How to Learn to Digitize Machine Embroidery

I’m often asked two questions about creating embroidery designs:

  1. “Can you teach me to digitize?” 
  2. “Is it hard?”

The answer to #1 is maybe. The answer to #2 is it depends.

I probably can’t teach you to digitize by email, which is where I often see that question. I can teach digitizing bit-by-bit through blog posts and YouTube videos and various paid courses. But learning to digitize requires a lot of work on your part. I’ll cover that in this post.

Whether digitizing is “hard” or not is a relative thing. Learning anything new and different requires patience, persistence, and practice. If you’re enjoying that process, what difference does it make if it’s “hard?” Besides, things that are are too easy tend to be less rewarding. 

So let’s talk about how to learn to digitize—or anything else, for that matter.

The 30-Day Challenge

I recently took a lettering course to improve my calligraphy skills on my iPad. Each day, I’ve practiced tracing over the templates to get the hang of the correct pressure, curve, and style, even if only for a few minutes. Then I practiced the lettering on a blank page. Each day, I’ve seen my letters become smoother and more even. 

In the process, I was reminded of when I started my 30-day trial with Hatch and spending just a bit of time every day to learn a new tool and figure out what it did. That was 3 years ago and I’m still learning new ways to use the tools!

TIP: With good software, you will ALWAYS be learning new and creative things to do with it!

If you want to learn to digitize, or really, do anything with some amount of skill and ease, you have to practice every day.

Did you ever learn to play a musical instrument? What were you told? “Practice 30 minutes every day.” Right?

That’s what I’m telling you now. Practice every day. Where you start depends on your level. 

For example, if you don’t know how to read music and have never played any instrument before, you’ll be starting at a more basic level than someone who already knows how to read music and has some sort of other musical experience.

Also, some people are musically gifted (I’m not one!) and will learn faster and just be “better” than others who have different talents. But talent only goes so far. You also need desire and dedication.

Same goes for embroidery.

If you just bought your first embroidery machine, have never embroidered anything before, and are not a whiz on a computer, you are at a different level than someone who’s very comfortable on a computer with a variety of programs and has already been embroidering for a while but is just now getting started with embroidery software.

Do You “Need” to Digitize?

For me, the answer is a big yes! It feeds my need to be creative. It can be a meditative process for me (lace and fonts do that!) 

The real answer is that just like music, it’s not for everyone. Sure, “everyone can do it” at some level, but if it makes you crazy, then don’t feel you have to do it! 

Also, just like learning a musical instrument for the first time, learning to digitize can be frustrating at first. You just can’t play Chopin when you haven’t mastered chopsticks. Creating smooth running embroidery designs is no different.

On another “note,” with the plethora of designs available at dirt cheap prices, you can buy a lot of designs for what you’d spend on decent digitizing software. 

So the real question is, do you want to digitize?

You don’t have to aspire to become some master digitizer. Do it because you just want to no matter what anyone else tells you. I don’t intend to become a master calligrapher but it’s something I’ve enjoyed off and on since high school.

What You Need to Know

There are several aspects to really learning to digitize:

  • You need to know how to embroider 
  • You need to be comfortable with using a computer
  • You need to learn your software
  • You need to understand embroidery theory

You don’t really need to know anything about sewing or art but both are certainly useful.

None of those can be learned in a weekend workshop or by watching a series of online videos or webinars. An experienced person can make anything they are demonstrating look easy.

Instead, you have to sit with your software and work through things on your own. And after that, you need to stitch them out to see what happens when you make a perfect circle in your software and it turns into an oval when you sew it or why those running stitch outlines aren’t where you placed them.

At that point, you need to figure out how much was a digitizing error and how much was a sewing error (hooping, stabilizing, machine tensions, etc.). This is why you need to perfect your embroidery skills before you begin to digitize; otherwise you won’t really know where the problem is.

What you will learn in a demo situation is what your software is capable of. And knowing that can take you a long way; you’ll just need to figure out the steps so you can repeat it.

How to Learn

Learning anything involves repetition and discovery. If you install new software and expect to know everything it does the first time you launch it, then you better expect that software to be pretty basic.

Powerful software has a learning curve to be able to take full advantage of what the tools do. In fact, with high end software, you’ll never learn everything it can do. There will always be some cool little nugget to discover.

Think of a sewing machine. With even a basic one, you can make stunning quilts, beautiful wedding gowns, perfectly tailored garments, and a pillowcase.

If you’re a beginner sewer, you’ll start with a pillow case, not a tailored jacket. As you master your seams and construction techniques, you’ll move on to more complex projects. (Or decide it’s not for you and abandon it…)

Spend some time with the manual. While the manual can tell you the function of a particular tool, it doesn’t tell you what all you can do with it. The Create Outlines & Offsets tool in Hatch is one of those tools I’m always finding new uses for. 

I particularly like online manuals that I can reference while working in the software. Some programs provide instant context sensitive help via the F1 key.

Where to Start: With the Basics

What are the basics? That depends on your level.

By the time I tried Hatch, I already had close to a quarter century of digitizing experience with another program.

Of course that program ran on Mac and worked more like Adobe Illustrator, which is seemingly very different from any other embroidery digitizing software I ever saw. So I had to learn a new interface with different tools and on top of that, on Windows!

On the plus side, I already understood digitizing theory, compensation, density, stitch length, and how a good design runs. I just had to figure out how to do it with different tools and methods. I started by recreating simple designs just to get familiar with the software.

You’ll start at your level. Don’t set the bar too high. You need to get comfortable with the tools and the environment in your software. YouTube videos are great but don’t expect a full “start to finish” course. YouTube videos are most useful for isolated topics.

For example, I recently posted a video on how to put text on spiral in Hatch. If you don’t already have some familiarity with this software, you may not be able to recreate it in the same software without learning a few other things first. But you can see that it’s possible.

Start at the Beginning

When installing new software, “the beginning” is configuring settings for your preferences and machine. 

Next, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the interface: the general layout and navigation. How to open and find designs and basic stuff like that.

Once the you get to the point of creating something, “the beginning” is pretty nebulous and depends on what you want to accomplish.

  • Are you creating a new composition by combining readymade designs?
  • Are you adding lettering to a readymade design?
  • Are you creating something from scratch?

Today’s embroidery programs are powerful, flexible, and more affordable than ever. Once you get past the initial introductions, you can go off in any direction.

Watch Good Designs Sew

A really good way to learn to digitize is to watch good designs sew. This can be a bit of a trick for some of you who only download free designs from “freebie of the day” sites because many of those aren’t really all that good.

Instead, buy some designs from any of the many reputable sites. Watch it sew from start to end both on your machine with thread and fabric and in your software using the virtual stitch player tool.

Analyze what makes it good. Is it efficient? Does it use stitch types creatively? Is it the colors? Bad colors can make even a great design look bad while great colors can mask a bad design.

As you get better, imagine what order the design might sew in before you stitch it. This will help you get better at planning out your own designs.

Want to learn a new technique or style? Find a design that uses it and buy it. Study it. How is it constructed? What stitch types does it use? How does it use stitch length and direction to create interest? How does it sew?

Taking A Course

Can you learn software on your own? Certainly!

You can also spend way too much time digging away and searching Google for the next answer to your question because it’s “free.” Or you may find that the best way is to just sign up for a course. 

With things the way they are these days in the wake of COVID-19, live courses are being replaced with online webinars and even full-on courses. 

I really enjoy well-structured classes that I can watch over and over and follow along with. I’ve taken classes on a huge range of topics from programming to design to knitting, quilting, and drawing.

Having developed content for online courses, I can tell you that it takes a lot of preparation and time. Finding a well-thought out curriculum that covers the basics and more is well worth the cost, especially the ones where you can ask questions and interact with the instructor and other students.

Courses that have step-by-step and/or “homework” allow you the time to reproduce and learn the technique—and it can take more than once to really commit a learned skill to memory so you can pull out and use whenever you need it.

TIP: Even if you don’t like the project, work through the steps anyway. Step-by-step projects will teach you how to build a design and how to use tools in different ways. Then you can apply them to a subject that suits your style better.

You may think these courses are expensive but you have no travel costs, you can watch when it suits you, and you can watch as many times as you like or need to—something you can’t do with a live course unless they also sell a DVD version after you’ve already paid for travel, hotel, and conference fees.

TIP: For Hatch users, check out the Hatch Embroidery site and look at the Academy. Here you’ll find several courses you can enroll in to help you get up to speed more quickly. The basic ones are even free!

Practice Every Day!

Set aside time to practice every day. Even 30 minutes will do. Make it a time to not be rushed or interrupted. Approach it with a spirit of inquisitiveness rather than “I must produce this!”

REMINDER: This is not “production” time. Even if you’ve been using a program for a long time, set aside “play time” to try out some new technique.

As you get more comfortable with the interface, pick a tool to learn and see what it does. Read about it in the manual. Look at other designs and identify how it might be used to recreate various areas. Don’t forget to test sew to verify your progress!

Here’s a recent test sew I did when I was experimenting with different thread weights and types for a fringing project.

Just this little thing let me try out stitch densities and how “fluffy” the thread was after stitching. Then I was able to make the right choice on future projects.

Slow and continual progress in this manner is much better than a weekend spurt once a month where you’ll likely just be figuring out everything you forgot since the last time you used your program.

Remember the parable of the tortoise and the hare? Be the tortoise.

Back to the 30-Day Challenge

So here’s my challenge to you. Open up your embroidery software and make something every day. Fiddle around. Try a new technique. Experiment with a new tool.

One thing you might try is take a simple image and try a different technique on it everyday. 

If you’ve watched my Craftsy/Bluprint classes (so sad to see that shutting down!), you saw this simple flower design that I used to test sew different thread weights and to try out different techniques. You can interpret an image in many different ways!

And no, I won’t be posting a new tip or video for you for the next 30 days!

Everyone is different. You need to map out your own goals from your own starting point.

No Software Yet?

Download a trial! Some companies offer a free 30-day trial of their software.

Be sure to find one that allows saving and sewing your designs—not all trials do. Hatch does.

And you do need to test sew—you want to see if the stitch engine performs properly. Watch every stitch sew. In some programs I tried, I’d see some random stitches or jumps & trims that shouldn’t be present. In one program, I could not control when a trim was inserted because the program was “smart” and assumed I wasn’t. 

Just be sure to export the design in your machine format in addition to the program’s native or working file format. That way you can still access the machine file version after the trial if you choose not to buy the software. 

TIP: When you download and activate your trial software, be sure to take time to really investigate it. Don’t expect to learn everything about it in those 30 days, especially if you don’t put in the time! However, 30 days is a good time limit to see if the software can do what you want. Keep in mind not every program “does it all” and each program has some advantages the others don’t. Don’t go for the cheapest program. Choose one that you can use now and still have “growing room.”

The Hatch trial comes with free access to the Getting Started Series in the Hatch Academy. This series is designed to give you the basics for getting off the ground with Hatch.

If you want more after you purchase Hatch, you can check out The Essentials Series. Want even more? The Gold Pass level includes more lessons, monthly projects, videos, tips, and more. New stuff every month to keep you learning!

The projects are designed to walk you through a “real world” design from conception to sewing. You’ll learn to think like a digitizer along with thinking like an embroiderer for sewing the project. As a digitizer, it’s vital for you to understand how to get good embroidery at the machine.

Do You Need More Than 1 Program?

When I used to teach a 3 day live digitizing class, students often had 2, 3, and even more embroidery programs and couldn’t really use any of them. They simply attended an event, saw a great demo, bought the software, and never took the time to learn it to be able to do anything.

If you have software that you haven’t learned or don’t use, why? Is it old and the upgrade price is prohibitive? Is it hard to use? Is it just clunky?

If so, find something new, get it, and learn it. Don’t use the excuse of, “I can’t buy something new because I haven’t learned this one yet.” 

In my case, the software I knew and loved was being updated (at a price, usually) to run with OS updates but it wasn’t really being upgraded. And recently, it was even being updated to run on newly released OS updates. It was frozen in the past.

Back in the mid-90s when I purchased it, it was ahead of the pack but now it had fallen way behind. 

I knew that changing would require downtime while I investigated and learned a new program and I dragged my feet for quite a while. I tried a few others but they just didn’t work the way I did. 

Ultimately, I switched to Hatch and then a year later, I also bought Wilcom ES. I do use both.

I occasionally use my old program, mostly for drawing and to work with designs I created using it. The other program, Embrilliance, I mostly use for converting all my fonts to BX formats. I digitized a LOT of fonts in Punto where they could be used as native, object-based keyboard fonts.

It’s difficult to become really proficient in multiple programs, especially if they are from different companies. The interfaces, tools, and shortcut keys are different. Plus the native files are not at interchangeable.

In general, find one good program and really learn it. Does Hatch do everything? Nope. But neither does any other program on the market.

Chances are you don’t do everything either. Just find a program that matches you best and learn how it works.

Want to Learn More?

Your manual tells you what the tools do but seldom does it go into the how and why.

Think about a word processor. The manual tells you how to set margins and styles. It tells you what the menu items and various tools do. It doesn’t teach you about grammar, paragraph, or sentence construction. It doesn’t tell you how to write a poem, a legal document, or short story. You need to learn that elsewhere.

I’ve written two different books, which are available in PDF format that you can download right now, and start applying today.

Anatomy of a Design: How to Think Like a Digitizer and Become a Better Embroiderer was the first book I wrote. This book is for someone with a bit of embroidery experience who is wondering why some designs work well most of the time but not all of the time. Or why some designs rarely work well at all. It’s a peek under the hood of a design to understand the how’s and why’s of what a digitizer does and how that affects your results.

The Embroidery Recipe: How Your Ingredients Affect Your Results is for all embroiderers and covers just about everything you need to know to get good results when embroidering. It includes tips and techniques I’ve learned from the masters and practiced and refined myself. It has loads of helpful troubleshooting charts to make it easier to track down issues you may be experiencing. Why search all over the internet when the answer is probably in here?

The Hatch Academy. The Getting Started Series comes free with the free 30-day trial. Learn more about the Hatch Academy here.

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