Do Your Outlines Ever Look Like This?

Have you ever sewn a design where the outlines were radically off in some areas but pretty good in others? Did your design have gaps between sections? Why are some outlines much worse than others?

In general, I’m not a big fan of running stitch outlines, especially black ones. They’re hard to digitize and they’re hard to get perfectly aligned—especially if you optimize color changes and save them for last.They also can look cartoonish, but let’s face it, some designs just need those outlines to look finished.

If you purchased the design from a reputable source, you should have an image of their sample—and I mean a sewn sample not a rendered or “3D” image from their embroidery software! The sewn sample will show you how it looked when they tested it.


Many websites only display designs as simulated or 3D images exported from their embroidery software.

While this is certainly a quick and easy way to create images for the web, it is not a accurate indication of how the design will sew. In fact, on some sites, these designs are not sewn at all. The sample shown below is a 3D version of the PES version after coloring in Convert It Mac.

Scanned, sewn versions are more work.

In our case, to make a clean version for the web and for packaging, the background fabric is carefully cropped out in Photoshop. Doing this step is tedious and time-consuming but it is also a good final check on the design.

Looking at the scanned version of the design at a high zoom level can reveal imperfections that require editing the embroidery file and resewing.

Of course, this extra work adds to the production time and therefore the cost of the design but it gives you the assurance that the design has indeed been sewn out and verified.


There are a number of reasons why good designs can go bad. When outlines are not where they should be or there are gaps or other misalignments in a design, they are called registration errors. Common reasons include:

  • Overly tight machine tensions
  • Improper hooping techniques
  • Incorrect stabilizer(s)
  • The pantograph hitting an obstacle
  • The design corrupted sending to the machine/card

In this post, we’ll look at stabilizer.


Whenever you have a design with areas of fill stitches surrounded by outlines, you need to select a stabilizer that can stand up to needle perforations. In the case of the first sample in this post, the design was sewn on polar fleece and hooped with 1 layer of light weight tearaway.

If the tearaway is sufficiently perforated by the fill to separate before the embroidery is complete, then the fabric in that area is no longer being supported or stabilized by the backing. The less stable/more stretchy the fabric is, the worse the result.

Here you can see the back side of the bad sample. Notice that the tearaway is nearly completely severed, indicating it was inadequate for this design.

If you’ve been embroidering for a while, you may have heard “Tearaway for wovens, and cutaway for knits.”

This tearaway would have suffered the same fate no matter what fabric it was paired with. The design may have looked better due to less fabric distortion but it likely would still be unacceptable.


Use a cutaway. Cutaways are designed to support higher stitch counts without falling apart on the job. I really love the no-show mesh cutaways. They are soft, don’t impact the drape of the fabric, and provide superb support.

Most major stabilizer brands offer such a product. You can find them in white, black, and beige as well as fusible and non-fusible varieties. Because this is polar fleece and ironing is not recommended, I chose a non-fusible.

A temporary embroidery spray adhesive can reduce shifting but since this design fits a small hoop, I didn’t bother with it.

If you’re working on a baby blanket or other item and you don’t want any stabilizer remaining on the back, try using 2 layers of wash-away fiber backing.

While temporary, it isn’t affected by needle penetrations so will hold up during stitching. However, if you need more permanent support, this is not the way to go.

Below you can see the same design, sewn right after the bad version with the only difference being the stabilizer.


To answer this design, you need to watch the design sew. Outlines that are sewn relatively close to the area they are encircling are better than when the outlines run much later in the design.

The more stitches sewn into the design and the more the machine moves around, the more chance there is for the fabric to distort. To reduce these problems, pro digitizers will often repeat colors.

While to the uninitiated and single-needle embroiderer, these extra changes may appear unnecessary, they are vital to the integrity of the design.

Some programs provide for color sorting, or optimizing the design for fewest color changes. You should really think of this as color optimization and not design optimization.

If you do it, always do it on a copy of the design and not your original and be sure to test it before sewing in production.


Creating high quality embroidery is more than throwing some fabric in the hoop and punching a few buttons on your machine. It’s more like a well choreographed dance or a orchestra playing in harmony. Factors that influence results include:

  • Fabric (weight, stability, weave/knit, etc.)
  • Thread (fiber type, weight, quality)
  • Needle (size, type, condition)
  • Machine (tensions, clean, well-maintained)
  • Hooping (size, tensions)
  • Stabilizers (backings & toppings)
  • Design choice (quality, size, complexity, stitch types, suitability for the fabric)

If your results vary radically from the product sample, take a look at your technique and methods.

Try sewing the design under more “ideal” circumstances. If you modified the design in any way—and resizing is modification!—trying sewing the original.

Understand that not all designs can be sewn on all fabrics. In other words, there’s no such thing as a “one size fits all” machine embroidery design.


The more you know about how designs are constructed, the better choices you will make and the better your embroidery will be.

To learn more, check out Anatomy of a Design: How to Think Like a Digitizer and Become a Better Embroiderer. This ebook is available from a few select sources around the web and readers are raving about how they now have a new perspective on embroidery and why some things work and while others never will.


  • The puppy design used in the post is from Baby Animals and is one of 10 designs sized for 4″ hoops.
  • 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
Original price was: $37.00.Current price is: $27.00.


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