(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, see some tips in this free-motion post.)

I keep expanding this post on learning to use an embroidery machine, so it’s now in 4 sections.
– choosing a starter embroidery machine,
– the essentials of machine embroidery, using built-in embroidery designs (this post),
– beyond the basics : using the internet, more embroidery techniques,
– beyond the basics : altering designs yourself.

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.
So, what is the least you need to know ? 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 all the types now. Learn about more of them when you need them for more advanced techniques.
Start with just 2 stabilisers: a medium tear away and a medium cut away.
Even so there are many options. So worth getting small test quantities. They vary in flexibility, ability to withstand tension, etc.

You may find it easier to learn hooping by 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.

All embroidery threads are decorative – thinner and weaker than threads for construction. The stitching density of designs assumes you are using this thinner thread. Bobbin threads are thinner than top threads to minimise bulk.

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 (usually called 40-weight, but thread ‘weights’ are confusing – 40 weight embroidery thread is not the same thickness as 40 weight construction thread – aargh). Polyester is best for heavy use / frequent washing.
embroidery bobbin thread : usually white or black (there is a company which sells a wide variety of coloured bobbin weight threads). Bobbin cases are factory set to the right tension for a specific weight (thickness) of thread. So use the bobbin thread mentioned in the manual for best results. 60 weight is the usual. (With threads – larger numbers mean thinner threads. . .)

Several makers of these special embroidery threads, not usually the same companies as for construction threads.
Cheap thread is not a good economy – does not stitch evenly, breaks easily, and clogs the machine with fluff.

(If you really want to know about thread weights, here’s a piece from Barnyarns giving the reasons for the confusion. For current purposes just get embroidery thread that’s 40-wt.)

Set up your machine for embroidery

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.

If you are using a combo sewing-embroidery machine you need to :
– change to an embroidery needle and embroidery presser foot,
– perhaps also change to a straight stitch needle plate.
– lower the feed dogs.
– change to thinner threads, with bobbin thread thinner than top,
– lower the top tension.

In general sewing, the upper and bobbin threads need to be at the same tension.
In machine embroidery, the top thread is at low tension, so the top thread wraps to the back. This makes sure there’s no bobbin thread showing on the front of the embroidery. See the back of this sample supplied with my embroidery machine. See how the top thread is pulled to the back around the stitching. The bobbin thread is only about 1/2-1/3 the length of the stitches.


On an embroidery-only machine, the tension is probably pre-set correctly. On a combo machine you need to lower the top tension – the manual probably tells you what setting to use.

And when using a combo machine, remember to change back all these items when you go back to general sewing again !
I haven’t got a good memory for specific sequences, I don’t think I would do well with a combo machine.

Start with built-in designs

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. (Here’s a post about choosing stabiliser, and hooping on my own model of machine – many of the points are general to all embroidery machines.)

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 / video / tutorial on the machine tells you the steps needed.

Learn from your sample

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 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.

For bigger concerns, there’s a helpful Bernina e-book on troubleshooting stitch-outs and an associated troubleshooting video.
Almost all the troubles they describe are caused by :
– wrong needle, thread, stabiliser,
– wrong thread tension,
– poor threading,
– poor hooping,
– poor machine maintenance.

Usually you can use ‘tear away’ stabiliser with stable fabrics. ‘Cut away’ is tougher and essential to support embroidery on unstable fabrics such as stretch and knits, it’s also best used to support dense stitching, or anything that is washed frequently.
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.

And check in the manual for what to do if the thread breaks ! Practice on a sample.

Stitch out more built-in designs until you’re confident about these essentials.
Then find out how to use designs from the internet – see the ‘beyond the basics’ post (link below).
You now have the skills to stitch out many many thousands of designs, a lifetime of pleasures 😀

So no need to learn more, but if you want to there are many other things you can do in machine embroidery with even the simplest machine. Some of those are also in the ‘beyond the basics’ post.

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Other posts in this group on using an embroidery machine :
Choosing an embroidery machine
Beyond the basics – internet designs, more techniques
Altering designs yourself

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