I was nervous about trying machine embroidery, but I have been lucky to have Pam Olney, good friend and machine embroidery expert, on speed dial. Pam’s expertise was invaluable in writing this article.
Have you wanted to try machine embroidery but need some basics to get started? Or do you have an embroidery unit that you bought with your sewing machine and have never taken it out of the box? (Believe it or not, you have lots of company!) We’re here to help you take the mystery out of machine embroidery so you can get started embroidering on quilt blocks, garments, home goods, children’s items and more.
Your embroidery machine probably has some built-in designs that you can practice with. These are a great way to start to familiarize yourself with the capabilities of your equipment and get the hang of basic techniques. There are variations from brand to brand, so make sure to find out what will work best for you.
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Your sewing machine dealer can be a wonderful resource – they know what their machines can do. If you can’t get to a dealer, or you prefer to learn on your own, the manufacturer websites have a wealth of information at the other side of your keyboard.
For your trial run, find a design you like that is built into your machine. If you purchased embroidery design software, you have more designs to choose from. In addition, you can purchase and download designs – just make sure the file types are compatible with your machine. (More on that later.)
If you want to create original embroidery designs, the options are endless with digitizing. Your sewing machine dealer can steer you to the right embroidery design software for your needs.
Which machine embroidery hoop should I use?
It is so important to use the right size hoop.
The hoop holds your fabric and stabilizer together as it moves under the needle, making thousands of stitches to create your embroidery. Your design should fit entirely in the hoop with a margin to allow for the movement of the hoop under the needle.
In general, you will want a margin of at least ½-inch but check your machine’s specifications before you start. No embroidery foot/hoop collisions, please!
On the flip side, you don’t want a small design in a too-large hoop. The farther away the hoop is from the stitch field, the less it is able to control fabric movement during the stitch-out, resulting in puckers.
Newer machines and designs will prompt you on hoop size. Magnetic hoops are available and easy to use but use caution if your sewing/embroidery machine is computerized.
What is stabilizer and how do I choose the right one for my project?
Stabilizer choice can make or break a machine embroidery project.
There are lots of stabilizer choices out there, but most fall into three categories: Cut-away, tear-away and wash-away. The main difference is in how you remove any excess stabilizer from your project after stitching.
Here are the most-used types. The names are just what they sound like.
What is cut-away stabilizer?
Cut-away stabilizer requires scissors to remove the excess. It stays in the finished project with a bit remaining outside the stitch perimeter.
What is tear-away stabilizer?
With tear-away stabilizer, the needle creates perforations that make it easy to pull the stabilizer away from the stitches. This project lets you remove stabilizer from large, unstitched areas, leaving it under stitches and in areas that are too small for removal.
Recommended tear-away stabilizer: New brothread Tear Away Machine Embroidery Stabilizer Backing 10″ x 50 Yd roll – Medium Weight 1.8 oz – Cut into Variable Sizes – for Machine Embroidery and Hand Sewing
What is wash-away stabilizer?
Wash-away stabilizer is water soluble. It dissolves and disappears completely from your project. It’s great for free-standing lace and appliqué patches. TIP: Cut away as much of the excess as you can before soaking. Less to clean up in the sink!
Wash-away stabilizer made these individual fall leaves possible. You can group them as they are here or hang them individually.
Or machine embroider these bright red poppies on wash-away stabilizer.
Recommended light weight clear wash-away stabilizer: New brothread Light Weight Clear Wash Away – Water Soluble Embroidery Topping Film – 12″ x 25 Yd roll – Cut into Various Sizes for Machine Embroidery and Hand Sewing
Recommended light weight wash-away stabilizer: New brothread Wash Away – Water Soluble Machine Embroidery Stabilizer Backing & Topping 12″ x 25 Yd roll – Light Weight – Cut into Variable Sizes for Machine Embroidery and Hand Sewing
What is sticky-back stabilizer?
Sticky-back stabilizer is tacky on one side, good for floating fabric that is too small to hoop.
Which stabilizer should I use for machine embroidery?
Match your stabilizer choice to the design’s stitch density. A large design with a lot of solid fill areas will need a heavier stabilizer. A more open design can work well with a lighter stabilizer.
Match the stabilizer to your fabric and project use. Heavyweight stabilizer is appropriate for sweatshirts. A sticky back stabilizer is a great option for embroidering a small design on the corner of a cotton or linen napkin. If you are making free-standing lace designs, such as snowflakes, you will want a water-soluble stabilizer. Major manufacturers such as OESD, Floriani and Sulky have a wealth of information on their websites to guide you in choosing the right stabilizer for your fabric.
Here’s an example of a reference guide from OESD. You can see the color-coded stabilizer categories across the top of the chart with OESD brand names below. Other manufacturers will have the same categories, but their individual products will have their own names.
Which machine embroidery thread is best?
The top thread passes through the fabric at high speeds, and that can put stress on your thread. It’s so frustrating to be stitching an awesome design, but the thread snaps during the project! So, leave your fine, delicate threads for other projects. You want strength!
Most machine embroidery threads are 40-wt. polyester. They are quite strong and come in a bazillion colors to capture subtle nuances of color in your designs.
Many stitchers are successful using good quality cotton thread, which has a matte finish and also spans the rainbow. Do a test stitch out before you start your “real” project to see how the thread behaves with your machine and your chosen design.
Rayon is also a popular choice but not as strong as polyester. The design you select may suggest thread colors, but feel free to go your own way and make the design yours!
Recommended thread set in storage box: Isacord Gift Box Assortment 30 Spools Quality Embroidery Thread Set : Arts, Crafts & Sewing
Recommended 10 spool starter set: ISACORD 40-10 spool assortment
For most designs you will change thread colors several times. A thread stand can keep the spools organized while you work on your project. Some machines have a thread stand accessory available, or you can get a tabletop thread stand to use during your embroidery projects.
In the bobbin, consider a 60-wt. polyester thread. It’s still a strong thread, but because it doesn’t pass through the eye of the needle, it gets less stress.
It adds less bulk to your project, too, and each filled bobbin will last longer. You can wind many more yards of a 60-wt. or finer thread on your bobbin, so you don’t have to change bobbins as often.
Black and white are the most common colors – they don’t show on the front, so it’s not usually a problem. But if you want to match colors on the back, a few brands such as Bottom Line Thread by Superior Thread come in a wide array of colors. Pre-wound bobbins are available, saving time – check to see if they are compatible with your machine.
Recommended thread to wind your own bobbins: Threadart 9 Cone Grey Color Builder Polyester Thread Set – 1000m X-Large
Recommended prewound bobbins for Janome: Janome Prewound Embroidery Machine Bobbins 12 per Card
What needles should I use for machine embroidery?
For a home, single needle machine, the same style of needle you use for everyday sewing, usually with a flat back, is what you will use. If you embroider on a multi-needle commercial-type machine, you may need a different type of needle, one with a round shank. Check with the manual for your machine to be sure.
For most projects on lightweight woven fabrics, a 75/11 embroidery needle works well. But you should also consider your fabric and thread when choosing a needle for embroidery, just as you would for any kind of sewing. Delicate fabrics like organza or chiffon call for a smaller needle, perhaps a 9/65. For canvas or denim, you will need a more robust needle such as a 14/90 or 16/100.
Recommended needles for machine embroidery on lightweight woven fabrics: Schmetz 1824 Embroidery Needles, 11/75, Pack of 5, Gold
Recommended needles for machine embroidery on heavier fabrics like canvas or denim: Schmetz Gold Titanium Embroidery Needles Size 90/14
Can I use any embroidery design with my machine?
When embroidery designs are digitized, they are saved in particular file types that are unique to each machine brand. They are not interchangeable, so it is important to know what your machine requires.
My Bernina will not read Janome files, and my friend’s Janome will not read Bernina files. Your manual or your machine brand’s website will have information specific to your embroidery machine.
Here are the most common embroidery file formats:
- Janome : JEF.
- Bernina : ART.
- Husqvarna / Viking : HUS. & VP3. & VIP
- Brother / Babylock / Deco : PES / PEC
- Singer : XXX
- Pfaff : PCD / PCM / PCS
You can purchase just about any design you might imagine for your machine embroidery. This sugar skull embroidery design come in all of the file formats above, loaded on a USB stick for easy transfer to your embroidery machine.
You can also purchase collections of designs with similar themes or projects, like this set from Kimberbell that includes twelve (12) designs for mug rugs.
Custom embroidery your clothing or accessories with intricate designs like this Victorian block bundle offered by Threadart that includes twelve designs on a USB stick.
Do I need special scissors for machine embroidery?
Angling a pair of regular sewing scissors into an embroidery hoop to trim threads is a challenge. A pair of double-curved embroidery scissors will help you reach any area of the hoop when you need to snip threads. And a pair of curved tweezer-style snips can get into tight spaces to remove jump stitches.
Recommended double curved scissors: MAKER AND MARKET Applique Long Thin Needlepoint Blade 6.1 Inch – Double Bent Curved Offset Handle Scissors with Pouch Sleeve for Embroidery, Fabric, Thread, Knitting, Sewing, Arts & Craft (Black)
How should I load my fabric and stabilizer in the hoop?
You have chosen your embroidery pattern, hoop size, fabric and stabilizer that will work best for your project. Now what? You need to “hoop” your fabric and stabilizer! The first few times you do this will probably feel awkward, so allow yourself time to practice until you are able to get a nice, taut hooping.
Your hoop has two major parts: an outer ring which loosens and tightens with a thumbscrew, and an inner solid ring. The fabric and stabilizer are held in place with these two rings.
Unscrew the screw on the outer ring so that it is open just enough to accommodate the thickness of the fabric and the stabilizer layers. Resist the temptation to open the outer hoop as wide as it will go. It seems like that should make it all easier, but if the gap is too wide, you will have puckers in that corner when you tighten the screw.
Place your fabric right side up over a piece of stabilizer cut about 4 inches larger than the hoop. Using a non-permanent marking tool, draw horizontal and vertical lines through the center placement of your design, then center the inner ring over the design area. Place the hoop’s plastic template in the inner ring and align its horizontal and vertical center lines with those marked on the fabric. (This example shows a heart to show how the design relates to the size of the hoop.)
Place the outer ring of the hoop so that the screw is at the edge of a table so that you can reach it easily. Pick up the fabric/stabilizer/inner ring as one unit and place it inside the edge of the outer ring of the hoop.
Then use the palms of your hands to push the inner ring straight down into the outer ring. Loosen the screw a bit if needed. If you are new to this, it might take a few tries.
Now very gently pull the fabric and stabilizer to get rid of excess fabric looseness. You may be tempted to adjust the fabric layer only, but don’t! It will pull the fabric off grain and distort your embroidery.
When the fabric is taut, hold your hooped project flat on the table with one hand while reaching under with the other hand to turn the screw to the right until it is “finger tight”. Then press the inner ring down slightly so that is extends just a hair below the outer ring. This will make the fabric and stabilizer just a touch tauter and help them glide smoothly as the hoop moves during the stitch out. Attach the hoop to the machine. It is wise to use the machine’s layout features at this time to check that the design has the proper orientation and that it will fit properly in the hoop.
See our articles on hooping techniques:
- Center a Machine Embroidery Design with Adhesive Spray
- Center a Machine Embroidery Design with Hoop Templates
- Placing Machine Embroidery on a T Shirt
Machine embroidery project ideas:
Machine embroider a superhero cape
Everyone has a little inner super hero going on.
To make Kaden’s cape his and his alone, I digitized his initial in the Superman shield. Then I stitched it out for his Superman pajamas. Or just for playtime.
I used Bernina embroidery software to digitize Kaden’s superhero logo. With the software, I could change lines, adjust size and preview stitch patterns on my computer screen. It was great being able to finish all of that before I began to stitch.
Machine embroidery is perfect for stitching out commercial designs, but I enjoy the flexibility and creativity that comes with creating my own designs. I use the software to draw and prepare my motifs. It’s great to be able to preview my end result on screen. I can change thread colors, stitch order and more before I even turn on my sewing machine.
I used two thicknesses of tear away embroidery stabilizer. Stabilizer supports the design in the machine during stitching. The stabilizer adds a foundation to the featured fabric and prevents shifting and puckering. My biggest machine embroidery challenge? Lining up the fabric and stabilizer in the hoop to keep it taut and secure. It takes practice, but if I am patient with myself I can make it happen!
The world can use another super hero.
Digitize photos to create memories
I treasure a black and white snapshot of my parents taken when they were courting. I wanted to preserve the image and duplicate it for my brothers and for Mom for her 80th birthday and beyond. My Bernina Embroidery Software has a feature called Photosnap that digitized the image for me.
A creamy background fabric paired with brown embroidery thread gave the image a vintage, sepia tone. The photo stitched out at 3 by 3.5 inches. I made small (9 by 9-ish inches) quilts for each of my brothers and me and made a fourth stitch out as the basis for a family tree quilt “Courtship, 1947” – Embroidered Memories – that hangs in my mother’s living room.
Before stitching, I scanned the photo into my computer and edited the snapshot in my photo editing software to crop the image for a pleasing composition and to remove a few background distractions. I then played with contrast a little to get an image to translate well into a thread portrait. The embroidery had to be small – the old, scanned image just didn’t have the pixel power to enlarge. At least not with my skills and equipment. Perhaps I could do it with more advanced photo editing software.
Importing the image into the embroidery software was a piece of cake. Photosnap digitizing requires just a keystroke to prepare for stitching. I auditioned several background fabrics and threads to get the combination closest to a vintage photograph. Once I settled on fabric and thread, the single thread stitch out was fast – no thread changes! Curved, improvisational piecing adds interest to the framing of these two happy faces, and we now have embroidered memories.
Customize a tool bag – or any bag – with machine embroidery
Four-year-old Kaden loves to go to kids’ workshops at Home Depot and build things with his grandfather. Kaden’s Custom Tool Bag makes sure everyone knows which one is his!
My daughter bought Kaden a tool bag and REAL tools (not toys) to put in it. To make the gift extra special, she asked me to embroider a name patch that she could applique onto the cloth tool bag. Now Kaden can build like a pro!
The embroidery attachment to our sewing machines is probably one of the least used accessories, and one we thought we’d use a lot when we bought the machine. Take the time to pull it out and play around with all of the great features.
It’s great for making special name plates, like this, but also to embellish just the edge of a piece of fabric and make it special. Do a sampler of some of the stitches with different threads, when you are looking to be inspired. Who knows what might come of just playing around with your machine in your studio!
Every year for the holidays, the staff at QuiltWorks Northwest/Beads & Beyond, a local shop where I worked, would “adopt” a family for Thanksgiving and Christmas through Bellevue LifeSpring, an organization that helps local families in need year ‘round. The local chapter of Quilts from the Heart donates handmade quilts for “our” family, and in 2014, I made machine embroidered pillowcases for a good cause.
It took just a few minutes with Bernina embroidery software to design embroidery with the kids’ names. The embroidery was stitched before the pillowcases were constructed so that the back of the embroidery would be encased in the cuffs. Extra credit for straight hooping on a striped fabric!
Many charities accept pillowcases for children, and they are a good way to use up some of your stash, that you just had to buy because it was so cute, and then never found a project for that super cute fabric! It only takes 3/4 of a yard for the body of the pillowcase, and about 1/3 of a yard for the cuff, and a little bit to add the trim. Machine embroidered pillowcases are the perfect project to play around with all your machine can do!
See our article on making pillowcases.
Make personalized small room signs
Contributed by Kathy Manley
My Room! Make a Sign! These little door signs for kids’ rooms are fast and fun to make for my grandchildren.
The embroidery attachment to your sewing machine might be one of the accessories that you don’t use much, but is worth the effort to try to get comfortable using it to decorate your home dec items, garments and more!
I made cute little signs for two of my grandchildren, for their rooms. A sweet butterfly for Alice, in her favorite color, purple! Start by embroidering the scalloped border, then I added the butterfly and her name.
Eli & Noah love Mickey (don’t most children?)! I used a different border pattern, and They are a great gift for the little ones. The polka dot binding finishes these off perfectly! They bring a smile to anyone who sees them!
Rhoss loves football! It was so fun to find the embroider pattern for this border that implies a football field!
Browse through more machine embroidery projects and inspiration on Create Whimsy.