Sewing Machine and Embroidery Basics
This article is the ultimate read if you are a beginner sewer or machine embroider. It will cover everything you need to know about the machines, threads, spools, needles, stabilizers and embroidering/sewing on different types of materials. At the end of the article you can find a tutorial on how to create cute Easter decorations.
Imagine everything you find on the high street, in shopping malls or internet outlets without embroidery. Not only would life be a lot duller but many high-end brands would lose those logos that denote quality at a price! These embroidered logos – small as some of them are – are what draws many of their customers.
Livening up a jeans skirt
Let’s take a closer look at machines capable of sewing and embroidery
Today’s machines have moved on from those used by our mothers and grandmothers. In fact, they never stop evolving. That in itself is a bit of a problem. Buy a new machine today and in 6 months you’ll certainly have an update or two and will maybe have to consider buying an upgrade if you want to keep your machine completely up-to-date. Then it’s decision time. Do I or don’t I really need this upgrade because they don’t come for free?
Most of the machines home sewers and embroiderers use are so-called single needle embroidery and sewing combi-machines. In other words, they sew and embroider. That certainly saves the space you’d need for two machines, the main disadvantage being you can’t sew and embroider at the same time so having another machine that sews can be a good idea. There are times if you embroider a big design where it’s a bit frustrating not being able to sew whilst embroidering – if it’s the only machine you have.
I have a Brother Luminaire – I believe the Baby Lock Solaris is pretty much the same – and one of the things included in an upgrade was ‘My Stitch Monitor’. This has proved to be one of the best features in recent upgrades because it means I can set my machine up to embroider and cook or do something else whilst monitoring what my machine’s doing on my cell phone or tablet. It shows me when it’s embroidering, has a broken thread or finished the color. Having said that it’s not bad if you aren’t too far away to change the threads, especially if you’re embroidering a design with a lot of color changes.
Try before you buy
There are a lot of machines on the market today and it’s a daunting task looking for a machine and deciding what to buy. Often the decision comes down to what can I afford and what’s available at that price? Generally speaking, there’s something out there for everyone you just have to take the time and trouble to find it and avoid letting some overzealous sales assistant talk you into something you later might regret. A bit like buying a car I suppose. It might be difficult right now but the best way is to get machines demonstrated and try them out – before you buy.
Work out what you want before you start looking.
Is your focus embroidery, sewing or both?
Before you sew a stitch –
Whether it’s a new machine, an updated, upgraded or newly serviced machine one thing everyone needs to do is calibrate their machine. Look at the instruction manual for your machine as the method is different in different machines. No-one wants to embroider something on a garment and find it’s off center when they’ve finished. You need to know the machine will reliably find the center of a design and that means it has to be calibrated. It’s not necessary to do it very often but vital this step isn’t ignored.
Thread according to the threading plan on your machine or in the instructions. Check you put the spool in correctly because if the thread isn’t coming off the spool in the direction intended your machine will probably sew but you’re likely to get looping on the underside. It’s easy to drop my spool in and have the thread running clockwise when it should be anti-clockwise.
There are so many makes and types of sewing thread on the market. Good quality sewing thread is durable and produces good results with less lint in the machine. Today many standard threads are polyester or have a polyester core. The selection of embroidery threads available is also extensive. It sounds a bit silly saying this but not all machines like all threads. If you find you have a lot of breakages with a certain thread brand than try something different. My ex-Bernina embroidery machine was a nightmare if I used Madeira embroidery thread. I spent more time re-threading than embroidering.
Polyester thread tends to have a higher tensile strength and works well on most embroidery machines. Sometimes you need to use a net on your thread cone when you embroider to ensure the thread comes off the cone smoothly and to prevent it sliding on the cone. If you buy embroidery designs you can use the thread you have you don’t need to buy the exact make and color in the design – there might be slight color variations with a different brand – but it’s certainly not necessary to always buy the threads used in the original.
Then we come to the spool. For embroidery there is special spool thread available. Generally, this isn’t what you want to use for general sewing and it tends to only be available in black or white. I have to admit I’m a big friend of pre-wound spools which now come in some basic colors as well as black and white. Again, check the size you need for your machine. They’re a bit more expensive in the long run but it means that if you want to embroider something with a similar color on the back as the front you don’t have to keep stopping to wind spools. You simply pop the color you want into the spool case when you change the needle thread.
This goes a bit against what many experts say but for me it’s more important to have the right needle for what I’m sewing, than using a needle for embroidery simply because it’s an embroidery needle. I generally use Schmetz Gold Titanium Nitride embroidery needles for standard embroidery. If you embroider leather, you’re much better off using a leather needle. When you’re embroidering or sewing fine fabric like silk or batiste, I prefer to use a Microtex needle. In fact, Microtex needles are superb for many things and tend to last longer. Remember the needle ‘killers’ are natural fabrics. Silk and silk mixtures being the worst. If you’ve sewn silk by hand, you’ll have noticed that your fingers and nails feel totally wrecked when you’ve finished.
Tip: If you break a needle whilst you’re sewing or embroidering – it happens to everyone – don’t carry on sewing until you’ve found all the bits. The smallest tip of a needle in the wrong place can cause serious damage and you’ll end up at the repair shop.
If you’re sewing jersey or stretch fabrics, you’ll get better results with a stretch needle and woven fabrics sew better with the right needle, not a stretch needle.
Tip: Take a new needle and run your finger across the tip of the needle. It should feel smooth (except for the point of course). Run your finger over a needle you’ve used for a project – if it feels rough in any way – no matter how slightly – bin it. If you sew a project where you’re sewing silk, linen, glazed cotton, heavier cotton or bamboo even, check your needle more regularly as natural fabrics tend to blunt needles faster than man-made fabrics.
Less is more in garment sewing
An edge to edge jacket with tone in tone embroidery down the welts
First and foremost, I’m a sewer. I use embroidery for embellishment on clothes and I certainly believe less is more. Tone in tone or smaller embroideries on adult clothing are more my cup of tea. With children’s clothes it’s a bit different but I generally avoid ‘spraying’ everything with embroidery.
Embroidering home decor and accessories
Most sewers and embroiderers have sewn many cushions, towel toppers, napkins and tablecloths and at some point, you reach satiation unless you have a commercial outlet. This is where the internet comes in as it’s full of ideas for projects which aren’t simply a repetition of what we’ve already done many times.
I find these garment dust covers useful for protecting expensive garments and they’re quick to embroider and sew. You don’t even need to embroider them if you’ve got patterned fabric. This one is lined. If you don’t line them you could always use bias tape round the bottom.
Sewing and embroidery on different fabrics and materials
Cork is currently one of the in things to be sewing and embroidering. Sewing isn’t a problem it runs well under the machine but with embroidery you have to be sure you find designs that aren’t full of satin and fill stitching or you’ll have holes. Here simple is a better guarantee for success.
Leather is wonderful to embroider – again if the design isn’t too heavy and you don’t use thick, heavy-duty leather. The bag in the picture was embroidered quickly and easily using a leather needle and polyester embroidery thread. The construction of the bag was far more challenging because a couple of layers of the leather together was a bit on the thick side for a home sewing machine.
This of course brings us to:
Embroidery stabilizer or underlay
Generally speaking, the firmer the fabric, the lighter the stabilizer.
When I embroidered the leather bag in the picture, I used a standard tearaway stabilizer in the hoop and I used a couple of clips and a bit of washi tape to hold the leather in the hoop until the first few stitches held it for me. There’s no way you can fix leather and cork-like materials between the frames. You can use painter’s tape or sticky tape to hold it initially if you’re sure it won’t leave marks where they’ll be visible on the finished article.
Wash away stabilizer
If you’re careful you can dampen it a bit in a couple of places, not too much or it’ll disintegrate, and stick your embroidery to it just to hold it until you’ve got the first few stitches in.
I’m not a friend of spray adhesive. If you want to use it by all means do but never spray near your machine because it can make a horrible mess.
For some things where I want a more raised looking design, I use thin foam as a stabilizer, like I did in the dust cover. Again, getting the top layer in the hoop can be difficult. I sometimes pin it into the stabilizer well away from where I’ll embroider or hold it with painter’s or washi tape.
Organza as stabilizer
When I sew my double-sided decorations and gift tags, I use 3 or 4 layers of organza in the hoop – generally available on cheap 25 m rolls – if the design is heavily embroidered. It comes in various colors as it’s used a lot for wedding decoration and by florists. For lighter designs, which may need firming up a bit once they’re embroidered, I sandwich a layer of wash away between the organza so that when I’ve finished embroidering, I can rinse them quickly without washing out too much of the stabilizer so when it’s dry it holds or has some stand as in these little Easter egg holders, I made a few years ago.
Easter egg holders or napkin rings
I personally tend to use organza in designs intended to be embroidered on wash away. I find you hardly see the organza once the design is finished and if you do see it on close inspection, it’s worth putting up with that for the ease with which you sew the design.
A ‘free-standing’ lace design on organza
Often wash away on its own starts disintegrating as you go if you’re sewing a design with a lot of fill and satin stitches. With organza you don’t have this problem. I’ve often had to keep adding bits of wash away to stop the design disintegrating, despite using several layers to begin with. Organza is also the more economical option.
Let’s embroider a couple of Easter decorations
This machine embroidery design is the Red Orange Butterfly from Creative Fabrica
Begin with selecting machine embroidery designs for your Easter decorations. The Red Orange Butterfly is a good design to start with because it only has 4 color changes:
There are other sizes and you need to remember to select the format you need for your machine
To make these Easter decorations whether you do the next steps in your software or the machine makes no real difference.
- Open the design in your editing software (if you have one) If not open the design in your machine. Check you have the size you want and the right format for your machine. Nowadays most machine manufacturers provide a basic editing software which allows resizing, color changes etc.
- Duplicate the design and flip the copy horizontally.
- If your software/machine has this capability – most do – sort your colors. This should reduce color changes. In the case of the designs I’ve used as examples, this is no problem because it simply means the machine embroiders the color on both halves before you change the thread.
- Resizing? The general rule here is don’t resize more than 10-20% either way. It often depends on how the designs are digitized and what your software/machine is capable of. You don’t want a design that’s so dense the machine can’t cope or you have a lot of thread breakages or one with spaces between the stitches.
- Transfer your design to your machine if you’ve edited it in your software. This can be with a USB, wireless transfer, a card or basically what your machine accepts.
- Fill your spool with standard white embroidery spool thread and set up the machine with the first embroidery thread color. Generally, I like to line up all the colors for a design before I start. Sometimes when you’ve lined them up you realize there’s something you don’t like and want to change.
Tip: You can use your own color scheme you don’t have to use the original color scheme in the designs.
- Set-up your hoop with 3 or 4 layers of organza. It should be firmly in the hoop a bit like a drum.
Tip: push the inside frame in so it’s slightly below the top edge of the outside frame as it holds your stabilizer/fabric firmer.
- Start your embroidery machine. Once you’ve finished embroidering remove the hoop from the machine – don’t remove the embroidery from the hoop!
- Take a sharp stitch ripper or pointed scissors and carefully start cutting round the outline of the embroidery whilst it’s still in the hoop. You don’t have to cut it out perfectly at this point as you can trim it up once you’ve joined it to the other side.
Methods of joining the two sides
If – as is the case with this rabbit, and butterfly – the designs are heavily stitched it’s easier to stick them together using fusible bonding web. If you have a bigger or less ‘solid’ design a zigzag stitch round the edge – as in my Easter eggs – can also be an option.
Cut a length of cord, ribbon or whatever you want to use.
Now comes the easy bit. I simply lay bonding web on one side of the figure – making sure the hanger is in position –then I lay the other side on top and press them well between my organza pressing cloth. Press is the key word here don’t iron back and forth.
Tip: Silk organza pressing cloths make life so much easier whether you’re sewing or embroidering.
The silk can withstand very high temperatures, the organza means you can see what you’re doing and if you have a couple of them you can always have one available and if – as can happen with this project – you get something sticky on them you simply throw them in the washing machine. Don’t make them too small. You should edge the silk on a serger if you have one, otherwise a fine hem or zigzag stitch will do the trick and stop it from fraying.
Now hang your decoration and Happy Easter!
Further Easter project ideas
If you want to make a gift tag you can use the same method. Choose a design that isn’t too heavily embroidered and you can add the recipient’s name, Happy Birthday or whatever to one side of your design. It adds something a bit ‘unique’ and ‘special’ to your gift.
When my granddaughter saw the Easter rabbit I’d made, she asked ‘What’s in it?’ My answer ‘nothing’ didn’t impress her so I decided I’d better think of something else. I used the Easter egg design and made it using the method above. If your embroidery machine only uses a 4 x 4 hoop sew both sides separately but don’t forget to horizontally flip your second side. You could also add a child’s name to one side if you wanted to personalize it.
Easter egg gift bag
To make the gift bag I zigzagged the 2 halves together up to about 2 thirds up both sides and attached the hanger to both sides of the egg, at the top, so making a hanging Easter egg that could be filled with sweets or a small gift. If you only want something more 3 dimensional this egg is big enough to stuff with wadding to give it an egg shape.
The eggs in the picture above: the first is filled with wadding to give it a 3-dimensional egg shape, the second is simply sewn together and the third has become a small gift bag.
Last step: Clean your machine
Whether you sew or embroider there’s one thing everyone needs to do – clean your machine. It’s a good idea to clean it when you finish a project instead of having to do it before you start the next. It’s amazing how much dust and fluff you’ll find. One thing you should never use in a computerized sewing machine is compressed air. It’s too easy to blow dust and bits into places that will result in you looking forward to a very expensive repair.
I hope you have a go at the Easter decorations. If you have a favorite design maybe it’s suitable for the same treatment.
Tip: Select designs with fairly smooth outlines because if they’re too complicated it’s difficult to cut them out cleanly. Sometimes it’s easier to cut them out roughly, join them together and then trim them making sure you don’t catch any of the edges.
Have a wonderful Easter – despite the restrictions!