Learn the Lingo: Machine Embroidery

Craft & Design Digital Fabrication
Learn the Lingo: Machine Embroidery
Photo by Erich Campbell

Welcome to Learn the Lingo! The idea behind this series of articles is to bring you up to speed on the terms you will need to know to understand what someone is talking about in a specific skill. Often, when just getting into a new skill, the lingo that practitioners use can be confusing and have meanings you didn’t realize. For example, a “hook” means completely different things if you’re sewing or if you’re tying a trout fishing fly!

definition via The Free Dictionary
definition via The Free Dictionary
Photo by Erich Campbell
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This edition will be all about machine embroidery. I was lucky enough to talk to a very skilled artist named Erich Campbell. He’s been an embroidery digitizer for over 16 years and currently works as the in-house designer at Black Duck Embroidery and Screen Printing in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He also writes for Printwear Magazine and has a column on MrXStitch.com.  You can also find him on his own website at ErichCampbell.com

Machine embroidery can sometimes be misleading to erstwhile practitioners, because the level of automation seems to promise a hands-off experience, [while] using well-made stock designs can be relatively simple, creating your own designs actually takes not only specialized software, but requires a great deal of understanding both of the media used and of the way the machines work. Well-executed embroidery is never a scan-and-convert process; creating designs requires art to be reinterpreted for the medium, using skills that combine what is starts with vector drawing with the added difficulty of understanding how fabric distorts when stitched and what can and can’t be done with a needle and using that artistically to render the design in thread on a flexible surface. Mix art, math, craft, and a healthy dose of visualizing things that you can’t see until the needle hits the fabric; if that blend sounds more exciting than frustrating, machine embroidery may be for you.

Photo by Erich Campbell

Terminology for your introduction to Machine Embroidery:

Hoop: The hoop is a nested set of rings that hold the material to be embroidered at tension (Figure A), much like a hand embroidery hoop. Machine embroidery hoops, however, are designed to push the fabric and stabilizer to the bottom of the inner ring and hold it against the bed of the machine and have fixtures that allow the hoop to be attached to a machine’s pantograph.

Figure A. The hoop. Photo by Hep Svadja

Pantograph: The pantograph is the fixture on an embroidery machine to which one attaches the hoop; it moves the hoop in the X and Y axes in order to produce stitches. It’s important to note that in machine embroidery, the substrate moves, not the needle; the pantograph moves the material under the stationary needle.

Stabilizer or Backing: This material is added under the workpiece, entirely spanning the hoop from edge to edge in order to combat distortion during stitching and sometimes to provide added strength to the finished piece (Figure B). The most common varieties are made of wet-laid fibers to create a non-directional fabric, allowing it to maintain its shape when under tension and when being pulled and pushed during stitching.

Figure B. A stabilizer sheet underneath the embroidered fabric. Photo by Hep Svadja

Bobbin: In interlock sewing and machine embroidery, the stitch is formed by wrapping the top stitching thread around thread coming from a small spool of thread under the workpiece called the bobbin (Figure C). It can be wound manually or commercially pre-wound bobbins can be used.

Figure C. A bobbin wound with thread. Photo by Hep Svadja

Tension: Tension refers to the amount of friction placed on thread as it runs through the machine; both the top and bottom thread paths have mechanisms to adjust this. Proper tension for embroidery allows some of the top thread to pass under the workpiece, ensuring that only the decorative thread shows on the fabric’s surface.

Digitizing: The process of creating files containing commands that dictate the movement of an embroidery machine’s pantograph and needles. Though automatic options exist, skilled digitizers largely redraw the art in digitizing software, making alterations based on the limitations of embroidery and compensate for the distortion that occurs during stitching. The initial drawing of each element is like vector drawing, after which shapes are filled with stitches programmatically, based on specified variables including stitch length, stitch type, stitch angle and density, though some digitizing requires manual placement of each stitch to achieve certain effects.

Density: Refers to the amount of space between stitches or rows of stitching, and is used to determine how much coverage an embroidered element achieves. Measured in stitches per inch (SPI), metric spacing, or embroidery points. 1 embroidery point = .1mm, standard machine embroidery thread is roughly .4mm thick, so complete coverage is achieved at .4mm or 4 point density. Some effects use more than full coverage in order to intentionally build mass or to cut an underlying material or lighter densities to allow underlying elements to show through.

Pull Distortion/Compensation: Embroidery stitches are under tension, and ‘pull’ toward their center, shortening slightly as they run. A column of satin stitches will be slightly narrower when stitched than it is digitized on-screen (Figure D). This is compensated for by adding width to the column so that stitching arrives at the intended width, also allowing elements like outlines and borders to maintain registration in the finished piece.

Push Distortion/Compensation: When placed side by side at full coverage densities, areas of stitching tend to expand or ‘push’ toward the edges of the stitch: a satin stitch column will be taller stitched than it is on-screen. This is compensated for by slightly reducing the height of said column- particularly in embroidered lettering, one will see that a perfectly aligned stitched word must be very uneven on-screen.

Pathing: The sequence of stitched elements and direction of travel in an embroidery design. Pathing is crucial to efficient, cost-effective embroidery as it reduces unnecessary movements, color changes, and running time. It can also affect the surface of the work-piece; poorly-pathed designs may cause rippling and puckering of the fabric and may lose registration.

Figures D-G

Stock Designs: Themed designs created by professional digitizers that can be purchased and run on any embroidery machine. As these are not compensated for any particular material, they may not produce the highest-quality embroidery in all situations, but they are frequently used by embroiderers who do not digitize. Sizing is critical in purchasing stock, as all embroidery is created with specific measurements in mind. When at all possible, stock designs should only be used at the size created.

Straight Stitch: This is a simple line of stitching, much like one sees on a standard sewing machine. It is used to create detail, shading, fine outlines, and even at times used for very small text elements.

Satin or Column Stitch: The most common stitch used for embroidered lettering, this high-sheen stitch is essentially a tightly spaced zig-zag stitch wherein every other stitch lies perpendicular to the edges of the defined area. It can be used for elements as thin as 1mm and as thick as 12mm; long stitches can snag, so most embroiderers will limit them to 10mm (Figure E).

Fill, Ceeding, or Tatami Stitch: Used unsurprisingly to fill larger areas this stitch usually consists of a field of tightly spaced rows of straight stitching of a uniform length. Though stitches are of a uniform length, the stitch penetrations or the endpoints of each stitch are usually offset row-to-row to avoid them lining up and causing breaks in the surface. That said, the way those penetrations line up, as well as the randomness of their placement can be used intentionally to create texture in a design.

Jump Stitch: a movement in which the needle is kept up and the pantograph moves to the next location in a design without stitching. Unless a machine uses automatic trimmers, this leaves a thread that must be trimmed away after the design is finished running (Figure G).

Lock Stitch or Tie-In/Out Stitches: A set of small stitches, usually 3 at 1mm length at the beginning or end of an element or sequence that are meant to keep the thread from pulling out or unraveling. These are necessary before and after any jump-stitch that will be removed or before or after changing color.

Underlay: Stitching that is run previous to the top stitching in order to support the top stitching or otherwise mitigate texture in the underlying fabric. Underlay provides a platform on which topstitching rests, above the ground material, edges on which topstitching can track, and/or holds down the nap or pile of the fabric, in all instances it is used to help cover the base fabric or to create a higher profile or texture to the decorative stitching (Figure H).

Stitch-Out: This refers to a sample or the act of running a sample of any new design or design and fabric combination. As various materials react differently to being stitched, a successful embroidery is tested on the proper combination of material and stabilizer that will be used in the final decoration before the final piece to allow for any necessary adjustments in compensation or machine setup.

Cut-away Stabilizer:  generally a more stable and often thicker stabilizing material used for wearable decoration which must have the excess material cut from the back of the design after embroider.

Tear-away Stabilizer: usually used for more stable items or items that won’t be worn and which tears neatly away from the edge of the finished design.

Water-Soluble Stabilizer or WSS: used for specialty embroidery for which the stabilizer must be entirely removed, like machine embroidered lacework, this stabilizer entirely dissolves in water.

Topping:  A material used on top of a textured fabric to temporarily prevent the texture from interfering with the embroidery process. Most are water-soluble films that are removed after stitching.

Obviously, these aren’t all the terms you’d ever need to know. If you’re looking for more, check out these glossaries.

Let us know in the comments if there are any other terms you think someone should know immediately!

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I get ridiculously excited seeing people make things. I just want to revel in the creativity I see in makers. My favorite thing in the world is sharing a maker's story. email me at hello (at) calebkraft.com

View more articles by Caleb Kraft


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