Using your Embroidery Machine to make Overlock Stitching

The Story of a Stitch 150 Years in the Making


Brian Bailie

The What

Patches. Emblems. Crests. Originally, they were used in garment repair, then for the military, now everyone is crazy about the humble patch. It’s retro, yet modern. It’s portable, desirable,and appeals to our tribal nature. We go to an event, we get a patch. We love a team, visit a park, or take a ride, we get a patch. We want to collect ‘em all!

Beyond collector appeal, the patch is crucial to uniforming. How do you take a stock work shirt and brand it to a specific company? We need a decoration with the company’s mark. Want to identify a specific worker? We need personalized decorations with names and division. The emblem and patch have allowed the decoration industry to solve these issues, using affordable ready-to-wear items with added inexpensive, durable emblems that can be sewn on either at the decorator’s shop or by the customer.

If you have ever held a patch, the edge that you have on that patch is an overlock stitch, with almost no exception. The trouble is that it requires a patchmaker to own a machine, which, new, can be up to a few thousand dollars U.S.

A couple test stitchouts on wash-away, along with our wood burner

The When

In the days of the American Civil war, there were textile machines being invented, including chain stitchers and overlockers, the precursors to what today are called sergers. Wilcox and Gibbs, the John Merrow company, and others were running textile factories; they invented machines to help their production. If you are a fan of history or the history of textiles in particular, there are some amazing stories from that time period and those two companies. One of my favorites is that Wilcox and Gibbs were partners, but found themselves in opposite geographic regions during the American Civil war. At the conclusion of the war, James Gibbs had to walk from Virginia to the W&G office in New York. He goes in and is not only greeted by his partner, but his share of the company and profits had been faithfully preserved for him. They still produce machines to this day.

John Merrow, under a couple company names, used and sold machines that overlock, creating a refined edge for knits. That overlock stitch and process came to be known as merrowing, an ironic use of the company’s trademarked name as a generic term, but useful for marketing the machines forever. In fact, most of the patch or emblem factories today are using machines made by The Merrow Company™.

Let me state here that if you are going to make thousands of simple patches, buy a merrowing machine and learn to use it. It will save a ton of time in production.

The Who

There have been efforts at making a merrow-like motif stitch going back for many years. I wasn’t thinking hard about it back then.

In 2010 or so, I was approached by my good friend, Gary Walker of Echidna Sewing Products in Brisbane, Australia. He was asking me to make a ‘patch’ Interactive. Patches were popular then, being cyclic in popularity similar to roller skates, Hula Hoops, Frisbee golf and bell-bottoms. I started to think on it, but other things took priority.

In 2018 my friend Erich Campbell showed me stitchouts of his attempts at a faux merrow stitch. He had even taught the idea to a few attendees at his commercial apparel decoration seminars, having used his stitch for customers in years prior. His primary stitch consisted of a motif that ‘hooked’ around a fan of stitches, resembling a merrow on a straight or lightly-curved edge.

2014 testing file from Erich Campbell

We spent some time fooling with it through 2019 and after many rounds of sketching and tests, decided that the real solution was to programmatically generate the stitch rather than rely on motifs. Early attempts were good, but the project wasn’t turned into a product after initial testing due to a lack of time.

In 2020, one of our friends, Jeff Fuller of Fuller Embroidery and The Embroidery Nerd, showed a refined version of a motif-based stitch. His chain-and-fan motif made a nice edge. His solid example shows how much can be done with motifs. The motif method is effective, but does have shape limitations, requiring skill and manual editing to make custom patch shapes. Similar versions of such a stitch were presented thereafter by other well-known digitizers, though all required specific files which could not be resized, for each shape and each size a patch project required.

With a resurgence in patchmaking spreading through our groups, our interest was peaked in returning to the programmatically generated patch edging project. Erich has long been asked about, and thus has repeatedly taught, small-run patch making to commercial embroiderers, providing further incentive from his tribe. The idea for it as a stitch in StitchArtist and possibly as a future product started to take shape.

In February of 2021, I decided to break from the project that I was working to give Erich a birthday present. I wanted to finish the stitch. The idea came fully formed in my mind, so I made some initial programmatic trials, Erich, Lisa Shaw and some of our team began test sewing, and the result was what I wanted: A truer-looking overlock stitch.

Our patch-edging stitch in software and in the thread. We love to give users the ‘edge’

The Stitch (for insane digitizers only)

The first stitch I made was too normal – most merrowing operators push the machine, especially on curves, so the fan exaggerates at an angle. I took this into account and redesigned it for the fan to cover the preceding stitch. Then, rather than using a triangle, I decided to see the stitch from its center – where the fan collects under the single needle topstitch. The loopers form, well, loops, around the needle. But if you look at it differently, you see a ‘mustache’ on either side of the stitch. It was this which gave the inspiration for the final look.

Most patches don’t show the loop this clearly.

The first of the fan stitches would come up, under the running stitch (needle) and cross to the next stitch. By doing this before the rest of the stitch was formed, those other stitches push against it, causing a slight curve to it, more closely resembling the mustache of the original. Well, it was as close as I was going to get, and at any distance, you cannot tell a real merrowed edge from our embroidered simulation.

The embroidered edge stitch in testing

Next was the slight problem of the machine capability. Merrow machines can go around tight curves – to the right. But they cannot make good lefts, or corners. How do we make corners? Well, on an overlock, you lift the presser foot, free the material from the needle plate, and turn the fabric to start a new run of stitching. If we want to really make hard corners that look merrowed, we cannot simply turn and shortstitch, like we do all the time in embroidery. Rather, we have to simulate the idea of the operator lifting the presser foot. This means some code had to be written to break the path into ‘overlocked strokes,’ which then get a lapped edge effect.

On-screen is not the embroidered result.
Remember to digitize for the medium; embroidery, not the screen!

Another issue to solve was that the overlock is driven by the needle, which is well inside the shape. The outline had to be set according to pre-cut shapes from bought patches or from cuts made by an vector (often .svg) file on a fabric cutter. It’s a very unusual problem to solve with an embroidery stitch. Fun, fun.

The result is a stitch that looks like a merrowed or overlocked edge, but one which can be done on things impossible to actually merrow.

Working until mid-March on the product and documentation, the Embrilliance Edge stitch formed up. By St. Patrick’s Day, the stitch was present in StitchArtist 3, ready for testing.

Left and Center, 2 current patches from BSA, patch on right is an early test sample of our stitch.

The How

You have an embroidery machine and you know that you can make patches. But how? This isn’t a treatise on the entire patchmaking art, but we’ll provide an overview.

Patches, unlike normal decorative embroidery should be stiff in hand, almost ‘bulletproof’. They are usually made on a twill that’s been fused to something very stable. There are patchmaking backings aplenty (like buckram or crinoline) for the purpose, but any fusible or even a really good adhesive stabilizer can make a decent patch.

Comparing faux merrowing to a satin border.

Another border comparison.

When making a twill patch, you start with the color twill you need. If you cannot find the correct color, you can get something close, or white, and do a light fill to cover the fabric. This ‘sketch fill’ provides color and texture, and generally will not cause density issues with the design that goes on the patch. Military patches often have the sketch fill look, or so I’ve been told.

Left: The trouble with not fusing your twill. Right: Fused sample.
Shape impossible for a real overlocker.

Alternately, if you’re really desperate, you can use a layer or two of wash-away mesh stabilizer and make the fabric using freestanding-fill stitches. This four-pass fill will create the fabric background for you, but it does take time, so it isn’t recommended for production purposes. Note that using a freestanding process will limit your ability to lay down very small stitches with as much precision, so if your patch uses tiny lettering, you really will prefer twill.

Generally, the patch is made complete, before the design is added. There are times, where the design is heavy, that you might want to do the topstitching after the design. This allows for some pull of the fabric during sewing, meaning the topstitch can be done in a more regular shape, outside of whatever happened during the design sewout. This format is best on patches that will be cut out after the design is done, as opposed to anything precut, such as an applique-style patch.

Patches are normally made on a larger span of cloth, and then cut out. This is opposed to the traditional applique method of cutting the applique either ahead of time or by hand in the hoop. This is not to say you cannot do this, and one feature of our stitch was to allow for those options by altering the insets and types of material tackdown stitches offered. You can even save an .svg file for use in a fabric cutter to pre-cut your patches. There are a bunch of options, so find something that works for you.

When cutting out of cloth (polyester or something that melts), a hot knife is used, but you can use you curved snips too. Once the patch is trimmed as close as you dare, without cutting threads, heat is applied to seal off any fibers, trims or other ‘pokies’ that remain. The heat used can be from a hot knife, woodburning tool, or even a lighter, if your hand is steady.

Testing a complex shape using no fabric. Note edge needs final treatment.

Patches can be made using other films, tear-away or wash-away, as hooped stabilizer, and the applique method of laying the patch into a position stitch can be used. This improves edge removal, but requires the backing removal. If you use this method, split the patch into two objects, sewing the topstitch after the design, as the needle penetrations will weaken the stabilizer and perforation can occur which can affect the registration of the design. Moving the topstitch to sew after the design, the stabilizer has a better chance of doing its job.

Once the patch is made, there are backings to apply – things like the fusible patch-back which allows the end user to iron the patch on. There is a whole industry that makes those products, so we’ll let you discover about their processes from those suppliers.

Something a little bit different. Background is no-show mesh.

When sewing a patch on, sew in the area where the ‘gaps’ in the overlock appear. You can also use an E stitch if you’re familiar with it. Use something stronger than embroidery thread.

Thanks to my team for the help with testing! Whether you use our easy shapes, draw your own custom contours, or use StitchArtist 3’s graphical operators, it’s easier than you might think to make custom shapes. If you simply want pre-made designs in a multitude of popular shapes, you can get 150+ shapes as well as an automated page-wrapping tool that makes patches from any design or text in our Merrowly software!

To try out the new feature, StitchArtist 3 users should head over to the Downloads page and update to version 1.170 or above. The new, blue ‘Edge’ tool appears on the far right of the ‘Stitches’ panel in Create mode.

We wish you Happy and Successful patch-making!

7 thoughts on “A-Merrowly We Go!

  1. Brian – have always loved this program and this new feature is going to be great for patches – Downloaded immediately! Thank You so much – can’t wait to try it!!

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