My Design Process for custom Embroidery Digitizing

My Design Process for custom Embroidery Digitizing

So many of you have been so kind and had so many wonderful things to say about my Harry Potter Bookcase Quilt. I’m so appreciative and humbled by them all. No matter how many times I hear it,  I always find myself a bit surprised at one of them. It goes something like this –  “you’re so creative, I could never think of these things”.  Here’s a truth – I don’t “think of these things”. I WORK at it. I think about it, try things, look for inspiration, learn from my mistakes as well as my successes, and I quit when project or direction ceases to have value. I trust in the process and have patience when the answer isn’t immediately obvious. When I’m not happy or completely satisfied with a project, I take the time to objectively examine it and figure out what I’m responding to, both positive and negative. Then – I Let It Go – right in the trash most times. I honestly, deep in my soul believe that with a effort and perseverance all us can be “so creative”, it is just part of the human condition.

While making the Harry Potter quilt, I’ve started to develop a bit of a process for designing and digitizing my embroidery files.  While I’m still a long way from being a technical genius, I get better at it every time I do it and refine the process a little bit more. I’m going to share with you how I worked through the designing, digitizing, and stitching of the potion cauldron from TBZ’s Harry Potter Bookcase quilt. Maybe you’ll see some opportunities to expand your own process and start “thinking” of things you didn’t give yourself credit for being able to do.

(note: I’m completely self taught and leaning every day. There may be better ways and this is not an absolute “everyone should work this way” post. It what is working for me right now and how I’m moving forward. Use what you like, ignore what you don’t. As always, if you have suggestions I’d like hear them!)

Getting Started

First I start with some absolutes. Absolutes is a funny word here – because they are squishy and can be changed if need be as I work though the digitizing. I have to start somewhere though so I pick something that seems like it is going to be pretty close to absolute. For this quilt, the best place to start is with the finished size of the block or square I’m working on. In the beginning, all of my designs had fit in one hoop because I was not capable or experienced enough to work on multiple hoop designs. Also in the beginning, I worked with a finished block size of 10” x 10”. Each of my book titles had to fit in my 5” x 7” hoop and the combination of all books and objects had to fit in a 10” x 10” square. Take a look at my first try –


As I’ve become more experienced and comfortable with my machine and software, I’ve moved away from those absolutes a bit. In the case of the cauldron, I had 22.5” left of shelf space between the restricted section and edge of the book case.


SpaceConstraints (2)

The Doodles

My very first step is doodling where I might like objects to be in that space. Sometimes I will do this 5 or more times. When I have few moments of downtime I’ll find myself trying things out. Napkins, sketchbooks, meeting notes are all fair doodle game.  These doodles are really just brainstorming. I’m only interested in rough shapes and negative space. I don’t worry about the details at this point because I know they will come and everything is negotiable except for the finished size of the shelf.



When I start to get a little more serious about it, I’ll draw a sketch with more focused objects. At this point, I’ll start looking at what books I want to put on the shelf and sketch in their titles. As the objects begin to come together, I start considering the how. Do I want to paper piece, applique, digitize? Are there embellishments or other added features I’d like to put in? Are there any good opportunities for mash-ups or drawing on other objects? I usually will do google image searches for words that are close to what I’m making or I’d like to be inspired by. Sometimes I will image search for off the wall words too. It is amazing the things you can think of when looking at other images.


Now I must start to focus and fill in the details. I estimate the finished width of each object by the space it is taking up on the shelf. When it is all done – the width of each object should equal the width of the finished shelf space. Now I know what I’m making, I’ve decided how I’d like to approach each of the objects, and I know how big they are. I work on them one at a time, adjusting the others should I make functional changes to the one before it.


In this case, I started with the cauldron. I decided I was going to take on my most ambitious digitizing project to date by attempting mulit-hoop applique. Before I can even think about getting to work, I have to have a really good idea of what I’m going to stitch. Now begins more brainstorming. I drew cauldrons in every way I could think of in five minutes or less. I always try to stretch the ideas, move shapes around, and try crazy things. It is OK and expected to draw duds – remember dumb ideas make the smart ones look even smarter!




I usually have a pretty good idea of which ones I like and don’t like very early on. This time I was torn between the Day of the Tentacle inspired cauldron and the one with the Goonies key on it. When I can’t decide, I try to objectively determine what I’m responding to in each design. Clearly I liked the mash-ups (Goonies and Day of the Tentacle). The shape of the skull key cauldron appealed to me more than the one the tentacle are in as well. Is there a way to work them together? Maybe so.


Preparing to Digitize

Now I start to plan though the details of how this might stitch out. This part is really a puzzle. There’s never a right or wrong answer and I almost always think of something “better” along the way. That’s the beauty of learning, next time I might make a different decision.


Here’s more sketches and a list of tasks to I may need to digitize. I try to work though my hoop limitations and think about where I”m placing each element and what order it is going to stitch in. You can see at this point, I thought I was going to need to split this three times to get all of the parts.



You’ll notice I’m still in sketch mode here. While my sketches are becoming more defined, they are not perfectly measured or symmetrical. I need to get get more serious before I actually start to digitize. At this point, I’ll create a digital line drawing in Photoshop in the size I’d like it to finish. I use lots of different tools etc to complete the drawing. In this case, I just pasted a slightly warped image of the Goonies key right in there. I add in a few guide lines around the edges and center. You can’t see it here, but I also add guide lines where the hoop limits would be. Just recently (as in one digitizing project beyond this one), I set up some template files that have simple boxes with a transparent background in the exact hoop sizes I have available. This way, when I start new projects, I can just import them into my photoshop file, copy and paste them into layers and move them around as needed for planning my splits. Look at that – proof that I’m always learning. Every project refines the process and teaches me something new!


You may notice that in this design, I’ve made some significant changes to the tentacles to reduce the number of hoops required as well as minimize the layers of applique. I think I could have done it as I originally intended, but it would have created some “interesting” splits and broken satin stitches that may or may not line up perfectly. I decided to go ahead and try this smarter layout with the option to do-over with the three hoop plain if I really hated the top tentacles.


Going Digital

Woot! Finally time to actually do something other than think and plan! At this point I begin the digitizing process. It is still a lot of trial and error for me, but after about 3 hours (this is a big one) I have something that looks like this –



There’s a lot that happens in this step. I almost always try a feature or font that I’ve never used before which can lead some some really fun and wonky results. When I think I’ve made it the way I need it, I go ahead and watch it stitch on screen. I try to pay attention to stitch order and go back in and remove as many thread color changes and jumps as I can get by with. I’ll then watch it virtually stitch one more time to make sure I’m pretty comfortable with how it is going to come together. The next step is to do the split work and add alignment lines and basting boxes. If I’ve done my job right – this step goes rather quickly.



I do one last sanity check and load up each individual split .pes file and watch them stitch out. I’m looking for mistakes like not putting my alignment line or basting box in the right stitch order. I’m also looking to make sure I didn’t forget any sections or accidentally select out objects while I was splitting it. Once I watch them virtually stitch out one final time, it is time to head to the sewing room.

Stitching the Design

This particular design is a bit challenging. It has large applique sections, thread texture, and several steps for the octopus applique. I start by selecting my thread colors and fabrics. In this case, I will use Misty fuse on my applique pieces to keep them nice and still through all of the hooping.  When I sit at the machine, I like to have everything I need prepared. I go ahead and starch my base fabric, fuse my applique pieces, and otherwise prepare for embroidery.


Most times, when I’m trying something new like this or stitching it out for the first time, I will sit with it and watch how it behaves. Its amazing the things you can see if you just pay really close attention. I look for things like is the needle bending, is the thread shredding in a common area or with a common object type, how does it handle stitching over another satin stitch etc. I’m a practical gal and I often learn a lot about what not to do on the next project or ideas I’d like to incorporate. For example, when I saw it right here in this moment of the stitch out, I found myself thinking it wold have been much funner if I had put a band around it in the negative space that exists in this part of the stitch out. See?? Missed opportunities!



Post Mortem

I keep right on stitching. When things aren’t right or mistakes are apparent, I just keep going.  When it is completely finished, I take it out remove the basting stitches etc and begin a formal assessment of the issues. I try to be really objective and just to stick to is this right or wrong without feeling one way or another about it. When it is wrong, I think about why I made the mistake and what I could do to fix it.

Here’s my review of this project:


1 and 2 – I changed the stitch order of the objects then didn’t make adjustments for where the objects finished. That left me with a connecting stitch on top of the tentacle and a too long satin stitch

3 – Whoa. Major logic error on my layers. This isn’t really fixable without a lot of pattern editing, so I will just take it to my sewing machine and manually cover the raw edges with a zig zag stitch

4 – These little tiny circles stitched – but under protest. They look pretty rough from the back too. This is probably a case of just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

It is interesting that most of my mistakes and mis-steps came at the end of the digitizing project isn’t it? I’m sure my brain was generally done and I was force powering through. I know better than to do that and here is perfect proof!

I also take a look at things I’m happy with too. The stretched texture on the cauldron is super cool and I did manage to get the satin stitch on the handles as wide as they can go without it looking too stupid. Even better – it stitched exactly the size I intended – no math errors!!

See – I wasn’t kidding

Remember 2000+ words ago when I told you I WORK at these things? Now you know, I really do. It takes a lot of time, thought, and effort. Experience and openness to learning are the only ways to accomplish new techniques and continue to improve the old ones. Each time I’m successful, I have a new tool in my toolbox for the next project. One feeds another and before long I’ll have a whole garage of tools!  There is, of course, a bit of a rub – it never gets easier. I always strive to do and learn the things that I don’t understand or haven’t done before which means I’m often less than satisfied with my work.  That doesn’t mean I’m not proud of it or happy with it , it just means that I recognize I have a skill limit I need to overcome. It isn’t magic, I wasn’t born with a special gene, I’m not more creative or thoughtful than anyone else. I’m just committed. So I beg of you, if you made it through all of these words, use them! Go into your craft space right now and try something that was at the edge of your skill level a year ago. Make a block that really frustrated you or try to re-image how you would do over a quilt you didn’t love. Give yourself pats on your back for all of your successes and look at everyone of those missteps as opportunities. You can do eit!


Want the file and more?

Check out the Harry Potter Bookcase Quilt index of all posts. The Cauldron files will be included with week 23 (coming June 17).



  1. This Sunday is day two of a two-day bookcase quilt workshop. I knew I wanted to do a Harry Potter theme and just came across your site. Oh, how I wish I had found you before I started. My bookcase is too full of unnamed books and I have only two 12×12 blocks to go … not much space to add neat stuff like Hedwig and the monster book. I have the Brother Dream Machine but don’t know his to use all the features plus PEDesign upgrade but don’t know how to use it. I tried using TAP to label label a few book but really don’t like the effect. Many of my books are too thin to embroider names, I think. Anyway, I plan to Applique some of your wonderful embellishments. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Thanks for sharing such Article, I liked your designs 🙂 Well it really helped me out 🙂 I was really looking for Embroidery Digitizing. I really appreciate 🙂

  3. Hi! we purchased a brother PE770 almost 2 years ago. I had grandchildren and a son who was the Head Cheer coach at our local HS. I’ve always been a crafter, painter, cake decorator, etc. and usually pic up most things rather quickly. Until now! I have tried really hard to utilize the embroidery machine to its fullest, but have came up quite short! and extremely frustrated! We purchased a package of font files from 8 claws and a paw. I was so excited because there were Disney fonts and a few others that I was excited to try!… needless to say, after downloading and unzipping the files, I couldn’t convert them to “word” or “name” form. I am just now getting around to trying to figure the whole process out again. I went back to the website I found the fonts on, and looked around a bit, where they have since place “embroidery software” on the item menu. I clicked to find a link on “how to form words and names with Embird. It seemed so easy, and I even found the link to “DOWNLOAD” the software free! Again, I was frustrated to see that at the end of the download, it prompts for purchase, without a price, I canceled the download to do some more searching. Thus I came across your blog! I did find that there is the “basic Embird software” . What I thought I needed, after reading and RE-reading, it seems I may need to font engine plug in as well? I don’t to purchase parts of the program I won’t need, and am hoping you can point me in the right direction. I definitely am somewhat overwhelmed and about to have a meltdown! lol. Any advice you have would be greatly appreciated. I pride myself as being self sufficient, but am at a total loss here. How can something so simply seem so complicate!

  4. Have you considered investing in a more robust digitizing program? I purchased a used copy of Generations with dongle for only $200 on CL…It would save you HOURS of time and it automatically optimizes stitching order so there wouldn’t be hundreds of thread jumps, etc. It is so easy to use, too. You would be amazed at what you can accomplish in a short amount of time. I downloaded Scabbers and as soon as I have some free time I will clean it up and see how it stitches out. I’m assuming the body and the box are applique (I saw that you had the outlines). I just keep thinking how amazing it is that you accomplished all that you have using the s/w you do, and what you could accomplish with a program like Generations.

    • Hey there!

      I’ve been really happy with Embird. I’m pretty sure it has some of those auto-magic features too, but I don’t really use them. 1/2 because I’m self taught and don’t know they exist and the other 1/2 because I’m obstinate. ha! I’m also out of money to spend on my trillion hobbies so I have to keep making it work!

      I hope you’ll let me know how Scabbers goes and what upgrades your software does to it. I’m always learning and getting better every time I try new things. Specific feedback would surely be helpful. 🙂

      Thanks so much for stopping by and starting a conversation! I love meeting new creatives, I learn so much from other people.

  5. Thank you for the nice tutorial / write up. “Work at it” is definitely the right phrase!



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