Sewing Techniques

Beginner's guide to free machine embroidery

Free machine embroidery gives you complete creative freedom in creating whatever designs you like with a sewing machine. You can decide how large or small the stitches are, as well as how dense or spread apart they will be. Kate Hopper provides a quick guide to get started.

Free machine embroidery is also known as free motion embroidery. It simply means you move the fabric wherever you want, quickly or slowly. Another popular term is ‘drawing with thread’. Stitches are still formed with top thread and bobbin thread meeting in the middle, however, by moving the fabric manually, you decide whether the stitches are long, short, close together or far apart.

You only need a basic sewing machine with straight stitch (zigzag stitch can also be used). You will need to either lower the feed dogs (the gripper teeth below the presser foot) or cover them. Check your users manual to determine how to do this.

You will need:

• Machine embroidery thread. Although it’s possible to use sewing thread, machine embroidery thread will give better results.

• A darning (or ‘bouncy’) foot for your sewing machine. It is possible to do free machine embroidery without any foot at all. However, using a darning foot is not only safer, it also helps to guide and grip the fabric when it’s being sewn.

• An 8” wooden embroidery ring – which will keep the fabric taut. 

HANDY HINT: If you don’t have an embroidery hoop, you can pin the fabric to a sheet of paper as an extra layer of stabiliser. Just pin around the outside edges so that you don’t inadvertently stitch over pins. Remove the paper once stitching is complete.

Steps to sew

1. Place fabric in the embroidery ring so that the fabric will lie flat on the sewing machine by placing fabric on top of outer ring and then inserting the inner ring (ie, upside down to how the embroidery ring is usually used for hand embroidery). Make sure that the fabric is ‘as tight as a drum’.
TIP: To help hold the fabric securely wrap bias binding tape around the inner ring before assembling rings/fabric.

2. Change sewing machine’s foot to a darning (‘or ‘bouncy’) foot and set stitch width and length to zero.

3. Drop the feed dogs (these are the ‘teeth’ that move back and forth, helping to feed the fabric as it is sewn. Dropping them means the fabric will not be fed as you stitch. (Refer to your instruction manual to see how to drop or cover the feed dogs).

4. Place the embroidery ring (and fabric) under the machine’s foot and lower presser foot.

5. Hold onto the top thread and lower and raise the needle once so that the bobbin thread comes to the top then hold on to both threads and sew a few stitches to secure. Trim the thread ends. You’re now ready to start free machine embroidery.

6. Start stitching slowly, moving the hoop quickly to make big stitches and slowly to make smaller ones. You can move the hoop in any direction you like, thus stitch in any direction.

7. Try creating ‘scribble sheets’ of designs, including circles, squiggles, writing, flowers, hearts and cross-hatching.

HANDY HINT:  Always sew a few stitches on top of each other to finish off before moving on to a different part of fabric or completing your design.

General tips

• Always make sure you keep your hands on the edge of the embroidery hoop. This is essential for safety and will ensure you don’t sew over your fingers (which is easily done!)

• To make sewing easier, you don’t have to finish the ends and cut the thread whenever you want to move to a different part of the fabric. Simply sew a few stitches on the spot, then raise the foot, pull the hoop to move it to another area of the fabric, lower the foot and carry on sewing. Once you have finished, just cut the threads that you don’t need.

• It is also a good idea to back the area being stitched, particularly if working on a stretch fabric like T-shirting. A tearaway stabiliser is ideal. This is then torn away when the stitching is complete.

• Embellish your designs once they’re complete with beads, buttons, sequins and even hand embroidery.

Once you become more confident with free machine embroidery, you will be able to experiment with using all sorts of different techniques and fabrics. The only limitation will be your imagination!

There is a whole host of textile artists who use free machine embroidery in their work and these include: Louise Gardiner, Jean Littlejohn, Claire Coles, Cindy Hickok, Jan Beaney, Claire Heathcote and Alice Kettle.

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