Struggling to digitise letters? Erich Campbell spells out five tips that will help you tackle typefaces with confidence

Lettering causes consternation for many digitisers when they first begin to practice their craft. Although most software packages bundle in a host of fonts or have many available for purchase, commercial embroidery’s recreation of custom logos means digitisers must often create lettering entirely from drawn objects to ensure a perfect match. Moreover, even when we have a known stock typeface there may be no digitised version, and relying on auto-digitising from print fonts can lead to sub-standard stitch quality. Digitisers therefore have to master custom lettering if they want to ensure the highest quality and the most faithful reproduction of the original. To that end, here are five tips to help you wrap your head around tackling typefaces.

This instructional image from a calligrapher shows the way a broad pen would be used to create these letters; though they are not identical, it can be helpful to look at the way the strokes are created and overlap in a similar embroidered typeface

With careful planning and adhering to the more important measurements in this feature, you can create truly tiny lettering with character

Keep scale in mind

The thinnest satin made with 40wt thread that you can rely upon to stitch cleanly on almost any material is about 1mm wide and the thinnest gap between satins or loop encircled by satins must be around 0.8mm-1mm in width or diameter to remain open and clear. This makes the smallest, reliable letter for most materials about 5mm tall without alteration. Picture the horizontal strokes in a letter ‘E’ and its stack of five rows of satin and gaps, giving this rough 5mm height.

In this large example of slab serif type, you can see how the integrated serif that runs the same stitch angle as the vertical stroke in the R has become long enough that the stitches are above the maximum stitch length, rendering here as jump stitches. For almost all applications at any significant size, larger serifs should be executed in a similar way to the separated serifs on the right

The round mitred corners on the left have very little overlap, making for a less dense finish, but at small sizes the smallest stitches even in this round mitre will have to be filtered out. That said, the capped version on the right will soon suffer from stitches too long to cleanly execute if it isn’t scaled down

Think in strokes

If you find yourself having difficulty deciding where to split and how to overlap the strokes in a glyph, a little calligraphy may help you to visualise your satin objects. Imagine drawing the letters with a calligraphy pen one stroke at a time (watching videos of calligraphy may help). Although satin stitches can vary in width and some structures aren’t direct copies, traditional typography is based largely on the legacy of hand-inked lettering– combine that with the similarity between satin columns and pen strokes and it makes this a worthwhile way to visualise the components of a letter.

As can be seen on both sets of text in this picture, even in a straightforward block font, auto-digitising has a very difficult time separating letters into discrete strokes. Though most digitisers can see these flaws in their own work, some stock design sellers and digitisers will use letters this poorly rendered. If a digitised piece or a font you purchase has these odd angles or inconsistent splitting at the joints, it was likely processed automatically and will not run well

Notice the inconsistent stitch angles in some of the example glyphs above and the absence of compensated overlap in others, which will lead to natural pull distortion causing gaps in these auto-digitised letters on most fabrics. The manually digitised pieces on the bottom line have much cleaner angles and are properly compensated

Analyse overlaps

Having difficulty choosing how to combine two strokes at a corner or junction? Knowing the kinds of junctions you can create and their qualities will help you make the best decision. For small lettering, a ‘cap’ can be created. This new, single satin stitch object covers the area where two strokes would have overlapped. For large lettering, however, this often results in stitches far too long to stitch smoothly. An overlapped corner may work for smaller and larger letters, but can build up excess density. A mitred corner can create a sharper point and overlap without the density of a full overlap, but at extremely small sizes the point stitches may be overly small. Always consider the size or sizes at which your text must function before digitising.

Knowing the basic dimensions of a satin stitch column that can safely sew on most common garment materials allows you to evaluate the size you can push small lettering to without resorting to finer thread and needles. Thus, it’s easy to see why the smallest letters in 40wt thread are often locked down at 5mm

When creating lettering, one cannot simply draw the outer edge and inner counters/holes in a glyph, one must envision the separate strokes as their own elements, assign stitch angles, and then generate the finished stitches from that sequenced, carefully overlapped, set of strokes

Select the right serifs

Serifs can be either integral to or separated from the strokes. When they are simply a part of the stroke brought to a flared end, a fine-line serif can be achieved on small glyphs. That said, with large text these stitches can become overly long. With larger text, a serif made of its own satin column, running perpendicular to the stroke, often looks better, though each must be nearly 1mm in thickness as stated earlier.

Deal with distortion

Being mostly clean-edged and geometric, typefaces tend to overly display the natural distortion present in embroidery. Push distortion makes columns get taller or longer and pull distortion makes them get narrower. This means that not only must you compensate to make individual letters stitch correctly, but your compensation has to account for those disparate forces so that the lettering can ‘meet in the middle’ at the proper baseline where vertical strokes and horizontal strokes appear beside each other. Note: Just like in vector fonts for print, rounded letters and strokes should extend beyond the baseline and top of the letters for them to look the same height as the other glyphs; this is for optical balance. These foundational examples of how to create satin-stitch lettering, paired with observation of existing lettering in well-made keyboard fonts, will help you take on custom type with confidence.


Erich Campbell is an award-winning digitiser, embroidery columnist and educator, with 18 years’ experience both in production and the management of e-commerce properties.He is the programme manager for the commercial division of BriTon Leap.