The Truth About Redwork Designs

I recently posted a question on my Facebook fan page asking how embroidery designs should be priced. Several people replied that stitch count was a good way, that “low stitch count designs like redwork” should be priced lower.

Any of you digitizers who have manually digitized even a reasonably complex redwork design probably just experienced an instant increase in blood pressure and possibly whiplash. Those of you who have only embroidered redwork are probably still nodding your heads in agreement.

For the latter group, you may be shocked to know that a well-sequenced redwork design can easily take a lot longer to digitize than a “standard” (whatever that is) design.

What I mean by “well-sequenced” is a design that sews efficiently from start to finish without excessive backtracking or jumping around. Obviously jumps cannot be avoided when there are disconnected parts, but…


To get a feel for what the digitizer must do, look through your design stash and select a fairly detailed redwork design and print it out. Next, take a pencil and find a starting place and trace every line in the design with the least number of jumps—in this case, pencil lifts—and the least amount of backtracking.

How long did it take you? How many times did it take you? Or did you just give up?

During presentations, I often display a redwork design on the screen (such as this one from Winter Teddies) and ask participant to do this exercise. Many of them will stare intently at the image before beginning to trace it in the air with a finger.

Then they’ll shake their head and start over. After one such demonstration, one flabbergasted embroiderer said, “I just thought the digitizer clicked on the artwork and all the stitches were just immediately applied!”

A few others agreed but many others said they never gave it any thought. I have digitized some continuous line redwork designs like this but for the most part, this is not the case!


I prefer to digitize redwork with a bean stitch, otherwise known as a triple stitch. The reason for this is increased registration and reduced looping. If you’ve ever sewn a design that has a running stitch outline, you may have noticed that sometimes the outline does not line up on itself.

Many outlines are a double run, which means the line stitches from one end to the other and back again. Sometimes on the return pass the needle does not always line up in the same needle holes as the first pass.

This misalignment can be due to sewing distortions—more likely on really long double runs—or needle deflection from other stitches. Deflection is not likely on a redwork design composed of all running stitches but misalignment is a real possibility, which makes the case for using the bean stitch.

The downside of using a bean stitch is that for optimal usage, you need to start and end it on opposite ends of the path (line). If you have to start and end at the endpoint, then you’ll have single run in one direction and bean back.

Another advantage of using a bean stitch is the reduction in looping. Looping is most likely to occur when you are using the design for quilting.

For example, you have hooped your top fabric with batting and a backing fabric. When embroidering in this instance, the first stitch or pass will compress the “quilt sandwich” a certain amount and the second pass will compress it again.

In the case of a double run, you are likely to see loops here and there on the first pass. Of course, the thicker the batting, the more dramatic the looping. A bean stitch, on the other hand, compresses the fabric evenly as it is stitched.


Most software today is object based. In the case of redwork, these objects are typically just lines, or technically speaking, paths. A path can be open ended or closed (connected to itself). Each line must be drawn and a stitch effect applied to it. In most redwork designs you’ll see 3 types of stitch effects:

  • Single run: a basic stitch that starts on one end of the line and ends on the other resulting in a single pass
  • Double run: starts and ends on the same end of the line resulting in a double pass
  • Bean stitch: a forward-back-forward triple stitch action that starts on ene end and ends on the other.

In general, I try to keep these stitch types a fixed length but in some intricate areas, it may be necessary to use a slightly shorter stitch length. The goal in the design is to have either a double pass or a bean stitch on every line of the image, no more and no less. A double pass may be a double run or a series of single runs that have a later single run back over them.

Some redwork designs may have small satin dots or areas or possibly candlewicking type motifs. For simplicity sake, we’ll stick with the basic runs.

What this object-based process means is that most designs are made up of many separate pieces or elements. What appears when the stitch file is opened in a program that lists objects may only be a few objects or possibly only one.

When you sew the design, it may appear as one long running stitch broken up by trims or jumps. This leads to the illusion that these designs are fast and easy to digitize. Supporting this illusion are the simple stitch types and often monochromatic color scheme.


Let’s look at an example. Below is one of the Vintage Miniature Sewing Machinesfrom two collections by Ella & Skysie. I once had someone ask me why they cost so much when they all could be done in an afternoon. Sewing? Maybe.

Manually digitizing? No way!! Especially if you’re working from a bitmap and have to trace every line.

The artwork was sent to me as a black and white jpg scan of a hand-drawn rendering of an actual vintage child’s or miniature sewing machine. This type of artwork needs to be redrawn for digitizing, which took several hours in a vector based drawing program.

In my case, I can do this right in my digitizing program rather than use another program like Adobe Illustrator. The redrawing was necessary for two reasons:

  • To make the design cleaner and more precise from the sketch (straightening squiggly lines, curving elliptical objects smoothly, tweaking up perspective, etc.)
  • To optimize the design for embroidery by connecting some objects to reduce trims, enlarging some objects to make them sewable, and generally making a more stitch friendly design

Drawing gave me a vector version which was ready to accept stitches and it gave me a sense of what I would need to watch out for when digitizing. This drawing needs to be done at some point.

Depending on the digitizer and the software, each object may be “drawn” as the stitches are created or may be drawn in entirety before any stitches are placed. My software allows either so it gives me the flexibility to approach the design in way that works best for that particular design.


At that point the digitizing commenced. Even with the artwork ready for stitches, I still needed to decide the order to create an efficient design and break up the artwork as needed to apply the appropriate stitch types based on the pathing. While I didn’t track the time on this design, I can tell you it took several hours to digitize (at least 4).

The finished version has 466 objects (individual elements that have one of the 3 stitch effects applied), no trims and a final stitch count of 6,414 stitches. Do the math here. This works out to fewer than 14 stitches per object on average!

I can tell you it took several hours to digitize (at least 4) plus at least that long to draw for digitizing before ever placing a single stitch. The multi-color version has 22 trims and a few more stitches to account for the additional tie stitches required.

This particular collection offers each machine in both a monochromatic version and a multi-colored version and each of those versions in 3 sizes.

I digitized the machine at the middle size and once it sewed the way I wanted, I created the other two sizes and tweaked them as necessary for sewing and test sewed those. Common tweaks include adjustments for the details becoming very tiny in the smallest versions and lengthening the stitches in the larger versions to reduce sewing time.

After the single color versions were completed, the artist wanted multi-color versions. It would seem that simply adding a few colors should be an easy thing. Change some colors, add in tie-ins and tie-offs as needed and bingo! it’s ready. Should take maybe 10 minutes per design, right? Unfortunately, no!

If I had actually done that, anyone embroidering those designs would not have been happy by the inordinate amount of color changes! Instead, each design had to be manually resequenced (which also necessitated some change in stitch types used) so that each color was only sewn once and the flow of each color change was optimal. In some cases, this took nearly as long as it did to digitize the design in the first place.

I can hear you thinking, “You could have saved a lot of time doing the multi-color versions first and then just making it one color.” That works well with artwork but not embroidery if the goal is an efficiently running design. Some digitizers would do that but I won’t compromise that way.


Planning the sequence—the sewing order—of a complex redwork design requires a lot of thought. If you did the exercise I suggested at the beginning of this article, you may have discovered that yourself.

It’s easy to work yourself into a corner where the easiest way out is to jump or track back over an otherwise finished segment. The more complex the design, the more ways there are to path it.

In general, I try to keep double runs to shorter segments and use bean stitches as much as possible. I also try to keep jumps and trims to a minimum because tie stitches are more obvious on runs than on satins and fills.

I used to dread digitizing redwork designs because they took so long to digitize relative to the perceived value of the design. Now I enjoy them like working a putting together a complex jigsaw puzzle even though I’m still disturbed by their lack of appreciation.

I hope by now that you’ve gained a new appreciation for digitizing redwork. Sure, the stitch types are simpler and there are fewer worries about sewing distortions and therefore compensation but you are likely to have a lot more planning to do and you will likely be switching stitch types often. You’ll also need to pay careful attention to in/out points depending on how your software handles them.


  • 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
  • View all redwork designs


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