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Getting Started Part 1 - Tips For Successful Embroidery

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Maybe you have hesitated in stitching that first design or maybe you have stitched out a design, but the results were discouraging. In the beginning, it is completely normal to hesitate and stumble a bit, but once you understand the process and requirements for different projects, you will come to know why bad embroidery happens and then you’ll experience successful results more often than not. Start with the right “ingredients” and the majority of possible problems will be eliminated. If you have already stitched your project and are looking for immediate help, view a list of issues and solutions in “Getting Started Part 2 – Troubleshooting Bad Embroidery”.

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Choose the Project
Your embroidery machine can be used for decorating apparel, household items, bags and much more, but keep in mind that each type of fabric or other substrate has different embroidery requirements that you will need to learn about before you decide to stitch on easily replaced items like that treasured family heirloom of a silk christening gown or an expensive designer leather jacket. In the beginning, choose projects that will not hurt your wallet or your pride if they don’t turn out as well as you had anticipated. If you haven’t any idea where to begin, I recommend embroidery on a hand towel that has been purchased at your local dollar store at a bargain price.

Terry, microfiber and polar fleece are not the easiest substrates to stitch on with first-time success, however, it’s an excellent choice for learning about the needs of fabrics. If it turns out badly, you can use the towel again for testing prior to stitching on those high dollar towels, and if it turns out well, you will have created something functional that you might even be able to use as a gift. Either way, your inexpensive project will have become your first lesson, by revealing errors that can occur if proper methods are not observed. And of course, if the embroidery turns out well, you will know you are on the right track.

Choose the Design
With so many designs to pick from it’s easy to overlook reasons why some of the most attractive should actually be avoided when stitching on various types of fabric or other substrate. Be aware of the requirements for the substrate you have chosen to stitch on, as well as the requirements for the design that you choose. Stretchy fabrics or those with a thick pile like wool or have looped fibers as on terry cloth, need more of a foundation in the design, which is usually achieved with stitches digitized below top stitches (underlay); whereas, a substrate like canvas, leather or nylon needs no foundation and does best with a low stitch count.

Unlike a custom design that has been digitized specifically for the substrate, stock designs are digitized most often in a general manner that may or may not work with the substrate you’ve chosen. When shopping, read customer reviews to check the type of substrate that the reviewer stitched the design on, as well as the opinion of the results. One reviewer might say they were unhappy with the results when the design was stitched on a knit polo, whereas another will give the same design “5 butterflies” when it was stitched on a canvas tote bag. These conflicting reports reveal that the design is more suitable for a substrate that doesn’t require a strong foundation, so you would not want to use that particular design for the towel project, but you might keep it in mind for another, such as a nylon jacket.

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The Embroidery
For this example I have chosen a Treble Clef design offered as a Free Design at It’s rated with 4.5 Butterflies by 43 people and all reviews were encouraging. One reviewer noted that the columns were bulky, but the report also stated the size had been changed, revealing why the bulk occurred. Resizing a machine file more than 10-20% is never recommended for most designs in order to avoid improper density of coverage. I’m stitching it on a microfiber hand towel, and if it turns out well, it will make a nice gift for my musician friend to keep handy for polishing her keyboard. The hand towel is at a size of about 17 x 16” so I don’t want to use a design that requires a hoop larger than 4 x 4” and the Treble Clef design will fit nicely at 1.35 x 3.83”. The design is one color so there will be no other colors to worry about, and its stitch count is at a quick 1698 stitches.

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Most of the reviews mentioned using the design on a shirt or quilt. I want a design that shows promise to hold up well against the towel’s fibers that will certainly try to poke their way through the stitches, so to be sure, I first examined the Treble Clef in my software. I found it indeed includes underlay, but it’s likely not enough to tack down all of the fibers of the towel, and there’s also a possibility that the satin stitch columns may become very narrow from the stitches pulling inward on the somewhat loose weave of the fabric. To compensate for these issues, I’ll use a water soluble topping to help hold down the fibers and add an additional sheet of tear-away for backing. If preferred, one could also swap the tear-away for 2-3 sheets of a water soluble stabilizer to avoid leaving any remnants of the backing that occurs when the excess is removed.

Test! Test! Test!
Whether or not you are new to embroidery, it’s always a good idea to test-sew the design first on a scrap of same or similar substrate. Alternatively, you can use felt or a couple of sheets of cut-away to test on, but be aware these substrates will not always show the most accurate results comparable to the final item. Examine the design in software before stitching and watch the machine sew out the design to determine if there is enough underlay stitches to create a strong foundation for your intended project. If not, you can either choose a more suitable design or you might try compensating for the issues that are revealed in the test sample with a different method of stabilization.

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Testing will help determine various facts about the design. This image shows the underlay of the design and it reveals that the digitizer also added additional stitches at stress points (circled in red) where the columns could otherwise separate and leave a gap. It also shows that the underlay stitches are very long, which could be beneficial when stitching on a dense fabric like nylon, but this fact could also cause excess pull on a less stable fabric like terry or knit, in which case a stronger foundation would be necessary.

If there is adequate underlay in the design, but there are obvious flaws in your sample, determine what is necessary for improvement. If you see the fabric through areas where you desire more coverage, switch to a heavier thread weight; if you used a 40 WT, try a 30 WT (the lower the number, the thicker the thread). If columns appear too narrow or there are gaps between the outline and inside stitches, increase the layers of stabilizer or change to a stronger stabilizer. For example, if you have used one sheet of light weight tear-away, add another sheet or use a heavier weight to strengthen the foundation, or if leaving an excess margin of backing doesn’t matter on the finished embroidery, switch to one sheet of a cut-away. Many fabrics, such as used for a knit polo, do best with an adhesive backing along with a sheet of no-show poly-mesh cut-away.

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My sample was sewn on felt using one sheet of tear-away and no topping. It looks acceptable, with the exception of a very small area at the lower left curve where stitches have slightly parted. This small gap isn’t a problem and barely noticeable if it’s stitched on felt or other non-textured substrate, but if it’s embroidered on a towel a few of the fabric’s fibers just might make their way through, so a topping of water soluble stabilizer will be needed. I also used one sheet of tear-away for backing on felt, but a towel is more vulnerable so I determined it would need at least two sheets of tear-away on the back for the final sew-out.

As well, my sample on felt told me resizing this design would be foolish, as the density is near-perfect. Increasing the size would result in poor coverage and decreasing it would result in bulky corners, as well as fabric puckering around the design, and decreasing the size too much could even cause holes in the fabric from excessive needle penetrations.

After you determine the right combination of the materials for your project, test again, and if you find it necessary, try another combination and test yet again until you have found the best ingredients for the design and the fabric being embroidered. Testing may seem like a tremendous amount of wasted time and materials, but remember that once you have become familiar with different results, these initial repeated tests will save valuable time and cost in the future. Eventually, one test-sew of one design will be all that is necessary for you to recognize what is needed for a successfully stitched design on various substrates.

Fabrics continue to change formulations, and that causes the embroidery needs of the fabric to change. Fabrics, as well as stabilizers and threads are continuously invented and old favorites are upgraded, which can take one by surprise when it’s discovered that the same design suddenly produces different results. So, unless you can afford a mistake now and then, it’s best to always test a design you’ve never stitched to verify quality, or on a fabric or other substrate that you’ve never embroidered to determine the needs of the substrate. A test will also help you choose the most complimenting thread colors for the item, thread weight for the best coverage, types of stabilizers for the strongest foundation, and a needle type and size that stitches without thread breaks and without damage to the stitches or substrate. If all does not go well in the testing, don't toss that poorly stitched sample! Bad embroidery is your most valuable teacher. Down the road you'll thank yourself if you keep those test samples in a notebook or file folder with all the information about the design, along with the materials used for the successful results of the final project.

To help you recognize bad embroidery and how to prevent it, see “Getting Started Part 2 – Troubleshooting” where you’ll find a list of common problems and solutions.

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Meet The Author: Bonnie Landsberger
Bonnie Landsberger has been a crafter and hand embroiderer since childhood and a machine embroiderer and digitizer since 1986. She was the in-house head digitizer for a 50-head embroidery shop for 11 years and later offered custom digitizing services and stock design sales through her web site for Moonlight Design since 1993. She currently also holds a position as a customer service representative at Bonnie has won several awards for digitizing, including a gold medal in the 2002 Digitizing Olympics and grand prize in all categories & first place for Winter Holidays category in the Stitches Magazine Great Greeting Card Contest 2003. Her embroidery and digitizing technical articles can be found in various trade magazines and she is currently a contributing writer and Editorial Advisory Board Member for Stitches Magazine. You can also find more of her articles online at and will continue to contribute articles to our Learning Center.

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Jeannette U Nov 18, 2015
Thank you for this invaluable article explaining the relationship between embroidery thread and fabric substrate. Until now, I only knew that some of my machine embroidery did not stitch out well; now I know why. Again, thank you.

Jerelynne R Jun 15, 2016
Bonnie, Can't thank you enough for your excellent and precise articles. I wish I had read them before using my embroidery machine!
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