Stitching close-up of one of Erich's Viking Age styled designs.

The Watchers: Learning Machine Embroidery through Observation

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

My first experiences with machine embroidery and digitizing didn’t happen behind a computer; they happened at the machine. The old multi-head machines I first learned on didn’t have proper thread breakage sensors, and even though they were reasonably reliable, this meant that they had to be watched with rapt attention throughout every production run to avoid missing a broken thread and thus leaving an empty needle chewing aimlessly through a garment without stitching. You had to pace the length of the 12 embroidery heads as they ran, sweeping your eyes across the work pieces and the upper thread paths, always watching the designs to see if the thread was getting where it needed to go. Though you might trim a piece or hoop the garments for the next run bit by bit between these visual sweeps, most of your time was spent watching the embroidery run, listening to the beat of the presser feet hitting the fabric and the needles driving home, soaking in the rhythm, the movement, and the interplay between fabric, thread, and machine.

An old 6 Needle Tajima Embroidery Head
These old machines weren’t in great shape, but we kept them stitching.

It turns out that though my first shop’s need for careful attention came from having a mildly malfunctioning set of machines, this vigilant observation had previously been a career in machine embroidery; before thread break sensors were invented, there were people entirely employed under the title ‘Watcher’ who did a much more critical version of the monitoring I did as an operator.  Now, machines from the most complicated commercial equipment to entry level home models all have the ability to detect thread breaks, meaning that many, if not most people operating an embroidery machine think very little of starting a run and walking away, so much so that some machines now have the ability to transmit their progress to mobile devices so that we need not even inhabit the same space as our machines while they run. Though I love technology, there can be something lost in this trade. There’s something to be said for what these ‘watchers’ saw.

Modern Tajima Embroidery Machine
Modern machines don’t need that kind of babying, but there much to be said for paying attention.

So many of the problems and questions I address when I talk to new embroiderers and first-time digitizers center around the basic nature of machine embroidery. The way elements distort when stitched, how hooping and stabilizer affect the way a design runs, how the path one takes in digitizing or the amount of compensation one applies changes the registration of elements to each other, or how stitch angles interact with the grain and stretch in the ground material. Though I never stop answering the questions, I’ve always wondered how some are still so common, until I realized it was because so many people have never really watched a design run. I know people look at their machines while they are running, but I’m talking about watching the designs the way Watchers did; with their full attention. When you maintain that kind of focus, you see how the material is moving as the stitches are placed, what effect that has on the fabric as the hoop walks its path through the design. You see the way the stitches form under tension and how they lay together on the surface. You see how the underlay guides and supported the top stitching, seeing the layers of structure develop into the final design. When you look on at the process with focus and and curiosity, and maintain that interest throughout the run, you can’t help but learn.

A tall guy; I have been caught kneeling with my face in the machine to get this kind of close look at my work while it runs.

Watching like this, like there was something to lose if you missed part of the sequence, is the best common-sense teacher you can have in the craft. It’s the equivalent of learning a language with the aid of immersion- when you are living on the landscape of the garment and watching the hills and valleys form around you, you know every stitch, every crease, and every bit of tension like the back of your hand. Do it repeatedly, with different designs, and expand into doing so with designs you’ve digitized, measured, and adjusted, with different combinations of fabric, stabilizer and thread, and you’ll have an internalized understanding of embroidery that no post, book, or seminar can match.

You have to get your hands dirty and keep your eyes peeled to really learn embroidery
You have to get your hands dirty and keep your eyes peeled to really learn embroidery

Itf you’ve been following this blog, you’ve heard this from me so much that I scarcely need to repeat it, but it’s so worth  hearing that I’m literally going to quote one of my most-shared posts against all social convention:

“The best digitizers get their start by running machines. In watching designs stitch, the reactions and interactions of the media are readily seen.”

It’s there, in the living thread and fabric- all you need to know. Though it’s important to find embroiderers to teach you the basics and skilled digitizers to show you technique and provide the designs you’ll first run, it’s in the doing and and maybe most importantly in the watching that their knowledge becomes real.


Erich Campbell, Embroidery Digitizer 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 Printwear, Stitches, 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

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