Basic embroidery digitizing

Q:  How does the embroidery machine know where to put all the stitches?
A:  You just scan the image and the software analyzes the art and tells the machine where to place the stitches.

Well, that's what our customers think.  I wish it were that easy.  Actually, I don't .. if it were that easy, I wouldn't have a job!!

An embroidery artist (digitizer) analyzes a piece of art, and quickly, he/she can tell you how they think the design will run best, and with the fewest stops (trims or color changes).  The digitizer then uses embroidery software to define areas and segments into the three basic stitch types:  run, satin or fill.  The differences between digitizing abilities among digitizers are typically based on the knowledge of, and the use of the different densities and stitch lengths of these stitch types.

  • RUN STITCH:  Consists of one stitch between two points or needle penetrations.  Varies in length, but, should be no shorter than .8 mm or longer than 12 mm.  Run stitches are used for detail in a design or travelling from one part of the design to the other; also for small lettering reminiscent of cross stitch lettering.  Most digitizing softwares have patterned run stitches for beautiful detail work.
  • SATIN STITCH:  Formed by closely arranged zigzag stitches.  Usually the stitches are set perpendicular to the column they are creating, but, they dont have to.  The suggested width of a satin stitch can vary from as small as .8 mm wide to 8 mm wide.  Satin stitches are used to outline fill areas, area definition, but most commonly for the use in creating names.
  • FILL STITCH:  A series of running stitches closely placed together to cover large areas.  Different patterns can be created by changing the stitch angle, stitch length, and the repeat sequence of the stitches.  Most digitizing softwares offer many different patterns built in to the program.

The knowledge of the above stitch types is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to creating an embroidery design from art.  The end design should not only look good, but, also embroider well.  No one wants to babysit an embroidery design that breaks thread every 1,000 stitches .. embroidery is then not fun, but, aggravating work. 

It has been said that if you put 6 qualified digitizers in a room, gave them the same piece of art, and asked them to create the design for the same garment at the same size, you would get 6 different approaches to the same design.  Assuming all 6 digitizers were competent, you should get 6 nice looking designs, all with different characteristics.  There are digitizers that are more artistic than others.  Most of the time, I appreciate the more artistic look versus a flat looking embroidery. 

If I were to create steps of HOW I approach each design, they would look something like this:

  1. Study the design and its components:  find what segments/colors are hidden by things on top of them and work form the background forward.  Embroidery is much like a landscape painting, it is not often you would expect the painter to paint the trees in the foreground THEN try to add the lake in the background.
  2. Take into consideration the fabric/garment:  hats generally need to be digitized in a different order/direction than do shirts.  Different materials may also pose different complexities as to how to digitize the design.  Stretchy fabrics may dictate that you work in, and complete small areas to complete the design.  This will cause more color changes/trims, but your design will look better because of it.
  3. Start digitizing by dropping the needle:  I like to drop the needle right from center and run to where I'm going to start my digitizing; most of the time, I will outline the area of the whole design to a. capture the work area and reduce the push and pull of the fabric and b. attach my backing to the garment immediately for better stabilization.  And, depending upon the fabric/garment I may lay down a cross-hatch underlay for the whole design to eliminate the need for it per color.  This will be discussed in another post.
  4. Insert the color:  after the prep work is done, the digitizing process is fairly simple when you understand the stitch types, their uses and limitations.  Complete each color, working from the background foreward, until all the color is laid in. 
  5. Add the detail, and the outlining:  Once your color is laid in, it will look like a colorful mess.  Your outlines and detail will bring all your hard work into focus.  The detail is usually black, or dark in color, and creates the coloring book effect that really creates the embroidery design.

For more artistic work, for example flowers, water color scenes, you may not have detail on 100% of your design, it may just be on certain elements.

I hope this primer on basic digitizing has enlightened some of you to a. the elements involved and b. the process by which typically each digitizer goes through.

Until next time .. best wishes, Cool

Rick Macali

[email protected]


Comments (11) -

This is great information.  

I often think about digitizing but feel understanding all the ins and outs may be a little too much.  Only if I am able to really devote time to learning this craft would I undertake it.  

Could you find a few more hours in my day??

Thank you so much!


tourlady522 4/11/2009 8:11:06 AM

I agree with Pat. Much better to let the pro's do the digitizing for us.

Thanks for all the work you do for us.


jalcumbrack 4/11/2009 9:38:46 AM

Love this blog and sew informative for those of us who are making the time to learn digitizing. I am also very, very busy between my new business, home and family life, helping to care for others, volunteering for various charities,sewing out all sorts of orders for various things, and just the daily routine, but I still manage to find the time to do the things I love! Once you learn how to manage your time effectively then there really are no issues with it.

I learned a lot of new and exciting things at the CC that I have already put to use in different ways, now I can add this blog to my list of must reads for new digitizers. Thanks for an informative and interesting article.

The Chief Popper

Pat and Bonnie, it is true that the ART of digitizing will take some time to develop, however, everyone should know how to digitize simple elements, because, it is not that difficult and, it really is FUN !!  The next thing you know, you look at all designs in a different light, and they all become simple elements .. just grouped together .. THAT is the mind of a digitizer.

Judy, thanks for the comment and look forward for more digitizing info in the near future.


Rick Macali / [email protected]

Thanks for the encouragement Rick, I enjoyed meeting you in Orlando.  Guess which one I am???

LOL, you only met a lot of new folks.  

I will be watching this post through the RSS.  I know that some of the RSS have had problems, but hope they have that fixed by now.


I often get asked, "What is the best software to use?"  Well, that is a very difficult question to answer.  Initially, someone may think that commercial software is quite better than home software, and I can honestly say that in some cases, that is false.  I have been reviewing and testing alot of home software over the last 45 days, and I can honestly tell you that I have digitized more than 5 designs using the home software for my customers at  .. in some aspects, the home software is easier to use, more advanced, and easier to understand than its commercial cousin.  

So, in picking a digitizing software, I would:  make sure the stitch quality it outputs is good, it is easy to a. digitize and b. edit and dont forget to look for a good lettering program in the software as well.  

Best regards,

Rick Macali / [email protected]

Pat, HOW could I forget YOU !!

If you remember, I told the class that the NEXT BRILLIANT digitizer will come from the home market, and that is because the home software that I have had the opportunity to review, in some cases, is more extravagant and easier to understand than the commercial software.  

I'm an old dog .. but, I have been learning some new tricks.  I used to worry that technology would pass me by, but, it has only made my job easier and MANY others able to do a craft thought only for those few who dare enter the pool .. please .. I taught a 11 year old to digitize and he is a WIZ !!!  I suggest structural changes to him, but, other than that, the software and his hunger to practice has done me proud !!

Have a great Easter and Passover,


Rick Macali / [email protected]

Thanks for the information. I am a new digitizer, and love to learn how to make my designs look better.


The best way to become a better digitizer is watch great designs sew out ..

Good luck,

Rick Macali / 407 509-2400

Rick - I so agree, watch a great design sew out.

I take my design to my software (I have Compositions which is not a digitizing program) and watch where the needle lashes (is that the right word).  

I do see that a good or less and good design have different appearances.  I am especially frustrated by density issues.

I had a design, by a well known, respected design site, wich had 4 layers before it got to the detail on the face of a monkey.  Well, I was a less than happy camper.  

I wish there were a way to remedy that.


I would love just to be able to understand how to get from point A to B, begining with how to make a small arch. I try and I am not getting anywhere. I can't attend classes due to my back and not being able to sit for a long time. Is there a book that explains simple digitizing for the beginner?


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