming process can now be quickly digitally scanned and computer-controlled multi-head sewing machines use several colors of thread simultaneously.
Other modern advancements include applying a plastic backing to the patch, improving stiffness, and preventing bunching or wrinkling of the design. Patches are often die-cut into specific shapes with a border protected from unraveling by serge stitching. Polyester blend threads are colorfast and have superior durability as compared to cotton thread. Embroidered patches were first adopted by United States military units, with some crude, unofficial examples found on soldiers’ uniforms from the War of 1812, 1845 Mexican War and the Civil War (1861–65) Unit identifications, also known as shoulder sleeve insignia (or SSI) is a relatively new component of the modern military uniform after originating during World War I, when Gen. John J. Pershing authorized limited use.
The oldest of all official U.S. military patches is the Big Red One of the 1st Infantry Division, first issued on Oct. 31, 1918. SSI became common during World War II and distinctive patches for individual units of the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard have become a proud tradition and there is an active collectors market, especially for rare, limited edition patches.
Various regulations exist on how badges are displayed, how many may be worn at one time and whether or not such badges may be worn on the uniform of more than one branch of service. In the U.S. Army, the SSI is worn on the upper left arm, just below the uniform’s shoulder seam. It is sometimes worn on other places, most notably when the soldier’s body armor covers the shoulders.
Military patches are full of metaphor, from the colors used to the types of images portrayed. White or silver means peace and sincerity; yellow or gold signifies generosity; blue stands for loyalty; red for fortitude and green for loyalty. Even animals depicted on military patches have significance. A lion represents deathless courage; a tiger signifies fierceness and valor in combat; the bear denotes protection of kindred and the wolf shows one whom it is dangerous to assault. Rhinoceros shows great ferocity when aroused and an elephant signifies courage and strength. Leopards show valiant and hardy warriors; horses show the unit is ready for all deployments on behalf of their government/king and a bull or oxen signifies valor and magnanimity.
For the U.S. military, patch designs are certified and protected by the Institute of Heraldry. The institute decides how military patches are displayed, how it is worn and the reasons for display. A hallmark is assigned to each certified manufacturer of military insignia to indicate which manufacturer produced the product. This means it is illegal for other manufacturers to create designs on their patches that incorporate the likeness of an official Army heraldic item.
The embroidered patch industry is dominated by several long established companies such as the Chicago Embroidery Company (founded in 1890), Lion Brothers (founded in 1899), St. Louis Embroidery (founded in 1887), A-B Emblem, and Penn Emblem (founded in 1947). As with much of the textile manufacturing industry in the United States, manufacturing of emblems has largely moved out of the country however some manufacturers still maintain domestic factories.
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