Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Rarity Embroidery Design & Process

I have gotten quite a few questions about how I make the designs I post. In order to answer that question, I wrote up this explanation so that others can follow along. The embroidery process that I use is roughly the same as professional services follow. This process is called 'digitizing'. I use 2 software tools to digitize an embroidery design:  MS Paint and Embird 2003. I should also point out that Embird costs about $500, so keep that in mind.

I use MS Paint to draw the design if I am making a design from scratch, or I use it to make any required edits to an existing sketch or drawing.  For this exercise, I am going to use an existing drawing and turn it into an embroidery design, so I am not going to use MS Paint in this walk-though.

The digitizing process is something like vectoring an image.  Shapes are drawn, and each shape has a bunch of properties such as the amount of fill, colors, direction, and such. Embird is the software that provides a canvas for this process.

For this tutorial, I am going to use an existing design from the interweb, as that will give a good overview of the process without taking too long to write up.  The design that I am going to do is this one, by Shelltoontv since I can't draw for a damn.

The first step is to open up the digitizing stupio in Embird.  My screen is preconfigured with some settings for my designs, such as the size of the hoop/design (100mm by 100mm hoop size/embroidery field size), but Embird can go to whatever size is needed.

Once Embird is opened and the embroidery field is set to the correct size, the picture can be imported.  Imported is actually a misnomer, as all Embird does is set the picture as the background so that thread can be put on top of the design.

Once imported, you can start drawing shapes that will be filled with thread.  Some decisions need to be made depending on the design.  For example, what color goes first.  It doesn't have to be decided immediately as the order can be changed later if required, but it will help if the decision is made now, and made correctly.  In this instance, I am going to do the mane first.  The reason is that the jumps between sections can be hidden under other colors.  This helps with trimming and thread changes when actually sewing.

Rarity's mane is 3 colors (light and dark purple, plus the outline).  I am going to start with the lightest color, and use a fill object.  A fill object is pretty simple, it is a big blob of thread in any shape with the thread all running in the same direction in the same color.  First, I outline the area (see below with the red outline on the right) I want to fill with the thread color.  The squares and circles are used to move the outline once placed.  By default, the fill start point is the first click, and the end point is the last click.  Any of the squares can be a start or end point, which helps with thread routing between different sections that are the same color.

When doing the fill, I want to go over the edges to allow for pull in the direction of the thread.  Pull occurs because the thread is under tension, and will scrunch the entire design in the direction that the thread is being pulled.  The amount of pull depends on the fabric, machine, hoop, and stabilizer used.  To make up for that pull, the fill area will go underneath the entire outline area, plus some additional area to make up for the thick nap on a towel.  This will let the same design be used on multiple fabrics and look great, but the order of the thread colors can't be changed due to the overlap.  This is why it is important to get the color order correct on the first try. Once the first fill is done, the 2nd fill of the same color can be made, and so on, until that color is done.

Once all the areas are done, you need to tell the software where to put the jumps between each area.  By default, the needle will jump without sewing any stitches int he space between the areas.  Sometimes, this is the best option, but usually (between fill areas anyway) you want the machine to actually sew stitches.  This will help hide the thread under the next color, and prevent the foot of the sewing machine from getting stuck on the jump.  To do that a connection object is used.  Think of a connection object as nothing more than a line that is sewn.  Using the same movement options as the fill, the connection object can be routed where it will not be seen in the design.  Here's a connection that was drawn between the 2 parts of the same color of Rarity's mane, in the rendered view so it can be easily seen.  The jump is under the rest of the mane.  I did not go under the portion of the design that will be white, as the purple connection could show between the gaps in the white thread.  The different colors of purple in the mane will hide the jump very well.

Now, you can go on to each color that needs to be done.  Between colors, I check the render of the design to make sure that I haven't made any stupid mistakes.  It's easier to fix them now, then later.  The first render below is the 2 different colors of mane fill, and the 2nd is for the body.  Note the hole in the middle of the white fill which is where the eye will be.

The last fill is the blue eyeliner and cutie mark.  The cutie mark is done no differently than other fill, though I sew it twice in opposing directions (left/right, then up/down) to get some extra definition.  For the eyeliner, I changed the direction of the fill after laying out the fill (upper right in the below pic of the fill properties) and the density (upper left of the pic, showing 4.0).  The direction is the direction that the needle travels when sewing.  For all the fill areas, I use a simple left to right or right to left fill.  For the eye liner, I used a vertical fill.  The density is how many stitches there are in a given area.  I made the density half normal.  this will make the blue of the eye liner look a little softer.

Once the fill is done, I move on to another difficult portion; eyes.  Eyes are very complicated, and need to be done really well in order to convey emotion.  The wrong size pupil can make it look like a character is stoned at best, or derp at worst.  Generally, I do the whites of the eyes as fill, then the black pupil, and finally the colored iris as a column object.  Using a column object (I'll go over this in a moment) will get the thread pointing the same way the filaments in an iris point, so it will look more natural. As a last step, I do the eyelashes as they generally need to overlap parts of the eye.  Here is a closeup of the finished eye, showing the different columns and jumps.

Once the eyes are, I move on to the outlines.  The order that the outline is done is very important.  The outline will make or break the entire design.  A good outline will more than make up for a poor fill, and a poor outline will make a design look very bad no matter how good the rest of the design looks.

Outlines are done a little differently than fill, because the stitches will look bad if they all go in the same direction.  For an outline, I want the stitches to always go across the outline, just like the eye iris.  To do that, I use a column object. A column object will always have the thread going across the short dimension of the object. For outside outlines, or outlines between colors, I generally go with a width of 11.  This is a good balance of being able to see, but also not large enough so the outline is overwhelming.  For internal lines (like the inside of the ear or the highlights in the mane) I go with a width of 5,6 or 7 depending on boldness.  Anything smaller than 5 will not stay together on most fabric.

When doing the outline, it is important to keep in mind that thread can't be started and stopped after doing part of an outline.  If a dead end or such is required, then the thread will need to either be put under another part of the design, or the thread will need to be trimmed off after (or during) sewing of the design.

Also remember that when doing the outline, it is important to keep layers in mind; both in thread count and in thread order.  Columns put a lot of thread in a small area, making it difficult to sew over.  4 layers is about the limit before thread or needles will break, or stitches will be skipped when sewing. The thread order is very important too.  Generally, it is better to do a body outline after a fill, and doing the 'top' outlines after underlying outlines..  For example, the outline of a necklace should be done after the outline of the neck.  This helps the necklace look like it is on top of the body outline, which is more natural.  I did Rarity's mane first, then the body outline.  This helps the mane look like it is coming out of the body, instead of sitting on top of the body.

In some instances, especially with MLP:FiM characters, I will flip the order of the pupil and eye white that was discussed earlier.  This is because of the white reflection mark that is on the pupil in MLP.  Doing black first will save 1 thread change (black - white instead of white - black - white).  Not all designs will allow this and still look correct though.  A careful consideration must be used to determine if the thread change is worth the trade off in design 'correctness'.  In this case, I chose to have an extra white at the end for the 2nd pupil reflection.

The last step is to do a final check of the digitized design, then compile it for your sewing machine.  Below is a look at the objects without having the stitches rendered.   This helps in finding areas that ware too overlapped, or not overlapped enough.

During the actual test sew, I find improvements that can be made in a small portion of the designs I make.  Usually they are very small, like adding an extra stitch or 2 in order to fill a blank spot.  For example, in this design, I may change the color of the body to off-white and use white for the pupil.  The body may not be clearly differentiated in this design, and a test is pretty much the only way to tell for sure. (Update: after test sewing, I DID make this change.) Once that sew is complete, the design is done and you have a beer.

As I mentioned earlier, this process is the same as a digitizing service would follow with 2 possible exceptions.  The first is the software.  I use Embird, but there are lots of options out there.  For example, Pulse is the program that SparkleStiches uses for her designs. The 2nd change is the final step in Embird will differ depending on the expected machine the design will be embroidered on.  I chose the PES format, because that is what my machine understands, but nearly any format can be compiled.

There are some tools out there that will take an actual vector file and attempt to turn it into an embroidery design automatically.  The general consensus on sewing forums is that there is no existing software that even comes close to a manual design.  I have tried quite a few of them, and come to the same conclusion.  The automatically created designs look like junk compared to a manual design.  Even my very first design looks an order of magnitude better than any program's best attempt at an auto design.  The direction of the thread, size, order, and such are just too difficult for an automated program to figure out.  Sometime in the future, I'm sure that software will be better, but for now, auto-digitizing is a waste of time and resources.

Here's a picture of the test sew on a wash cloth.

The completed design can be downloaded here.

Purple - 2081 (internal mane) After testing, I think this may be too dark
deep purple - 2083 (external mane)  After testing, I think this may be too dark
off White - 2115 (body)
White - 2149 (eye)
Dark Purple - 2305 (mane outline and highlights)
blue - 2233 (cutie mark & eyeliner)
blue - 2230 (iris)
black - 2150 (eye)
Warm Gray - 2138 (body outline)  I need a lighter gray, this is the lightest I have
White - 2149 (eye)


  1. Just wanted to say that I found this post really interesting. I love your designs, and it's so great of you to share them, especially seeing the amount of work that goes into one.

  2. So cool! I tried Embird and couldn't figure it out, so I went to Stitch Era Universal instead. Is there any way you could take a video of your process one day? I understand if you don't have time, or just don't want to do such a thing, but I know I would love to watch a "tutorial" of what you do. And I bet lot's of other people would, too. <3

    1. I do livestreams every so often, and there are some recordings up, from the design all the way though the first test sew. You can see them here: http://www.livestream.com/ethepony

  3. Hello! I love your patterns, I did a test run of this Rarity (to put on a fleece hat) but I ran into some trouble. It seemed as if the pattern shifted (the body outline) and the mane/tail had issues. I think it was something that was wrong with my fabric/stabilizer. Do you have any tips for embroidering on fleece?

    1. Oh I'm using a Babylock Esante

    2. The fabric was not tight in the hoop, or the stabilizer was too weak. Use at least 3.0 oz stabilizer (6.0 is better) and make sure the fabric is tight. It should sound similar to a drum if you thwack it with your finger in the hoop. The fabric piece may also have been too big/heavy for your machine to move correctly.

  4. Thanks for sharing with us software of embroidery. This software is really useful for House wives and professionals.