Whats the big deal with using underlay?  Why would you add MORE stitches to your design so it takes longer to stitch out?  Underlay doesn’t make any difference to embroidery when I stitch it out, so why bother to use it?  You need to understand underlay to keep the quality of your embroidery at a professional level. Ahhh, the questions and statements that I see out there!  People think that underlay is a waste of thread, a waste of time and doesn’t have any bearing on the final results.  Some feel that it makes the embroidery too dense and ruins the shape of their objects.  To the contrary, underlay is some of the most important stitches that you will ever create and will help retain object shapes when you stitch them out.  They make all the difference!

Underlay:  What the heck is it?

Think of underlay stitches as the foundation for any embroidery that you create or stitch.  Most stitches require underlay, except for any time of running stitches.  So even if you are not an engineer or make buildings, you will know that if your house foundation is not strong, you will have issues.  If you have a hole in your foundation, the rest of your house is going to eventually fall.  Same goes with underlay stitches – they are the foundation for your top stitches and must be there to provide stability for your entire design.  If you skip the underlay to make your stitching go faster and finish your project or work faster, you are putting your work at risk of falling, certainly, the quality will not be there, that’s for sure.

Now that we know that underlay stitches are the base for your embroidery, you also know that they have to stitch before your top stitches, right?  So underlay first and then the pretty top stitches so that your embroidery has a solid base to stitch on, and stay solid and looking good for years to come.

Exception:  If you are creating a light and airy design and blending threads or getting very creative, or a redwork design or even layers of fill stitches, you don’t need to use underlay.

Types of Underlay – pick one or a few!

There are a few types of underlay that have different uses and can be used at different times depending on what you are stitching out.

Satin stitches (for example lettering).  Although Hatch automatically changes the underlay for lettering (other embroidery lettering programs should do this too), let’s look at manually setting up your underlay.  Common sense tells us that smaller lettering requires LESS underlay, and larger letters are going to require more underlay – you can’t have a ton of stitching underneath a teeny tiny letter, right?  You will end up with a blob of thread that means nothing!  Let’s look at large lettering first.

Here is an example of a rather large letter, done in satin stitches:

letter underlay

I have marked the two underlay stitches that were automatically added (thanks, Hatch!)  The one going around the outside is called EDGE UNDERLAY.  This underlay can be used on any type of stitches but is perfect for lettering.  The edge underlay sets the foundation for the edge of the letter and helps give the lettering a sharper, more crisp edge.

PRO TIP:  if you are stitching lettering and your edge underlay is showing, it usually means that you have not hooped or stabilized properly, or have made the lettering too small and didn’t change the type of underlay, or you are using a stitch file instead of a working file (and you can’t change the underlay on a stitch file)  With a working file,  you can move the edge underlay around just a bit to solve the problem quickly, but if you don’t have the proper stability, doing that is just basically a band-aid – it will get you through the stitching and look OK, but I bet you will have some other alignment issues.  Hoop properly, use the smallest hoop for your design and use the correct stabilizer, and the edge underlay will do its job for you and make your designs look great.

PRO-TIP2:  if you are trying to change a stitch file, this is one of the issues that you will encounter.  You can’t do much editing on a stitch file, although you can change the size, the embroidery software will not change any underlay, nor can you add any.  If you were to take this D, export it to a PES file and then try and size it, you will have the edge underlay and zig-zag stitches still there, only smaller.  There will be a ton of underlay stitches that you do not need and the end result will be density issues.  That is why we recommend NOT to resize stitch files.  Well, one of the reasons, anyway.

The second underlay you see is called zig-zag underlay.  It zigs from one side of the letter, and zags back to the other, kind of like the satin stitch but not as dense of course.  The zig-zag underlay is providing the base for your lettering:  making sure everything is flat and ready for those beautiful satin stitches.   Again, if you hoop properly and use the correct stabilizer, the zig-zag stitches will greatly improve the appearance of your lettering.   Honestly, I can tell by looking at a stitched out design if the digitizer used a TTF or changed the type of underlay used on the lettering!  It is clear to see from a quality point of view.

Underlay for small letters.

Stitching out small lettering can be very tricky, and there are a lot of things you need to do to make that lettering clear.  As with all embroidery, small is harder to do than large designs.  Same goes with lettering.  If you have Hatch or MBX V5 (similar programs) you are probably not worrying about underlay on lettering, right?  That is because the program is doing it for you, automatically.  I took the same letter D as above, and made it smaller – way smaller!  Here is how the underlay looks:

underlay for small letters

There is not much there, right?  Whew!  That is a good answer!  All we have for the underlay is a center stitch, and that is all the small letter needs!  If we were to add an edge underlay and even (gasp) a zig-zag underlay to this letter, it would be very dense and thick and you would probably start to fill in the inside of the D, making it unreadable.

PRO TIP:  When you are working with small lettering, make sure that you find out the recommended smallest size for that lettering – each embroidery font is different and each embroidery font will have a different recommended small size, so make sure you know before you stitch.  If you make it smaller than the recommended size, you are going to have issues because that font was not digitized for smaller.  If you are using ESA fonts, the smallest recommended sizes are noted in the name of the font for your reference – what a time saver that is!

So for the smaller letter D, we only have one type of underlay called the center underlay.  Yeah, because it stitches right through the center of the satin stitch!  That will be an easy name to remember.   Center underlay is the bare minimum that you can use for lettering – it is a small foundation for a small letter.  Anything more will be too much and the D won’t look right.  A little underlay place correctly for a little letter works well!

Next week we will tackle even more types of underlay stitches.  Today we used center underlay, zig-zag underlay and the ever-important edge underlay in lettering.

Until Next Time

Use the correct underlay for perfect lettering!



2 Responses to “The Underlying Importance of Underlay Stitches!”

  1. Betty says:

    How do you make small lettering look good

    • Sue says:

      Small lettering is a bit tricky – there are quite a few things to do to try and make it look great small. One of the most important things to work with is the underlay stitches. I would always test stitch out your small lettering tests to see how they look.

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