Embroidery Digitizing: The Science and the Art


Get the best out of your digitizing machine with tips from Erich Campbell - exclusive to Mr X Stitch!

Our good host asked that I begin this adventure with a bit of ‘Digitizing 101’, and I am all too happy to oblige, though I will be covering some philosophical ground along with the technical realities of the craft.

Erich Campbell - Stitches Magazine Cover - Carousel Horse - January 2012Drily put, embroidery digitizing is the process of creating files containing commands to drive the movement of an embroidery machine’s hoop and needles. The process of digitizing, however, is somewhat more complicated. Digitizers interpret an image into stitches through a variety of methods, using any one of a multitude of software and hardware combinations. They may do so a single stitch at a time or by drawing shapes that they then fill with stitches set programmatically to their own cocktail of variables delineating stitch length, type, angle and density. Beyond this technical definition, however, lies something nearer to the truth.

Embroidery digitizing, at its best, combines a measure of scientific curiosity and a technical mindset with purposeful, artistic interpretation, taking into account the unique properties of thread and fabric as media. I know my definition may be cold comfort to those looking for a way to ‘convert’ a graphic file automatically into embroidery- but though software manufacturers have done their best to make it possible, the most expensive and well-crafted software packages I’ve used have never been able to make the technical and artistic decisions as well as even a dedicated amateur digitizer.

If you are looking for a software-driven solution, my description of the art will likely disappoint. If, however, you are a focused, creative, and curious individual with a little of the scientist blended into your artistic persona and are willing to embark on a journey to control the powerful artistic tool that is your embroidery machine, you will be rewarded with the keys to unlock a world of expression. If this is you, by all means, let’s begin.

What do we mean by the ‘science’ and ‘art’ of digitizing?

Many novice digitizers think that learning software tools will make them immediately capable of producing fine embroidery, but they have only grasped the last and least important piece of the puzzle. It is only in knowing the technical nature of the craft and by cultivating an eye for artistic interpretation that they will reach their potential as digitizers. This technical nature is what I refer to as the ‘science’ of machine embroidery.

This is more than just technical knowledge; like proper science, this also describes a technique- a method of testing, as part of this understanding. Testing that leads to the ability to create reproducible, predictable outcomes in their embroidery. As for knowledge, a digitizer should possess a solid understanding of the process as a whole.

The functions of embroidery machines, the way that thread and needle interact with fabric and stabilizers, the way that stitches interact with each other, the natural levels of distortion caused by the tension of the thread, the stretch of the material in question, and the movement of the machine. Though this can be taught, the testing method of this ‘science’ of digitizing yields experience that bolsters this knowledge.

Measuring stitch values in digitizing software

The best digitizers get their start by running machines. In watching designs stitch, the reactions and interactions of the media are readily seen. A well-crafted design can even teach proper construction, sequencing of the stitched elements, and compensation for the natural stresses of the process. Adding measurement to that observation completes the method, unlocking the secrets of digitizers and allowing us to test and refine our own technique.

Using ruler tools in software to measure the stitch parameters of designs we love allows us to apply these parameters to our own work. We can also physically measure the difference between our stitched samples and the on-screen dimensions used to create them to observe and correct the inevitable distortion. In carefully testing our designs on their intended fabrics and with the recommended supplies and measuring our results, we can readily see the results of our efforts and measure the effects of anything we alter.

By combining the analyzed settings of other digitizers with our own tests, we learn how long stitches should be, how much elements should overlap so that they don’t pull apart when stitched, how narrow satin stitches run on particular substrates, and how close together stitches must be to cover a surface. Experimentation and measurement can teach us a world of information and let us peek into and remix the techniques of our favorite design creators. Even so, the science alone can’t produce truly great embroidery.

Erich Campbell - Heart of a Lion - art versus final embroidery

The ‘art’ of embroidery digitizing, while it has roots in the ‘science’, takes a more subjective turn. This is where auto-conversion fails and digitizers, with their understanding of the way light plays on the surface of thread and who can use the nature of this very physical and three dimensional craft take over.

The ‘art’ comes from appreciating the qualities of thread and textiles and using those to create textural, sculpted interpretations of images rather than attempting to simply render them like a ‘thread printer’. We learn ‘art’ by analysis, but not in the technical method previously described. We learn by looking at embroidery and attempting to think in its terms. We look at images and imagine them in thread, creating dimension, light and shadow with the qualities we have observed in stitches- mentally framing and carving cylindrical volumes in satins, filling large plains in tatami fills, tracing fine lines with straight-stitch runs.

When we absorb this nature of embroidery we start to see how stitch angle and density alter the perceived color of thread; that the play of light over stitches set in a certain direction can give a sense of grain and texture that shows volume in a shape and that our choices let us command a world of qualities with which we can represent the objects in our images.

These qualities become the palette with which a digitizer paints. The digitizer uses different stitch types not to simply fill areas, but to convey qualities of a subject and add to an image through textural and dimensional development. This is why an artistic digitizer outstrips the auto-conversion software; software can’t draw what isn’t immediately visible in an image, nor readily ignore what is. The digitizer can give an impression of elements too small to render, choosing what to leave out, or can add elements or qualities that aren’t necessarily seen in the image- playing with texture, shape, and depth to create something more than the original, something crafted specifically for the medium and with an express knowledge of its qualities.

Erich Campbell - Kenutky Bourbon Trail - Art and Stitched Sample

Embroidery digitizing, despite my somewhat complicated description, is not something mystical that can only be achieved by a gifted few. If you want to digitize, you can.

If the idea of spending hours practicing the art, or running samples and correcting for the mistakes in sequencing or fixing some element that has pulled out of registration doesn’t send you running for the hills, you’ve got more than a fair chance of making your way. The simple truth is that if you are willing to to build an understanding of what your machine and your medium can and can’t do, and to work with and against those boundaries, you are on your way.

Accept that the road to your masterpiece will be paved with failed samples, trial and error, and accidental thread breaks- give yourself the room to try, fail, and try again, and never forget to play with the qualities that intrigue you about thread. Do that, measure your results, and the rest will fall into place with practice. The tools and even to a degree the machine matter far less than understanding the glorious imperfection and controlled chaos of distortion that is machine embroidery.


Erich Campbell

Erich Campbell

Partner Relationship Manager at DecoNetwork
Erich Campbell is the Partner Relationship Manager at DecoNetwork, 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 Printwear, Images Magazine UK, and Wearables 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 embroiderers. A small collection of his original stock designs can be found at The Only Stitch
Erich Campbell

@erichcampbell

Partner Relationship Manager- DecoNetwork - Long-time Embroidery Digitizer/Designer, E-Commerce Manager, and Industry Columnist, Contributor, and Educator.
@Crunchyroll @CatTownOak Here's my buddy Atli. 🙂 https://t.co/LbXH9DqvRG - 16 hours ago
Erich Campbell

7 thoughts on “Embroidery Digitizing: The Science and the Art

  • Amanda Lightfoot

    30 June 2014 at 7:15 pm

    Great article. Thanks Erich.

  • Your post couldn’t have come at a better time, as I’ve been struggling with both the art AND the science behind digitizing. The software that I purchased comes with a lot of fancy bells and buttons, but scant information exists (in print, online, or in video form) on how to actually do the process from start to finish.

    If digitizing is going to be a regular feature here, count me in. I will be one very happy camper.

    • Erich Campbell

      2 July 2014 at 1:47 pm

      I’m really glad to hear that! I’ll be here talking about digitizing and machine embroidery as long as Mr. X allows, Eileen. I’m all about getting to the nuts and bolts behind the craft; it won’t be software specific, but the software is easy enough. A manual can tell you how top ring the bells and fire up the whistles- The key learning is in the reasons why we need the tools. Some of my best embroideries were done with some of my least feature-rich software, but at a time when I was immersed in learning the underlying art of controlling the variables of machine embroidery. I’ll keep delving in as long as the readers keep reading. 🙂

  • Thoughtful and well written. As an amateur digitizer I realize that it is not the tools (artwork, software) but how I use them that will make my digitizing more professional. Having the best brush and best canvas alone does not make one an artist.

    I’m constantly practicing…on easy and even more difficult projects; in fact, I now “play around” with my software when, for some reason, I’m stuck on hold on a phone call!

    • Thank you very much for reading, Mary Beth. I appreciate your kind words! You’ve got the right attitude- practice, experiment, and play. It’s sincerely important to build up that library of experience, and it works for technique and tools. There’s just nothing that beats investing time in your craft to make you proficient.

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