I was struggling to think of a blog entry for this weekend, and field mom Morsel kind of half-smartassedly said “PATCHES!”. I need to remember to limit her to less than two pots of coffee in the morning.
But yes… patches are the ultimate swag in airsoft. Especially if they’re meme patches. The best part about patches is that you can go as serious or as goofy as you want. Remember… it’s YOUR game, do what you want.
Now bear in mind that while there is a pretty set demographic for airsoft players, there is sometimes mixed company, so maybe keep that in mind.
WARNING: Patch collecting gets super addictive. Quickly. Then when you discover that you can get your own designs onto a patch, THAT gets addictive. Quickly. Yes, I’ll share some links at the end for places that I recommend to have your patches made. Okay, it’s only two places, but I’ll wait until the end.
Patches – a Brief Overview
Patches have always been used for the purposes of identifying the person wearing them. Name tapes, unit or division patches, rank insignia, and moving post Cold War, the military started moving toward having blood type indicated right on the soldier’s plate carrier.
As Infrared advanced, units would start displaying IR-reflective patches as well. “Ranger eyes” because popular – two small patches near the front of a helmet that reflected in IR light. They have since become fairly premium “drip” in airsoft, mostly because we’re weird like that.
Eventually, patches started coming with “hook fastener” on the back, which allowed people to easily apply or remove the patches from the “loop fastener” on their uniform. Sure beats the hell out of sewing patches on by hand, especially every time you moved up in the ranks or changed divisions. Ask me how I know. Also ask me how I made a shitload of money in boot camp. 😀
As hook and loop patches became “the thing”, other patches were added: MORALE PATCHES. They are called that simply because their intent was to boost the morale of those around the wearer. While the term “morale patch” didn’t come around until the 60s, you’ll find lots of history surrounding the patch that predates WWI. The 81st Infantry is credited with the first “morale patch”, which was actually a division patch. Cool side note: I know someone who was in that division, and she sent me one of her patches. I sewed some “hook fastener” to the back of it and have worn it several times while playing.
Anyway… during ‘Nam, GIs started making morale patches with “a cheeky image and/or sarcastic or critical statements”. Of course, the Navy flyboys loves them and really brought morale patches to the forefront. I mean, look at Maverick’s leather jacket. You know, because Top Gun was so accurate. 😛 They did get the patches right, at least.
Patches also quickly migrated to emergency services… law enforcement, fire departments, and EMS. Trading patches with other members of those communities is a fulltime hobby for some. My Dad would send me patches from his fire departments, and I’d send him patches from my fire and EMS departments. A lot of departments out there have dedicated patchwalls that display the patches they’ve trading with other departments.
Airsoft in and of itself is pretty memetastic, so it only makes sense that morale patches are running rampant in this hobby; along with patch trading, of course. I have traded personal patches as well as SAASMaine patches with a ton of people, even those abroad. Whenever I make a big order with a company, I’ll ask them to toss in a free patch. Worst case, they’ll say “no” and I’ll just buy one.
These days, there’s a moral patch for absolutely everyone out there, and if there isn’t, the cost has come down so much that it doesn’t take a whole lot of money to have *your* design made up.
Types of Patches
A quick rundown on what’s available out there for patches:
- Sublimated, or “Printed”
- Laser cut
An embroidered patch, also known as a cloth badge, is a piece of embroidery which is created by using a fabric backing and thread. They can be done by hand, but 99.9% of the embroidered patches out there these days were done by a computerized high-speed embroidery machine.
You can find embroidered patches in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and they all use a tightly-embroidered border known as a “merrow edge”. It’s called thus because in order to have a proper merrow edge, companies use a highly specialized sewing machine made by a company called “Merrow”. Maybe not the most creative thinking, but it’s precise.
Embroidered Patch Pros
- Generally not “shiny” at all
- Fairly inexpensive
- Can be made at home with an embroidery machine
- Any number of colors can be used
Embroidered Patch Cons
- Not really tacticool
- Thread can fade in the sunlight
- Thread can get snagged on branches
- Limited details
PVC patches are the gucci tacticool option these days, and they are not something that you’ll really be able to make at home. PVC patches can utilize all manners of colors, to include IR reflective and glow in the dark. They are soft and rubbery, and pretty much indestructible.
As with all the patches, the PVC patch starts with a design that is then imported into a CNC machine that cuts the mold out of metal. Liquid polyvinyl chloride is then poured in, layer by layer then once dried, the backing layer is poured on.
PVC Patch Pros
- Custom shapes
- Absurdly tough
PVC Patch Cons
- Not a lot of detail
- Usually requires a significant minimum order
- Can run pretty expensive
- Can be shiny
Sublimated, or “Printed” Patches
I could type VOLUMES on sublimated patches, so I’ll try to keep this section abbreviated like the others.
Sublimation is the process in which a solid turns instantly into a gas. While a printer IS used in this process, it’s not your standard inkjet. A special printer ink (it’s actually dye) is needed for this process.
The patch design is printed in mirror orientation on special sublimation paper (this part of the process is liquid to solid), then the patch blank is fastened to the paper. The patch and paper is then placed in a heat press for about a minute and it’s ready to go. As the patch cools, the colors really start coming out, and no matter how good sublimated patches look fresh out of the heat press, they look even better after cooling for half an hour.
The patch blanks are a thick white polyester twill and can be laser cut for a “full bleed” look, or finished with a merrow edge.
Sublimated Patch Pros
- Near photo-quality image
- Very high detail quality
- The dye is chemically permanently bonded to the polyester – it will never run or fade
- Inexpensive! You can usually get a single patch made for $10 or less
- After a modest investment, it’s a very straightforward process to be able to make your own at home
Sublimated Patch Cons
- Not tacticool like PVC or classic like embroidered.
- Very flat
Laser cut Patches
Laser cut patches are the new kid on the block, and quickly overtaking PVC as Tacticool Champion. It’s actually really cool how these thinks are made – it starts with a strong base, probably a nylon of some sort, and on this base is glued a solid piece of material in whatever color and/or properties is required or requested for the patch.
Then on top of that is the laser cut nylon. The laser cauterizes/melts the nylon so it doesn’t fray or unravel, creating super clean lines.
All the pieces are sandwiched together with adhesive, then the backing is stitched on. There are laser cut patches out there with a number of different colors on the patch as well, which to me just seems like a massive pain in the ass to the patch maker, but I’m sure they have “tricks of the trade”.
Laser Cut Patch Pros
- Very tacticool and futuristic
- Easily recognizable
- Can be made reversible
Laser Cut Patch Cons
- The entirety of the design is reliant on the adhesive keeping it all together
- Very low detail
As you can see, each patch comes with its own pros and cons. Even though I make sublimated patches as Bearsoft Tactical, my favorite patch type is, and always will be, embroidered patches. Although, as you can see from my collection, I won’t say no to any of them.
Yes, I forgot about woven patches. Sorry.
The quickest and easiest way to display your patches is with a “patchwall”. Patchwalls can be as fancy as your wallet can handle, or they can be as simple as a piece of felt from your local department store. Of course, the most famous “hook and loop fastener” company sells rolls of loop fastener, and while I have a couple yards of such, it’s only because another friend found some for a really good deal, so hell yes I wanted in on that.
Later this spring we will do up a blog outlining a DIY patch wall, but really, you can make one with some felt, a piece of ¼” plywood, and a can of contact cement (or even that Gorilla Glue hairspray). Apply the glue to the plywood, stretch the felt over it, smooth it all down, and let it dry. Once it’s dried, hang it on you wall and start putting your patches on it.
Pro-tip: make the patchwall at least twice as big as you initially think it should be. Yes, you’ll VERY quickly run out of real estate on it. On the other hand, when you do run out of space, you’ll have a good excuse to make another one.
Your Own Patch
Getting your own patch is an amazing feeling, but let’s go over some things that will help your vision come to life, and not irritate the person making the patch.
If you can’t use GIMP, Photoshop, or even MS Paint, get with someone who can. If you can draw, go ahead and scan your drawing… check your local office supply store, UPS, FedEx, public library, your school, or even a friend who may have a scanner. It’s VERY IMPORTANT that you scan your image in the highest possible resolution, and save it in a “lossless” format, like .GIF or .PNG. Of course, if you have any design questions, reach out to the patch maker. They will help you with all the pertinent information and give you options for their preferred format.
Embroidered patches don’t have to be “pixel perfect”, but the other formats should be as close to “pixel perfect” as possible. One of the draws to PVC patches are the bold, smooth lines, which would become jagged and not very aesthetic due to pixelization.
Size matters. Don’t send a patch maker a 200 pixel x 300 pixel image and expect them to work miracles. Most patch makers are happy to get a patch that’s 20” x 30”. Things tend to scale down better than they scale up. Personally, I like 600 dpi images, which means a 2” x 3” patch would be 1200 pixels x 1800 pixels in size. But when making sublimated patches, the near photorealistic quality is the big deal for that type.
So you’ve decided on a design, you’ve decided on a type of patch, where can you get it done?
I’ve used Tactical Gear Junkies for a number of embroidered patch runs. Their quality is excellent, and their prices are reasonable. You can find TGJ at https://tacticalgearjunkie.com/
For my “Unbearable” patches, this is what they quoted me (Feb 2022):
- Patch Size: 3″
- Backing Type: Hook Backing
- Embroidery Coverage: 75%
- Edge Type: Merrowed
- The cost for 1-5 patches will be $7.50 each.
- The cost for 6-10 patches will be $5.63 each.
- The cost for 11-25 patches will be $4.50 each.
- The cost for 26-49 patches will be $4.13 each
- There is a one-time $20.00 digitizing artwork fee required for quantities under 50. This is to prepare your artwork for embroidery.
- The cost for 50 patches will be $3.15 each.
- The cost for 100 patches will be $2.40 each.
I dropped the $157 for 50, and have been handing them out to random players at SAASMaine, as well as Harris and FGF. Why the hell not, right?
TGJ also does all the other patch types, but I would be remiss to not tell you about Bearsoft Tactical. Yup. That’s me!
Bearsoft Tactical does small (1 unit) to medium (~50 units) runs of sublimated patches, and the price per patch is the same throughout: $6 each for standard shapes. There’s no “setup fee”, no hidden costs, no nothing. If you order 10 patches and send me $60, I send you 10 patches. Usually a couple more, just because. The hook fastener is glued, then sewn onto the back of the patch with bonded nylon thread (another “printed patch” place just uses adhesive hook fastener, which eventually will peel off.. and their custom patches are $3 more per patch). Bearsof Tactical patches can bee seen throughout New England, the United States, and the World.
For more information on Bearsoft Tactical, hit the website at https://bearsofttactical.com
If there’s anything I forgot, or got wrong, please let me know. I do love my patches and am continuously getting more and more. Keep your eyes open later this spring when the weather warms up and I’ll post my “mega DIY patchwall”.