Blog, Corporate Apparel, Embroidery

Sewing Knit Fabrics


Embroidery looks wonderful on felt with no texture. Whether stretch or grain it provides a beautiful surface for stitches. Unfortunately, no one wears felt placket shirts! Because knit shirts and sweaters comprise a large share of the embroidered goods on the market, a digitizer must learn the secrets of making these fabrics sew as beautifully as felt.


Sweaters and knits come in a huge variety of textures and qualities. Knowing the exact type of fabric to be embroidered is essential. A thin, fine lisle knit requires a different treatment from a heavyweight pique. Sweaters range from smooth, thin, synthetics to bulky, textured cottons. Actually seeing and touching the fabric reveals information about the texture and stretch. A fabric swatch for running a pre-production sample is a great help too.

Many times, however, neither option is available so a digitizer needs a good working knowledge of the characteristics of many types of fabric. Building a scrap library of sample swatches is a great learning tool. Testing a design on a fabric similar to the finished garment allows problems to be solved before customers see them. In addition to the fabric, it is important to understand how the embroidery will be run in production. Pertinent questions include: How much and what kind of backing will be used?  Will there be a tearaway or water-soluble film used on top of the fabric?  Is a smaller thread size an option for fine letters and details?

A contractor who runs one piece of backing to cut costs and one who uses ample backing and a top film will get very different results from the same design. Ideally, the Contractor works hand-in-hand with the digitizer to create the best embroidery possible. Realistically, every contractor’s bottom line is different, and a good digitizer learns to work with any kind of contract conditions.


Size is usually the first consideration when studying a design. Often the design is too small to stitch, so the digitizer must negotiate with the client. It can be difficult to convince a customer unfamiliar with embroidery that his clearly printed business card won’t embroider well. Tiny letters must be enlarged and fine details simplified to translate effectively into thread. Lettering is the biggest headache when embroidering on knits and sweaters. Four millimeters is usually the minimum height, but even this is tough on a bulky sweater. Swatches of tiny illegible lettering can be a good aid in convincing a client to enlarge a design. But to accommodate the customer, a digitizer must produce legible letters in the smallest size possible.

Letters can be smaller than a quarter inch by using a thinner-than-normal thread. Several thread companies offer fine threads in a range of colors. However, the contractor must be willing to purchase and use the thread, and it may require a plastic film on the fabric to sew well. If the lettering is being sewn on a flat fill background instead of directly on the fabric, the size can decrease also.

If a design has some small lettering or difficult areas, it may be possible to enlarge these areas only. Small lettering around a central logo may be enlarged while leaving the core of the design the original size. This saves on stitch count and keeps the overall size more acceptable to the customer.  Occasionally, tiny letters (like in the banner of a crest) can be eliminated completely. Explaining the problems clearly and convincingly are the best ways to achieve compromise. Again, bad samples can be a great tool in convincing customers that their designs will embroidery poorly.  Sometimes it is possible to use a low-density flat fill under the entire design or under critical parts of it. This fill, sewn in the garment color, provides a flat, stable area on which intricate details or small letters will sew. The purpose of the low density fill is to prepare the area for embroidery without adding a large number of unnecessary stitches to the design. This is especially effective on textured sweaters where the tone-on-tone fill blends with the ground color. It stabilizes the design and is unobtrusive.

When clients are adamant about size and reject your suggestions to improve the finished product, make sure they understand the embroidery may not be acceptable and have them sign off on the work before it begins. Then they will understand that they must pay for all the subsequent editing to improve the design.


Quality lettering is the mark of good embroidery, and knits and sweaters provide special challenges. Size is the first big hurdle, and hopefully by now this has been worked out. Next, keeping the letters straight on the baseline is a trick. A straight letter such as A, N, and M tend to push above and below the line, while round letters like O and C want to pull up. Learning to compensate takes practice and patience. Column width, lettering style, closeness of the letters within the word and the amount of underlay all affect this push/pull factor. Learn to be consistent in letter digitizing. Try to digitize at the same scale as much as possible. This trains the eye to see the letters on-screen and know if they will sew correctly. Stay consistent in your compensations-always drop the round letters below the line or always cut the straight letters a little above. Using the same method again and again will make it second nature. Each digitizer develops a style of letter production that includes push/pull, underlay techniques and learns the limitations of their software program.

Digitizing a design, studying how it looks onscreen and actually watching it is the fastest way to climb the letter learning curve. What looks awful on screen, like short N’s and tall O’s, may sew perfectly. Digitizing legible letters consistently is key to designing for sweaters and knits. Customers want to read their logos. It’s your job to make sure they can.


Underlay plays a major role in stitching on stretchy, textured fabrics. Circles become ovals, satin borders pull away from their fills and the fabric peeks through the fill without adequate underlay. These stitches create a web that stabilizes the fabric. The embroidery should sew on this web, not the fabric, to lift it out of the knit. Look at the shape, think about the direction of stretch in the fabric and compensate accordingly. Underlay should make sense when it sews. A circle that will be stitched horizontally needs a perpendicular underlay as a minimum precaution against becoming an oval. Another option is two layers of diagonal under. Remember, underlay does not have to be excessive to be effective. It should stabilize, not bulletproof the fabric.


Think carefully about the sewing sequence when planning the design. Working from the center of the design out is good insurance against puckering. It may be best to have a color sew more than once in the design sequence to guarantee good registration. Plan carefully to avoid excessive trims. The more time the machine is sewing and not jumping around, the better the chance the fabric will remain stable in the frame. Plan to sew outlines or borders immediately after the fill area to avoid the shifting that often occurs. It’s important to take the time to solve the sequence puzzle before digitizing. Those few minutes of extra planning can save lots of time and aggravation in edits.


Editing skills come into play once the well thought- out design is sewn. Even seasoned digitizers can be surprised at the vagaries of embroidery on sweaters and knits. Consistency in scale aids editing, too. Decisions must be made about corrections while looking at the screen with the sewn sample in-hand. Learning to translate the problems on the embroidered sample to the on-screen image takes practice, but consistency in scale and method make first-time edits easy. Nothing is more frustrating than correcting the same area over and over, trying to hit the right combination. Developing a repertoire of editing techniques can definitely make the learning curve less painful. This may include:

  • Additional underlay to stabilize an area
  • Increase density for better coverage
  • Increase underlay for better coverage
  • Pulling stitches out to meet a border or pulling stitches in if they push beyond a border
  • Shift individual letters or whole lines of letters to improve clarity
  • Beef up, through underlay or density, an area that sinks into the fill behind it

Working with sweaters and knits should not be intimidating. Like all digitizing projects, common sense, getting the facts and solving the puzzle before you start is essential. There is no mystery to knits, and sweater experience provides every digitizer with a bag of tricks to use again and again.



About Erik Mickelson

Erik Mickelson is the author of Northwest Custom Apparel's blogs. Erik has been with Northwest Custom Apparel since 1996 after graduating from Washington State University and is the founder of the Apparel Graphic Academy. Trained by the custom graphic apparel industry's best, Mark Venit, Erik brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the Embroidery Adventure blog. As they say, 'Experience is the best teacher.' We are proud to have Erik as part of our team!

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