Is Color Sorting Destroying Your Designs?No Color Sorting symbol

Ask most any novice embroiderer and they’ll tell you they love color sorting. Bernina thought it was so wonderful that they built it into one of their machines as a “feature” for when you combine multiple designs. Ask any embroidery software developer and they’ll sing it’s praises too. Me? It makes me want to sing “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown!”

Why? Because it can totally destroy the integrity of a design.

What is Color Sorting?

Color sorting is a utility that will “intelligently” re-sort the colors in your design to eliminate “unnecessary” color changes. Oh sure, it’s smart about things like layering so it won’t combine the green on the leaves that are behind the flower with the same green in the foreground. But what it’s not smart about is where a digitizer has intentionally repeated colors to optimize registration.

OK, so yeah, I have a multi needle machine and repeating colors isn’t as big a deal for me as on a single needle (and I still have some of those too). Still, I’d rather spend the extra minute to swap a thread if it means a better, higher quality result. On the other hand, I also don’t want to add any unnecessary color changes (or jumps or trims for that matter) no matter what machine I’m stitching on. I want my designs to be as efficient and as production friendly as possible without sacrificing any quality.

So What’s My Beef with Color Sorting?

Here’s the issue. As our sewing fields become larger and larger, our design size grows as well. And as designs increase in size, they increase in stitch count. Larger hoops just can’t provide the same fabric stability as a small one. All these factors add up to more sewing distortion potential.

Try this so you can see for yourself: Hoop up some woven fabric in a very small hoop and the same fabric in a huge one and then tap your fingers in the center of the fabric. The fabric in the tiny hoop will feel like a drum whereas the fabric in the large hoop feels more like a trampoline.

Now tap near the corners and then along the sides of the hooped fabric.  It’ll be nice and secure in the corners but not so much in the middle of a long straight side, especially if the hoop isn’t reinforced in some way. The longer and straighter the sides of a hoop, the less gripping power it has. This is why the golden rule of hoop selection when hooping between the rings is to select the smallest one that can comfortably accommodate the design.

Large designs have more stitches that create more pull, more distortion, and more opportunities for registration problems. So, to get the best registration, with all the stitch areas matched up without gaps or shifting, it’s better to complete one area before moving on to the next.

For example, my Birth Month Flowers of Year block of the month series features 8” Baltimore-style floral design in 3 different styles: appliqué, filled (thread only design), and  redwork (outline only), which is perfect for quilting. The appliqué and filled versions stitch more or less by quadrant.

So yes, it’s rather like sewing 4 separate designs one right after the other with possibly a fifth in the center. It’s not because I’m lazy and only digitized one quadrant and then repeated it, it’s because I want optimum stitch perfection. (The quadrants are often sequenced differently to permit appliqué placements without having to remove the hoop from the machine.)

Award winningquilt by Lindee Goodall

For appliqué, each piece is a two- or possibly three-color element. One color for the placement stitch and the second for the tack down and cover satin. Sometimes the cover satin may be sewn later in the design or in a different color.

This poppy has 24 appliqués with 20 stops, since the leaves are paired placements in each quadrant. Is that excessive? Well, that depends on what you’re after. Do you want a beautiful interesting design or something you can whip out in 10 minutes?

This design is one of 12 I used in a quilt that won me a second place ribbon in it’s category. I was pretty pleased with that considering the level of competition in this particular show and that it was the first time I’d ever entered a quilt!

Color sorting this design could have a seriously negative impact on registration, likely causing exposed raw edges and gaps between the appliqués and the narrow satin cover stitches. Stitch count on this design is 24,461.

August Birth Month Flower, Poppy, applique machine embroidery design

Had I been a less experienced digitizer, I would have optimized for the fewest number of colors. And indeed, that’s how I started because, hey, I had a single needle machine and my maximum sewing field was only about 3.5” x 3.5”.

Also the hoop for my first tiny little embroidery machine was ideally shaped for a good grip and since the top speed was only 300spm, the threads weren’t pulled as much as at higher speeds. All of those factors worked together to provide optimum registration.

Huskygram or POEM embroidery machine

But the following year when I graduated to a 9-needle machine with an 11x17” max sewing field and a sewing speed of up to 1,000spm, I found I needed a new plan of attack because applying that same method just didn’t work when you had 100K+ stitches with multiple colors sprinkled over a large area.

Instead, it was better to complete one area entirely before moving to the next. This is really important with details that require perfect alignment, especially running stitch outlines when combined with large areas of fills.

On this version of the poppy, I have not only fills with outlines, but I have shading layers and fill stitches going in many directions. Fill and satin stitches pull in on the ends where they reverse direction and push out on their opposing sides. The larger the hoop, the less stable the fabric, the more stitches there are, and the more stitch directions there are, the greater the opportunities for distortion and therefore registration problems.

That said, there are some necessary color repeats even if we just stitch one quadrant. For example, the smaller flower that’s just beginning to blossom is underneath the green while the fully opened flower is on top of the green. Also, one of the petals in the flower is on top of the other petals and in front of the center. So just taking one of the flowers in this grouping of four uses 9 different colors and has 12 changes.

Color sorting just that one flower only reduces the changes by one color. Color sorting the entire design reduces it by 33 changes but I can guarantee you that those outlines won’t be as perfect as the sewn version you see below. Stitch count on this design is 42,937, not quite twice the appliqué version.

August Birth Month Flower, Poppy, fill stitched

Even on the appliqué version, although it has a much lower stitch count, you wouldn’t want to place all the flower appliqués at the same time. By the time the machine got back to stitching the last ones, there could have been enough shifting that the satin stitches no longer properly cover the fabric edges.

Of course you won’t know that until the design is almost done. How much time have you lost in preparing fabric and sewing versus the time you saved changing threads? Doesn’t really make sense, does it?

About Those Ginormous Hoops…

Larger hoops let you combine multiple designs for more creative layouts. Those designs might be repeats or completely different designs. However, when those designs were digitized, they were likely tested in a hoop just large enough to accommodate them.

Smaller hoops hold the fabric more securely. The greater the expanse of the fabric within the rings, the more the fabric can distort.

Remember this golden rule for hooping: When hooping between the rings, select the smallest one that can comfortably accommodate the design.

Additionally I would add, always hoop between the rings whenever possible. The hoop is part of the stabilizing process and it can’t perform that duty well when the fabric is floated.

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Combining Designs & Color Sorting

For this example, I’ve used all 20 designs from Delicate Roses, which is a building block collection. Building blocks were specifically designed to be small elements with just a few colors for combining into more interesting compositions.

When I do projects like this, I typically load a bunch of designs into the work area and play around with various arrangements until I’m happy. In this case, I didn’t do any resizing, one design is used twice and the others are each used once. All I did was a bit of mirroring, rotating, and arranging. (Original layout by Leeann Church.)

Delicate Roses machine embroidery designs combined into a new composition

Then I’ll resequence them to stitch in a more systematic way. The goal is to minimize hoop movement and move smoothly through the design in an organized way instead of jumping all over the place like a chicken with its head cut off.

In Embrilliance, resequencing is done by rearranging the individual designs in the Objects Pane. Each merged in design is “unit” of it’s pieces so until you ungroup it, rearranging the designs is just a simple matter of dragging and dropping.

The roses in this collection are all one or two colors of pink plus a green if there are leaves. So my preliminary design has 3 unique colors and although the software shows there are 43 changes, if you look at the at the actual color list, you’ll see multiples of the same color in a row. This is because the color list is displaying all the colors in each design I’ve placed; it’s not seeing all these elements as one single design, in which case contiguous colors would be merged into one color block.

Still, even if that jumped the change count by 10, that’s pretty excessive and obviously if I had digitized this composition from scratch, it wouldn’t have that many changes but it’s unlikely it would have only 3. The design is now approximately 150mm x 135mm and has 20,741 stitches. In other words, a good sized design. The good news is that there are no outlines and no large fills.

NOTE: Keep in mind that when you are combining pre-digitized designs when you don’t have a native format (you’re using stitch files like PES, VP3, JEF, etc.) that you’ll never get a really optimized design that could be achieved by digitizing from scratch. You’ll have more jumps and trims because the stitches themselves cannot be resequenced, only the blocks of color.

If I want to keep these three colors but optimize them for efficient sewing while still maintaining optimum registration, I might manually resequenced the individual colors that make up each design. That would involve ungrouping all the individual designs and manually selecting the color blocks and moving them into a more ideal order. This is tedious and certainly not my idea of fun.

Since there are no outlines and no large fills, depending on the project (fabric, use, etc.), I might even risk letting the software color sort the full design. I’m going to be test sewing my design anyway and this might save me a lot of time at the computer. But in all likelihood, I’ll do some sort of optimizing by section.

However, there is a way that can optimize your time and have a greater chance of maintaining good registration and that involves color-sorting smaller groups or sections instead of the entire design. I’ll explain in a moment.

Why Reorder Colors Manually?

Before you decide against manual sorting, let me explain a bit more about how color sorting works.

Here’s a small border I created to stitch on ribbon, which was then stitched onto a notebook cover.

Ribbon machine embroidery design

Once again I’ve used itty bitty flowers and arranged them from top to bottom. If I color sort this, it will start at the top and sew all of the first color down to the bottom. Then the machine moves back to the top and sews color 2 down the ribbon, and finally it returns to the top and repeats for color 3.

If I were digitizing this, I’d do color 1 from the top to the bottom, then color 2 from the bottom to the top, and finally color 3 from the top to the bottom. Do you see how this minimizes excessive hoop movement?

Granted, it’s probably not a big deal on this little project but imagine a larger more complex composition and you can easily see how hoop movement can become extreme. (You can get that same organization by ungrouping the design and manually resequencing the color blocks; it’s just more than a one click fix.)

Tip: More likely, I’d split the design into two halves and completely stitch the top half before starting the bottom one. This would cause each color to be used twice but would be a safer way of guaranteeing a good result.

Factors to Consider Before Optimizing

Before we commit to any form of optimizing, stop and consider a few factors:

  • What will you be stitching on? How stable is it? The less stable the fabric, the less color sorting you should do.
  • What types of stitches are used, how stitch intensive is the design, and how critical is registration? Large areas of fills contribute to greater fabric distortion and the less color sorting you should do. Outlines are a major red flag. They’re hard enough to keep perfectly aligned even under ideal situations so I recommend just sucking it up and changing threads instead of color sorting.
  • How many times will you be sewing this design? The more times it will be sewn—either by you or many other people—the more time you should spend optimizing it. Only sewing once or twice? Then balance out the time you spend optimizing versus the time you save stitching.
  • Was this design professionally digitized and all you want to do is eliminate color repeats? Think twice my friend. Yes, there are badly digitized designs out there that would benefit from color sorting but if that design has repeated colors and was digitized by a knowledgable and experienced digitizer, those repeats may be for quality reasons. Digitizing is always about balancing trade offs. Obviously you want an efficient design but not at the expense of quality.

How To Color Sort a Design in Sections

I haven’t seen a program yet that will optimize a design by section. Some programs can “optimize” sewing sequences, even changing where an object starts stitching and where it exits, while most programs only reorder the colors. And when you choose these options, it applies the action to the entire design. So how would you do it by section? Simple! By being smarter than your software!

Note: I put “optimize” in quotes because when I’ve done this to designs I’ve thoughtfully planned, the result was not what I would call optimized. Just sayin’…

What you’ll need to do is copy sections of your design to a new document and color sort that. Repeat the processing by chunking out the design section by section and color sorting. In Embrilliance, it will save a copy of the file with “_sorted” appended to the file name. For the heart wreath, three sections should work well.

Once all your sections are saved out, merge the pieces back into a new design document and arrange them back into place and reorder for sewing (its best to avoid reordering the elements within each merged in piece).

Color sorted designs will combine like-colored areas into one unit. For example, all the greens will be grouped together so even if you ungroup, you won’t be able to grab a section and resequence it manually without somehow separating it from the group.

Note: Isolating groups of stitches out of a color block generally requires stitch editing but it can be done with a program like Embrlliance Essentials. I have several YouTube videos on this, here’s the most recent: How to Edit a Design in Essentials to Rearrange Objects.

How many sections will you need for your design? Depends on the answers to the question under “Factors to Consider Before Optimizing.”

Before exporting your design for stitching, watch it sew on-screen. Most embroidery programs have some sort of “stitch simulator” or virtual sew-out function where you can watch the design sew on screen. This is good habit to get into because you can learn a lot from watching how designs path. Learn more about what’s happening under the hood of the design in my ebook, Anatomy of a Design: How to Think Like a Digitizer and Become a Better Embroiderer.

Anatomy of a Design ebook image

Revised Floral Hearts

Here’s the same design I created earlier. I decided that it really wasn’t all that interesting in just three colors so I spent some more time experimenting with different colors. This one was manually sequenced and has 10 unique colors with 16 changes. So yes, it still has some color repeats. Is it as optimized as it would be if I digitized it from scratch? No. I stitched this one in the middle of a large, purchased cutwork pillow sham and it’s beautiful! If you’d like to download it, it’s available here.

Creating a complex design in Embrilliance

Where Color Sorting Makes Sense

Is there a time and place where it’s good to color sort? Sure!

Let’s say you’re creating some text and every letter is randomly colored, as in this Happy Birthday I created in Embrilliance. These letters are spaced out, don’t connect to each other, have no outlines, and the design is not excessively large. Each letter is one block of stitches in one color so color sorting is ideal.

Color sorting will make the text uneditable as text so it’s always a good idea to keep your original file in addition to the color sorted version. Since Embrilliance automatically creates a new file when color-sorting, you’ll be safe using it. Color sorting took this design from 13 colors down to 6, cutting the number of changes by slightly more than half.

Original text version:

Multi-colored lettering in Embrilliance

After color sorting:

Multi-colored design in Embrilliance after color sorting

While the screen versions of the two designs above look identical, notice the difference in the side panels. The top one lists the objects as “Lettering,” while the bottom one lists it as “Happy Birthday, sorted.” In other words, the bottom one is no longer “lettering” but is a design composed of objects shaped like letters. The bottom one has 7 fewer color changes and 5 more stitches.

WARNING! Color sorting should NOT be done on designs specifically digitized for caps!

Test Sewing

A digital file is not an embroidery design! Yes, you can inspect a lot of things in software but the only sure way to know how will it will stitch is to test sew it.

Even if all you’ve done is combine some designs without color sorting, you’ve changed how it will react when sewn compared to how the original designer tested it. And if you color sorted, you could have just totally killed a beautiful result. So follow the advice of Captain Jean Luc Picard and “Make it sew!”

Learn more about why and how to test here: Why Test Embroidery Designs? and download the free PDF tracking form.

Where to Get Products Mentioned in this Post

The Birth Month Flowers of the Year series is available as month-by-month flowers, a full project collection, and as individual designs. The split versions for smaller hoops are only available in collections. Appliqué designs include basic instructions, templates for hand or machine cutting, and design in popular machine formats.

Placement guides are including with the monthly block collections. Instructions and patterns for the quilts are available separately and as a full set.

Building Blocks design sets are specifically created for building your own compositions. They’re generally smaller and designs typically have fewer colors.

Designs are also available individually and organized by topic. If you own Generations, these are available in their MNG (building block format) for maximum flexibility.

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Embrilliance is the embroiderer’s dream platform. Purchase just the modules you need from basic customizing on up to full on digitizing! Plus, it works on either Mac or Windows!

Why you should STOP color sorting embroidery designs