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Embroidery How-To: Color Blends

Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Circle of colored spools

While walking through an art gallery recently and l looking at some of my favorite paintings, I was struck by the artists’ use of color and even their economy of stroke. I truly appreciate their work and often wonder how I can better apply those same concepts to my embroidery. Painters have some advantages with colors that embroiders, at least on the surface, appear to lack. They can mix and blend colors to achieve that perfect shade or hue. We who work in thread cannot… or can we?

Digitizing Designs to Optically Mix Colors

While it is true that we embroiderers cannot mix our thread colors the way painters can mix paint on a palette, we can create designs that optically mix colors. What do I mean by “optically mixing” colors? I mean the way that we perceive the Sunday funnies as different colors instead of small printed dots of cyan, yellow, magenta, and black ink. This is the same way that we look at a photo printed on a home inkjet printer and see all the colors and smooth transitions instead of the tiny dots of those same four colors of ink. For better proof that we humans do this, look at a full color newspaper photo or comic under a magnifying glass. You’ll see the dots I’m referencing.

Red bird and zoomed in image of it's eye

With embroidery, we can achieve the same type of blending, but we do it on a different scale. We can’t create those tiny dots, but we can achieve similar effects with the lines we create with thread. For inspiration on how to shade with linear elements, take a look at some older etchings. You’ll notice a technique you can use. The lines are repeated at varying distances to create different values. Working with only black lines on a light or white background, these artists were able to achieve the look of many greys. You can do the same thing with thread.

Black and white drawing of a flower

Using Layers of Color

Typically we use multiple layers of thread colors to create a blend. By sewing one color and then another on top of it, we can start the process of getting those two or more colors to “mix” in the viewer's’ eyes.

Stitch Types for Creating Blends

In embroidery, it is often the case that the length of the stitch contributes to the loft of the stitch. The longer a stitch is, the more it stays up out of the fabric. Because of this, longer stitches are harder to blend with.

Satin Stitches - Satin stitches typically have a good amount of loft and resist blending. If you need to blend with a satin stitch, mimicking a traditional hand embroidery short and long technique can help keep the length and loft while allowing you to transition colors. It is usually more digitizing work and less successful than using other stitch types.

Fill Stitches - Fill stitches work well for layering colors. The multiple stitches and repetitive lines of stitching lend themselves to recreating effects like those in the etching shown.

Walk Stitches - Walk stitches on their own don’t lend much to blending, but they can be used to great effect when layered over a fill.

Stitch Lengths and Blending

Longer stitches have more loft than shorter stitches. Shorter stitches can tend to burrow down into the fabric or stitches underneath. We digitizers can use this to create better blends. Using slightly longer stitches on the first layer of stitching and shorter stitches on subsequent layers will cause the thread colors to sink into each other and more easily optically blend. For example, when layering two fills, try using a stitch length of 40 points for the first fill and a stitch length of 30 points for the second. This will cause the second fill to sink into the first one and further the effect.

Stitch Directions and Blending

Stitch directions can play a huge roll in how threads blend together. When layering threads and colors, stitch directions that line up will fall into each other. Stitch directions that are at different angles will tend to stand apart.

When creating blends with fills, I will commonly duplicate the shape I’m working with to ensure that I have all the same stitch directions. I will then edit my color, density, and stitch length settings to further the effect of my blend.

Using Custom Densities to Create Blends

Custom density is a property found under the effects section for multi stitch line elements. It allows you to change the density of the stitch lines throughout a form. Much like the etching example, the changing of the space between the stitch lines gives the illusion of many tints or shades of a color.

Objects properties effects design file













Circle with gray lines inside

Layering a fill of one color over a fill of another color and using custom densities will allow you to transition from one thread color to another.

The custom density types set several presets to more easily achieve the look you want. There is also a check box below it to reverse the effect.

Fiery Logo

Blend Types

Linear - Linear type creates a smooth and even transition from the minimum to the maximum density settings.

Convex - Convex transitions evenly from the minimum to the maximum and back again.

Exponential - This option transitions slowly from the start toward the middle and then more rapidly toward the end of the form.

Wave - This option repeats itself. It moves from dense to light to dense to light throughout the form.

Custom - This option allows to complete control over the density curves throughout the form. This can be really useful in creating less conventional blends.

Using Random Edge to Create BlendsPurple flower

Random Edge is another useful tool in create blends. Like custom density, it is located in the effects section of multi stitch line element properties.

This effect will randomly increase and/or decrease the stitch line width within the specified amount. It can do this for either or both sides of the stitch lines. You can choose what you want by selecting a type and entering an amount in the width field.

Random Edge can feather the edges of a form. This can be used to create fur, grass, or ragged shapes, but it can also be used to create the embroidery approximation of a blurred edge. It also somewhat replicates the long and short hand embroidery blending technique.

In the example below, the blue line represents the digitized shape. The green lines indicate how far off of the wireframe outline the stitches are permitted to extend or contract. The lines are for illustration purposes and do not appear in the software. This variation is controlled by the width property.


Design file

Fill Patterns and Blends

If you are using custom densities to create your blends, you may start to notice that the fill patterns become more apparent and possibly distracting to the viewer. The needle penetrations create definite curves swooping through the forms. Using a random patternless fill for the layers can help prevent this.

Two circles showing linear custom density

Travel Stitches and Trapunto

Travel stitches can often detract from the effect of a blend and draw the eye in an undesired way. To avoid this distraction and clean up the edges of the custom density layers of a blend, try enabling the trapunto effect for those layers. This will cause the travel stitches to occur only on the edge of the shape where they are less likely to draw attention.

Two four leaf clover images with different effects


This check box is located under the top stitching section of the properties for a multi stitch line element with a fill stitch type.

Object properties computer file

Selecting Thread Colors for Blending

The most beautifully digitized blend can be exquisitely embroidered or disastrously sewn and the difference between the two may strongly depend upon thread color choice. If the thread colors are too disparate, all of your hard digitizing work may be lost in the clash of the threads, but don’t fret. With a few guidelines, selecting better color combinations becomes much easier.

When thinking about color, it may be helpful to give if some reference points. The shorter distance you travel using those reference points, the more successful your blends will be. There are several different color models you could use, but I often find looking at the following three aspects of color the easiest to use and translate into embroidery. The aspects I look for are:

Hue - What “color” is it and where does it fall on the color wheel?

Saturation or Chroma - How intense or dull is it?

Value - How light or dark is it?

Hue - Start with the Color Wheel

If you arrange colors around a circle in the order that a rainbow appears, you create the handy reference tool called a color wheel. Doing an internet search will net you a ton of variations based on different color models. For now, this simple one will work to start.

When selecting a color to blend to, try moving only a little around the wheel. Transitioning from red to orange may be too much of a jump. You may need to use another color to make the transition more smoothly. Try moving from red, to a bittersweet color, to an orange.

Thread spools clip art


Saturation references with how intense a color is. Here too, try moving in small increments to create a smooth blend.

Thread spools clip art


Value is a term for how light or dark a color is. When working with tints or shades of a color, smaller steps will blend better than larger ones. Even the steps shown below may be too large for an effective blend. Finding the thread colors in between might be needed.

White, pink, red and brown spools

Test Sew, Edit, Repeat

Working with the color concepts outlined here and the software tools and properties discussed above, you’ll soon be on your way to creating stunning can effective blends. Make sure to sew a couple tests before running your final product. Colors and blends will look very different on screen than in actual thread.

Make edits and thread color changes as needed, and have fun with it. You’re getting into some more advanced digitizing techniques, and there is much to explore here. Enjoy!