From Dull to Dazzling

Tackling Single-Color Designs

Erich has more than 18 years experience as an award-winning digitizer, e-commerce manager, and industry educator. He empowers decorators to do their best work and achieve a greater success. A current educator and long-time columnist, Erich takes every opportunity to provide value to the industry. Find more information on Erich and his publications here.

Embroiderers love simple single-color designs. No color changes, few registration problems, and low stitch counts tend to epitomize single-color designs. Sadly, some digitizers tend to give them little thought—silhouettes are often covered from top to bottom with a solid slab of unidirectional fill, flat and uniform. Linework pieces may be overly-dense or sparse, following the given art without consideration for the outcome of the line placement when stitched.

I’ve seen many single-color designs where the digitizer’s work must have taken less interaction than running the machine that stitched it. While these designs aren’t the contest winners or social-media stunners, they can be sublime.

Though we can’t work with a wide palette of colors, our hands are not tied. When we have an understanding of the tools at our disposal to create interest in single-color designs, we can craft fine and elegant decorative works. With consideration of the characteristics of our medium, technical know-how, and some creative interpretation, we can take our single-color designs from dull to dazzling, all while maintaining production friendliness.

Tools to Create Interest

Lucky for us, embroidery has far more than just color going for it when it comes to creating visual interest. We have a rich store of qualities in our corner.

Texture: We can utilize the sheen of the thread we choose and create texture by contrasting or complementing the embroidery with the garment/substrate. Thread can be shiny or matte, and differences in stitch type and length create textural qualities: short stitches and fills seem rougher and duller, while long stitches and satins seem smoother and glossier.

Depth: We can build our embroidery in such a way to use its natural dimensionality, using the height of an element, its placement in relation to layers of other elements, and the reflective characteristics of the thread to create a sense of depth and dimension. By controlling stitch angles and digitizing sculpturally, we manipulate the play of light over our surface and can even give the illusion of multiple shades of thread, and all without the use of 3D foam or other materials.

Density: Controlling how closely elements are spaced can make areas seem lighter or darker, dense or sparse, loose or tight. By using techniques common to any style of line art, like engraving, pen-and-ink work, or woodcut printing, single-color stitching can be used to generate tone, even in the absence of additional colors.

Color: The color of our thread and the color of our substrate remain in our control. The amount of contrast between thread and garment, the strength of the shadows that can be seen on each stitch, and the visibility of the stitch penetrations are all affected by the colors we select. We have every option—from completely contrasting colors to monochrome tone-on-tone pairings. Altering density and the interaction with the ground color can even be used to produce tints and shades.

Line Weight: The thickness of a satin stitch, the number of passes on straight stitch runs, and the width of a motif path all change the character of a design. Thick lines can make a design look bold and heavy, thin lines can be airy and light.

With these qualities in mind, we can tackle two types of single-color designs that greatly benefit from their creative application. These include silhouettes and linework.


One commonly encounters silhouettes in single-color work. They are filled contours representing the outer edge of an object. Whether organic or man-made, the temptation is to use a fill stitch to quickly render the object as a slab. To add interest to the silhouette using the above qualities, however, one can choose to take a sculptural approach. 

Simply put, one treats the design as a low-relief sculpture, drawing in shapes to define structures that would be viewed in the actual object depicted. Instead of creating one large object stitched with a unidirectional fill, one creates areas corresponding with shapes that should be present, changing stitch type and angle in each so as to use the way light plays across the surface to create dimension.

For example, a silhouette of a person might have the limbs, face, and hands in turning, carved satin stitches, and the wider spans of the clothing in curved fill stitches. The hair could be layered to frame the face in separate satins, and overlapped in as natural an order as possible. A truck might have the fenders, wheels, and the thinner elements around the windows rendered in satin stitches, the flat planes of the body panels in angled fills, and the grillwork carved in satins or layered in straight stitches. 

This sculptural approach may require a bit of advance drawing, but done well, it not only lends the piece a sense of dimension, but it often reduces the overall stitch count. You will lose time in the digitizing process, but the quality and the time reclaimed in production are well worth the effort. 

Sculptural digitizing also allows you to play with texture. Animals can not only be carved, but also decorated with loose manual stitching to simulate pelt lines in fur. Randomized stitch lengths can add a rougher, natural look to fills on organic subjects, and overlaying straight-stitch runs or motif stitches on fills can add interesting textural elements to otherwise solid areas.


Redwork, blackwork, and all manner of open embroideries that primarily utilize lines to develop contour and tone, all fall under the category of linework. While the sculptural approach is not useful here, we still have line weight, density, and texture at our fingertips to make our design interesting. 

In most cases, a digitizer will execute linework because the presented art is already in this style. Any number of engravings, woodcuts, or pen-and-ink pieces may be rendered as linework, but, we have to keep the limits of embroidery in mind when we interpret such pieces. Where many digitizers go wrong with linework is in trying to follow the existing artwork too slavishly. One must remember proper measurement when creating linework. Fine-lined engravings, especially when reduced in size, will often contain shading lines that, though intended to produce a shadow, become solid when rendered with the thickness of embroidery thread. 

Remember, if two lines are .2mm apart, it makes them equivalent to a 4 point fill density (otherwise known as full coverage with 40 weight thread). I’ve often been told this simple trick: simply render every other line in such overly tight shading. However, this won’t necessarily give an approximation of the darkness of shading intended in the design. It’s better to know the look of different densities and to execute lines at measured distances known to give the right level of shading for the area in question. 

In the straight-stitch sort of these designs, pathing must be carefully attended to in order to maintain proper line weights. If you want even lines throughout a straight-stitch design, remember to run each line an equal number of times. As you travel around the design, keep a main reference line in mind, and plan ‘trips’ away from the main line as you go. 

For instance, when rendering a flower petal containing contoured shading lines following the curvature of the surface, start at the edge, and, traveling around the outline, venture into the petal whenever the outline touches the contour lines. Trace until any line to which you can easily connect is covered, then backtrack until the outline is reached. Imagine following the lines like programmatically running a maze—stick to the right wall, and, when there is no further to go, turn around and head back in the direction from which the ‘trip’ began.

Any manner of lines can be used to define shapes in linework, including: 

 • Curved lines that trace the volume of a curved surface,
 • Random squiggling paths that shade with density while imparting texture,
 • Orderly pattern stitches,
 • Cross-hatching,
 • Angular lines for shading, and/or
 • Even satin stitches to provide bold strokes among the thin lines of straight stitch.
 • Studying engravings and woodcuts provides an endless source of inspiration for how to construct linework shading.

Single doesn’t mean flat

No matter what kind of single-color work you do, the first thing to remember is that it doesn’t have to be flat. Embroidery is, by its very nature, a dimensional art form that benefits from the light and shadow that applied thread creates. Utilize that dimensionality. Use the texture, and the interaction of thread and substrate, to your advantage. You may find that, not only do your single-color designs improve, but that recognizing and exercising control over the nature of this simple form of embroidery can help you to refine the more complex forms that much more.