Have you admired professional monogramming and machine embroidery and wished you could produce such great personalized items? Good news: One need not purchase an expensive digital embroidery machine to do monogramming and other forms of “thread painting” as some textile artists refer to free-motion machine embroidery.
With practice, this skill can be mastered on a regular sewing machine. Free-motion machine embroidery opens many creative possibilities for personalizing garments and other items.
The type of fabric, stabilizer, hoop, thread and stitching you will use will vary, depending on the desired look for each particular project. The purpose of this article will be to explore these components and describe the basic steps to get you started.
The accompanying video will provide a visual guide and reference. Although in the video’s title says “Part 1,” there is no second part to this video as yet to be found. Nevertheless, this video was chosen because it shows most correct approach to learning this technique than other videos out there on the Internet. That being said, however, it would be worth the time to watch a few more tutorials so that you can be aware of the various options, then decide what works best for you.
Supplies Needed for Free Motion Embroidery
Fabric and Stabilizer
Prewash fabric to allow for shrinkage. For optimal results, fabric stabilizers are a must when working with certain types of fabrics. For example, stretchy fabrics will require a stabilizer to avoid puckering the fabric and distorting the design. If you are working with a particularly thin or delicate fabric, you will need to sandwich the fabric between two pieces of stabilizer in your hoop. There are several options for use with embroidery, the most popular being tear-away and water soluble. Another common type of stabilizer is the standard interfacing that you leave in your finished project.
A hoop gives you something firm to hold onto and keeps the fabric flat and taut. Hoop options include a standard wooden embroidery hoop with a screw for tightening, a plastic hoop with a spring-loaded inner metal hoop, or — for projects such as layered quilt squares or stiffer fabrics like denim — you can choose not to use a hoop. The correct way to position your fabric in your hoop and the hoop in the machine will be described in the basic steps below, but I’ve also included a video for the visual learners out there.
Standard cotton/polyester blend sewing thread can be used for embroidery. However, spools of machine embroidery thread are readily available and are preferred for most projects. Beautiful, bright colors of metallic embroidery thread are also fun to use, although they can be tricky. Using a special needle designed for use with metallic thread is suggested, and sewing more slowly helps, too.
As mentioned in the video, a specially-made very thin bobbin thread for embroidery works well. Generally, you will want to use same color in your bobbin that you are using in your top thread, unless you want specks of another color showing through. This sometimes occurs with heavy sewing and can be regulated by loosening or tightening your upper thread tension. For machine embroidery, you will generally loosen the upper thread tension by setting it to a lower number than you would when you are doing regular sewing.
Stitching options are basically two; straight or zig zag. A straight stitch is generally used for stippling, outlining, doodling, or for filling in a small area. Zig zag is mainly used for making wider lines or for filling in larger spaces. As you will see in the video demonstration, however, the stitch width can be used however you wish to attain the desired result. The zig zag is used to build up the line of the stems of the flowers, for example.
Where to Start? The Basic Steps of Free Motion Embroidery
1. Select and Prepare Your Design
Start with somewhat large designs with simple lines until you feel comfortable with the technique and the resulting product meets your satisfaction. A monogram is a good choice for a beginning project. Arrange the initials the way you would like them. You can sketch them yourself or print them from your computer and trace the design onto tracing paper with a pencil or directly onto the fabric with dressmaker’s transfer paper. Another option is to draw directly on the stabilizer if you are layering it on top of your fabric. For practice, you can doodle a simple pattern onto a piece of fabric with a fabric pencil. Need some inspiration for your projects? Pinterest is full of great ideas for free motion machine embroidery patterns.
2. Prepare Your Fabric
The inner hoop used in the video demonstration is wrapped with cotton twill tape to ensure a snug fit. This is especially important when working with silky fabric, as shown in the video. If you are monogramming a towel or other thicker material, however, a regular hoop will be just fine. Lay your stabilizer down, if you are using it, and then your fabric on top of that. If you are using water soluble stabilizer and want to use two layers, you can either place both layers beneath the fabric, as shown in the featured video, or you can place the second piece on top of the fabric.
Loosen the larger outer part of the hoop and slip it underneath the fabric. Next, place the inner hoop on top and press down with the palms of your hands, giving firm and even pressure around the hoop. Tighten the screw, if applicable, and pull gently on the layers of fabric and stabilizer around the perimeter until it is uniformly tight like a drum.
3. Prep Your Machine
Lower the feed dogs. There should be a lever underneath or on the back or side of your machine that will let you do this, or an icon if you have a digital machine. Refer to your manual if you can’t find it. You will not want the feed dogs to move the fabric in a straight line as with normal sewing, but instead, you want to be able to move the hoop freely in any direction.
Replace standard foot with freehand embroidery foot. This foot, sometimes called a darning or stippling foot, comes standard with most machines. It will have a U-shaped or circular opening for the needle. When lowered, the foot does not press the fabric all the way down to the surface, but leaves a little space in which you can maneuver the piece. Some people work with no foot at all, although this is not recommended. The foot helps ensure proper stitch formation and tension regulation, and it also protects your fingers from the needle.
Set your stitch width to straight or zig zag, depending on the line or design you’ve chosen. If you want to see what it will look like, test-stitch an area off to the side if you can or prepare an identical piece on which you can practice first. You will avoid frustration by taking a little time to practice each new technique before you use it on your project.
4. Begin Sewing
Place your hoop in your machine so that the area you want to embroider is under the needle, with the fabric directly on the base plate. You may need to lift the loop on the pressure foot to fit the hoop under. Lower the needle, using the hand wheel and holding onto the thread, to catch the bobbin thread. Both thread tails will be on top of the fabric. Run them below the hole in the pressure foot and hold them while you make the first stitches.
After you have sewed a little way, lower the needle halfway into the fabric, lift the pressure foot, and trim the thread tails. Continue stitching your design using a slow or medium speed and moving your project steadily along the path marked for your design. Position your fingers on your hoop as shown in the video demonstration for optimum control.
When your project is completed, tear or cut away excess stabilizer. If you have used water soluble stabilizer, you can soak your piece in water at this point to dissolve the stabilizer away.
Tips for Success
As emphasized in the video, it is preferable if you can use an extension on your sewing table to lend stability and support to your hoop and arms as you sew.
Speaking from experience, unpicking machine embroidery is invariably tedious and painstaking and damaging to the fabric, so it is wise to test outside the area if you’re not sure how it will look.
Practice often and experiment with different styles, threads, stabilizers and fabrics. You’ll see in the video that two spools of thread are used in one needle. Use your imagination to create unique works of art. Relax and have fun.