Concepts of computerized embroidery

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1 Introduction

There are many concepts related to computerized embroidery. In this entry we shall try to summarize the most important ones that are of interest to a absolute beginner. Do not trust anything yet. You are in front of rough draft written by someone who has to learn more and to test a out a few things first - Daniel K. Schneider 22:28, 22 May 2011 (CEST)

Although advanced home user software such as the free Stitch Era universal is pretty smart in converting vector drawings to stitchable sections and the latter to stitch commands, you may have to intervene manually and/or at least set a few parameters in order to get a decent enough result. Read our pieces on Stitch Era if you need to see some more practical examples that deal with beginner's embroidery projects.

According to Kathy Jones, the "big three" (problems) of embroidery are puckering, poor fabric coverage or poor registration and “correct stabilization, correct hooping and correct tension on your embroidery machine” will make your embroidery much more successful. However, there is more to know.

  • What thread type to choose
  • What backing (solid or solvable fabric on the back side) to use
  • How different fabric types behave
  • What underlay stitching to use in different situations
  • Basic stitch types
  • Choosing filling patterns and strategies
  • Push/Pull (the fact that a stitch is pulled down when it locks)
  • Stitching order (and how to change it)

2 Threads

2.1 Material

Most popular embroidery threads are made from Viscose (also known as rayon) or Polyester. Other materials include cotton, wood and metalized.

2.2 Thickness

There exist several metrics for thickness and none is really intuitive to understand (like thickness of threads as for climbing ropes). According to Madeira (UK), thread thickness measures are standardized weights (standardized in the sense of statistics). For example:

  • In the most popular metric numbering system (Nm or No), higher means finer and lower means thicker. Nm is measured as number of 1000 metre hanks per kilo.
  • In the so-called Denier or Tex systems (used for stockings), the opposite is true. Tex is weight in grams of 1000 metres of yarn and Denier is weight in grams of 9000 meters of yarn.

We use Madeira Rayon 40, a so-called "classic" Viscose (artificial silk) thread type that is appropriate for beginners. It can be used both on fine fabrics like silk and rougher/thicker fabrics like jeans or leather.

Some standard weights (Nm/No):

  • 80 very fine, e.g. for monograms on silk ties
  • 60 fine, e.g. for delicate fabrics and small letters)
  • 50 medium-fine, for medium weight fabrics
  • 40 is medium, standard fabric, the most popular weight
  • 30 medium-thick, for filling larger surfaces, quilts, cross-stitches
  • 15 thick
  • 6 very thick (not suitable for a machine)

2.3 Thread colors

Each make has its own color numbering system ....

3 Needles

Needles should be adapted to the thread type and weight. Needles for embroidery are usually a bit different from other types of sewing needles: the tip is less sharp and the eye (opening for the thread) slightly bigger, but people also seem to use other sewing needles for embroidery.

Sewing Machine Needle Parts. Source: Wikipedia

According to Wikipedia based on Lydia Morgan's "Machine-needle know-how", needles have the following structure (from top to tip)

  • shank - clamped by the sewing machine's needle holder
  • shoulder - where the thick shank tapers down to the shaft
  • shaft - a length suitable for driving the eye and thread through the material and down to the bobbin. The shaft is the longest part and determines the size (diameter)
  • groove - cut in the back of the shaft to release the thread into a loop that aids the hook or shuttle to pick up the thread
  • scarf - provides extra room for the hook or shuttle to pass close by
  • eye - the hole, carries the thread
  • point - penetrates the material by parting the threads or cutting a hole

In principle there exist only two kinds of system with respect to how it is attached to the machine, length etc.:

  • System 130/705 H (shank has a flat side) ... far more popular since much more stable
  • System 287 WH (round cylinder for the shank)

Points (tips) come in several variations:

  • Acute round point (very sharp) - pierces threads
  • Normal round point (sharp) - doesn't pierce much - typical sewing needle
  • Light ball point - doesn't pierce threads - typical embroidery needle
  • Medium ball point - doesn't pierce threads
  • Twist point
  • Chisel point - can punch holes, i.e. pierces through thick materials

For normal small needles, there doesn't seem to be any big visual difference between round points and ball points. Both have a tip that is somewhat sharp, but both should in principle glide between threads in order to preserve the fabric.

With respect to types, needle maker use according to Wikipedia (GER) a letter code which seems to be standardized. Some needles also adopt the Schmetz color codes, but other makes use color to refer to size ...

Letter code Schmetz Color code Application area Features
H no color universal normal slightly rounded tip
H-E   Embroidery normal slightly rounded ball point tip
H-J   Jeans Acute sharp tip, rigid
H-M   Microfiber sharp point
H-Q   Quilting, Stepping slightly rounded
H-S   Stretch, T-shirts medium rounded tip
H-SUK   knitted, lycra medium rounded tip
H-LL   Leather

Needle size is in 1/100 mm sometimes assorted with an outdated Singer size number.

Typical sizes (shaft diameter) are:

  • 100/16 = 1.0 mm
  • 90/14 = 0.9 mm
  • 80/12 = 0.8 mm
  • 75/11 = 0.75 mm
  • 70 = 0.7 mm
  • 65/9 = 0.65mm
  • 60 = 0.6 mm

4 Hooping

Correct hooping together with appropriate backing and pull compensation are important factors for creating embroidery that will stay flat (more or less) look like on the computer screen. There are two major "test" that tell if hooping is well done:

The snow plow test

Glide your finger on the hooped tissue. It should not create "waves"....

The drum test

Tap on the hooped textile. If it sounds like a drum you are fine. This applies to non-elastic tissues and elastic tissues that you stabilized (as you should).

Read more in Hooping and stabilizing in computerized embroidery.

5 Backing

Backing also called stabilizer is either a woven cutaway or tearaway fabric or some type of solvable foil that are used underneath the fabric to provide some stability and support.

6 Underlay

Underlay is a set of sparse stiches outlining the final design, that will be covered by dense stiches and thus invisible in the final embroidered work.

Underlay will stabilize a stretchable fabric for a section that you would like to stitch. Underlays also can be used to create a 3D effect or otherwise change the look of stitched layer on top. Finally, underlay is also used to even out a surface, e.g. tack down sticking out threads on towels or flatten out corduroy.

Here is a detailed introduction.

There are several kinds of patterns used, however one could distinguish the following three families of underlay:

  • No underlay
  • Soft (little)
  • Hard (a lot)

In addition both soft and hard underlays then can use different patterns like:

  • Some kind of lines that are orthogonal to the final stitches. E.g. for an "o" letter you would use a circle, for a larger filled pattern a rectangle.
  • ZigZag
  • Some kind of diagonal lattices, .e.g \\\ or XXX

7 Fabric and fiber types

Fabric has an impact on the result. In particular, certain types of fabric are more difficult since they are stretchable. Stretchable fabric could be stabilized in several ways that can be combined:

  • By using some backing
  • By using an appropriate underlay
  • By using some pull compensation (?)

Other fabric such as bath towels and fleece present the problem that fine-grained stitching can "get visually lost".

Most common fabric types are: Canevas, Cotton, Curdory, Denim, Fleece, Jackets, Leather, Nylon, Lycra, Knit wool, Terry (towels), Twill, Wovens.

8 Stitch types

According to Wikipedia, retrieved 12:00, 2 June 2011 (CEST), an embroidery stitch, “ is defined as the movement of the embroidery needle from the backside of the fabric to the front side and back to the back side. The thread stroke on the front side produced by this is also called stitch. In the context of embroidery, an embroidery stitch means one or more stitches that are always executed in the same way, forming a figure of recognisable look. Embroidery stitches are also called stitches for short. Embroidery stitches are the smallest units in embroidery. Embroidery patterns are formed by doing many embroidery stitches, either all the same or different ones, either following a counting chart on paper, following a design painted on the fabric or even working freehand.”

There are many stitch types, but we could distinguish three five main types according to function

  • Running stitches for stitching lines
  • Satin stitches are used to stitch wider lines, AKA columns. Typically, a narrow zigzag stitch is used.
  • Fill stitches (to fill in larger sections in various ways)
  • Jump stitches (i.e. no stitches), to get from one point to another. Those can be manually cut away once the machine has embroidered the pattern.
  • Lock stitches should be used at the end of all elements (in particular columns and fills)

Ripka, Mychko and Deyneka in a literature review, found several taxonomies.

8.1 Running stitches

The bean stitch uses a pattern like two stitches forward and one stitch back, i.e. this type of running stitch will create a strong solid line.



  • length
  • repetition (passes of thread, usually between one and three)

8.2 ZigZag and Satin stitches

The Satin stitch also known as Damask stitch is used in most cultures and both in hand and machine embroidery. Satin stitches are used for small "colums", e.g. lettering or borders.

There exist several variants. A normal satin stitch uses parallel straight stitches which is a kind of zig-zag stitch.


A typical zigzag stitch looks more like this:



  • Stitch length
  • Angle (usually orthogonal, but small columns need oblique stitches)
  • Density
  • Underlay

8.3 Fill stitches

Are use to fill in larger areas. Each advanced software will offer numerous built-in patterns.

Parameters: many, e.g.

  • The pattern (motif) itself
  • Stitch length (often by default about 4mm)
  • Density
  • Direction
  • Underlay
  • Size of (sub) motives

9 Filling strategies and patterns

A first questions is how to fill in sections (areas). One ground rule is to use a variety of stitches and stitching directions and for two reasons:

  • Push/pull effect can be compensated (see below)
  • The design looks more interesting.

Good digitizing software should help with that.

A second question concerns density. In programs like Stitch Era, density is measured in terms of lines / mm. For example its default density of 5 means a stitch every 0.2mm and this is fairly dense. Density of 4 also should still look dense. E.g. in Embird Studio, default density seems to be 4.

10 Push / Pull

Push and Pull refer to the idea that a fabric can be either pulled in or pushed out by the stitches. This typically happens when you fill larger surfaces. For example, a circle can become an oval. The first two following pictures show anti- and pro-nuclear logos between 5 and 7cm in diameter. The third picture shows distortion in the center-outside axis. The large yellow sold circle was replaced by light fill pattern using running stitches.

Circle distorted as Oval
Circle distorted as Oval
Circle distorted by letters

Both yellow circles were printed with a quite solid underlay that ran diagonally. Same for the red area and that was totally useless. The underlay probably had the effect to insure that the embroidery was flat, but it could not prevent the pull effect. We did not try using a backing.

Pull compensation
  • Pull compensation is done by the software: it slightly widens the widths of stitch. It is usually applied to two sides of a section since the pull happens in one direction. The pull direction should depend on the kind of filling used and the underlying fabric, but on the software side pull compensation is done along the lines of the area pattern
  • Typically, one could add between 2 and 10% if we understood right. The larger solid circles above probably need 10%, but so far, we didn't do any tests with these.
Pull compensation example in the Stitch Era Software
Lower density
  • Some software, e.g. Stitch Era, uses 5 lines /mm density, which is quite a lot. If your design allow it, lowering it to 4 lines/mm may help a bit.
Different patterns
  • Instead of generating a homogeneous left-right or up-down pattern, you might use one that pulls in both directions or alternatively use some kind of checker pattern.
Don't stitch large areas
  • Another solution is not to print such large areas, i.e. leave out holes where other parts are to be stitched. An example is shown in the next picture. This logo was digitized from a bitmap (including the lettering) and doesn't have any over-stitching.
Circle distorted as Oval - better

11 Stitching order

... is crucial of course, since stitches may overlap a bit. I believe that one could adopt the following heuristics:

  • lines (in particular a contour) should be printed last
  • larger areas before tiny areas inside (on top)
  • neighboring areas using the same thread should be stitched in line, in order to avoid jump stitches.
  • same thread color in one shot

... of course some of these rules are contradictory. It's probably best to print a test object and see if it makes sense to change order. In addition one also can overstitch things like lines. A high-end embroidery machine allows to selectively print layers (threads).

12 Thread tension

Thread tension can be adjusted in any machine, tension is usually achieved by a kind of wheel pressing the thread.

Good tension can be seen as follows:

  • There should be no bobbin thread (usually white or black) shown on top
  • There should be very little thread shown underneath.

To do:

  • First of all, make sure that you hoop correctly (in particular woven fabrics must be tightly stretched)
  • If you see loops (or even a nest) underneath, then tighten the tension on top. But before doing so verify that you thread according to instructions.
  • If you see white (bobbin color) on top, then loosen on top.

You also can try to de/increase the bobbin tension. Before doing so make sure that there is no dust under the tension adjusting spring (p. 286)

In addition:

  • If stitches are not tight, then tighten, however this may augment the "pull". Therefore increase slowly.
  • If the thread breaks (and not because the thread is somehow stuck), then you could make tension a bit less tight.
  • You also should check the needle. In particular it should not be sticky and the thread should come through it easily

Special tips for the Brother PR1050X

  • The tension disc should rotate easily (but not too easily) when you pull the thread. After some month (or years?) of usage you may have to remove the tension dials and remove the accumulated dust.
  • The thread should roll out of the bobbin case smoothly. If, after cleaning between the spring, it still takes too much force then untighten the spring, else tighten.

13 Links

Embroidery Glossaries
Kathy Jones Tutorials has a series of interesting tutorials, e.g
Book lists

14 Bibliography