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DESIGN anatomy.

Personalization and editing embroidery designs is great, but sometimes the perfect design is nowhere to be found and it's necessary to create the design. Read on to learn where to start creating an embroidery design and how to make sure it's properly digitized.


In general, digitizing means to put something in digital form. In the case of embroidery designs, the digitizer uses an embroidery software program to change an image into embroidery stitches that embroidery machines can recognize. Digitizers also create from scratch, without a base image. Note that if an image is used, it's necessary to check the copyright to ensure it's legal to use the image. Even coloring books have copyrights.

Several factors make one design better than another. Using proper underlay, pull compensation and density are three of the most important principles of digitizing. The stitches the digitizer chooses also make a difference in the design appearance.


When looking at the anatomy of an embroidery design, the first principle to explore is underlay. Underlay is like the foundation of a building; if the foundation isn't good, the building will eventually sink and shift. The same is true of underlay for an embroidery design. If there is no underlay or too little underlay, the stitches may sink into the fabric. Depending upon the size of the design, too much underlay may result in damage to the fabric.

A satin stitch is similar to sewing a zigzag with an extremely short stitch length on a sewing machine. Satin stitches have a tendency to "tunnel"; underlay is what prevents that. Satin stitches usually have two types of underlay. Zigzag underlay is a loose zigzag stitch that's not quite as wide as the final satin stitch. Edge-walk underlay is a straight stitch in the shape of the satin stitch. Sometimes these two underlays are used together and sometimes independently (A).

Satin-stitch width is one factor that will determine how much underlay is needed. Usually satin stitches under 3mm (1/8") wide don't need an underlay. Satin stitches 4mm to 8mm (1/8" to 1/3") should have an edge-walk underlay. Anything 9mm or larger should have both an edge-walk and zigzag underlay.

Examine pre-digitized embroidery lettering to see good examples of underlay for satin stitches.

Fill areas also require underlay. Fill stitches are used for larger areas within the design. They are stitches that are embroidered close together, usually with some sort of pattern. Think of the underlay for a fill area as a loose fill pattern that's perpendicular to the angle of the finished fill (B).

The amount of underlay needed for an embroidery design is also determined by the type of fabric on which the design will be stitched. When a design is created for general use, woven mediumweight fabric is the default unless otherwise stated. When digitizing for yourself, determine the fabric type before beginning the process. If using a stretch fabric, such as fleece or jersey knit, the underlay for both satin and fills should be a little closer together than on a woven fabric. Heavier fabric needs more underlay than lightweight fabric.

With most digitizing programs, it's simple to change the underlay of a design. Place the underlay that's best for the chosen fabric, and then test sew the design and observe how the design reacts to the fabric.

If necessary, change the underlay and then test sew again. As you digitize more, you will develop a feel for the underlay needed for different types and weights of fabric and the stitches applied to them.


The second principle when breaking down an embroidery design is density. Density is how close together the individual stitches in an area are.

When you think about density, think about a zigzag stitch on a sewing machine. The smaller the stitch length number, the closer together the zigzag is. The higher the number, the farther apart the zigzag. The same thing happens in digitizing. In general, the larger the number, the less dense the stitches and the smaller the number, the more dense the stitches (C). Consult the embroidery software manual to understand the specific density setting for your software.

Fabric choice is one of the most important reasons to change the density of a design. Usually lighter fabric requires less dense stitching and heavyweight fabric require denser stitching. When creating a design that is less dense, pay attention the underlay chosen--sometimes the underlay will show through the fill if it's not dense enough.

Changing the design density gives different effects to the digitized area. Use a less dense area as a background to build a fun design. Use a gradient density to create a 3-dimensional effect (D).


The third principle to consider when digitizing an embroidery design is compensation, also known as pull compensation. Compensation is adding stitches to an area to make it a little bigger than required, anticipating that it will shrink when you stitch the design. The main reason for adding compensation is the fabric used for the design. When stitching on a stable woven fabric with good hooping and stabilization, compensation is probably not needed. When stitching on a lofty knit like sweatshirt knit or fleece, however, the stitches shrink into the fabric so that the outline may not line up with the fill. Adding compensation ensures that even if the stitches shrink into the fabric, the outline and fill will be correctly aligned.

How the compensation changes a design depends on the embroidery software being used. In some embroidery software a compensation number is added. In other software the size of the fill area is changed. Either way, by making the area slightly larger, the outline will align with the fill area after stitching. Note that compensation only needs to be added in the direction of the stitch.

Compensation is also needed with satin stitches, even if they do not have an outline associated with them. For example, if a satin-stitch flower stem is embroidered on fleece with no compensation, it may not be seen because it will sink into the fleece.

Proper hooping and stabilizing techniques reduce the need for compensation in digitized designs, but it's hard to anticipate how a design will be stitched unless you're making it for yourself. Most digitizers will add some compensation, expecting there will be some fabric pull.


Premier+ 2 Embroidery System was used for all screen captures:

Learn more in Embroidery Software: a Four-Part Series with Soni Grint. Find the course at

Caption: Zigzag & Edge-Walk Underlay

Caption: Edge-Walk Underlay

Caption: Satin Stitch
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Title Annotation:software savvy
Author:Grint, Soni
Publication:Creative Machine Embroidery
Date:Jul 1, 2018
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