Puffy Letters: Foam vs. Faux Foam

Check out these two ways in which you can achieve loft in lettering and designs, regardless of their size.

By Lee Caroselli-Barnes, Contributing Writer

When working with foam to embroider puffy letters, you do not want additional stitches from the underlay running through the center of the foam. Also, you want a stitch that is long enough to cover the entire width of the column.

August 27, 2013

In responding to the various online forums, I am finding that one of the biggest topics in question is puffy letters. In general, people want to know how to achieve the look and how to address the problems that doing so causes during production.

The goal is to give the letters or image loft and to produce a clean image as effortlessly as possible. However, the foam often shows through the stitches, or creeps out the top or bottom of the groups of stitches.
The solution for the successful use of foam for your puffed or 3-D effect begins with quality foam that also must be the same color as your thread. You must run the density of your column or satin stitch heavy enough to perforate the foam. This works out to be about twice the density that you normally use. Your underlay should be restricted to a very tight edge run to perforate the foam, a stitch length of about 1.0mm or 10 points. This translates to a stitch that is less than half the normal length.

You should not use your software’s “Closest Join” function on your letters. This function, considered the best for pathing, means you will have to walk through the letter or image using your running stitch in order to be closest to the next object. Those small running stitches through the center of the foam will perforate it, causing the foam to split.

If the font you are using does not allow you to bypass the Closest Join setting for “As Digitized,” then a second underlay of a wide open, or light density layer, of a double zigzag will hold the foam in place where it has split. You will use a double zigzag so that you can stitch the underlay from the top to bottom, going side to side to the original edge run, and continuing side to side back to the top where you began.

You do not want additional stitches from the underlay running through the center of the foam, and you want a stitch that is long enough to cover the entire width of the column.

Your letters should be capped. Script or Brush Script letters are ideal for this. Avoid straight edges that have long stitches rather than needle penetrations; you need needle penetrations all the way around the object. Capping the rounded letters so that the foam does not creep out will accomplish this.

The combination of a tight density column or satin stitch, short stitches in your edge run and capped letters will enable enough needle penetrations to split or perforate the foam around the edge of the image and allow for its clean removal. However, after removing the foam, you must take a heat gun to the finished product in order to minimize the bits of foam left as a residue. Looking at Image A in the attached gallery, you will see that part of the lettering (“A” and “B”) has been cleaned up, but the other part (the letter “C”) still needs work.

The foam works nicely on larger letters or images that have rounded edges, such as the Brush Script lettering in Image A. 
However, an embroiderer’s biggest problem is that customers increasingly are asking for this technique on smaller letters, or those that cannot be capped and are not appropriate for this technique. Trying to achieve that loft in smaller letters or images with foam or on a block letter alphabet is almost impossible. At best, it promises to be a labor-intensive process. The cleanup effort makes it almost impossible to achieve a pristine image, and it certainly is not effortless. Moreover, the straight bottom of block letters leaves very prominent, long stitches with foam exposed.

To ensure the 3-D look and a clean image, as well as an effortless production run, the best results will come with effective use of underlays instead of foam. If you have learned to make a 3-D column, or satin stitch, by addressing the default values in your underlays and customizing the default values of density and width for a sewout, then you’re halfway down the right path.

By panning in closely on the Marine emblem (Image B), you will see that there are small gaps in the column stitch edges that comprise the chain link (Image C) instead of the usual tight stitching you see with foam. You also will see that the center of the chain link is fully stitched. This makes the center reflect the light and the outside of the chain link pull the light in, which causes a three-dimensional look. When looking at the finished piece, the gaps in the edge of the chain links disappear and become a shaded edge.

In the Marine emblem, we created the chain, ensuring each link was correctly placed. Then, an underlay was added using the double zigzag. The density of the double zigzag underlay is .40mm, or 40 points, the same density used in a fully stitched column or satin stitch, rather than the light density default value for underlay.
This underlay is brought in toward the center of the link so that it is about 75% of the width of the column stitch. The density of the overlying column stitch is then reduced to .75mm, or 75 points, which is half the normal density. This opens up the stitches to form the shading on the side. So, with two clicks of the mouse — one for the density and width of the underlay and one for the density of the column stitch itself — you get a 3-D effect that beautifully defines the chain with no need for an outline or foam.

In the case of the lettering and slightly larger images, the secret is the same. However, the densities are increased to assure the feel, as well as the appearance, of the loft you need to duplicate foam.

In Image D, you see the stitched version of the same letters using underlays and no foam. Notice the clean edges.

We will start by bringing up the letters from our list of alphabets, or programming them if you wish. Take great care not to backtrack through the letter or image to get from one point to another. This means the first segment of the letter and its underlay will run at one time, before proceeding to the next segment of the letter.
We will again work with double zigzag underlay, but we will use it twice. The first underlay will be the double zigzag at a density of .30mm, or 30 points. This is heavier than the application that was used on the chain, and at 60% of the letter’s width (Image E). The second underlay will, again, be the double zigzag at the same density. However, this time we will widen it so that it extends past the first underlay. It will be about 80% of the width of the letter (Image F). The density of the overlying segments of the letter will be at .60mm, or 60 points, to create the shaded effect.

The block letter version of this design (Image G) also was done with the same densities and widths. Once again, you will see that this “faux foam” technique gives your letters or image loft and produces a clean image effortlessly, even if the images are too small and/or are inappropriate to use with foam.

So the next time a customer crosses your door step with an impossible foam job, instead of dreading it, you can accept it with the assurance that you both will be happy with the result.

Trying the foam and faux foam techniques will hopefully give you results that will keep you and your business on top and up to speed on the latest trends. Knowing that there is more than one way to achieve the look will put you ahead of your competitors and allow for fewer hours at your embroidery machine at a better return, and more time to spend with your family and friends.

Lee Caroselli-Barnes, owner of Balboa Threadworks Embroidery Design, is known for her innovation and excellence in embroidery digitizing. She has 30 years of experience in the embroidery industry. For more information or to comment on this article, email Lee at balboainfo@aol.com. Hear Lee speak on digitizing topics at the 2013 Imprinted Sportswear Shows (ISS). Individual seminars are just $25 if you preregister: issshows.com