The first time one tries to digitize embroidery designs, each element one creates seems cloaked in an arcane fog of terms, numbers, and and measurements. Every part of a design elicits a world of decisions: What underlay should I use? How far apart should these stitches be? What stitch type is right for this thing? It can feel overwhelming, particularly for one entirely new to machine embroidery who has made the deep dive directly into the creation of custom designs without some time spent stitching stock files.
There is good news, however. Unlike when I first learned, educational resources are widely available, largely on-demand, and often free. The problem is that a new digitizer can’t know what it is that they need to know in the first place. Too frequently they look for tutorials on software tools without knowing that their troubles have little to do with what buttons to push, but rather why and when one should press a button at all. They forget that the final fruit of their labors is not the digitized file, though that can be the product they are looking to sell/create, the final output is the embroidery itself. If one were learning hand embroidery, one wouldn’t stop at their tools; one would assume that one needed to know more than how to tighten a hoop and how to thread a needle. The abstraction of the digital step in machine embroidery makes some new digitizers forget the second half of the process; they overlook their need to learn embroidery in their rush to learn digitizing, never realizing that the two are entirely inseparable.
To put it simply, three types of knowledge are necessary to make a digitizer proficient, and software is only one of them. We’ll cover these three categories of knowledge digitizers must pursue if they are to do their best work, rewarding those that make it through the list with a useful run-down of the types of resources that can help any prospective digitizer learn their craft.
These are the three kinds of knowledge a good digitizer needs:
An understanding of materials and equipment: One should understand how embroidery machines work on a basic level and what functions they are capable of. One should know how thread behaves as it is stitched and how specific threads, needles, and fabrics react when used with each other. One should understand how materials hold up to the stresses of embroidery and what stabilizers do to keep material solid as it runs. One must learn how thread tension affects a design and how to maintain the balance between bobbin and top thread tensions. One must learn how tight a garment should be hooped, and why either overly tight or overly loose framing can be detrimental. In short, one should know how the materials used and the methods of combining them affect the look of an embroidered piece.
Technical knowledge about embroidery / digitizing: One should know the types of stitches of which machine embroidery is capable, and have some idea which types are appropriate for a given element, and the maximum and minimum sizes for which any given stitch type or element is suited . One must know how close to place stitches to fully cover the material without putting undue stress on the ground or making the decoration overly stiff. One should know know how to express measurements used in embroidery. One must recognize the roles of underlay and how it combats garment show-through. One should know the kinds of distortion that commonly happen during embroidery, and how to counteract them to maintain registration. One must learn the order elements should run to make designs logically progress from one area to the next without wasted motion. One should know about the effect of altering stitch angles, how to use overlaps, proper cornering and joints, and when to use ‘tie’ stitches to avoid pieces coming unraveled. In summation, one must understand the nature of the embroidery itself and the way it is used to create images, as well as what the placement of stitches, direction of travel, and the how the stitch types used can change the final look and feel of the design.
An understanding of Software: Finally we come to the knowledge people usually fixate on; learning how to manipulate software. Though it’s in software that we apply all other knowledge to create and correct our designs, no knowledge of the tools alone can replace the knowledge of embroidery itself. Being versed in one’s software requires one to understand the tools present in the package they’ve chosen. One should know how to use them to create shapes and to specify all stitch variables pertinent to the shape, including stitch type, density, start and end points, sequence in the design, and any automatic settings like pull compensation or automatic underlay. One should also learn to import various art files from which one will digitize, how to set up one’s work area with the proper measurements and guides they need to properly judge the finished size of their elements as well as the adjustment of default stitch settings for a given design. One should be able to create, edit, and resequence elements and export files in the proper format for a specific machine.
After that description of what we need to know, one can be forgiven for feeling like we awash in an insurmountable deluge of shoulds and musts, but it’s simpler than it might seem to attain this knowledge if we know where to look for it. If we tap into the following six kinds of resources, building a holistic understanding of embroidery is very possible.
Embroidery experience: The act of embroidering teaches much of the necessary basic knowledge, especially as it relates to materials and equipment. It can’t be overemphasized that watching well-crafted designs run gives one an almost visceral understanding of sequencing, compensation for distortion, and construction. This direct demonstration of the interaction between materials, machinery, and digitizing is invaluable. Existing embroiderers turned digitizers already follow this natural process, but some designers may not know how useful this hands-on learning can be. Nothing on this list sets one up to digitize better than time spent diligently embroidering so long it is approached with curiosity.
Design Analysis: This analysis, done by examining the digitized file in software, expands on our embroidery experience, allowing for more detailed observation. Watching designs run virtually in software, measuring and identifying stitch types and elements in the file, and observing and measuring physical samples of said file gives a fledgling digitizer direct experience of how much elements distort when stitched and the way stitch settings influence embroidery outcomes.
Documentation: Vendor-specific help files and tutorials attached to one’s software as well as third-party educational books and videos geared toward its use will help with this third type of knowledge. Documentation teaches a digitizing suite’s tools and settings as well as some general technical information. Where one once had only manuals, the current generation of digitizers benefits from webinars, blog posts, podcasts, and videos about their software and the general workings of embroidery and digitizing. There’s also a host of freely available magazines and websites; I suggest that home embroiderers also consider commercial embroidery resources; magazines like Printwear, for whom I write a monthly column, are treasure troves of technical information. Even if your aim is strictly for hobbyist work or artistic exploration, you’ll find applicable information about every aspect of controlling your stitches and applying your materials to their best effect.
Experimentation: Once experience sinks in, analysis offers its secrets, and documentation shows you how to use your tools, experimentation is possible. Replicate settings and elements seen in analysis and use cues from embroidery experience to create test designs. By subjecting one’s own embroidery files to analysis and measurement, one can refine designs, re-test, and document the settings that work for any combination of materials.
Community: The Internet’s communities—from social media groups to vendor- and user-supported forums, provide another important source of information. Embroiderers of every skill level share their embroidery and digitizing experiences freely. Though not always as germane as documentation may be to one’s specific kit, there’s an abundance of torture-tested, real-life information floating in the ether if you are careful to sort out the skill level of the commenters.
Direct education: If one prefers immediacy in their educational experiences, the best bet is direct classwork and consultation. Whether through local sewing and machine shops, software vendor-organized events, or one-on-one educational sessions, the benefit of direct education is immediate response. This is the most costly option, but fast feedback and expert analysis of your work is hard to beat for quick improvement.
Though it can rightly seem daunting, this proliferation of resources means that someone who wants to learn the technical underpinnings of the art absolutely can do so with diligence and careful observation. If one remembers that the final product is a thing of thread and fabric and applies their curiosity and creativity to the act of exploring their medium as much as learning their software, digitizing can be as fun and rewarding in practice as it is daunting at first glance.
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