7 Ways to Deal with Overly Dense Designs

Just this week I had 3 people email me about how to deal with “thick” designs or what is commonly known in the industry as “bullet proof embroidery.” The major complaint was puckering and bulky design.

Each of them had thrown all sorts of stabilizers and multiple and too many stabilizers at the design, which did nothing for the puckering and only added to the thickness.

One person adjusted the machine tension to control the thickness. Unfortunately, these are not the solutions!

Density and Goldilocks

About 20 years ago, I digitized a series of show breed style dogs. In one week I got three emails about the same dog. The first one said, “This design is perfect! It runs like butter!” The next said, “This design is so thick it breaks thread!” and another said “This design doesn’t cover my fabric!” Now how could that be?

All said they sewed it at actual size with 40wt thread. This same design had been sewn in production by a large company and they thought it was perfect.

I never did get to the bottom of that and I finally chalked it up to personal preference. Some embroiderers expect embroidery to be full, total, absolute solid coverage.

But here’s the thing, embroidery is an embellishment that, while it appears to be surface only, actually penetrates the fabric.

We say “embroider on” but we are actually embroidering through. And every stitch except the first and last has 2 threads through the fabric—one going in and another coming out.

Stitches and the Full Bathtub

If you’ve ever sunk down into a really full bathtub, you may have noticed the water level rise.

What’s happening is your body mass is displacing an equal amount of water—well, at least the part of your body that’s in the water. And, the bigger your body, the more you displace. (It’s physics!)

Thread is the same way only in this case, it’s displacing fabric. Densely woven fabrics—think denim—are a full bathtub and adding thread between the weave pushes the fibers apart.

The more stitches per square inch, the bigger the “body mass” and the more displacement occurs. Weaves with some space between the weave won’t overflow as easily.

What this means is that a design may be technically too dense for one fabric and be just fine for another.

What Makes a Design Too Dense?

There are four things that combine together to make a design too dense:

  1. Short stitches
  2. Closely spaced rows of stitches
  3. Multiple layers of stitches
  4. Thread weight

The first three are controlled by the digitizer through stitch length and stitch density as well as creative and thoughtful planning. When areas are very small, stacking may be necessary. Larger areas typically have a “void” under the upper layer and only overlap along the edges to avoid unsightly gaps.

Novice digitizers often think that the best way to get good coverage in fills is to use shorter stitches and tighter densities.

Actually, this doesn’t provide better coverage and it is a guaranteed way to make a design both too dense and have a higher stitch count. There’s a better way to get good coverage that I cover in Anatomy of a Design.

Unfortunately, unless you have the native, or source file, for the design along with the software used to create it—plus the skill and knowledge to make the appropriate changes—you can’t do a whole lot to remedy the situation optimally.

Thread weight is controlled by the embroiderer and many embroiderers use a 30wt thread for better coverage. The downside is more fabric displacement, more thickness, and more overall puckering and rippling.

Some thread colors simply can’t cover a high contrast background fabric solidly. You can’t paint over a red and white striped wall with one or two coats of white paint without a good primer and thread is quite similar.


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So What CAN You Do?

Since they weren’t designs I had digitized, I gave these people my short list of things to try:

1. Use a special utility to reduce overall density.

Use a program like Density Repair Kit to take out out some density. DRK is from the good guys at Embrilliance and will do a pretty decent job of reducing density on many designs.

You won’t have ultimate control the way you would over a design you digitized yourself but it’s easy to use and doesn’t require any specialized skills or knowledge.

2. Try this resize trick to reduce density.

If you have a resizing program that lets you turn the stitch processor on or off, you can try this trick. The function of the stitch processor is to look at the stitch patterns in your design and then maintain their attributes (type, length, density, pattern) when resizing.

If you enlarge, you’ll have more stitches, if you shrink, you’ll have fewer. A good stitch processor will also maintain any custom fill patterns.

If you can turn the processor off, then when you enlarge, the stitches just get “stretched” and the design still has the same number of stitches as the original.

Shrinking compresses the stitches and the smaller one will also have the same number as the original design. You can use this knowledge to lighten up an overall too-dense design. Here’s how:

    • Note the design’s original stitch count and dimensions.
    • With the stitch processor turned off, enlarge the design oh, about 10%. This spreads out the stitches. You can disable the stitch processor when resizing in Embrilliance by holding down the control key.
    • With some programs (Embrilliance and Embroidery Works) you’ll need to save the file at this point, then open the saved file before doing the next step. This is because it remembers the original file details.
    • Turn the stitch processor back on and then shrink the design back to it’s original size. The design should now have fewer stitches than the original and the overall density should be reduced.
    • SAVE AS with a new name to preserve the original design.
    • Test sew the design to see if works.

If it’s still too dense repeat the process WITH THE ORIGINAL DESIGN and modifying how much you enlarge it. Working from the original will make sure tiny errors don’t creep in and get magnified with each resizing.

Note: This trick doesn’t work with all programs that resize!/p>

3. Use a thinner thread.

Most stock designs are digitized for 40 wt polyester or rayon embroidery thread but you are free to try other weights. You can reduce the thickness of a design by using a thinner thread in the needle and the bobbin. This doesn’t affect the density at all but does affect the “perceived” density and reduces design bulk.

You can find 60wt embroidery thread from a few thread companies and the colors are typically more limited. Sulky and Wonderfil are two companies that carry 60 wt thread.

4. Contact the digitizer.

If the design was custom digitized, by all means, contact the digitizer and explain the problem. An experienced digitizer will choose appropriate densities for your target fabric.

Keep in mind there’s no such thing as universally appropriate design (well, maybe some appliqués…) and if you specified the design for one particular fabric and are now using a different one, you may have to pay for a change.

If the design wasn’t custom digitized, you can still contact the digitizer to see what might be done. It may not be something they do for free if they perceive there isn’t a problem with the design.

Experienced digitizers generally target stitch lengths and densities for a mythical “average” fabric and they do test their designs. If you’re stitching on something outside the norm, then expect to pay for a customized design.

5. Choose a different design.

Just because the design looks exactly like what you want doesn’t mean it’s suitable for your project or that it’s even a well-digitized design. It’s very hard to make a badly digitized design sew well. More stabilizer is just not the answer.

Also, some designs just work better on some types of fabric than others. Redwork designs are not going to sew well on textured fabrics and may sink in on spongy ones to the point they’re invisible.

Another example is free-standing lace. FSL must have extra support stitches to hold the design together once the stabilizer is removed. All this extra structure adds to the overall density and the designs are not designed to be stitched on fabric. Plus, many FSL designs have an abundance of shorter than normal stitches.

Designs seldom come with instructions on what types of fabric they’ll sew well on. Stock designs are digitized for an “average fabric” or fabric that you as the embroiderer can make average through stabilizers or other products. There’s no such thing as a universal, one-size fits all.

There are ways you can look at a design before stitching it to get clues as to how it will work. If you’d like to become a better embroiderer and learn more about what’s going on underneath the hood of your designs, check out Anatomy of a Design: How to Think Like a Digitizer and Become a Better Embroiderer.

The purpose of this downloadable e-book is not to teach you how to digitize. I took the best parts of my 3 day digitizing course and used that to explain what goes into a well-digitized design and how you can expect your designs to sew.

You’ll learn how and why they work in some combinations of fabric and stabilizer and not with others—or possibly will never work.

It boils down to the old saw of “work smarter, not harder.” Learn what you can fix easily and what you can’t. Bad designs don’t become better with age, ditch them so you aren’t tempted to use them again!

6. Choose a different fabric.

If you’re stitching on a tightly woven fabric, adding a dense design will magnify the bulkiness. If you can’t lighten the design, try lightening up the fabric.

7. Use the correct stabilizer.

It’s very rare for you to need more than two pieces of backing stabilizer plus one topping. Throwing more stabilizer at a project is seldom the solution for getting smooth, pucker-free embroidery. Too much stabilizer or the wrong kind of stabilizer can contribute to that thick, undesirable “bullet proof patch” effect that is not only unattractive but screams “amateur!”

You can learn more about puckering and how to avoid it in this blog post: Why Does My Embroidery Pucker?

Summing it Up

Not all designs are created equally or even properly or well. And unfortunately, you can seldom tell a whole lot from looking at an image of a design—especially if that image is a 3D rendered version from some embroidery program instead of an actual sewn design. Who knows if it’s even been sewn at all?

Scanning a sewn version and cleaning it up for viewing is tedious and time consuming and personally, I’m considering abandoning the process myself due to what people are willing to pay for designs. It simply isn’t cost effective.

You can learn to look at a design in software and determine some things but the only real test is sewing it under the same conditions as your final project. I have a saying that I often repeat at the end of my classes: “There are those who test and those who wish they had. Which do you want to be?”

Where to Find…

    • Embrilliance software is often available in our shop as a physical product that will be shipped (U.S. only) or as digital download from Embrilliance

        • Not sure? Download a demo version to try out any ot the apps or get the free version, previously known as Alpha Tricks Express, now known as Embrilliance Express to open access to the thousands of keyboard fonts available as BX installer files

    • Anatomy of Design is an e-book designed for embroiderers who want to understand what’s going with designs and therefore make better choices when selecting designs, fabric, stabilizers, and threads
    • Other general supplies can be found on the Resources page


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