Patches began as simple pieces of cloth used to repair or “patch” other pieces of clothing. The ancient Chinese decorated over them, which led to the early tradition of embroidery (which, as you may already know, continues even today).
However, it would be until the 1800s when the early attempts to use technology to streamline the whole process. Before, they were made wholly by hand, which made the process impractical for the following reasons.
First, it was too time-consuming. One simple design could take a lot of time to painstakingly embroider. Even the most skilled hand-embroiderer has to take time to focus on the details. Every action takes time – each twist of the hand holding the needle, each replacement of different-coloured threads, among others.
For detail work, for collectors’ items and such, the highly personalized process is okay. However, for the then burgeoning industry, it was not sustainable.
Second, it was almost impossible to maintain quality control, especially for huge numbers of supposedly similar-looking items with just hand-embroidered output.
The above reasons are why in the 1800s, Alphonse Kursheedt and later on Isaak Groebli made machines to try to speed up and streamline the process for making patches. Isaak Groebli is particularly important, since he introduced the first revolutionary version of the embroidery machine for the time, the “Schiffli”, in 1863.
However, who started the need for more “uniform” and more quickly mass-produced decorated pieces of cloth? Well, you probably did not know this, but it was the military that first popularized the use of patches.
Before the 1800’s, there was almost no way to distinguish military officers from ordinary soldiers. It was difficult to distinguish who is who, which is particularly disastrous for a heavily classified regimented group like the military.
Of course, one could present one’s documents for identification, among other things. However, that will take too much time. There was clearly a need for an easily visible identifier for soldiers, so that at one glance, without saying a single word, people will know a soldier’s rank.
Some say that one of the first military groups to use them to designate the authoritative positions of its members is the British Army. In fact, it was from Britain that the United States got its own idea of using patches .
In the United States military, the patch was designed in such a way that in one glance, one could glean a soldier’s signified rank, division, and skill set.
The first versions in the United States were used by the Union Army during the Civil War. Since the war efforts understandably have shifted money away from textile production, the kinds of patch during this time period were simple and easy to make.
The simplicity of the designs were also for easier uniformity, so that the relatives of the soldiers could conceivably make them for their family members.
Later on, during World War I, the army authorized the use of SSI’s, or shoulder sleeve insignia, pieces of cloth attached to military officers’ uniforms for easy unit identification.
Nowadays, new technologies have made patch-making less expensive and more accessible to individuals and organizations who want to use them – even those that are on a really tight budget. From computer programs that help in the design process, to the more advanced embroidery machines that help in the manufacture process, patches can be used by more people more than ever.
Moreover, the patch isn’t for the military anymore. Groups as diverse as camping clubs fire and police departments, sports teams, emergency units, businesses, motorcycle clubs, and schools can all avail of them for their own purposes.