Start using an embroidery machine – the basics

(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 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.
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 : white or black. 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 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,
– change to thinner threads, with bobbin thread thinner than top,
– perhaps also change to a straight stitch needle plate.
– 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 4 items when you go back to general sewing again !

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.

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 first ‘beyond the basics’ post.
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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Start using an embroidery machine – moving on from the basics

The first part of this group of posts was about learning the essentials of using an embroidery machine, using the designs given on your machine.

There are also thousands of designs on the internet, so knowing how to access them is a good idea – notes on that in this post.

Once you know how to sew ready-made designs, that can lead to a lifetime of happy stitching.
Or there two very different but not at all essential ways to expand your embroidery skills :
– embroider a wider range of techniques on a wider range of fabrics – more on that in this post,
– alter designs or make your own – more on that in a separate post.

In this post I’m not going to give details about how to do things, just mention some of the many things you could try.

Internet designs

When you feel confident using built-in designs, move on to using a design from the internet or a DVD/usb stick. Designs are supplied by everyone from huge companies to little cottage industries. Very tempting 😀

You don’t need special equipment for this, just your computer with browser and internet connection or DVD/usb slot.

Find what embroidery ‘format’ your machine uses. Shown by the 3 letter extension at the end of a design name. Some common ones are:
Brother : design.pes
Janome : design.jef
Husqvarna/Pfaff/Viking : design.vp3
But do check your specific machine – some Brothers don’t use .pes, some Janomes don’t use .jef, etc.

Find how to download a design from an internet site, and where the download goes to on your computer – usually the same as for any other download.

Then how to transfer the design from computer to embroidery machine. See your machine manual as different machines use different methods:
– direct by usb cable from computer to machine.
– from computer to usb stick, which can then be put in the machine,
– wifi direct to machine, currently only on some expensive machines,
– (older machines) from computer to card in box, and card can then be put in the machine. You may need special software for writing to the card.

Then find how to find the design on/from your machine !

The next two sections are about expanding your skills, so you can embroider on more fabrics, and use more techniques.
All these can be done on a basic machine with a 4×4 hoop.
See the following section for some sources of tutorials.

Beyond broadcloth – more fabrics and shapes

Extend the range of fabric types you can embroider.
Try fleece, towelling, knits.
For these fabrics you do need to know more about stabilisers – more uses for cut away and fusible, also wash away, possibly heat away.
Free class on embroidering towels at Craftsy.
Also methods for handling fabrics which would be damaged by hooping, such as velvet (use ‘sticky’ self-adhesive stabiliser).

Then try embroidering onto 3-D shapes such as ready-made caps, clothes and bags (use sticky stabiliser or adhesive spray). Some machines have special hoops to help.

More embroidery techniques

Learn more types of embroidery. Some embroidery techniques need special elements in the design. Some need special tools and supplies, or more personal attention during the stitch out.

Such as appliqué – adding fabric shapes. Three main methods (not inter-changeable, different steps needed in the design for each method):
– ‘trim in place’,
– ‘pre-cut’ (you may be able to use a cutting machine, some designs include cutting file formats for pre-cut fabric),
– ‘raw edge’.
Or make free-standing lace (using water-soluble stabiliser).
And use special threads such as metallic (with a special needle).
Also ‘bobbin work’ – use thick thread in the bobbin (and a special bobbin case) – and the back of the embroidery becomes the front.

There are in-the-hoop techniques for making zipped bags, stuffed toys, patchwork quilt blocks without having to do any steps on a conventional sewing machine.
Using your embroidery machine to quilt using pre-set designs is another option.
(Use a size 90 needle to stitch through many layers of fabric.)
Several methods for all of these too.

Here’s a post from Embroidery Online with images of different techniques.

What would you like to be able to do ? all these techniques, or just a few ? perhaps you already know enough to make what you enjoy 😀

If you like to use the internet for guidance

Many sources to learn from, whether you prefer written instructions or video.

The design company Embroidery Library has a useful techniques section with photo and video tutorials on many topics, Helpful how-tos.

Another design company, Anita Goodesign, has a sampler class of photo tutorials for many embroidery techniques, called Fundamental Curriculum and free on their recent DVDs. Register with them for many free pdf and video tutorials.

Tutorials for some more unusual techniques at Urban Threads.

There are many youtube videos on embroidery machines and techniques. They vary greatly in quality and content, but you can usually find several on your model of machine or the technique you want to try. (Brother machines have different model numbers in different countries. You need to know the equivalent US model number to find the most videos.)

There are also formal on-line video classes, not free but they do include designs. From several sources, such as :
Martha Pullen
Sewing Mastery/Heirloom Creations (class on the Anita Goodesign fundamentals sampler)

If you find yourself wanting to change a design or make your own designs, there’s a final post in this group on tools for doing that.

But there’s no need to change designs if you don’t want to. There’s a huge wealth of ready-made beautiful / cute / jokey / heart-warming / goth / sports and other embroidery designs for every technique and hoop size. You name it, someone loves it enough to make embroidery designs. There are infinite opportunities for creativity using existing designs.

Enjoy !

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Other posts in this group on using an embroidery machine :
Choosing an embroidery machine
Starter basics
Altering designs yourself

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Rouleaux for fabric button loops

Two good photo tutorials from Tilly and the Buttons.

Using a bodkin or loop turner to turn

The key tips :
– Cut the strip on the bias, whatever the pattern instructions say. If that would waste a lot of fabric, cut 2 shorter strips.
– Cut the strip a couple of inches longer than needed, as the ends are likely to be a mess.
– Cut the end at an angle, so the first section being pulled through is narrow.
– Trim the seam allowances narrower than the loop. This is a technique I have great difficulty with, and that is the only thing that works for me. If this technique comes easily to you, leave the wide seam allowances (or just trim one side), as they give the loops more substance and wear resistance.

Using threads to turn narrow loops
Alternatives – use a thick thread such as crochet thread or perle embroidery thread.