There is a general rule in digitizing a design: What you see on screen isn’t what your going to get when the design sews out! In fact, if the design looks perfect on screen, you can almost bet that it won’t sew out properly.

What is Push & Pull Compensation?

Since the early days of embroidery all machines have created stitches in the same manner. There is a top thread and a bobbin thread which both have tension, once both these threads intersect with the timing of the machine’s needle scarf and bobbin hook, they pull on each other to create a flat stitch. Without tension on both the top and bottom threads, the embroidery would not sit flat and would have a loose and loopy appearance. This is known as embroidery distortion and occurs quite frequently to designs created by inexperienced digitizers.

Distortion happens because of the way the top and bobbin threads react to each other when applied to different types of fabric. The name of this reaction is most commonly referred to as “push and pull compensation”. I like to use the analogy of squeezing a tube of toothpaste. When pressure is applied, the toothpaste come out the open end at the top. This is exactly what happens to stitches on your machine. Stitches in a satin column have a pulling effect, making the column slightly thinner when it sews out. The open end of the satin column, which is any that you could slide a pin under, is where the push affect will come into play. When push and pull come into play, the width of the thread and the density of the stitches distorts the fabric.

Push & pull compensation example

Pull Compensation for Embroidery Digitizing

Pull compensation is a tool that is built into your embroidery software. When it’s activated, your software will overthrow the width of the column stitch. With most software programs, you’re able to control the amount of pull compensation you want for the designed object you’re digitizing. It’s important that you understand when and why you need to adjust this setting.

The rule of thumb is, the wider the stitch, the more pull compensation you need to apply.

Why? Because the wider the stitch is, the more the tension of the top and bottom threads will increase to create a flat stitch on the fabric. The diagram below shows how as the column width increases, you also need to increase the settings for the pull compensation. You’ll notice that a 2mm column width has only .15mm of pull compensation applied and will incrementally increase to the point that the 7mm column has a .3mm of pull compensation. The wider the stitch, the more pull compensation you’ll need to apply. Please keep in mind that these rules are not set in stone, another factor that will affect the amount of pull compensation is the type of material being embroidered on. As an example, denim will require much less pull compensation than stretchy terry cloth.

distortion digitizing theory

Pull compensation is a great tool within your software, because if you understand the theory behind it, it makes digitizing much easier. In the days before software, we used to manually overthrow every stitch to adjust for the column width. I remember it being a very tedious process.

Push Compensation for Embroidery Digitizing

The “push” that occurs is unfortunately something that the software does not control automatically. The trick for learning how to control the “push” takes a bit of time and practice to grasp and is largely tied into digitizing at a consistent scale. For this reason & if you haven’t already, I highly suggest you click here to checkout my Digitizer’s Dream Course. It’ll teach you my “golden rule” for digitizing designs at scale and how to master applying proper push compensation by interactively creating designs yourself.

When you manually adjust “push compensation”, you need to cut or pull the object nodes back a bit into the direction of the stitches being created. So the question is, how much do I cut back the node of the object from the open end while I’m digitizing on screen? Usually, the rule is you want to place your inputs about one stitch short (approximately .4mm) from how the artwork appears on screen. By digitizing at a consistent scale, the amount you cut short always stays the same, and you won’t be guessing as you would if you were constantly zooming in and out at different scales on screen.

embroidery distortion

Like most of the rules associated with embroidery, this rule can change in different circumstances. For instance, let’s say you are creating a satin stitch and then placing a running stitch around it to create the effect of an outline in a different color. In this circumstance you would cut back the satin stitch nodes by two stitches (approximately .8mm) and then digitize the running stitch, placing your running stitch points exactly to the artwork. If you cut back the satin stitch too much, you might see a gap between the two colors of stitches. If you don’t cut it back enough, that satin stitch thread might extend past the running stitch and look like a mistake. Again, much of this is covered more in depth in our Digitizer’s Dream Course but for now, please just understand that there is no one size fits all approach to every design you plan to create.

distortion digitizing theory

Practice Push & Pull Compensation Yourself

One of the easiest exercises to practically understand push and pull compensation is to digitize a perfect circle using a long satin stitch. Remember: the longer the stitch the more it pulls. First digitize your points following the artwork exactly; on screen you will see a perfect looking satin stitch circle. Now take this design and run it on your machine, the result will be an object that stitches out looking like and egg! The embroidery has distortion because of the push and pull compensation.
learn distortion embroiderybasic embroidery theory distortion

Now I want you to digitize the circle again. This time I want you to cut back on the open ends on the top and bottom and exaggerate the points on either side of the direction of the stitch. On screen you’ll see what looks like a sideways egg; now when you run this file on your embroidery machine, guess what? It will stitch out looking like the original artwork, and the result will be a perfect embroidered circle.

how to fix distortion for machine embroidery

Push & Pull Compensation in Action

One of the easiest ways for me to see if a digitizer understands push and pull compensation is to examine the lettering they have digitized. I’m not talking about keyboard text or fonts that are built into your software or machine. If you don’t use the push and pull rules when creating lettering, you end up seeing text that looks very sloppy and uneven. We call it a dancing baseline. This is when all the letters look uneven and some appear larger and smaller than others. The point is, you can’t digitize the text exactly the way you see them on your screen. The letter “L” has two open ends, a “T” has three, a “P” has one and an “O” doesn’t have any.

what is distortion in embroidery

This is the reason why the majority of software keyboard lettering sometime works and sometimes doesn’t. What people forget is that someone physically digitized that font in the first place. Depending on the software they used, it could just be an embroidery font that is made up of stitch files that have been converted to keystrokes (like font packs sold as stitch files or majority of the keyboard fonts out there). When those types of fonts are resized, they tend to quickly lose their visual integrity. Wilcom’s ESA embroidery fonts (embroidery specific alphabets), which are truly object based, give much better and consistent results compared to any other font type I’ve tested. Any created font is only as good as both the digitizer and the software they use. If the digitizer is inexperienced and hasn’t correctly applied the push and pull rules, then it goes without saying that the quality of the embroidery design will be compromised.

Push and pull will affect fill stitches more dramatically, because fills are used for covering large areas. The larger the area, the more stitches.

The more stitches, the more the design will distort when applied to fabric. This is usually why digitizers will try to put a satin stitch border around a fill area, to compensate for how a fill can distort an object. Even when you digitize a fill with a border, you should still make “push and pull” adjustments for the fill before you digitize the satin stitch.

In the example below, no compensation or overlap was applied to the fill area. The result is poor registration: you can see the fabric showing between the two stitch types because of the pull.

distortion embroidery explainedhow to digitize push & pull compensation (theory)

Now look at the next example. Even though it’s overlapping about half way around the satin stitch, you could experience the same problem as the first example it you are embroidering on sheer fabrics or fabrics with a lot of stretch.

machine embroidery distortionmachine embroidery theory for distortion

In this last example, you can see how I exaggerated my overlap to coincide with the direction of the stitches and cut back the shape in relation to the open ends. My nodes on the open ends line up to the bottom of the satin stitches, I know there will not be any gaps where fabric shows through. The laws of “push and pull” assure me that the top and bottom “push” will fill in the blanks. I’m also exaggerating the fill almost to the outer edge of the satin stitch, which means I’ll be safe no matter what type of fabric I want to use.

With regards to satins with running stitch borders as well as fills with satin borders the key to success is always to keep the outlines and borders true to the artwork. Always adjust the “push and pull” compensation with the stitches that are on the inside.


Now you know more than most about how and why push and pull compensation works within a design. The next step is to practice and apply what you’ve learned! Once again, our Digitizer’s Dream Course is an excellent resource to help you put this into action by digitizing a variety of specially chosen designs with artwork I provide for you. It’ll also dive further into vital embroidery digitizing theory and explain the secrets of digitizing at a consistent scale. Simply click here to learn more now.

If you’ve enjoyed this article or found it helpful please let me know & leave a comment below. Or if you have a question or a comment that might help others looking to learn more about push & pull compensation, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Happy stitching!