Digitizing Embroidery – How and Why Does it Cost So Much?

As an embroiderer the first question I was always asked is why is digitizing so expensive and can I just have it done anywhere and give it to you? It’s a good question because customers don’t really understand the process and it’s importance. The important part to understand that the digitizing process provides the instructions for the embroidery machine. It is the exact steps required to lay down all the stitches necessary to produce your embroidered logo or design. Get this wrong and your embroidery will look terrible or won’t stitch correctly resulting in thread breaks and lost time trying to keep the machine running. Many embroiderers won’t accept digitizing from other sources requiring you to use their services. This isn’t just a money making scheme, this comes from hours spent trying to get an embroidery job to run on a particular garment. It’s very frustrating and can make what would be a simple job take much longer than originally planned. They can avoid that hassle by doing the work themselves and tweaking as necessary.


If an embroiderer says they will only do the digitzing themselves should I find another? No, honestly some of the best embroiderers out there operate in this manner and it shows their maturity as a company and their commitment to the best possible product possible. Are there companies looking to gouge you on the digitizing cost? Sure but that’s the exception rather than the rule. There are lots of companies on the Internet outsourcing digitizing but unless you’ve worked with them in the past it’s very difficult to know how they’ll perform on your design.

Does it matter what I want my design embroidered on?

Absolutely it does.  How you prepare a design for a performance polo shirt is going to be very different then a big old fleece sweatshirt. Want a hat done, again it needs to be digitized appropriately as well. An experienced digitizer is going to know this and will ask you all of the relevant questions before beginning this process. If you are going to be doing embroidery yourself understanding underlay stitching is vital to producing quality products that aren’t going to pucker or distort.  Think of underlay stitching as a backbone for your garments and different fabric types call for different methods.  A good digitizer is going to take that into account and produce a design targeted for your specific job.  In many cases you can get away with using the same file on many different garment types but if you are doing something like performance fabrics versus hats then a specifically digitized file is going to be very important.

Watch Out For:

It’s a  big red flag if your digitizer or embroiderer doesn’t ask you what the design will be embroidered on.  This is a sure sign that this is someone you don’t want to work with, it’s that important.

Preparing Artwork for Digitizing for You or the Digitizer

Ever had some artwork screen printed?  This is nothing like that :-).  The format will probably depend on the digitizer but typically a .pdf, .ai, ,eps, .jpg, .gif or .png are fine.  They will load the image in their digitizing software and use it as a background.  Then they’ll use the software to lay stitches over that image.  It is important though that you specify the size of your image the way you want it digitized.  It’s a best practice to have your image sized the way you want it digitized to be sure there aren’t scaling resolution problems.  Also be aware of the number of colors in your logo or design.  Sometimes and embroiderer will charge for color changes.  A typical embroidery machine can do anywhere from 1 to 15 colors.

  • Provide your correctly scaled image in a .pdf, .ai, ,eps, .jpg, .gif or .png as a typical example
  • Limit your colors typical embroidery machines can product up 15 colors but many will be limited to 12, 9 or even 6 colors
  • Be careful with really fine detail as this will often be difficult to recreate in embroidery.  Things such as really fine or small text can be very difficult to digitize.  See embroidery fonts for more detail.
  • Keep your text height larger than 3/16″
  • It’s always a good idea to print out the actual size of the design you want digitized.  I can’t tell you how many times I have embroidered a logo or design for someone and they seem surprised of the size of it, both big and small.  A typical left chest shirt logo will be approximately 3 1/2″ wide.

How Many Stitches Will be in My Design?

There are a variety of ways to guess the amount of stitches your design will take to embroider but in the end they are guestimates.  The standard rule of thumb is

  • 1 solid square inch of embroidery equals approximately 2,000 stitches.
  • 1 solid square of 1/4 inch of embroidery will equal about 125 stitches.
  • 1 Letter 1/4″ tall will be about 100 stitches.
  • Different color garments may also require more stitches.

Why Doesn’t Computer Software Just Do the Digitizing?

With the way technology advances seemingly by the day it’s hard to comprehend why the process can’t be automatically handled by the embroidery equipment but in reality it takes a human’s touch and skill to turn out an excellent design. Digitizing works similar to a drawing program like Adobe Illustrator or CorelDraw but instead of making drawings you use the various digital tools to lay down the stitches. There are some systems that will attempt to automatically layout the digitized design but they don’t produce the best results. All this to say that there is a significant human element in the design process which leads to it’s cost. A good digitizing job can take hours depending on the complexity of the design and it’s size.

Software is absolutely required if you are going to digitize your own embroidery designs which we’ll talk more about in our Embroidery Digitizing Software section. But in many cases the learning curve is steep. If you are just starting out as an embroiderer perhaps out of your home, it’s in your best interest to look at outsourcing your digitizing to get going quickly.

What Should Embroidery Digitizing Cost?

I don’t want to be wishy washy about it but it depends on your design.  Good quality work costs a fair amount to produce.  At a minimum for a small left chest logo at an absolute minimum it will be $50.  For a large jacket back design you can expect to pay $200+.  It will take several hours of work and a good digitizer is not a minimum wage employee.  If the digitizing occurs overseas that is another story as wages are varied around the world.  Your local embroidery company may just outsource their work and there is nothing wrong with that as long as the product is high quality.  As a consumer you have every right to ask how this process works in their company.  If a non US based company is performing the work the cost can go down drastically in some cases with a flat $10-20 fee for up to 7000 stitches. This changes by the day, but buyer beware.  You’ll need to do your homework before choosing one of these companies which we’ll cover next.

Outsourcing Digitizing and 10 Things You Should Ask

I have done my own embroidery digitizing for my customers but increasingly turned to other vendors to provide the digitized files for me.  It allowed me to scale my business and grow at the cost of less design control and money spent on external vendors.  In the end it was a model that worked well for me, but it wasn’t a quick and easy path.  I moved through about 3 different outsourcers before I found one that could consistently deliver good quality digitized files.  And a quick tip here, the cheapest one is not going to be the cheapest in the long run.  Some of your best options for finding digitizing vendors is through referrals of other embroiderers.  If you aren’t plugged in to a network of people to hit up for referrals then you can turn to your friendly search engine.  More than likely you’ll see a list of vendors on this site and that could be a good place to start.  Regardless of how you get a lead here are some key questions you’ll want to ask:

  • How long has your company been in business?  I’m not suggesting you immediately dismiss a new vendor but some runtime is going to be helpful.
  • Where are your employees based?
  • What’s your typical design turnaround time?
  • What software do you use to digitize your designs? While there are so many options out there it’s not necessarily critical for them to be using a particular version of software but it will give you some insight to their process and how they operate.
  • How do you provide a sew out of the digitized design?
  • What are your artwork requirements?
  • What’s the process if I need some design changes and associated costs?
  • What output format can you provide the digitized files in?
  • Do you have a sample digitized file I can use to test run?  If you are an embroiderer this is a useful test to see the kind of work they provide and how it works on your equipment
  • Do you have a stock set of embroidery digitized fonts?

What Your Digitizer Should Provide

They should communicate with you well keeping you apprised of the overall progress of your job.  At the completion of the job they should provide a sew out of your design.  A sew out is an actual run from an embroidery machine of their digitized design.  If this is a local provider you’ll be able to inspect the work and if it’s remote they will send you a picture.

Watch Out For:

If your digitizing doesn’t provide a sew out or wants to charge you extra for the service, move on.  There are too many out there to not have a good idea what your end product is going to look like before you spend the time gearing up your equipment or paying an embroiderer for something you don’t want.

Once the digitizing is complete they’ll provide the “tape” in whatever format you specified.  You’ll often hear the term tape used as older embroidery machines used a punched tape to program the embroidery machine.  It’s a legacy term now.  One of the most common formats is the .DST file for Tajima machines.  Many of the other brand embroidery machines can also read and utilize this format.  Be sure to check the documentation for your embroidery equipment if you aren’t sure what format it reads.  In many cases it’s a simple matter to save to one format or the other.

Embroidery Digitizing Software

There is a pant load of options when it comes to digitizing software and almost all of them are several hundred dollars or more.  We’ve had good success with Embird and it’s one of the more inexpensive options on the market.  You can download a demo version and try it out to see for yourself.  Many embroidery machines will come with digitizing software as part of the package or you can go with the industry standard Wilcom but be prepared for the high price tag.  We won’t bother recommending one solution over the other, if your machine came with some software start there or try the free Embird.  If you find that you don’t want to bother digitizing yourself you can avoid a large capital outlay.

Digitizing Fonts

When it comes to digitizing text most digitizing software packages provide the means via predigitized libraries to handle standard fonts.  These are usually high quality and will allow for rapid digitizing of embroidery. In many cases an embroiderer will do standard text on a limited set of fonts for no additional charge.  One of the pieces of software I have used called Embird had a plugin to support any of the fonts installed on my computer and it works quite satisfactorily.  When creating your artwork or design if you work with an embroiderer already you might want to touch base with them to find out if they have libraries of fonts they support already and modify your artwork accordingly.  This can sometimes save time and cost for both of you.

Watch Out For:

As we have stated earlier you should avoid using text smaller than about 3/16″ tall otherwise it will be difficult to read and just won’t look right.  Also highly condensed fonts or overly thin lines won’t digitize well.

How Do I Digitize Images Myself?

At this point you should have a decent understanding of the overall digitizing process.  If you are convinced you want to create your own embroidery files you’ll need to download or purchase some software and begin the process of learning to put it to work.  To be blunt, it’s a steep learning curve and it’s going to require a fair amount of work to produce your first file.  It took me the better part of a month before I could produce decent results and over a year before I felt like I had the process down. You’ll learn a lot along the way.  This is best done by getting in and digitizing some images.  The image to the right is a large logo I did for a hockey jersey.  In the hoop it looked great but without the support of the hoop the design quickly pulled in on itself as I hadn’t done the appropriate back stitching.  The mesh jersey just didn’t provide much support on it’s own.  I’m not trying to dissuade you from doing this yourself but you need to know what you’re in for.  One of the best steps you can take is to either have a file digitized or purchase a pre-digitized design and open it up in your software.  You can examine the underlay and how they laid out the stitches, color changes and the like.  It’s a great way to start.

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