Erich Campbell tackles the tricky task of creating a great print featuring realistic-looking embroidery

Anyone following my work, including my many articles in this magazine, knows me as a champion of embroidery for apparel decoration and artistic expression.

I have, however, often played in the world of print. 

Digital printing is becoming more popular and widespread each year.

This is driving more and more decorators to look for a compromise that combines the quick imprints and large decorations created simply with direct-to-garment (DTG), direct-to-transfer (DTT) and sublimation prints with the classic shine, shadow and texture that stitching provides. 

My first ever faux embroidery done outside of the embroidery software rendering was created nearly a decade ago for an embroidery email forum. The stitch-file to vector method was used to allow for a fully vector version of the logo, even with the faux embroidery rendering accurately representing satin stitches in the word ‘thread’

As they look to create graphics for printing that capture the look of embroidery by using the versatility of colours and applications that their various processes make possible, many of my print-focused friends have asked me to help capture the look of thread. 

Earlier this year, I found myself revisiting the topic as I helped a friend create a piece for DTG. In the process of creating his Mother’s Day masterpiece, I started to review the various methods available to create this faux embroidery. 

In the end, my most efficient and aesthetically pleasing results came from combining true embroidery digitising with the judicious application of graphic design tools.

That said, with many options available, I felt the need to share the methods I investigated along the way and make a case for why even the processes I didn’t pursue might be the right choice for another’s project.

The original graphic for the Mother’s Day piece was of poor quality. While autodigitising may have a place in creating faux-embroidery prints, low-resolution, overly complex designs are not likely to produce good results, particularly with fully automatic, single-click processes

Read on for a review of the possibilities and the real-world work I did to make the Mother’s Day print happen.

Embrilliance editing software [from BriTon Leap, of which Erich is programme manager] creates a printable image with controls for resolution and transparency.

And it even provides an option to create realistic fabric-textured backgrounds and allows for compositing with any loaded multimedia images in the embroidery file with a single menu option.

In two clicks, any embroidery file becomes a printable PNG image

Digitizing Mothers Day Print in Software – Lettering

The brush-script lettering in the mother’s day print, being a focal point of the design, was matched exactly. I manually digitized the text much as I would for stitching, but I didn’t worry about any excessive build up in the layers or about my overall sequence, as long as the layers looked appropriate in the final print.

The first version (left) featured a darker text colour which didn’t provide the textural contrast we wanted to achieve. It was rendered in two software packages, providing different looks to the stitch rendering to choose from

After making an initial satin stitch version of the text, it was decided that a less realistic, more dramatic texture would accentuate the faux-embroidery finish. With small alterations to the fill patterns and a couple of applications of an automatically generated outline, I created a range of options to choose from and rendered them with two software packages that had slightly different ways of depicting stitches. From these a final version was selected

Digitising for print

Knowing that these automated actions aren’t likely to create something stitch-like, I always point people back to the source. Rather than working directly from the print design, the best methods for creating realistic-looking embroidered art stem from the same place as machine embroidery itself: with the tools and files we use to make real embroidery. 

The reason why most art program actions produce sub-par results is that the designs and programs can’t take stitches into account. Objects aren’t parsed into embroidery-focused shapes, stitch angle and type aren’t spelled out, and they don’t even have the somewhat limited capacity you find in auto-digitising software to handle these decisions on their own. 

The best tutorials I’ve found discuss similar issues, using custom brushes in concert with redrawing shapes in the design software to do something similar to digitising. They advocate creating embroidery-specific shapes to fill with these automated faux-embroidery actions.

Rather than resort to this fake vector-art version of digitising, I recommend looking at the real thing. If you have a digitised file representing the embroidered element you want to print, a host of embroidery software options exist to take that file and output a high-resolution, transparent image ready to print on your favourite substrate. From inexpensive editing software to full-tilt digitising software, there are multiple options to create your embroidered graphic, including methods that let you add the power of your graphics software back into the equation to increase the visual appeal of these three-dimensional embroidery simulations. 

There are, however, still a couple of questions you have to answer about how involved you want to be in getting from your initial art to this digitised pre-print file.

Digitizing your own designs, especially simple ones, lets you break up shapes logically and get accurate stitch angles and styles for your desired look, if you have the ability

The print, with its additional textured detail, looks great printed directly on a coarse tote. Larger than life, the texture and shadow creates fantastic visual interest

Automated options

The holy grail of automated digitising that makes all the decisions you’d expect from a digitiser is still a dream. That said, faux embroidery may be a rare exception where its flaws aren’t as galling to tolerate. Because we are freed from technical issues such as pull-and-push distortion making our outlines go out of register, stitches that are too short or too long to stitch cleanly, and excessive detail or layering creating thread breaks or bullet-proof densities, we can get away with using what would otherwise be an unsound digitised output. 

That said, automation can only do so much. Remember, automated digitising works best with clear, simple artwork. If you provide shaded photographic images or only have poor, pixelated versions of your intended image, you aren’t going to get great renderings. A very old computing term applies here: garbage in, garbage out. Simple designs will provide better results, but you may find that you need to do some quick editing or at the very least tune the automation to remove elements you don’t want to appear in your final image.

Rather than spend the time digitising the daisy-like flower in Mother’s Day image, I took a stock design of a poppy from a larger graphic, seen here, and added digitised highlights and shadows, and altered both the colour and texture of some of the elements to make a suitable flower for my image. Since I didn’t need to match the original with an identical flower, this saved a tonne of time. Also, I didn’t worry about density or any other technical issue that my shading or layering would cause with real stitching. Fast and easy

Seek out stock

If your art isn’t a custom logotype or you just want to add an embroidered element to another design, consider purchasing a stock design. 

Any stock design company can offer a host of themed designs you can use in conjunction with editing or digitising software to output a virtual decoration image. Moreover, if you have embroidery lettering software, you can composite more than one stock design with your custom lettering to create your base embroidery design file, even if you aren’t particularly sure how to make it stitch well. Remember, we’re just using it to render out a printable graphic. Almost any editing software will allow you options to size, recolour, reposition, compose, and add text to designs, and it’s not difficult to learn the basics, especially when you don’t have to make the design stitchable.

A good friend of mine confided that they used an older, free, auto-digitising preview package that worked with existing vector graphics. I applied it to a very simple design that was part of my colleague Lisa Shaw’s digitising course, but it is immediately obvious how even this highly recommended package produced unrealistic, and frankly somewhat unattractive, results

Outsource or in-house

Lastly, if you do have a custom piece or corporate logo that won’t suit the use of stock designs, you can treat the project like any other embroidery: seek out a digitiser and outsource the process. Although you will probably need to produce your own faux-embroidery rendering, having the design created for you takes the hardest part out of the equation. 

Also, as long as the artistic choices they made for the stitch types, angles and so forth suit your tastes, the digitiser’s technical execution is less of an issue. This may also lead you to choose to take the project in-house, even if your own digitising isn’t a strong suit: as long as you can create a design that looks good on-screen, questions of sequencing and settings do not apply. Those who are competent enough to draw shapes that look like those a digitiser would create and who can set basic parameters can create files that look like embroidery. 

Even for a seasoned digitiser, faux-embroidery projects allow for a much faster process as almost all technical concerns are out the window.

The only thing to remember, whether you are asking a digitiser to create a piece for you or you choose to wade into digitising software yourself, is that this is the one time that on-screen output actually matters. You’ll need to turn off pull compensation, make sure your text’s baselines and top lines are even, and steer clear of the kinds of choices that we often make for efficiency in real stitching. Turn all connecting stitches to trims and remove any compensation for the stresses inherent in stitching; perfect shapes and straight lines are necessary to make the prints look proper.

This print was created using a photo of an actual stitched patch. A classic merrowed-edge patch makes a great standalone graphic, no matter where it’s printed

Beyond the basics

While most decorators will choose to use one of the simplest options, outputting the printable graphic directly from digitising software, you can claim more control by undertaking a hybrid approach to creating your simulated embroidery. 

At the most simple level, this means loading the transparent PNG provided by the embroidery software into your favourite raster graphics tool (eg Photoshop or Affinity Photo) to adjust contrast and saturation, or to tweak the levels of shadows and highlights to intensify textures and correct for colour. 

In creating the Mother’s Day graphic for my friends at Equipment Zone, I remained at this level.

I did use two software packages, seeing as both offered different levels of texture, highlight and shadow by default, but I then took the selected images into graphics software to adjust the levels and enhance certain effects.

For those used to digital printing, this sort of simple adjustment is an easy way to get more from the standard renderings.

At a much more involved level, you can use your digitised file in combination with vector software to create your own previews in a way similar to the embroidery software.

Either by creating separate transparent images for layers of your design or when creating your own vector renderings with custom brushes, you have the ability to employ effects in your vector or raster software to enhance your print graphic. The ‘smiley’ on the left only has the shaded custom brush that creates the thread like texture, while on the right, the color layer has a slight gradient overlay to create a sense of a stronger corner light source, while the border, eyes and mouth have both an exterior drop shadow to lift them from the background and the fill as well as an interior shadow to make the satin stitches themselves look raised and high-crowned. A few simple effects make a big difference

For ultimate control, you can use software that converts your stitch file to a standard vector path, with each needle drop as a hard node. Vector-savvy decorators can then employ custom brushes to give the path a thread-like look. 

Creating a custom brush allows you to adjust the amount of shadow and highlight on each stitch, as well as allowing you to adjust things like stroke thickness and to use ‘fuzzy’ or otherwise customised brushes to emulate threads with rougher sheen, matte finish threads, or threads with thinner and thicker weights than what you can achieve with embroidery software renderings as they presently have few options beyond simple 3D previews. 

Though some are better than others, searching for actions and other automated embroidery solutions for graphics software shows rows of images that don’t truly look like machine embroidery. They are textured, and some even attractive, but almost none provide a look that approximates the real thing

What’s more, with separate paths for individual embroidery objects and/or by separating your embroidery design into multiple layers, you can use your vector software’s various effects, like colour overlays, shadows and glows, to adjust the perceived ‘height’ of the design and to create realistic shadows where the embroidery would be stitched through the garment.

Testing Treatments in Vector Software

Creating a vector path from your stitch files lets you try different styles of brushest that approximate thread. You will need to use additional software to create the path in some instances and will likely need to know how to create these brushes or find appropriate brush packs, but the process is simple enough for most designers.

Though simple designs are more likely to render well with autodigitizing, single-click, unedited designs will often have strange textures, odd stitch angles, and even erroneous elements that require additional work. Even then, the look is close to real machine embroidery, but may not look like a digitised version. Whether or not this suits you is often a matter of how much tolerance you have for an unrealistic style in the stitch angles

After converting a stitch file to a vector path, it can be loaded up either at once or in sections into a vector design suite. This shows the two layers I created from the Classic Smiley design I digitised. I also created a set of custom brushes that depict a twisted length of thread with a central highlight and shadows at both ends of the stroke, as a single stitch would look when lit from above on a flat surface. Applying that non-coloured brush to this coloured stroke rendered the blue path as a blue faux-satin stitch. Because the brush applies to each segment of any path, the real fill stitch path will render with a recognisable fill or tatami stitch texture

Erich Campbell

Erich Campbell is an award-winning digitiser, embroidery columnist and educator, with more than 20 years’ experience both in production and the management of ecommerce properties. He is the programme manager for the commercial division of BriTon Leap.