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Troubleshooting embroidery quality

Author: Lindee Goodall  

Are you experiencing puckering or poor registration?

Review these topics before faulting the digitizer!

Both digitizing and embroidery are precision processes and each is impacted by a number of factors. Truly perfect embroidery – where every stitch is perfectly tensioned and placed and the embroidery is smooth and ripple-free is always the goal. However, in reality that goal is unattainable.

If your embroidery results are at the opposite end of the scale, it is tempting to simply blame the digitizer for your problems. However, registration and puckering problems are the effect of improper machine setup, improper stabilization, needle, thread and fabric selection, design resizing, or digitizing singly or in combination.

A reputable digitizer would not release a design that does not sew well. If you have an acceptable sample sewout or image of the sewout from the digitizer, then the problem may not be in the digitizing. Before calling the digitizer, check the following:

Machine setup

Improperly set needle and/or bobbin tensions are the most common machine-related source of sewing problems. Although most home machines set tensions automatically, they may not be ideal for the current situation.

Symptoms of tension problems include looping in the top stitching, bobbin threads pulled to the top, little or no bobbin thread showing on the back on satin columns, and running stitches that don't show up. Registration problems are magnified by tight tensions – stitches pull more, exposing fabric between abutted areas as well as between rows of stitches in fills. Thread breaks and even needle breaks can be attributed to tension problems. Proper tensions are crucial, and understanding how to set them is imperative.

In addition to the machine's tension settings, other factors affect thread tension. These include the amount of thread on the spool or bobbin, how tightly it's wound and the thread colour. Dirt and lint buildup along the thread path can also impact tension.

Fabric thickness can affect thread tensions. A digitizer factors in thicker fabrics by adding compensation during the design's creation. However, you may need to enhance the effect by adjusting your thread tension, especially if sewing a design not specifically digitized for thicker fabric, such as a stock design.

Make sure that there are no obstacles that will interfere with the movement of the hoop. Even objects as small as pins can impede free movement and cause registration problems. Large, bulky, stiff, and otherwise unwieldy items may interfere with hoop movement. Thick items can snag the needle if it does not adequately clear the fabric before moving to the next stitch. The presser foot and trimmer mechanism can also hang up on thick items and prevent smooth hoop movement.

Confirm that your hoop is properly and completely secured to the machine. It's easy to attach the hoop without latching it firmly in place, the hoop may be crooked or not fully inserted, which will affect the design placement. Flagging – the up and down movement of the hoop, may also result, which can further worsen registration.

Reader/writer boxes

A problem home embroiderers face is the transfer of the design to the embroidery card through the reader/writer box. Data transfer can be disrupted by power fluctuations that result in a corrupted design written to the card. If you experience extreme, unexplained quality issues, suspect a transfer problem. You can verify the design by reading it back from the card and inspecting it in your software. To replace the design, be sure to delete the bad design before rewriting the card.

Stabilization equation

Proper stabilization is the key to quality sewing. The hoop, hoop tension, backing, topping, and any adhesives affect stabilization.

The purpose of the hoop is to securely support the item during sewing. The first step is to select the proper hoop, which as a rule is the smallest hoop that will comfortably accommodate the design. Remember to allow space for the presser foot! The larger the hoop, the less support and the more play, it provides the fabric. The larger the fabric area in the hoop, the more opportunity there is for stretching, shifting, and flagging – all opportunities for poor registration.

Keep in mind that when the digitizer tested the design, it was sewn in the smallest possible hoop. If you are combining small designs and sewing them in a large hoop, you are increasing your chances of registration problems.

In addition to machine tensions, another potential tension headache to be concerned with is hoop tension. Fabric must be held securely and smoothly in the hoop in a neutral tension. Fabric that is stretched during hooping will relax back to its normal state when released from the hoop – the result is puckering. If your machine was tightly tensioned and you used polyester threads, you have compounded the problem. When hooping, the inner hoop should go in with some pressure; it should not drop right in nor should you have to bounce on the hoop to get it seated. Tightening the screw after placement should be avoided but if necessary, do so with care – overly tight hoops can damage hooped goods and the hoop itself. Tightening the screw after hooping can also cause uneven hoop tension on the fabric, actually loosening the fabric at the screw area. The hooped fabric should be smooth and wrinkle free. Loose fabric can also result in puckering, as the fabric is pulled tight during the stitching process.

Take extra care when hooping knits to avoid stretching. Fusing them to a backing with a temporary embroidery spray adhesive or heat fusible product not only makes hooping easier, but also reduces shifting during sewing.

Hooping the item is not always an easy task. Getting the fabric smoothly and evenly hooped in the correct position can be challenging even on a simple job. Hooping correctly and accurately takes time and practice – unfortunately it is an often-undervalued step in the process of creating good embroidery, especially for novice embroiderers.

Selecting the proper backing and hooping it correctly is vital for quality results. Backing has many functions, one of which is to provide stability for the item being sewn. In this capacity it reduces fabric shifting and hoop slippage due to the forces of sewing. Backing should be large enough to be completely gripped by the hoop. Partially hooped backing will result in uneven support.

Backing selection is based on the stability of the garment and how much stress the design will apply. A richly detailed, full coverage design has more distortion potential and needs a more stable surface than an open, airy design. Stretchy fabrics, whether woven or knit, need a more stable backing than non-stretchy fabrics. Cutaways are more resistant to needle penetrations and thus provide more support during and after sewing than a tearaway. Fusibles can reduce fabric slippage, but may still perforate during sewing thus compromising continued stability. Heavy stiff backings, as well as adhesives, can contribute to embroidery thickness and thread breaks.

A topping may be required on textured or high color contrast fabrics. On pique knit shirts, the waffle-like texture of the fabric can cause registration problems and jagged looking edges. A water-soluble topping can provide a smooth surface for stitching. On terry cloth, use a more permanent topping, such as a low melt film, to permanently tame the nap if the design was not specifically digitized for terry cloth. A color block topping can kill two birds with one stone by providing a permanent topping to neutralize extreme colors and to smooth the texture.

Puckered embroidery

Proper embroidery design registration

This sample (above left) exhibits poor registration. Using the wrong stabilizer and improper hooping led to the puckering of the fabric and the misalignment of the colors as shown.

The same design (above right), with proper registration. Also notice less fabric puckering.


It's surprising how much something as small as a needle can affect embroidery quality. For the most accurate stitch placement, use the finest, sharpest embroidery needle that can carry the thread through the fabric without damage to either. A size 70 or 75 needle works well with most fabrics; use an 80 for heavier or stiffer goods. Use a light ball point for knits and loosely woven fabrics; a sharp point for firmly woven goods, leather, and vinyl.


The trend these days is towards polyester thread, with the main reason given being reduced thread breaks (which, by the way, is the wrong reason!). Polyester thread is stronger than rayon and will stretch further before breaking. During that stretching period, stitches are sewn more tightly into the fabric. When the item is released from the hoop, the stretched thread will relax to its unstretched state and pull up the embroidery, causing, you guessed it: puckering. If the thread is stretched through the entire design due to machine tensions, puckering and poor registration can result.

Most designs are digitized for 40-weight thread. If you are using 30- or even 35-weight thread, your design will feel stiff. Unless the design was digitized for specialty threads, don't expect them to run trouble-free.

Bobbin thread is also important. Use thread made for embroidery..

Fabric selection

A custom design is specifically digitized for a particular fabric type and colour, while a stock design is digitized for average fabric, meaning a medium weight, firmly woven, non-stretchy, smooth, non-patterned, neutral colour fabric. The digitizer makes key decisions based on the target fabric, some of which are push-pull compensation, underlay type and amount, stitch length, and stitch density. A stock design that works well on a chambray shirt may need some adjustments for sewing on a sweatshirt; a custom design that was digitized for a left chest nylon jacket will more than likely sew poorly on a cap.

One unfortunate embroidery fact of life is that no, one design, will sew optimally on every fabric you throw at it. However, no one wants to pay to have a design optimized for every fabric they may use. If you get a poor result when sewing on a fabric other than what the design was intended for, don't assume the design is flawed. You may be able to get acceptable results through judicious hooping and stabilizing, or a little of your own editing. Do balance the trade-offs of your time. If you are sewing the design in production and your customer wants a new fabric type, it may be more economical to pay to have the original digitizer edit the design for you.


Caps are particularly tricky. They are difficult to hoop snugly no matter whether you attempt to hoop them flat or in a cap hoop. Any item that cannot be hooped smoothly and securely is more prone to registration problems. Cap frames vary widely as does hooping techniques, making consistently good results hard to achieve. Cap styles also impact quality results. For example when sewing low profile caps on a commercial machine, if the design is too tall, the cap can be stretched by the machine during sewing. As the upper portion of the design is sewn, the cap is moved close to the machine, which pushes against the inside crown of the cap, stretching and distorting the sewing surface.

Scaling designs

Whenever you alter a design by sizing it up or down, skewing it, and even rotating it so that it sews on the bias, you have changed it from the way it was originally digitized and tested and you run the risk of an unsatisfactory result. Due to the vast array of sizing software on the market today, there is no way a digitizer can predict how a particular program will alter the design. Some resizers change the stitch effects upon opening the design, whether or not a change is made. You must realize that you are changing the proportions of the design, which may affect registration. Stitch length, especially in satins, can be negatively affected. If you alter or modify a design, be sure to work only on a copy and to test it thoroughly!

Testing designs

All designs should be tested before sewing in production. Custom designs should be tested under the conditions for which they were digitized. And, if you will be sewing on a different fabric, test separately. If you are having problems with a stock design, test the original design (not a scaled version) on white or off-white broadcloth using one layer of medium weight cutaway hooped with the fabric. Pay attention to your hooping methods, insert a new needle, use the type and size thread specified – both needle and bobbin – and check your tensions carefully. If you get good results, then the problem is not the design; it may be that the design is simply not compatible with your fabric. If your design has running stitch outlines, you may find that they are not perfectly placed on every sewout. Indeed, even under the most optimal conditions, you will find small variations in each sewout. By simply accepting that embroidery is not a perfect art form, you will be much happier!

The more I learn about embroidery, the more amazed I am when the quality is truly top notch. Puckering, poor registration, and thick, stiff embroidery are not always caused by digitizing. While you can't take a bad design and make it sew well using the techniques we've discussed here, without proper technique neither can you make a well-digitized design sew well. Remember, you control many factors related to a high-quality finished design. It's up to you to thoroughly and objectively assess the situation so that you can make the appropriate decisions to avoid problems.