Erich Campbell suggests that a systematic approach is the key to digitising large and complicated pieces of work

Your customer’s text said they were figuring out a full back embroidery. You hoped to receive a large, but otherwise uncomplicated, design. Unfortunately, your hopes were dashed. Dominated by tiny details, gradients, contours, and tiny text, you are staring at well over 300cm2 of excruciating detail that it’s your job to digitise… 

No matter how many years I’ve spent salvaging jobs like this after other shops declined to tackle such difficult designs, I always feel a drag on my determination when such a time-consuming piece presents itself. Nevertheless, anyone who can execute a small and similarly detailed piece can learn to conquer larger pieces. Skill is required to digitise any design, but to take on large and difficult pieces also requires a systematic approach. If you can rationally analyse your design, parse it into actionable sub-tasks, and take repeated, measured actions toward its completion, you can overcome even the most daunting designs. This process-based approach, plus some perseverance, will enable you to make progress on any outsized or outwardly difficult digitising project.


The first step in any embroidery should be the careful assessment of your customer’s expectations. In your initial interview with them you need to gain a solid sense of what’s most important to them – from understanding the desired design size and garment specs to their willingness to compromise when changes must be made. Then you need to analyse the provided art: examine the design carefully, imagining the stitched surface of the final decoration. This is when your core decisions are made, long before you begin digitising: how many and which colours to use, whether and how you’ll use appliqué or speciality materials, where the design and its individual elements need to start and finish in sequence, and what details must be altered, removed or replaced. You should thoroughly explore your options and work with the customer as needed to address potential roadblocks before you plot a single stitch.

In my initial analysis of this complicated left chest design, I listed the shading among my obstacles, along with many opportunities to save labour. Though the biker and the centre wolf were both unique and asymmetrical, the horses on the left and right sides were identical as were the left and right wolves. In my execution, I completed the left pair of horses in all colours before continuing the design, copying, reflecting, and re-sequencing them in the final piece. [Image courtesy of the author]

What looked like several shades of blue in the original piece was rendered in only two thread colours in the final embroidery. Choices like these are often made in the analysis phase, but I experimented with the contoured shaded fills and layering before committing to this final look. Use the analysis to guide you, not shackle you. Sometimes the constraints you put on your design serve as borders to press against, allowing you to define the style you need despite your initial conception [Image courtesy of Celeste Schwartz]

Obstacles and opportunities

Pay special attention to any potential obstacles that you’ll face – note areas with difficult gradients, overly-dense detail, small elements that won’t stitch cleanly, places likely to distort and thin outlines requiring tight registration. Don’t forget to look out for ‘opportunities’ – areas where appliqué can cut down stitch count and density, symmetrical or repeated elements that can be digitised once and re-used, and text that can be executed in keyboard fonts rather than manually. It’s always helpful to know where you’ll be fighting the design and where its structure may save you time.

Stack up solutions

Aim to match your catalogue of obstacles with potential solutions. Note which details are essential and which can be removed following clarification from the customer. Determine how tiny text can be reorganised into more open lines, upscaled without damaging the look of the design, or where a typeface change might render it more legible at size. Look up previous files in which you handled similar challenges to those in this design, and be ready to show your customer this arsenal of ideas to justify detail changes, alteration of gradients, and any other corrections. If you can address the issues in the design and get customer buy-in, you can be confident in your choices and reduce nagging doubts about approval or the need to rework your digitising.


Breaking a design into workable pieces, or ‘parsing’, is key to making any large piece feel more manageable. You have only to convince yourself to stay on task long enough to take on one element at a time. This provides natural breaks and a way to easily gauge your progress as you work, as well as reducing your natural resistance to the huge task at hand. After all, it’s much easier to commit to 15 minutes than a week. More often than not, once you’re past the initial resistance, you’ll hit a flow state that will have you working longer and in a more engaged fashion.

A subject I’ve digitised repeatedly, the pizza man appears here in a full-colour rendition. This piece is actually slightly smaller than the original I had done for them, made to accommodate and allow for the text under the design. At this new size, I had to re-evaluate the ‘engraving style’ rendition of the design, eliminating every other shading line in the art to make sure the design didn’t become too dense or too dark. Measuring and analysis were critical here to keep densities correct and to remain true to the spirit of the art rather than slavishly following it and ending up with a poor result. Defining this ‘every other line’ rule before I started the design gave me a frame of reference that kept me from having to constantly question my measurements as I digitised

This exceedingly simple design was all opportunities. With large, flat areas of colour, it was a perfect candidate for appliqué. However, after some play and experimentation in the execution phase, I chose to render the smaller area of the mouth and teeth in full embroidery to add visual interest. Without that structure, the teeth lacked depth, but with the addition of the ‘carved’ satin stitches, the teeth became dimensional, subtly separated, and prominent

Visualise the sequence

Start by visualising the stitching sequence for both sensible, efficient sewing and proper textural overlaps. Your obstacles and opportunities analysis will have revealed areas that need extra attention and those pieces that save effort, and will guide you in parsing your design into ‘sub-designs’ that you can execute along the path to the finished piece. An area consisting of outlines that must register perfectly with underlying filled elements can be completed as a unit.

You may choose to add colour changes and complete all stitching in an isolated area even in the final stitching sequence, completing that area before moving to another design, even if a colour must be revisited. This is because large designs have a higher risk of losing registration as you continue to stitch longer and further away, before returning to that area to stitch outlines and details that must align with the previous layer. If you’ve ever outlined letters on an unstable hat, then you’ll know the benefit of executing each letter and its outline before moving on to the next – the stresses of embroidery on an unstable span can cause considerable shifts in position.

Designs that feature symmetry or repetition parse easily. It is sometimes possible to create bilaterally symmetrical elements by executing half of the element, then mirroring and re-sequencing the results. You can even create one multicolour element in a repeating set and later condense the number of colour changes by re-sequencing and digitising connecting stitches for each thread colour once all copies are placed in their proper location. This not only saves work, but it enhances a design’s sense of internal continuity.

The initial art for Gilly Loco had an insanely detailed, multi-coloured and photographic texture insert in the body of the lizard. During the initial interview, the customer had expressed a desire to come up with something very unique and different from what she had seen in other decorated apparel – something her designer had accomplished though the addition of the complex textures. With a quick turn-around time, we had to innovate. Looking at our obstacles and opportunities, we decided to explore unique appliqué materials as a way to add interest without extra stitching/digitising time

Though unconventional and requiring some additional hand-work, this faux reptile-skin upholstery material appliqué added all the interest without the difficulty, making the process of digitising and execution much quicker and satisfying the customer’s unique request to the tune of an unplanned re-order


With careful analysis, digitising a large piece isn’t as difficult as it is tiring. The hardest part is maintaining focus throughout the process. You will encounter areas that make you reverse earlier decisions, but these new obstacles become side-trips on the established road map put in place by your analysis. When encountering such a reversion, save to a new, separate file before you make changes. Stop and define the new obstacle, decide on your solution, and plough forward. With your back-up file in place you can experiment: digitise throw-away elements to test theories, separate an element from the design and tweak it, or return to your earlier work if you find yourself on the wrong path. Take advantage of the digital nature of your work by saving multiple versions of your file and allowing yourself to play with new solutions. Don’t be romantic about the work you’ve already done — if you have to re-work or eliminate an element to move forward, just save a new file and go. If you remember your overall path, you’ll be able to pick up the trail once you’ve solved a problem. Save often, take breaks as needed, and dive back in.

Replay and revise

Whether you’re digitising a sub-design or the entire piece, it makes sense to replay your design. Sampling monstrous designs is time-consuming – don’t forget to engage in slow-replays in software to quickly evaluate issues in sequencing and to check important transitions between elements. This is the time to find accidental copy/paste errors, poor placement of start and stop points, and to identify places you could travel under a later element with stitching rather than stopping to trim and jump. Gross errors are easy to see at this stage: take notes and identify areas you need to address. Review, identify, repair, and repeat. It’s better to catch these flaws now rather than in hour two of a four-hour stitch-out.

Stitch and evaluate

With all this careful work, it can seem like stopping even a single-head’s production for a full sample is a waste. That said, wasting a multi-head load of garments and half of a very long run-time is far more devastating. Always run your design on materials that are comparable to the intended garment, especially with something that is expensive and time-consuming; match the colour, fibre, weave, and stabiliser in your sampling material as closely as possible to the piece you’ll be stitching to ensure your sample accurately predicts the final garment results. Evaluate the first stitch-out and go through the same editing and sampling process if you find major flaws.

Do it again

Much of the advice in this article is common sense. Yet I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve counselled digitisers who have been struggling with large pieces and who were stuck on one of these ‘common-sense’ steps. The only real medicine to make you less likely to struggle with large and difficult pieces is repetition. Each attempt generates experience, knowledge, and confidence. Take the risk, revise and repair, and use the lessons you’ve learned to fuel your next large-format embroidery adventure.

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.