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Spanx® for Machine Embroidery Designs

What is Spanx for embroidery designs? It’s underlay – the seamless foundation for beautiful embroidery. Without it, you’re going to see a whole lot of puckers, wrinkles and divets. Things that are very undesirable in embroidery and fashion.

But how do you know if you need it?  Well, in fashion, a mirror will tell you if Spanx is a requirement for a certain outfit.  In embroidery, a stitch out of the design will reveal the ugly or blissful truth.

Professionally digitized designs start with underlay since the underlay stitches are the foundation for the visible artistic stitches.  Underlay, like Spanx, should be invisible with its presence known only to the stitcher/fashionista.

The amount of underlay that is in an embroidery design was decided by the digitizer at the time of creation.  The digitizer takes into consideration the end use of the design and applies the appropriate type of underlay before laying down the beautiful stitches.  For instance, when Designs in Machine Embroidery created the fonts for the Perfect Towel Kit, the end use of stitching on terry cloth was taken into consideration.  The result, a double layer of lattice underlay, permanently holds down the nap of the terry cloth through the life of the towel not just until it is laundered. A double layer of lattice is two columns of fairly tight zigzag stitches that support the heavy satin stitches in the final design.


Formal H from the Perfect Towel Kit


single layer of lattice underlay


actual underlay of the Formal H design

Romanesque 2 is a beautiful collection of monograms in a delicate frame available from Embroidery Arts.  If you take a close look at this lettering, you’ll know that the digitizer created this collection for medium weight fabrics such as bedding, table cloths and napkins.


The letter E from Romanesque 2, Embroidery Arts.

The underlay on the tall, vertical column includes three straight lines of stitching spaced across the width of the column providing a frame for the satin stitches.  On the short horizontal line of the E, you’ll find a triple line of underlay stitched close together, creating a bed for the satin stitches.  The two approaches reflect the push and pull of the fabric as there is greater stress on the wider vertical column than the short horizontal column.  This underlay reflects the work of an experienced and knowledgeable digitizer.


The underlay stitches have been changed to black thread.

Our friends at OESD have a lovely collection of open and airy designs, Radiant Blossoms.  The designs are intended to be used on delicate fabrics, nothing heavier than linen and often something as delicate as satin and chiffon. UblVery little underlay is included in the designs.  More often than not, you’ll find an edge travel; a line of run stitches that lays down at the perimeter of the design segment and provides an anchor for the satin stitches. U1blU2blAlways stitch a test of an embroidery design before you begin the actual project. But don’t just critique the final outcome; watch the process so you can see what underlay was included in the design.  This will provide clues for what type of fabric the design was digitized for, saving you guesswork. You may discover that more (or less) underlay is needed for your particular fabric.  In your digitizing software, go to Properties, Underlay to add or subtract underlay.

Admit it, fashionista, don’t you wish you could do that to the image in the mirror? I know I do!Seams Sew Special Blog Banner

Do you find yourself watching your machine stitch a design? Are you fascinated by the process?  What have you learned about underlay while watching a design stitch?  Share your thoughts and four readers will be randomly selected to win a $25 gift certificate from Seams Sew Special.





  • beth daniels

    I have found that watching underlay helps me understand the design better. Sometimes I digitize and I decide if I want more underlay or less especially in doing monograms or lettering on garments and other items.

  • Cindi Bates

    I always test stitch my designs. I save my husbands old t-shirts just for that reason so I can cut them up into squares and use as test t-shirt fabric. If I don’t have the identical fabric I am going to embroider a design on I will at least use muslin and watch the design sew so I can get a good idea of what I need to do.

  • Cathy

    I never get tired of watching my machine stitch and watching the underlay. I have digitized a few designs and watching makes me to better understand the designing process.

  • Ennis A

    I watch my test designs stitch out to be sure (hopefully) that they will be what I need for the current project end result. Even though I’m new to embroidery I have learned that underlayment can mean a big difference in my projects. Thanks for the info!!

  • Carolyn

    I watch my stitch-outs, especially in lettering, to see if the large satin stitches will not snag when worn and laundered before I will commit to using them on a customers project, especially on tee shirts. I don’t digitize and I admire those who do. It’s obvious that a lot of planning and work go into it.

  • Kathy E.

    I always keep an eye on my machine while it stitches out a design. The moment I walk away is when things go wacky. I find it very interesting to watch the steps a digitizer has taken to produce a design. It tells me a lot about the quality I’ll get in the end product. Having that underlayment (Spanx!) is what’s going to hold the design together through lots of wear and tear.

  • Belinda Germain

    I have had my machine for over five years and I am still fascinated by it. I have found many designs with very little underlay and others with far too much underlay. But I have found very few designs that don’t look beautiful once sewn!

  • Francine

    I’m still memorized by watching the stitch out. It definitely helped me understand what I should stitch it out on. That’s for explaining the process.

  • Shirley Clark

    I have a single needle so I pretty much have to sit by and watch it stitch. Sometimes I’d like to question some of the people that made the designs as to why they do this or that. For instance, like jumping across a design to stitch a few stitches and then come back to nearly the same spot. Just doesn’t make sense to me sometimes.
    The funniest thing was one time when my grandson was watching, and he had never seen an embroidery machine. He asked me, “When will it be dry?” I guess it is sort of like painting.

  • Pam

    What is the Perfect Towel Kit

  • Judi C

    I almost always view the stitch out of a new design with the “slow redraw” in my embroidery software. I only wish I knew how to add underlay to the few designs that do not have any.

  • Susan Spiers

    I too watch my machine as it embroiders. I have noticed the underlay stitches it puts in before the actual top stitching-fascinating!

  • Pam

    I do watch but unfortunately I get hypnotized instead of analyzing. I will get better.

  • Louise

    Very helpful guidance for a newbie! Thanks, Eileen!

  • maga

    The first thing I do to a new design is watch it in my software’s sew simulator and judge if it is suitable for the project I want to put it on. If it is too dense or lacks underlay I either don’t use it or fix it before doing a test sew on a similar fabric to my project. It saves a lot of heartache and annoyance to sift through the basics before the needle even touches the fabric. It would be ever so helpful if all digitizers would tell the buyers what fabric the designs are digitized for but as in so many other walks of life there are those who think that one size fits all

  • Betty Zarzyczny

    I was in Casper, Wy. hunting antelope with my husband and we went shopping for some t shirt to bring back to Arizona. Well to my surprise he was doing designs on t shirt. Our shopping trip turned into to be 4 hours. He made the designs to go on the shirts for me. This was 5 years ago and when we returned home guess what I went shopping for? Yes you guessed it a new EMBROIDERY MACHINE. knowing nothing about these machines, but I just had to have one. I love watching them sew my designs. I now have three machines, which one is a multi-needle and I love working on it. I have software played with it, I have a long way to go. I look forward to your blogs and THANK YOU for all the good info. Betty

  • Chris Lyon

    I have found that the use of underlay has evolved over the years. My old designs often have no or very little underlay. We generally used much heavier stabilizers. Now the stabilizers are softer and the better designs rely more on sufficient underlay. I like this a lot better.

  • Kate

    funny how a machines movements and sounds captivate us no matter what age we are and how much we supposedly know about our machines. Yes, it is like chewing gum with our eyes….the best part is showing and sharing these creative steps to a wee one who is ever so excited to be part of the sewing process.

  • Karen S

    Sometimes I watch the machine stitch. Sometimes I set up the baby monitor and go wash dishes or sew on another machine.

  • Alicia Key

    I’ve always enjoyed watching the stitch-outs but never realized the clear reasoning for it on different fabrics like you’ve explained it here. I’ve had several different softwares over the last 10 years but never knew extra layers of underlay could be added! thanks so much for the details!

  • Barbara

    I’ve been digitizing for several years now and I’m fascinated by the process. It’s always amazing to me the difference underlay stitches can make. I make sure to do stitch-outs to make sure I’m pleased with the design before going to the finished project, whether it’s a t-shirt or a hat. I’m always trying to learn more to improve my designs. Thanks fir some great tips!

  • Sandi Cunningham

    So FASCINATING to understand the basics of digitizing and not just being mesmerized by the stitching. I’ve always thought I would never digitize, but THIS makes me understand the process much more. Thanks!

  • Betty Ann

    Understanding the embroidery process, underlay, etc. is like learning a new foreign language. Once you understand the process choosing designs according to density, fabric makes so much sense. When i am not successful it is usually because I have chosen a bad fit – not proper density design for the fabric choice.

  • Bonnie Gray

    That was a great explanation of underlay, thank you. Now when I look at the slow redraw of a design I can decide if the design will be all right with the fabric I have chosen to stitch it on.

  • Saundra Romanus

    Just love reading your blog, I learn so much being a newbie at embroidery, I have a single needle machine. I have had trouble with puckering so I am very interested in this! I love to watch my machine, it is still amazing to me!

  • Colleen

    I do watch the designs stitch out. Each time I embroider I think that I won’t just sit and watch….but I always do. It is fascinating to me to watch and try to figure out the mechanics of each design.

  • Margaret Crowder

    Very new newbie here. Excellent explanation of the foundation of an embroidery design. Like most everything else in life, a good foundation usually leads to a good conclusion. Thank you, Eileen for your wonderful instructions and blog!

  • Julie Daugherty

    Thank you for the information, I’ve never seen such a good explanation. I typically watch my machine stitch a design as I still find it fascinating after 5 years. My 10 year old granddaughter spent some time with me this summer and all she wanted to do was embroider
    on my machine.

  • Pat Black

    Have loved ME since 2001,learning with every stitchout. Slowly beginning to digitize, learning from the pros, and “You Tube”

  • Joan Shriver

    Learning the hard way – always sit right there and watch your machine embroider. It’s just waiting for you to leave so it can do something disastrous to that $30 a yard fabric!

  • Cassandra Sewell

    When I digitized a logo for my friend’s business shirts, I started with no underlay just to see what would happen. It didn’t hold up well. I ended up doing a zigzag type stitch, with rounded ends so that the curves in the final design would be more defined. It worked well!

    Without underlay, I’d feel naked.

    I wish, though, that I had a better embroidery machine because although mine is doing a good job, it skips stitches no matter what I do. It’s also partially broken.

  • Leanda

    I love watching designs sew out, particularly when they are from a great digitiser. I realise that there is so much to learn from watching how the stitch out interacts with the fabric. It is like a mini class each time.

  • Sara Redner

    I don’t always pick the right design for the fabric – and I don’t always stitch a test first, but I am learning and getting better. I watch the machine stitch the design, but it is mainly because whenever I walk away, the thread will break or birds nest, etc.

  • Barb

    Thank you for a very informative post. I had no idea that underlay did so much or that there were different “strengths”. I do watch my machine, sometime into a hypnotic trance!

  • Bruce

    Great post, this is very helpful. Thank you for sharing.


  • Jennifer David

    It’s been good to read your article and learn something for embroidery. Thanks for the assist!

  • Warner Brown

    This is an amazing blog for embroidery designs.

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