As embroidered designs and lettering get smaller, new problems arise. Small letters tend to cause more thread breaks, small walking stitches sometimes walk straight into the depths of the fabric, and thin lines get eaten in wool.
So what makes small embroidery elements so difficult? Short Stitches! Have you watched those take-up levers on your embroidery machine? They feed thread to the hook, and then take up the slack. When stitches get shorter, the thread passes back and forth through the thread guides many more times before becoming part of the design. That means more friction, more heat, and more thread breaks. And that's just the beginning of the problem.
If the world were perfect, stitches would never be placed on top of other stitches, every stitch laid down by your machine would be exactly 3cm long, and no fabric would require backing. However, we don’t live in a perfect world.
3 factors determine how small stitches can be in your embroidery
- Weave of the fabric: If two stitches fall in the same hole of the weave, no stitch results – you get a knot instead.
- Precision of the machine itself: At some point, a stitch becomes so short that the motors controlling movement fail to respond, and then the stitch becomes a knot.
- You can’t create an embroidered line that is thinner than the width of the thread.
Knots and Holes
Knots happen when stitches occur repeatedly in the same place and cause imperfections and “bumps” in your embroidery. In severe cases they can cause the phenomenon we refer to as “bird’s nesting.”
Holes or tears in your fabric can occur when the tension from too many stitches is borne by too few threads of fabric. Holes are sometimes the result of knots.
Holes and knots damage the garment itself, and can be un-repairable once they happen. Combined with thread breaks, these three problems can drive you bonkers. But there are aspects to short stitches that can change the design's appearance as well. Distortion, path-tracing threads becoming visible, and absorption are nightmares that can make your life just as miserable as the problems we've previously discussed.
Absorption is when stitches seem to “disappear” into the fabric.
Factors that cause absorption are divided into two groups:
- Factors that make stitches appear shorter than they actually are.
- Factors that make stitches come out shorter than they were intended to be.
If you've ever embroidered on towels or fluffy sweaters, you're already familiar with nap absorption. Fabrics that have a large amount of loose fibers extending from the yarn - nap - tend to have stitches disappear into them because the nap of the fabric tends to cover them up. As stitches get shorter, fabrics that you don’t usually think about having a “nap” have enough loose fiber to cover a very short stitch.
Thread sheen actually helps stitches seem to disappear too. Most embroidery threads have a high light reflection – or sheen – to them. This surfacing treatment causes embroidery threads to reflect a high amount of light when angled correctly. As the length of a stitch diminishes, so does the portion of the stitch that is reflecting in the right direction.
Sheen and absorption make stitches appear shorter, but other factors make stitches actually sew shorter than they were intended to be. "Pull" is the word we use to describe the force created by thread tension as a stitch is made. Tension on your embroidery machine attempts to cinch the fabric together. Without an adequate backing on most fabrics, the force of “pull” would distort your design, wadding fabric into a mess. Because pull is always present, every stitch you sew results in a stitch length that is shorter than the distance between the two points where the needle pierced the fabric. When that length wasn't far to begin with, the difference in length can become very noticeable.
Instability of your backing or fabric is likely the next greatest contributor to short stitches. Then comes any tiny amount of slack in your embroidery machines’ movement and any instability in the hoop itself.
I won't try to address digitizing techniques for small lettering in this article. There are hundreds of tricks a good digitizer will use to increase your odds when sewing small elements. But suffice it to say, don't expect good results when you shrink a design that was meant to be sewn larger. Here are aspects of sewing small elements that you can control at sew-time:
Threads / Needles: Short stitches demand that your thread bend more sharply and more closely than longer ones, so smaller designs sew better with slimmer threads. A #50 thread can bend much more sharply without breaking than your regular #40 thread. With slimmer threads, you can use thinner needles too. They do less damage to the fabric and cut down on holes. Don’t forget to use a needle with the correct point: ball-nose needles for knit fabrics, and sharp point needles for woven fabrics.
Less Tension: Avoid absorption by lowering your thread tension. Thread tension is a relationship between the upper thread tension and the bobbin tension. Lowering both - in proportion – while keeping a good column will reduce thread pull and friction.
Hooping / Backings: Did you know that more embroidery problems can be traced back to bad backing and hooping technique than any other cause? Pay special attention to your hooping technique with smaller designs. Any lack of tension or wrinkle in backing will be devastating to small letters.
Machine Condition: The better condition your machine has, the more accurate it is likely to sew. Still, mechanical tolerances mean that there is some 'slop' in the mechanism of any machine. As a final step, try slowing your embroidery machine down when it is sewing small elements. As your machines’ speed decreases, so do the effects of any instability in the hoop, mechanism, and fabric.
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