(denim) battle jackets for dummies
The best patch fabric is thick, but has little to no stretch, and a fairly smooth surface. This will make your paint less likely to crack. Men’s button down shirts can be a good source of fabric. If the fabric stretches or has a lot of surface variation, that means the paint on top of it will be subject to more stress during movement and therefore more likely to crack or peel no matter how great the paint you're using is. I primarily use a stenciling method for my patches. This is a fantastic tutorial and the one I learned from. It also includes pictures. For my method, which has more detailed notes, see below.

You’ll need plain white label paper, which you can get at craft stores or places like Walmart, and a computer screen. On your computer, pull up the image or logo you want as a patch. Zoom in or out as needed to get it to the size you want the design to be on your patch. You're essentially going to be using your monitor as a light box. Tape the sticker paper onto the screen with the paper side up and the peel side against the screen so you're drawing against the right surface. I suggest using masking or painter’s tape as this will not leave adhesive on your monitor. Now you’ll need to trace over the design– once you take the paper off the monitor, you should have a copy of the image. If you don’t want to trace a design, you can draw your own on the sticker paper.

When copying the design onto the stencil, I don’t suggest using a pen or marker, even Sharpie, to outline the design. The ink can and will bleed into the paint, tinting it. I use a mechanical pencil.

After copying the design, I adhere the sticker paper to the fabric and iron it on each side for about 10 seconds. This softens up the adhesive to create a seal between the paper and the fabric and prevents paint from leaking under the stencil. Do not use a steam iron, as this will mess up the sticker paper. If you don’t have an iron, heat up a pan on the stove and use that. Also, make sure that the size of the fabric is larger than the total area of the sticker paper you’re putting on it. You want edges of the fabric to stick out around the paper to keep the paper easy to peel off when you’re done.

Your Xacto blade needs to be very sharp to cut the paper cleanly and if the fabric behind it is too thin, you'll just end up cutting that too. Getting the right depth of cut can take some practice, so don't be discouraged. If you do end up making a cut all the way through the fabric, it can sometimes be fixed. For small cuts, you can add some paint or glue to the back of the patch where the cut is to keep it together and prevent fraying. If the cut is large (1” or greater), you might want to start over. Normally I go through an Xacto blade every 2 or 3 5”x7” patches before I’ve decided the blade is too dull. If you're not using a sharp enough blade, you can end up with fuzzy edges on your stencil and it'll be harder to peel the areas you want removed.

You'll need to cut along the lines you drew earlier and peel off the areas you want painted. I suggest keeping tweezers on hand to help with peeling off any small details. Once you're done, you should basically have a negative of the image you traced. If you accidentally peel off the wrong bits, you can usually (carefully) stick them back on. It's easy to miss spots, so always double check your work before you start to paint next.

For paint, I use a cheap acrylic. You can find bottles at places like Walmart, Target, or, if you’re feeling fancy, an actual craft store. Even one small bottle should last you a while. Acrylic is best because it dries to a flexible finish, is durable, and has a strong color. Other paints like tempera or oil will likely not give you the results you’re looking for.

Make sure each coat of paint completely covers all areas in the stencil-- you don't want any naked patches (ha) of fabric showing through or any streaky dry brushmarks. Don't brush so hard that you start pulling up the edges of the sticker paper, but try to paint in strokes towards the edges of the stencil, starting from the middle of the painted area and going to the edges of the design. This will help make sure that your edges look crisp and filled out when you pull the sticker paper off.

No matter what the color of the fabric or eventual color I want the patch design to be, I always start with 1 black base coat, then 1 white coat. After that, I apply whatever color I want the design to be. If white, I’d be doing black - white - white. If red, I’d be doing black - white - red, and so on.

Having a black base coat makes the colors following it bolder and stops the paint in the ensuing coats from just soaking into the fabric, meaning you’ll need less layers overall. The white second coat creates a sort of “primer” layer that will brighten the colors on top of it. Make sure to let each coat dry completely before adding another.

If I'm using light or white fabric and the design is going to be in black paint or another dark color, I can usually get away with a single black coat and have it look fine.

When I’m done painting, I let the patch dry for at least 8 hours. If you try to seal it and remove the stencil too soon, it can just end up pulling the paint off with it. I wouldn't recommend anything less than 2 hours. Once dry, I flip it facedown and iron the back for 10 seconds. This also stops the paint from pulling away when removing then stencil by doing a "mini" heat seal. When ironing over paint, make sure to have something between the iron and the paint (such as a layer of fabric) to protect it. I then peel away the sticker paper. Having your Xacto and a pair of tweezers on hand can help with this process if you have a lot of small details.

After this, I iron the patch again for 10 seconds, this time on both the front and back, and throw the patch in the oven for 5 to 15 minutes at 350-450 degrees Fahrenheit. Keep an eye on the patch to make sure nothing browns/burns if you're not familiar with how hot your oven runs. You can also use a heat gun on the patch instead. This application of high heat helps set the paint and makes it more durable.

Once I’ve peeled off the design and want to cut my patches down in size, I always seal the edges so that the patch doesn’t fray and fall off. You can do this by singing the edges with a lighter, or lightly painting the edge with acrylic paint or glue (fabric glue is recommended, but even Elmer’s glue should suffice for this purpose). I prefer the glue method since I’m always a little worried about sending a patch up in flames, but whatever floats your boat. If you wanted to, you could also hem the patch like a piece of clothing.

When sewing the patches on, using pins or a small dot of washable glue is a good way to make sure the patch doesn’t wiggle or fold while being sewn on. You can use whatever stitching method you want, but if you’re a beginner, you can see a basic tutorial here. While sewing over pockets or other areas where you don’t want to accidentally sew through multiple layers, inserting a piece of paper or cardboard into the pocket or between the affected layers can prevent this.

Using dental floss and then ironing over the completely sewn-on patch is a great way to make sure a patch stays put. The wax in the dental floss will melt and adhere to the jacket. Alternatively, you can use either standard all-purpose sewing thread or embroidery thread. This method is recommended if you think you might want to remove or rearrange patches later. Personally I prefer using bright colored thread to make the stitches pop visually.

I don’t recommend solely using glue, even fabric glue, to keep patches on. I have never had a patch actually stay put with glue. Even for embroidered or iron-on patches, I always sew the edges down.

Screenprinting patches is also a possibility, but is more expensive. It’s mainly relevant if you plan on doing lots of the same design, and less practical if you only want to do 1 patch with a design on it. A basic screenprinting tutorial can be found here.

Transfer paste can also be used to make patches. Please note that I have not tried this personally and cannot vouch for the results, but if/when I do, I’ll try to update this. You can find a tutorial here.

There's also many other methods, such as embroidery, freehand painting, linocut, or just cutting out designs from old t-shirts. Sky's the limit, really. In the future I'll try to add links to more tutorials or write tutorials for the methods I try.

If you don’t want to or can’t make your own patches, there’s plenty of places to find them. The battle jacket subreddit has a great thread with plenty of distros. Etsy is also a good place to find artists who sell patches. As always, try to avoid big box stores when you can– make it yourself, buy directly from the band, buy from a small independent store, or find someone making and selling their own work.