Ghost in the Embroidery MachineContinuing our ‘Digitizing 101’ theme, we’ll cover the most basic and yet most troublesome concept for budding digitizers – distortion. There is a fairly constant amount of distortion that occurs during the stitching process due to the physical interactions between the stitches and the chosen ground. This ever-present distortion means that what you see on-screen is never exactly represented in your final embroidery. This distortion warps shapes, makes outlines miss their marks, and forces elements that seem aligned end up as jagged as a city skyline. There are two main types of distortion that cause our consternation; we’ll cal them Pull and Push. In Part 1, we’ll describe Pull Distortion and ways to combat it, leaving our discussion of Push Distortion for Part 2.

Diagram Explaining Push and Pull Distortion in Satin Stitches for Machine Embroidery

Since we’re talking technically, let’s start with a brief message about measurements. You’ll notice that I use metrics for most discussion about digitizing and embroidery. This isn’t only personal preference; metrics and machine embroidery are intertwined. Density (a measurement of the spacing between lines of stitching) is most often measured in millimeters or embroidery points, a unit that represents a distance of .1mm.

Measuring an embroidered feather made of metallic thread with a metric ruler.

Metrics make so much sense because standard (40wt.) embroidery thread has a thickness of roughly .4mm, meaning an area where lines of stitching are .4mm apart (or 4 points) is completely covered. This forms a constant frame of reference for all of our digitizing settings. You don’t have to use the metric system, but I sincerely believe that it provides the easiest, most direct way to get your head around the measurements needed for digitizing, so I sincerely recommend that folks in countries (as mine) still standing by Imperial measurements learn the ‘other’ side of the ruler.  With that out of the way, let’s tackle our first type of distortion – Pull.

Pull Distortion happens in every stitch- as the stitch is formed and pulls tight, it slightly shortens along its length and draws tight the material inside. This doesn’t require much in the way of examples to explain- the stitch pulls in a bit like a drawstring. This means that a column of satin stitches, like the back stroke of the capital letter ‘D’ shown below, will be narrower stitched than it appears on-screen.

Satin Stitch - Pull Distortion - Thinning Columns

This distortion can vary greatly with the stability and thickness of the material you are embroidering, the tension of your thread, and even the stability of your backing material, but on fairly stable materials you’ll likely see a satin column thinning somewhere between .17mm and .25mm.

How do we combat Pull Distortion? We apply Pull Compensation, either through settings in our digitizing software or through manual adjustment. In plain language, we make the column wider. Though it may look overly wide on screen, even to the point of making it seem to far overshoot neighboring outlines, the proper compensation will let the column pull right into place when stitched.

Pull compensation is explained through showing the extra width of a satin stitch intended to match a straight stitch outline on an embroidered wing.

A straight line of text shows this compensation readily. Take the example of a satin-stitched letter ‘L’. We know that  the strokes of the ‘L’ will get thinner as they run. If we compensate, or make the strokes wider than the target width by the right amount, the bottom of the ‘L’ will look lower on-screen than the intended baseline of the lettering. When stitched, however, the column will ‘pull’ into line with the rest of the characters- though it looks massively uneven on-screen, a properly compensated line of text is properly aligned when stitched.

'Consulting' Satin Stitch Pull Distortion

Once you understand Pull Distortion, the reason for many a bad result in your machine embroidery becomes obvious. A related problem had by novice digitizers is poor registration when outlining. If a gap forms between a satin-stitched outline and the element which it surrounds, you know that it  has ‘pulled’ out of register. Apply compensation and overlap the items further, even if they look out of whack or overcompensated on-screen, and they’ll fall into place.

Acanthus element and digitized source file, showing overlap compensation

Depending on the stability of your material, some elements will be overlapped almost 100% with the width of their borders, as seen in the heraldic mantling above.  In this, measurement will be your friend- if you see a half millimeter of gap in your initial sample, you know you need at least that much compensation. Remember, Pull affects fill stitch areas as well as satin stitch columns. Pull and push can even distort shapes, something we’ll cover in Part 2.

Though we’ve embarked a very technical topic, the underlying lesson needn’t be measured only in millimeters. The problem many new digitizers have with distortion is that creating an on-screen design that looks so ‘off’ feels wrong. The kind of people who want to spend their time digitizing intricate designs likely have a strong sense of balance and symmetry and more than a few are probably plagued with perfectionism; I know I am. The trick is to begin with an understanding that the file is not your final creation. If we use that understanding to accept and learn to work with, rather than against, the natural tendencies of our media, we’ll reduce our frustration and increase our freedom to create our best machine embroidery.


Erich Campbell Erich Campbell is an award-winning machine embroidery digitizer and designer and a decorated apparel industry expert, frequently contributing articles and interviews to embroidery industry magazines such as Stitches and Printwear as well as a host of blogs, social media groups, and other industry resources.

Erich is an evangelist for the craft, a stitch-obsessed embroidery believer, and firmly holds to constant, lifelong learning and the free exchange of technique and experience through conversations with his fellow stitch-workers.


Mr X Stitch brings Showtime Snippets

Showtime Snippets sweeps together all kinds of titbits from the interwebs into this handy digest for you. If you’re a stitch/textile artist, hopefully these snippets will help you find shows and exhibit!


The Cutting & Stitching Edge | Contemporary Embroidered Art from Mr X Stitch

Caren Garfen is an embroidery artist from London.

Caren Garfen - Guilt Biscuits - 2014

Guilt Biscuits - Cookies have been hand stitched with silk threads. Biscuits are one of our ‘treats’ but at the same time we feel guilty about eating them, especially after going past two or three! One would think twice about nibbling into a biscuit with thread stitched into it especially after reading the message it holds.

“For fifteen years up until 2007 I worked as a craftsperson hand stitching top-of-the-range, miniature, and traditional samplers for dolls’ houses. My work was sold, by my agent and myself, all over the USA, in Japan, Europe and Great Britain, to adult collectors. In 2007 I graduated from the University of Hertfordshire with a First Class (Hons) degree in the Applied Arts, and I now work as an artist.


Caren Garfen - Clock, 'Weight a Minute' - 2014

Weight a MinuteThis artwork has been created using real weighing scales but has been adapted using silkscreen printed imagery and hand stitched motifs onto cotton. The dial is now in the form of a clock used to represent the time that diets tend to fail, ten past four in the afternoon, when all good resolutions tend to fail….

“I am currently creating an art installation dealing with women and dieting for The Knitting & Stitching Show which takes place this Autumn. I will be incorporating works that have been made over the last three to four years and creating new pieces, bringing everything together in the shape of a kitchen. I have hand drawn and silkscreen printed all of the cupboards, washing machine, sink, oven, tiles, etc. which, as well as forming a backdrop for the installation, will become an integral part of this life-size artwork.

It's only a question of balance, Caren Garfen, K&S

“It will not be possible to open the cupboards or eat anything in this kitchen as, according to research, food is dangerous.  One week we can eat dairy, the next we cannot.  Carbohydrates are fine, or carbohydrates are harmful.  Sugar is deleterious to your teeth and your health, and sweeteners are full of chemicals. We should now eat 10 portions of fruit and vegetables rather than five! We treat ourselves with ‘good’ foods and feel guilty about ‘bad’ foods… Enter this kitchen at your peril!”

A pick-me-up, Caren Garfen, K&S

Caren’s work is astonishing. I’ve seen it with my own eyes and it’s minute and perfect. Caren’s years of stitching for tiny textile things for dolls houses have given her command over the microstitch and she uses it to terrific effect.

Oven Love, Caren Garfen, K&S

At first glance you’ll assume the work is machine stitched, such is the size and delicacy of the stitch, but it’s all done by hand. Contained within the work is a quiet wit that brings the pieces to life and draws you in. It’s magic.

Tea Time, Caren Garfen, K&S

Find out more at Caren’s very cool site.


The Cutting (& Stitching) Edge is brought to you in association with PUSH: Stitchery, the contemporary embroidered art book curated by Jamie Chalmers. Featuring 30 textile-based artists from around the world, it’s a must have for needlework fans.



It's the Craftster Pick of the Week - brought to you by Mr X Stitch!

Time for another look at some of the great work featured in the forums at Craftster. Note: Although they’re the pick of this week, they may have appeared before this week.

All of a sudden, normal napkins just seem rather boring - thanks Nikschaf!

Nikschaf's Hulk Embroidered Napkin

“Hulk BLOT!” Also, if you have a global spillage, you now have guys to call:

Nikschaf's Superhero Embroidered Napkins

See the original Craftster post here, and be sure to come back next time for another great pick from the forums!


Mr X