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Understanding The Tools of Machine Embroidery

Understanding The Tools of Machine Embroidery main article image
Posted on December 5, 2022 by Rita Hiller
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Like all crafts you need a basic set of tools and equipment to get started. Many sewers will have the basics and only need to add the special requirements for machine embroidery. You can get started with the designs available from Creative Fabrica for your first embroidery.

Let’s Talk about Tools Needed for Machine Embroidery:

Needles

They are seriously important. No needle, no embroidery. The first thing to remember they are disposable and need to be changed regularly. If your machine is embroidering a project for several hours one needle won’t be enough. Generally, different fabrics need different needles. Needles come in various sizes and types – sounds stupid but some are sharper than others!

The most commonly used size of embroidery machine needle is 75/11 as it suits a wide range of fabrics.

An 85/13 is generally used for heavier fabrics like denim. If it’s heavy and the machine has to embroider over more than one thickness or seams a 90/14 is recommended.

Fine fabrics like silk

If you’re embroidering fine, silk-like light fabrics a 65/9 is advisable. This needle can’t be used with automatic threaders because the eye is simply too small.

The right needle for the job

Using the right thread for the needle is also important. This also applies to general sewing. There’s no benefit – in fact, the reverse – to using fine thread in a needle with a wide groove because the thread will move too much and either break or lead to a bird’s nest. If you attempt a heavier thread in a narrow groove needle, it’ll be difficult to thread and the thread simply won’t flow right which could well lead to a broken needle.

Thread

Most designs digitised for home embroidery machines are for 40-weight thread. Remember, the lower the thread number the thicker the thread. You can sometimes use a 30-weight thread if you want the design to look a bit thicker – for example, on clothes. Generally speaking, home embroidery machines don’t like anything thicker, unless it’s a linear design. Here are designs from a Christmas table cloth using 40 weight polyester into a softer, dark royal blue damask fabric:

A corner design

A side edge design

Another edge design

 The centre design

Thread Brands

Nowadays, there are so many thread brands it’s hard to know what to use. Generally, the best quality you can afford. Buy a couple of reels of thread from one brand, to begin with, try them out, and if they work well buy more. Not all thread works well on all machines – for whatever reason.

Rayon

It used to be the first choice for machine embroiderers because its colours are a bit brighter and shinier; however, rayon thread is not as strong as polyester. This can mean multiple thread breaks, especially with designs that aren’t optimally digitised or heavier designs. It’s a softer feeling thread than polyester and for freestanding lacework it really does produce a lovely result. Rayon certainly shouldn’t be the thread of choice for embroideries on clothing and other items that will be washed frequently as it will lose its lustre and eventually start to break down.

Polyester

It has certainly become the thread used most for machine embroidery. High tensile strength, runs well in the machine, and it’s hard to find a colour or shade of a colour that isn’t available amongst the enormous range of colours available. Depending on the make you buy this can almost look as bright and shiny as rayon despite being 100% synthetic. Polyester thread is machine washable. You can use it to embroider items that will be washed regularly at higher temperatures like children’s clothes, sheets, towels, tablecloths etc.

A kitchen towel I made a couple of years ago. Sewn with polyester thread. Despite literally hundreds of times in the washing machine, the colours are still clear and bright.

Metallic thread on the embroidery machine

Metallic threads

They look impressive once embroidered but can be very tricky to deal with in the machine. You sometimes have the feeling they break if you look at them. There is no quick embroidery with metallic threads.  Metallic threads feel wiry to the touch and like wire, turn and twist merrily, if you let them. To embroider with metallic thread, you need to set up your machine to enable the thread to run without twisting. If it twists it breaks. Instead of putting your thread on a vertical pin | it needs to run horizontally <–. If your machine doesn’t have a horizontal thread holder you can buy an attachment that fits the vertical pin. Better than struggling with metal threads on a vertical pin.

Horizontal spool holder for metallic threads

Machine speed

You also need to reduce your machine speed to the lowest setting for metallic thread. The fabric in the hoop should have a soft backing to reduce thread friction against the backing. I find the soft, water-soluble kind that feels like soft fleece, not the plastic looking one, is best. Generally, metallic threads are better used for things that won’t be washed too often.

Needles for metallic thread

You really need to use a dedicated needle. There are special needles available for metallic thread that have a slightly larger eye to reduce scuffing of the thread surface as it passes through the needle. Remember:

  • Don’t try to use an automatic needle threader with metallic threads.
  • Don’t give up if it doesn’t work the first time you try it. It’s a bit of trial and error and not all machines like all threads. You may find one brand works fine and another is a disaster. If all else fails there are polyester threads available that look very similar to gold, silver etc. once sewn and they’re much easier to sew with. See the linen runner pictured below.

Cotton thread

Cotton is certainly the favourite with quilters because it looks a bit like hand-embroidery. It’s often used for machine cross-stitch, redwork and single colour designs. As it doesn’t have the tensile strength of polyester it’s a good idea to reduce the machine’s speed if you embroider with cotton. Some of the more recent polyester core cottons work very well – if you can get them. In the US they seem to be available, here in Europe, it’s hard to find them.

The base of all machine embroidery: stabilizers or backing

A small selection of some of the stabilizers I use

There are some materials that don’t need stabilizing like thicker felt but generally all embroidery needs stabilizing or it will simply pull and pucker together.

Stabilizers

They support the top fabric. Without it your fabric can stretch and pucker and you won’t be pleased with the result. Like everything the right stabiliser for the job is extremely important.

Where to start? I’m afraid one stabilizer doesn’t do all. There are various types available and generally the machine embroiderer needs a selection to meet the requirements of the various fabrics you intend to embroider.

Embroidery (light linear design) on a blouse using the interfacing of the blouse as the stabilizer

What kinds of stabilizer are there?

Cut- away

This offers the greatest stability because it’s the strongest. You certainly need these if you’re embroidering stretch or knit fabrics. The best stabiliser for many medium-weight fabrics. Once the embroidery is done you simply cut off the excess as close to the outer edge of your embroidery as you can, taking care not to nick the stitching or your fabric. The stabilizer under the embroidery also ensures the embroidery remains stable. This also comes in iron-on and self-adhesive versions – people tend to love them or hate them.

Flat, well supported design on a jersey jacket using cut-away stabilizer

Water soluble or wash-away 

This is for those projects where you don’t want the look or feel of stabilizer once you’ve finished. You need this for free-standing lace. Wash-away stabilizers are great for designs/projects that can’t have any trace of stabilizer once the design is finished. I also use this for embroidering towels or linen.

The right side of a linen table runner

The wrong side of the linen table runner

It’s always good if the wrong side of the embroidery also looks neat without jump threads everywhere!

Double layer or more

Generally, I use more than one layer as I often find a single layer simply isn’t strong enough – particularly the plastic-looking variety. Once you’ve finished, simply soak it and wash it out. If you’re making something you want to be a bit firmer when its finished don’t completely wash the stabilizer out. Just wet it enough to remove the excess and leave the rest to dry in. I’ve often done this when I’ve made Christmas ornaments or lace mats and other freestanding items. It gives them a bit of structure.

Quick ornaments sewn on double washable stabilizer and organza

Sew two and two in reverse and stick them together with fabric glue, adding a hanger. Many designs are suitable for this because the organza gives them stability.

Tear-away

Tear-away stabilizers can be used for most fabrics except knit and stretch fabrics. It’s simply torn away when you’ve finished. A bit fiddly getting bits out in the middle of designs but generally, it’s easy to use and one of the cheapest available. One rule for tear-aways is ‘if you wear it – don’t tear it’. Generally, these stabilisers aren’t sufficiently supportive of the designs on clothing. Cut-away is the standard for wearables.

The Designs

 As I mentioned before, they need to be properly digitised if they’re going to sew out well. Downloading free designs from the internet may look like a cheap option but it can lead to very messy embroidery. Broken thread, bird’s nests, broken needles and the rest. They can cost you more time than they’re worth!

Heavy design into cotton velvet using a fleece backing. Firm backing means no hoop burn

Hoops

Your embroidery machine will arrive with a hoop or two. There are certainly many available. Before you buy more check what you really need as they are expensive. Also check the hoop sizes available for your particular machine. There are variations even within machine makers and it’s not just the size. If you don’t hoop right your embroidery won’t be successful. Too tight and you’ll have a horrible mark on your fabric known as ‘hoop burn’. Too loose and the fabric will move, leading to puckering and distortion. Once you’ve hooped a couple of times, you’ll quickly get the hang of it.

Tip: Always ensure the inside hoop is slightly lower than the top hoop – just a millimetre or two – I can only say it’s worked well for me. Rock hard is too hard and more than a bounce like you get if you bounce a tennis racket against your hand is too soft. You can make slight adjustments once the fabric is hooped but if you’re dealing with delicate or stretch fabrics this could lead to distortion or in the case of silk or similar, hoop burn, if you pull too much round the edges.

Machine embroidery with a sewing machine

Yes, you can use an ordinary sewing machine for machine embroidery. It’s a bit like doing hand embroidery with a sewing machine. For best results, the design needs to be drawn on the fabric before you start. You hoop the fabric in an ordinary embroidery frame and lower the feed dogs of your machine, using a darning foot. Here, practice really does make perfect!

Tip 1: Stick soft thin felt, fabric or self-adhesive backing to the bottom of the hoop to stop it from scratching your machine and slide better.

For best results the fabric needs to be stabilized. Iron on generally works well with this. It’s also a good idea to lower the speed of the machine.

Tip 2: Get yourself a pair of quilter’s gloves as it’s easier to control the hoop if you have a good grip.

Free-hand machine embroidery is a method used by artistic embroiderers and artists who combine art and embroidery. They sometimes refer to it as thread painting or drawing.

Machine embroidery is a rewarding hobby once you learn the basics. It’s also an extensive subject and can be expensive. I hope I’ve given you a few tips that will help you get started, enjoy your hobby and get the best results.


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