(I’m talking about using an embroidery machine which moves a hoop under the control of a software design.
Machine embroidery which you control yourself on a conventional sewing machine with the feed-dogs down – ‘free motion’ embroidery – uses a very different group of skills.)

I kept expanding this post on learning to use an embroidery machine, so have divided it in 3 sections.
– choosing a starter embroidery machine,
– the basics of machine embroidery, using built-in embroidery designs (this post),
– using the internet, more techniques, altering designs.

Like any other type of sewing, it’s surprising how much you need to know to stitch the simplest design. But no need to know everything before you start.

Most of the embroidery machine lessons I’ve seen go :
– here are the 3000 different types of stabiliser,
– it’s essential to use the right one, here are the 300 rules for choosing between them.
And a whole lot more rules before ever getting to a project.

No wonder people are afraid of using their embroidery machine.

I prefer to learn through projects which start from the easiest.
Even so, you need to be willing to make samples to explore what happens.
Here’s a simple possible first try out.

Starter supplies

For the fabric you are embroidering onto, use medium weight muslin/calico or quilting cotton.

A machine embroidery stabiliser is essential, to support the main fabric against the huge number of little needle holes and the pull of the stitching. (Stabiliser is not the same as interfacing.)
Stabilisers differ in weight, how they are removed after embroidering, and whether they’re fusible / non-fusible. No need to know about all of them now. Learn about more of them as you need them for more advanced techniques.
Start with just 2 stabilisers: a medium tear away and a medium cut away.
You may find it easier to learn hooping using fusible stabilisers.
Stabiliser is mostly sold in rolls. Some companies sell pre-cut sheets – best to use at least 4″/10cm bigger than the finished embroidery area in the hoop.

Your machine manual probably recommends needle and upper and lower thread types. If not, start with :
embroidery needle : size 75.
embroidery upper thread : polyester / rayon / cotton machine embroidery thread. Several brands. Polyester is best for heavy use, but all embroidery threads are decorative – thinner and weaker than threads for construction.
embroidery bobbin thread : Brother and Janome have their own. Madeira Bobbinfill and others are not machine specific. Use white or black. (There are a few non-beginner techniques where you need to match top and bobbin thread colours – Superior Bottom Line comes in many colours.)
Cheap thread is not a good economy, does not stitch well, breaks easily and clogs up the machine with fluff.

Bobbin cases are factory set to the right tension for a specific weight (thickness) of thread. So use this weight of thread for the best result. If you can’t find out beforehand what to use on your machine model, not to worry, see later on how to find out from your samples.
(Altering the bobbin tension yourself can cause all sorts of problems. Not for beginners. Best to buy a separate bobbin case if you want to try that some time, so you always have a default one you know works !)

Start with built-in designs

Follow your machine manual carefully for instructions on upper threading and bobbin winding and threading.
You may be able to find videos for your machine.
Most sewing problems happen because the threading is wrong.

Get the stabiliser-fabric hooped so it’s like a soft drum. It needs to be taut enough so the fabric won’t move during the embroidery, or the design will get distorted. But this hooping can take a bit of practice.

Choose a simple design provided on your machine – for the smallest hoop, less dense stitching, and only 1 thread colour.
Stitch out the design. The manual tells you the steps needed.

When you’ve stitched a sample, take it out of the hoop and finish the stabiliser in the recommended way.
If the fabric has puckers, use 2 (possibly 3) layers of stabiliser (or a heavier stabiliser) and try again.
Don’t worry about the ‘ring’ left by the hoop. It can be pressed away, or disappears with washing. (Some fabrics need special treatment, but that’s not for beginners.)
Then try pulling the fabric in various directions – see if the embroidery pulls out of shape and what happens on the back. If you’re embroidering on clothes or household linens, you need to be confident the embroidery won’t collapse when used and washed.

If you’re using the correct bobbin thread and the bobbin thread pulls up to the front, lower the top thread tension.
If you’re testing bobbin threads and the bobbin thread has pulled up to the front, try a thicker bobbin thread (smaller number e.g. 60). If the top thread has pulled down at the back more than just to the edge of the design, try a thinner bobbin thread (larger number e.g.90).

Usually you can use tear away stabiliser with stable fabrics, but cut away is essential with unstable fabrics such as stretch and knits.
Some people mainly use tear away, some people mainly use cut away. Eventually you’ll find which works best for the type of embroidery you usually do – how dense the stitching is, how the embroidery will be treated, what fabrics you like to embroider on. But that’s not something for a beginner to worry about.

When you feel confident enough with threading / hooping / starting and finishing a stitch out / clipping the jump threads, then try a built-in design with changes of thread colour.

Once you’re confident about the basics, there’s an almost infinite number of other things you can do in machine embroidery, even with the simplest machine. Some of them are mentioned in the ‘beyond the basics’ post.

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