Building Blocks of Embroidery


Ed Levy

Ed Levy is an industry veteran and director of software technologies at Hirsch Solutions.

Every house needs a strong foundation. Otherwise, the structure won’t be stable, and a variety of problems can occur. The same principle holds true with embroidery. Without all of the fundamentals—the foundation—properly defined, the structure—embroidery—will not be stable.

Sometimes it seems easier to construct a house rather than a piece of embroidery. However, with a strong understanding of the embroidery’s fundamentals, building a masterpiece is not as difficult as it seems. There are four basic elements that go into every design: underlay, push and pull compensation, density, and design pathing.


Underlay is equivalent to primer for painting—a base coat that allows the main stitching to look beautiful while also giving the garment stability. It’s the workhorse of a design, and the four primary functions of underlay are to provide base stitching, adhere backing to the fabric, offer stability to the fabric, and give dimension for special effect stitching.

Too much underlay is an equal problem to not having enough underlay. In many cases, common sense can determine the right amount of underlay. More underlay is required when the material is less stable and has more stretch. Conversely, less underlay is necessary when the material is more stable and has less stretch.

For example, a denim shirt is stable, so stitching lays on top rather than sinks into the material. Denim and other similar materials don’t require an extensive amount of underlay. A plush towel, however, cries for underlay. A nice layer of stitching helps prevent the top stitches from sinking into the material and disappearing. Lettering applied on top of a fill often requires minimal underlay.

There are several types of underlay to satisfy the demands of different materials. Some examples include:

  • Contour/edge walk: Travels the perimeter of an object.
  • Center run: Travels through the center of a column.
  • Perpendicular: Travels perpendicular to the stitching. Various settings can be applied to change coverage.
  • Parallel: Travels parallel to the stitching. Various settings can be applied to change coverage.
  • Lattice/full lattice: Cross hatched stitching that applies a full layer or multiple layers of stitching as a foundation. Often used with fills on challenging materials.

Push and pull compensation

Push and pull compensation counteracts with the way stitches react to a garment. Regardless of the material, the stitching pushes and pulls in one or more ways, which leads to garment distortion or areas of stitching that don’t line up. A common example of this is where there’s a space between a fill and a border where the garment can be seen. On the screen, the object looks fine, but when stitched, push and pull take over.

With pull compensation, stitches pull in accordance to the direction of a stitch. A stitch that’s 4 mm wide on the screen may only end up at 3 mm wide once it’s sewn on the garment. Virtually every software program is designed to offset this. By adding a compensation value, the stitches are made wider, so when they thin out, they end up at the intended size. The combination of the formation of the stitch and the garment material determines the amount of pull.

For push compensation, stitches also push out according to the travel direction of stitching. A column that’s 6 mm tall might end up at 7 mm or 8 mm, depending upon how much push is experienced during the sewing process. Once again, this is determined by the sewn material.

A great example of the effects of both push and pull compensation is with lettering. Nearly everyone has examined a line of embroidery text and wondered why the lettering wasn’t consistent. One thing that predominates is that columns, which is horizontal stitching, such as I and l and the top of U and K, will grow, or push, and that vertical stitching or curves will shrink, or pull, such as c and o and the top of T, Q, and Z. These letters will look perfect on a screen, but when subjected to the stitching process, they end up distorted. Adjusting for push and pull in advance significantly aids in enhancing stitch quality and consistency.


Density refers to the amount of stitching within a given area. Too much density can cause a garment to distort and pucker, and too little density can cause the garment to show through the stitching. One of the most important points to understand about density is how to make adjustments. There are three common methods for adjusting density. 

  • Stitches per inch: When working with stitches per inch, the amount of stitching is added or subtracted according to the default value established by the embroidery software. For example, if a design has a default density of 63.5 stitches per inch, adding a value of 10 increases the number of stitches by 10 stitches per inch. Indicating a negative value reduces the amount of stitches in the given area.
  • Points/MM: When working in metric, density refers to the amount of space between stitches rather than the amount of stitching in a given area. It is a completely opposite effect. Adding to the default value increases space between stitches, which reduces the amount of stitches in the object. Reducing the default value decreases the amount of space between stitches, which increases the amount of stitches in an object. A default density of 0.4 mm has a space between each stitch of that value. Adding 0.2 mm to the value increases the spacing from 0.4 mm to 0.6 mm space between each row of stitching, resulting in less stitching.
  • Absolute density: Absolute density ignores any default values and simply makes the density for a particular object the exact value that’s programmed. Programming a value of 77 stitches per inch or 0.33 mm would create density precisely at those values.

Design pathing

Design pathing is controlled by the digitizer but has a strong influence on the success or failure of a design. While there are some basic rules for design pathing, remember that there’s no such thing as an absolute rule and no single proper way to do something. That said, here are three basic rules for design pathing.

1. Start with larger areas and work toward smaller areas. Larger stitching areas cause the most distortion. By working through the larger areas first, it puts less stress on other parts of a garment that require smaller areas. For example, if a line of text were created and then a huge fill with vertical stitches were below and sewn secondary, the line of text could appear wavy and distorted when the garment is completed as the distortion from the larger area affected the smaller area that was done first.

2. Work from the center out. It’s often said that only a cap should run from the center out, but less stress is placed on material when it isn’t stitched toward something that’s already stitched because the material has no room to breathe.

3. Go from the bottom to the top. For caps, it’s helpful to also work from the bottom of the cap to the top of the cap as well as from the center out. Once again, this provides breathing room for the material.

As you look at designs, don’t be alarmed if a design doesn’t follow these parameters. The ultimate test is how well the design looks when stitched. I’ve seen designs that break every rule in the book and still sew out flawlessly, and I’ve seen designs that follow the guidelines but are nothing but trouble. While there’s no magic formula for creating a design, careful review of the fundamental properties helps ensure a well-constructed design that sits on a strong foundation.