Eating Elephants

With over 35 years in the embroidery industry with particular emphasis on writing, education, and digitizing, Helen Hart Momsen is widely published in the trade press. Momsen founded and moderates the Embroidery Line (, the longest continuously running internet forum for apparel decorators. A sought-after speaker for many years for THE NBM SHOW, Momsen has authored two ground-breaking books on professional embroidery, available at

I used to wonder why the trade magazines so often covered things they’d covered in the past—how to stitch on denim, tips for cap or jacket embroidery. After I started writing for them it all made sense: Not only are there new ways of doing old things being constantly discovered and developed, but new people are coming into the industry every day who need the same basic (and more) information that might seem like a repeat to a veteran stitcher.

I have also found very few stitchers with years under their belts who won’t admit that learning something new, even if the subject is a reprise—a different slant, a different point of view, a different need or mindset when reading—can make, well, a difference. Many say that the “refresher” is refreshing!

Every time I come back from teaching at a Printwear Show, the newbie, both in machines and software, is on my mind. There is so much to learn before you finally hit the start button. There are things that I think are important and, although there are those who might disagree with my list of need-to-knows, I find it easy enough to make a case for those things that I believe are essential to producing good quality embroidery.

I am a great believer in knowing all you can about color/thread choices, proper hooping, garment construction, underlay and how to set the defaults and blueprints for stitching in your editing/digitizing software. So, with that in mind, a refresher on the defaults in your software seems in order.

Discovering the settings

I used to start any discussion on default settings by saying that there is no way the team that readies the software for shipment knows what your particular needs and wants will be. So they set the stitch length, density and other variables at “default” settings that the working digitizer must know where to find and how to change.

But many of the new software programs coming to the market are more automatic—sometimes more than we would wish—and require a choice of fabric rather than settings. Someone somewhere has decided that this combination of underlay, stitch length and density will work best on denim or satin or corduroy. While this is a step forward (there is actually some thought going into the choices, not just a selection of arbitrary numbers by a programmer who might not even know how to digitize), if the end results don’t suit, you have to be able to make some educated changes, not random guesses.  Sometimes if you know that the underlay accompanying a certain fabric choice is too dense, you can “fool” the program by choosing a fabric that has the underlay you want rather than the one that is set for your target fabric. And I think is important be able to change the settings or make blueprints of your own combinations of underlay, density and more.

So ask the questions when you are investigating the software. Don’t be fooled into thinking that software that does it all for you will be a cinch to use; nothing is more frustrating, when you have a little learning under your belt, than to discover you can’t take charge of those settings.

Perhaps the default settings that pop up when you start a design are exactly what you want. But if they aren’t, you need to be ready and knowledgeable about making the change.

And don’t let any trainer tell you that this is “advanced” training and you are not ready for it. If you open your Microsoft Word, which defaults to a document, and you want to print envelopes, you have to change that default. So how soon is “too soon” to know how to make that happen?

The stitch length and density both of the underlay and the top stitching, the distance from the edge of the design element to where the underlay begins, all these things and more change when the stitching target changes. You know by watching the design stitch (still the best training you can get when learning to digitize) if something is amiss. Comprehending what is not quite right and knowing the direction to go to correct toward more quality stitching is still a mainstay of digitizing.

If you are stitching with a finer gauge thread you might decide to add density; if you are stitching with a thicker  thread, you might need to remove density. Will you be stitching a woven, a knit, a heavy jacket, a delicate handkerchief?

Even if you are using an “auto-digitizing” program, it is still important for you to understand when to change settings, what to change them to (and why) and where to go to accomplish that. I have never believed that auto-digitizing programs take the place of the educational learning curve, but only that they may make it easier and faster to get started on the simpler logos. (In fact, some of these programs stress that they are best on simple logos.)

Ask your trainer where the settings are and if they can be changed permanently to the favorites you use most often. Being able to change them for the job at hand is a good thing to learn, but to really have control over the software, you should be able to change, save and even name your special combinations of settings. As you learn more about what works for you (factoring in your hooping techniques and backing choices), can you change all or some of those parameters?

Learn how to make global changes in your default settings so that editing or changing parameters for different fabrics becomes an easy task, not a chore. Learn how to move the underlay back from the edge of the design with one setting so that it doesn’t peek out and create an untidy appearance as it stitches around corners and curves. Find out if that setting is measured by a set number or a percentage. Does the number change both sides or each side individually?

Global changes can be implemented when compensating for the push and pull of the fabric. The dreaded “pull comp” is nothing more than a way of compensating for the physics that enters the picture every time you put a needle and thread through a never-quite-stable piece of fabric. If a letter fashioned by a column will push up, making it taller than its more rotund neighbors, determine if you can you choose each column letter and decrease the size to, say, 98 percent, and compensate all at once. Once you learn (by stitching out and watching) that a decrease by two or three percent leads to perfectly matched heights in stitched lettering, the next step is to learn how to use the software to make that global change.

Compensation is needed to prevent a circle from sewing out as an egg. Find out where the settings are to bring that compensation into play. Consider digitizing columns and shapes in different widths with different underlay, density, stitch length and so forth, then sewing your test on different fabrics. Keep a journal of your results, complete with sewn samples.

Understanding the whys of things is important—and more of a building block for your education than guessing. You are learning the underlying principles. Once you learn about default settings and how to use them to your advantage in digitizing, the process becomes a lot easier.

Discovering the power

The digitizer, whether advanced or not, who understands the basics and the fabric/stitching principles is way ahead of any curve in the design. Understanding the buttons themselves, where they are and what they do is a first step. But understanding how to make those buttons do your bidding and how to set them for optimal performance adds to your control of the process. When that knowledge becomes second nature, you can play with the software, often finding ways to create procedures, processes and stitching that even wows the developers.  Even beginners can create impressive designs if they take the time to learn about the power they have at their fingertips.

The way to start the learning journey is to ask the questions when you go to training and watch that machine sew, whether it is custom designs created by your digitizer of choice or purchased stock designs.

We often look to a fill in place of a satin for lettering that is larger, and perhaps on the back of a satin jacket where it may snag and rip. Most digitizing software has a split-satin that can fill this need, but what about using decorative fill stitches if you have a top-of-the-line software? Carve a shape into the fill—perhaps an element in the company’s logo—and impress the customer with your creative flair. A network of shapes can often create a fill with fewer stitches and, if you are up to speed on color (how it interacts, how it is affected by the color around or under the stitches) you can make that a real part of your design process as well. The eyes in your (and your customer’s) head are just as important as the eye that the thread passes through, and good choices with thread can create some intense magic. Once the digitizing is easier, it becomes a cinch to think more about the hue of the thread that makes those stitches and the end result will be a combination of digitizing and color based on professional decisions that really set your work apart.

How do you eat an elephant?

One bite at a time! Understanding the digitizing program (where are the buttons?), then the digitizing process (how do I use the buttons?) and finally the settings or parameters that determine what those buttons do (how and where do I  change, with knowledge at hand, the defaults/settings of the buttons?) is the formula for winning digitizing.

A parameter is simply a variable that is given a fixed value in a given situation. When you can set a value—with an educated choice—in your digitizing program and then investigate and understand the other values that interact or change with the setting of that value, your possibilities are endless. Then the simple process of sewing out and watching the process will help you understand the fabric itself and how the stitches and the choices you made affect the final result. Becoming a part of the process rather than simply a button pusher sets you on the path to becoming a real artist instead of a software operator.

Education is the process that changes a button pusher into a design-pusher, and that is where the real fun begins.

Enjoy your summer and each other. Change the parameters, if you need to, of your world-view. Don’t loose sight of how precious each day is in the scheme of things. Hug that thought to you as you interact with your family and your colleagues in the family that is this industry. Life is too short to be unkind.