At this time we don't consider ourselves dedicated to custom work and since people still inquire, we feel after it is best to be upfront about our situation. Although going on a semi rant, the hope is the information will still be helpful to anyone looking into custom patches anywhere.
In the past I've gotten some not so nice messages if I was unable to take on a project or was a little slow to reply and likely this is confusion on the fact that for the most part we do not want your business when it comes to custom. I know it sounds super dickish, however it needs to be clarified our business model runs much better on us working on our own designs. The amount of effort for me to design and prep a patch for our own use has much more profit potential than any custom work. That said we still try and hook up people who are our friends or politely request understanding the situation. We make it work mostly on the concept that due to our creation bulk and shipment batches we can get the price down so we can make a little profit while the client ends up paying similar to if they went to some other custom place.
On that subject, we do not manufacture in house and currently the main factories we use are in straight up China. This is not due to lack of trying to find manufacturers in the USA, however as from our attempts we found generally the quality to be less and price higher. With the thought being to prioritize quality it is also our thinking that fortunately if a patch failed there are very slim chances of it causing any harm. If looking for a solid USA based PVC manufacturer we recommend: http://www.flexsystems.com/ They won't be cheaper than overseas, but can do fast timelines and have great customer service.
As a starting point minimum quantities for custom work at the places we use is typically around 100 quantity. One can get less from embroidery places, however even at 50 quantity the price is pretty close to where you might as well have gotten 100. This is due to the setup time such as converting art into embroidery / woven files, prepping the machines with the right thread colors, and then for PVC this applies even more so since mold based. I'm always surprised where some people come to us wanting a few custom patches acting like there is a machine that shoots out sweet patches like a paper printer. Pricing is mostly based on size vs quantity however if using lots of color and detail that can be a factor as well. Generally around 300 quantity gives a good price point and then it gets cheaper the more you get; price breaks usually being quantities of 100, 200, 300, 500, and 1000. For 2000+ most places tend to do custom quotes rather than going off a standard price sheet. For color variants most places will have a 100 quantity minimum since even though it is the same design, doing color variations still takes up some setup / processing time. For those interested in just a few simple text based patches, I tend to recommend getting some custom name tapes with hook sewn on the back as a very cost effective option.
One of the features that defines a modern morale patch is to have hook fastener sewn on the back. This is so they can stick to the loop/pile zones on uniforms and tactical gear. Commonly referred to broadly as Velcro, this is a specific brand so just be aware that if you just toss the velcro word out there a factory will use whatever and you'll really need to make sure and ask for Velcro brand specifically if that is what you want. When I first looked into PVC patches it seemed factories just wanted to glue it on and it was a bit of a process for me to force them to make sure and sew it on. Due to our warriors being in plenty of hot crappy places I don't trust glue for long term durability, but there is a time and place where glue can be used for a design if more important to not have a sewing trench, or general space savings on small patches.
For the main starting point to be a good client it is recommended to have: your art ready in a vector format, declare the desired size if not already presented in the art, say if you want hook backing or not / other, and generally know the quantity ballparks you are interested in. I don't expect everyone to be a digital art nerd, so as a heads up vector art is art made up of mathematical lines while pixel / raster art is what most people are familiar with. On a typical picture or some random JPG off the web, they are made up of pixels where the most precise part of the visual data is one pixel. Thus if you zoom in enough you start to see the pixels, easily seen on diagonal shapes where you get the stair-step effect. Vector art however is made up of math curves like if you are getn' old like me and used on those shitty graphing calculators in school back in the day. Since based on math lines the data can be scaled bigger or smaller to near infinity and still look perfect. For a good vector format I recommend PDF these days since it can be viewed on typical web browsers and phones, however some other classic vector supporting formats are AI, EPS, and SVG. Be advised unfortunately there are still plenty of crappy graphic designers out there and it can cause a lot of confusion since these formats can also have pixel data inside. So I'll ask for the vector art and then some clown just makes a PDF with a JPG pasted inside instead of actual vector art. Then we have the awkward moment where I have to tell the client their designer should be fired. The main talking point is that the vector data is the important part, and just because the file is a certain extension does not guarantee it is vector.
For special circumstances I suppose it is worth noting that for embroidery and woven designs they can make do with pixel art if at a high enough resolution. I however like to go straight to vector when possible since it will give the cleanest possible art result, be much easier to edit and or make color variants, and be ready to be used on all major mediums. Another trick crappy designers like to do is a lazy auto convert from pixel to vector. When just blindly performed, a vector conversion will cause a lot of abstraction and generally need a good amount of manual clean up to look right. The conversion tools certainly have their place in the vector toolbox, but the best case of course is to just make the art from scratch in vector to begin with. Since PVC is mold based vector art is required, well technically you could start with pixel art and brute force a ghetto auto-conversion however it will really show off the wobbly abstractions and look pretty amateur.
An easy day for us is if the client knows exactly what they want and has their art ready in a vector format. When starting from scratch there tends to be the misconception that patch design is super easy and should be for free when it can be as advanced if not more than logo design. Thus if starting from nothing be prepared for 2 separate processes where first money and effort has to be spent just to make a nice design, then you can worry about the custom patch part. If this step is taken with us, we will be sure and get the final vector your way so you can use the art on other projects however you wish. This is the way it should be, but I've heard plenty of dumb stories of other patch places not offering design access even after the client paid for their creation as an attempt to force the client back for other projects with the design.
Back into rant mode, another issue we have is we use warm greys. <A REAL URBAN GREY> I made a whole damn article on this, but the general idea is most people think of fairly cool greys being their default grey concept. As a result sadly when we do warm greys to match with environments better, commonly people say the greys look brown, even when they are truly neutral with zero saturation. To get around this, it isn't a big deal to just tell us Pantone colors or other references specifically needed, the issue comes when clients ask us to put our "Monkey Magic" on the design then get pissed off when I do their patch just how I would treat it if it was my own. The art direction has to go one way or the other. It boggles my mind where I can do a patch with what I feel is very nice execution and folks are ready to throw them all in the trash due to the grey being warmer than they had in their mind. For those super new to the color matching concept it usually helps to start off noting that any digital mockups are going to be different than final in hand product as emitted light from your monitor is always going to be different than reflected light of an object in your hand.
Another issue we come across is failure of chain of command. One example would be a team leader is workn' hard to narrow down a design with us and their team then after all the effort to get it nailed down, it turns out captain chief bootknocker whoever says they don't like it or there is no budget for it. Please don't waste everyone's time and make sure you are authorized or ready to pay for a project on your own. For a variant on that issue, we will be working with a big company and everything is going great with say the marketing director, then once all is good to go they show their head boss and they have their own crazy mix idea sometimes resulting in having to start over from scratch. I understand no one aims for these situations to happen, but extra effort needs to be made to make sure they don't happen. Finally another sore point is don't say ASAP unless you mean it. Offhand we've found only Hollywood says this and actually means it, everyone else is not willing to pay for ASAP which includes my rush fees, factory rush fees, and enhanced shipping.
For insight on patch mediums we are familiar with, embroidery is known as the most classic look. Back in the day some poor bastard had to hand stitch a patch and although fancy machines are used these days, there still are some detail limitations due to thread being the main material. When thin lines are needed, the best embroidery can do is called single line stitching which looks very dotted line like. Generally backgrounds use twill which is a more matte material while the threads are usually rayon based are fairly shiny. When covering a patch completely with thread embroidery it is referred to as a 100% coverage design. How the embroidery "direction" is laid out can be used to create some minimal 3D effects and give shapes to designs even if all the same color. The main border types are merrowed and die-cut. Merrowed being a special stitch that wraps around the edge, simple shapes are required since a human has to put these in a merrowed stitch machine rather than being fully computer controlled. Die cut style allows more complicated shapes however the sides of such patches tend to show twill material color and edges are just glued so have a higher risk of the border unraveling. Other worthwhile notes on merrowed borders would be they tend to give a good classic look, however are at a much greater risk at snagging on hook fastener. A plus to embroidery is typically the sewing of the hook can be done on the border line to look very minimal. Compared to other patch types embroidery can be fairly fragile where abrasion will cause fuzziness or to start to pull art stitches out. Quick exposure to flames can help fuzzies a lot, but the trick can only work so much magic. Embroidery thread and twill colors offered are pretty limited and no where near as extensive as a full set of Pantone colors. Each factory tends to use one brand of threads and twills which will determine the color options.
Woven uses materials similar to embroidery, but the art is made by weaving material rather than making embroidery loop style stitches. The result is pretty flat depth wise, however offers overall nice detail levels and color options. This is why we do most of our pinup designs as woven since they are able to get the thin lines and have higher color counts. Generally more effort is required to setup a complicated woven design so sometimes higher minimum quantities are required. Colors can also take some time to dial in, but it seems more colors are offered where they usually go by Pantones as reference points. Like embroidery, woven patches can also have merrowed borders as long as the enclosure shape is simple.
PVC is another type that is gaining a lot of popularity these days. As a historical note, we were one of the first places to make PVC morale patches popular, just sayin'. One of the reasons I like PVC and is popular with others is that it allows art to be very precise with interesting depth effect possibilities all while being quite durable. Since mold based there can be extra setup costs associated which generally makes small batches cost prohibitive. A noteworthy limitation on PVC is that gaps are required for color changes within a design so the art needs to be done with this in mind. This is why we haven't done many pinup designs as PVC since say on a highlight zone, the gap-zone will end up looking like a thin black outline greatly changing the overall look, and not for the better. A sometimes appropriate work around is to add a color on-top of another color rather than at the same depth level, this way the gap is not needed. Quality control wise usually the main PVC consideration is keeping an eye out for any sort of color bleeding. For a small consideration if sewing hook on the back a sewing trench will be needed in the design. It usually isn't a super big deal, it just ends up looking more obvious than say on an embroidery patch. Overall PVC offers great durability where it takes much more damage to cause marks and they will never get fuzzy borders or edges. Every factory is a little different, but generally color options are good and are semi consistent being based on Pantone colors. When a more specific match is needed we have sent physical color samples to the factory to help them color match things like military gear colors.
As a final consideration it is best to try and design specifically for a patch when possible. I luck out where my thick vector art style translates well to patches, but sometimes we get client art that is vector, which is a good starting point, but then the art is just from one of their t-shirts so it will have effects like distressing that just don't translate well to patches. The enclosure and patch size vs design size can also be a factor. It is a common problem where we are given say a square logo / design and then they want a rectangle sized patch. The result tends to look odd with a logo floating in a bunch of blank background space.
Anyway if you made it this far, thanks for listening and hopefully somewhere amongst the ranting some information in there was helpful to you as well :) If further curious about our work, check it out on over at our store: http://milspecmonkey.com/store