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Choosing the Right Path

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Digitizing software today is developed to help assist with making the whole embroidery digitizing process easier. However, we need to remember that what really makes a design work well is the human element of proper planning.

When you hear the terms pathing, mapping or sequencing when related to digitizing, they all essentially mean the same thing. Simply stated, it means that you need a game plan for whatever design you’re about to digitize. Even though digitizing software today is developed to help assist us with making the whole process easier, we need to remember that what really makes a design work well on our machines is the human element that’s needed to plan it properly. The bonus of being able to edit our designs on the fly has, in my opinion, produced a lot of lazy digitizers - they don’t problem-solve their designs at the start, and end up doing a lot of unnecessary editing. Just a few minutes spent strategizing at the outset can save a lot of rework later.

Developing a strategy for your designs is the single most important step in the digitizing process. Looking at the dimensional layering of the design, what elements need to be placed underneath and what needs to be on top; what is the application - is it going on garments or on finished caps? Cap application means you have to implement all those cap rules - inside-out / bottom-up, etc. What type of fabric is it to be sewn on? What size is the design? Is it left chest or jacket back? All these factors will impact your game plan.

Think Ahead

Developing all the rules that go along with pathing comes with time and the practice of digitizing day in and day out. After many years of being in this industry and digitizing for customers at every level of the industry, I came to this conclusion: I needed to digitize all our designs for the worst-case scenario. That means that whether my customer states so or not, I digitize all our designs so they will run well on golf shirts as well as finished hats. Why? I found that my customers would tell me that the design was going on nylon jackets. Two weeks later I would receive a phone call asking why they were having problems running the same design on finished caps. My reply was “because, you asked for it to be digitized for nylon jackets!” Apparently that wasn’t the right answer, and I’d end up doing an extensive edit job for free!

Rule number one: don’t trust you customers! Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate all my customers. I just want to be thinking ahead of them to make my life easier. Just remember that if you do a great job on that jacket order, odds are they will be back two weeks later to get that same design applied to finished hats!

When I think back to my early days of digitizing, the first year was the most stressful of my career. I remember many nights when I couldn’t sleep because I had a difficult block of designs to do the next day. I’d actually have nightmares. You have to remember that at that time we didn’t have editing software and all our designs were being output on paper tape that was then being read directly into the machines. Moral of the story was that you had to get it right the first time; you had to have your entire design perfectly mapped before you even started or you had to cut and splice portions that needed to be redone. Even worse, you would have to redo the entire design. We were all board-based punchers at that time, and the huge 6/1 paper draft we worked from was littered with notes and scribbles on how to get through the artwork: color sequences, start and stop points, jump and trims were all marked beforehand. When teaching these days I tell my students to have their artwork printed out beside them and make the same type of notes. The goal should be that you have your entire design digitized mentally before you start; digitizing is not something you should just jump into blindly.

There are three main things to remember:

  1. Limit unnecessary color changes as much as possible, but remember that sometimes you need more color changes to ensure your design will run well on finished caps and that your registration of colors will line up.
  2. Plan to have as few jumps and trims as possible within your design - your designs should flow from one object to the next.
  3. Don’t get trapped! An experienced machine operator can always tell when a digitizer got trapped into a corner and had to jump to another object to get out!

Play the Game

Figure 1

I’ve always thought of digitizing as a bit of a game. It’s like being lost in a maze and trying to find the easiest way out. An illustration I like to use is when you vacuum your house; apparently, if you do it properly you shouldn’t see any footprints on the carpet after you are finished. You’ll notice that the floor plans shown below have two different points of entering and exiting (Figure 1). If you want to enter through the front door and leave through the front door you are going to plan your path a certain way. If you plan your path to enter through the front door and exit out the back door, your path will be completely different. If you break it down even further and consider vacuuming each room, you’ll see how you need to path your way in and out of each room. It almost simulates underlay and satin stitching if you think about how you get to one corner of the room and work your way to the door.

One of the positive attributes of digitizing is that every design you do is uniquely different and requires a certain amount of mental awareness to be done properly. Many new digitizers seem to get flustered when dealing with complicated designs; the trick is to break up the design into different segments before you begin.

Break it Down

Figure 2

The design we are going to take a look at is a wheel barrel with flowers and a bunny (Figure 2). Take note: all of the details in this design are outlined with black step stitches. Because of this, the design should be broken into three different segments: the wheel barrel, the flowers, and the bunny. This will promote good registration of all the black outline stitches.

The first segment to be done is the two blue colors in the wheel barrel itself, and then finishing the black outline around it right away. The second is the leaves and flowers in the wheel barrel. If you look at the artwork dimensionally, you will notice that for the most part the leaves fall overtop of the barrel, which is why I chose to do it in that order. Once all the colors are done within those objects I again outlined them in black right away. The last object to be done is the bunny itself.

Because we broke into three separate segments we do have two extra color changes (black outlines) in this design. If you tried to do all the black step stitches as the last color, you’d probably find that the registration would be off in numerous places. Even if your sample sewed out well on your test fabric, it might not sew properly on terrycloth or fleece, and you would definitely have problems when trying to sew it on a finished hat. You are better off to have a couple extra color changes in your designs to help promote quality; always think safety first!

One of the best ways to learn pathing is by taking a close look at designs that were digitized properly. If you receive a design that runs and registers well, it would probably be worth your time to take a closer look onscreen and see how it was done.

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Meet The Author: John Deer
John Deer is owner of Punch Perfect/Art-Sew-Perfect, a digitizing, stock design and educational firm. He is a third-generation embroiderer with 19 years of digitizing experience and has personally won 30 awards in trade publications.

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