Embroidery Software Basics


This text is for the absolute beginner.

Embroidery machines are sewing machines that use a robot arm (known as a pantograph) to move the fabric under the needle as it sews. The fabric is attached to the pantograph using a hoop or frame. There are many variations of this, but they all result in the two-dimensional motion of the fabric while the machine is sewing. (left, right and up, down.)

If you’re a pro reading this, try to remember a time when you first saw embroidery and fell in love with it, but knew nothing about it. There is so much basic information to get across, and we want beginners to feel welcome and not be overwhelmed. In that spirit, I beg you to allow my intentional omissions, which you understand might require further explanation. That’s all covered later. Thank you.

A Note for Embroidery Customers

If you are here because you want goods embroidered, but don’t understand the expense and fuss, this should help you get a handle on it. You don’t need to be an expert, but you should know the basics of what’s involved in making your hat, shirt, bag or whatsits. Knowing these basics will help you communicate with embroidery professionals, and understand more as they try to help you achieve your goals.

The machine is dumb?

The machine, at its most basic level, is very, very dumb. It only understands commands to move, sew, and stop. An example of commands it can handle: Go left, up, sew a stitch, go down, right, sew a stitch, stop.

There is no ‘picture’ or ‘image’ involved?

No, the machine gets commands to move and sew, that is it. An embroidery machine is not a ‘thread printer.’ The machine cannot ‘see’ pixels (colored dots) or even vectors. All of that processing is done at higher levels by people using software. A printer hooked to your computer can print a blue dot. Your embroidery machine cannot.

What is it and why do I need embroidery software?

Embroidery software works to help you, a human, understand what the commands to the machine will create. For example, if the commands happen to fill a heart-shape with stitches, the machine has no idea, but you, seeing a result of the commands being drawn on your screen, can recognize it for what it is. So that leads us to the first type of embroidery software, imaging.

Imaging, or rendering a picture, of a design allows you to select the design you want to send to the machine. This is done by having the software imagine a blank piece of fabric, and then it draws thread, following the commands which the machine would follow. That creates the image you see.

Most of the time, casual users and even commercial operators of embroidery machines merely need to see the design in order to select it and run it on the machine.

One of our most popular products is Thumbnailer, which creates a picture of the embroidery when your operating system wants one. Your operating system, Windows, Mac, iOS is programmed to try to give you images of files for this purpose. But as there are millions of kinds of files, the OS uses products like ours to interpret the file into an image.

Different machines use different formats of the commands. These formats are how the data is stored in the file. You will see various extensions, such as .DST or .PES which are machine embroidery stitch files. These files can be very primitive or they may be very complex and there are tons of them, made by different manufacturers of embroidery machines. One of our jobs is to be able to interpret all of those various formats, and in most cases, even convert between them.

Converting a Design

A design may have been created as a set of commands for one brand of machine, but a user may want to have that design run on another brand machine. Since the machines don’t speak the same language, we can convert the file. Remember, this is usually just the commands saying left, right, up, down, sew, stop. Many of the formats do not even include actual color data. The machine had no way to tell the operator to use red thread, so the color isn’t even in the format. Other formats include limited built-in colors, so they’re never really what you’ll use, but they can give you a hint. A couple formats designed for more modern machines will be able to hold real thread information. Of course, if an older style design is converted to a newer style format, the thread information in the new file is just guesswork. A human needs to adjust the colors in the new format.

Why can’t I convert an image into embroidery?

Imagine coloring with crayons. Now imagine you have something you want to draw and color. Now go ahead and do that without ever lifting the crayon off the paper. Wherever the machine moves, the thread follows. Images are dots of color or vectors (shapes) filled with color. None of that is understood by an embroidery robot arm.

It gets worse because as the thread is sewn into the fabric, the fabric changes shape – it tugs and tightens and puckers. This distortion is planned for by the person creating an embroidery design.

So then, what is an embroidery design?

Beyond the idea of simple movements, designs have sequences of stitches that are uniform – satin stitches, for example (remember a zigzag on your sewing machine) go back and forth, moving along very slightly with each stroke. These stitches are good at making skinny to medium sized lines. Big blobs of color may be done with fills, where the machine goes left, right, left, right, sewing many stitches with each pass. Sometimes, it does other stitches to create textures (runs being the simplest, and looking just like a line was sewn on the machine.)

Who makes embroidery designs?

A person uses a computer to create these sequences of stitches to emulate an image. Design creation is a process often called digitizing (although that term has so many other meanings in other disciplines.)

Our product, StitchArtist is extremely popular for creating designs.

Learning to create simple designs can be very easy, especially if the user has any training with graphics programs. We use drawing methods similar to vector graphics tools so that users can easily identify areas on the fabric to be filled with certain stitch types.

Mastering design creation for things like commercial production is often the result of a couple years of experience doing it daily. It is a skilled operation.

Most design creators land somewhere in the middle, as with good tools and some basic understanding, you can make your own projects look very professional and be quite proud of the result. It rarely takes weeks to learn in order to get that far, but it will take days.

What can a user do to change a design?

Now, this is where it gets interesting. If we needed to create a new design every time we wanted a slight change, it would be expensive. In fact, it always was, before modern computing power and some clever software came along. Let’s take the simplest example; sizing.

If you have a nice design and you just want to make it a little smaller, it should be obvious that the commands going to the machine can each get just a little shorter. This means that the same number of stitches is being piled up into a smaller amount of fabric, which is going to sew heavy, come out puckered, possibly break a needle during sewing; these and other bad things can happen.

This is where you learn about density. The distance between rows or lines of stitches is called the density. Too little, and the design doesn’t cover the fabric (it is see-through) and too much density can cause those ugly puckers. Like Goldilocks’ porridge, density needs to be just right.

Fortunately, some insane programmer types spent lots of time developing ways to make a computer program change the size of the design and add or remove those lines of stitches to keep the density at a sew-able level. This has been used in hobby embroidery for many years, whereas commercial embroiderers tended to have the original design redone or re-exported for the size they need on a given job.

For some machines with color displays, it is worth adjusting the colors of a design, and software lets you pick colors to your liking, or even match what the original design creator suggested (even if their file has ugly colors in it.)

There are many other ways of altering designs and there are ways of adding to them as well. Let’s look at the most common, keyboard lettering.

What’s keyboard lettering?

To add a name, saying or phrase to be embroidered it would be nice if you could simply type what you want, right? Remember, though, these machines are dumb. They don’t know an ‘A’ from an apple. So a person creates an A design and a B design, etc. These designs can be sewn individually and had been for many years before software helped. How awful. Now, users can type ‘ABC’ and the program will load the three designs, place them next to each other nicely, and allow that to sew as one design. It’s nifty, but it is not TrueType, OpenType or any other kind of computer font. Those are vectors of filled shapes. Remember, these are areas of stitches, set in place by someone with experience making embroidery typefaces. Now that you can type in the program, you can use any of the tens of thousands of embroidery fonts to add to or create your design.

What’s Custom Lettering?

We might as well mention here that logo work, which is very common, often uses custom letters, not specifically from a known font. Or, more often, not well translated from the font into quality embroidery. When having a logo made, allow for the creation of custom lettering – it is part of the design and will be a better running and higher-quality finished product.

Where do I begin?

Most people get into embroidery in one of four ways: Crafter, Artist, Entrepreneur or Customer.

If you are here as a customer, wanting to get apparel or goods embroidered, you now know why it costs money to have a design made into embroidery. You should also understand that the professionals you are working with will have various skills at interpreting your image into embroidery. There is no conversion process. Yes, there are people who do a cheap and inexpensive job via more automation, AKA autodigitizing, but if you care at all about your product, you’ll not allow that to be used. Discuss this with an embroidery professional.

Crafter, hobbyist or or gift-maker/seller, you are in the right place. Think about the things you want to make. You’ll realize it’s the personal touch that makes the thing. It could be a saying on Dad’s BBQ apron, or a set of tea towels for a friend. Maybe even decoration for the wedding. These sorts of things fall into a heading we broadly call customizing.

Customizing a design means you begin with something you like, already digitized. There are many places online to purchase embroidery designs, and even some sewing machine stores carry lines of quality designs. Find something that embraces your message, or your funny bone, and buy it. It’s only a few dollars, typically. Make sure it will fit in your hoop, as designs might be bigger than your machine can sew. Next, add your wording via keyboard lettering. Play with the layout, always watching the size of the hoop. You can make tons of creative things this way, and most hobby embroiderers get really good at this before ever deciding to try creating something.

Artists usually want to get right into the nuts and bolts of expressing their vision with this new medium. Fiber Artists often have drawing or graphics skills which really lend themselves well to the craft. Many of you have taken to design creation like a duck to water, and we’ve designed our products to help you do that. Don’t forget that you too can customize, or add your own elements to existing design files. Like any medium, however, you will need to learn how to handle it. The best way to do that is to run lots of embroidery designs and see how those are made. Get the experience of hooping, adjusting, stabilizing, etc. and you’ll begin to see the patterns of which stitch types are used in their respective shapes. Nothing beats watching designs run in order to get an understanding of the medium. Also, you’ll need to understand that different fabrics react to embroidery in different ways. That information we help with, just be aware that your design may sew well on a denim jacket but be a complete mess on a ball cap.

What’s next?

The Embrilliance product line is broken down into modules that handle different jobs. Let’s talk about those jobs and help you understand which products might benefit you best.

Have a look at the Product Selection Guide to get a better handle on what products are best for you.

Back to the Start Here page.