Sunday, 18 November 2012

Machine embroidery, tamed

At last, I remembered to take my camera to class last week.  So here are some quick pics of what we've been up to - all complete beginners (apart from Morag).

These are some of the finished pieces using quilting, couching and twin-needle action, courtesy of





and Sarah's practice piece...


and here is one of Vix's first attempts at free machining (I'm told this is a work-in-progress!)

and Morag stitched herself a colour wheel without being asked!

So yes, we are slowly taming the machine embroidery beast, helped along by the results of our little survey!

Thank you to everyone who took the time and trouble to complete the survey - it's really appreciated.  It was hugely interesting reading all the comments and suggestions, so a quick summary is in order:
  • 40% of you are OK with machine embroidery until things go wrong, then you get stuck
  • Nobody is problem-free - not even the "pros" for some of whom the problem is not knowing what to stitch.  Another problem I hear all the time: "is this stitching with teeth up or teeth down?"
  • The joint biggest problems (after "other") are threads breaking and shredding, and tension issues - who knows, maybe one problem is causing the other?!
In conclusion, I recommend we SNORTT in the face of machine embroidery problems (have to admit, the Girl helped me with this one....)

S  is for Stabilise

The fabric needs to be as firm or taut as you can make it for free-machining - with a hoop or stabiliser, or just naturally firm.  If it isn't you may have problems with skipped stitches, puckering fabric and so on.

N is for Needle

If in doubt - change the needle. 
You should always use a large-eye or topstitch needle for machine embroidery, and they say you should change it (a) when switching to metallic thread, or a different type of thread (the eye wears differently according to the thread) and (b) after about five hours of solid stitching.  If you change to a new needle with each new project, many of your current woes will never arise.  If like me you forget to do this (mostly because I jump from project to sample to project and don't work on one thing at a time) and you start to have problems with the thread shredding or skipping - change the needle.  Use a large (100/16) needle for metallic and delicate threads - it will make a bigger hole through the work so the thread won't get worn and shred so quickly.

O is for Oil (and clean)

You wouldn't believe the dust-bunnies I've seen emerge from behind the little bobbincase door...

If your machine is beginning to get noisy and rattly, then a jolly good clean-out and oil is in order.  Check the manual for how and where.  This will also remove loose threads and other gunk, and make stitching a whole lot smoother and easier.

R is for Rethread or Reroute thread

If the thread is snapping, then something is more than slightly amiss with your tension - most likely the thread has got caught or snagged up somewhere, probably around the spool pin.  Some very shiny threads are appalling at just falling off the reel.  A quick fix is to put the thread in a jar, old mug or plastic tub behind your machine, instead of on the spool holder.  Sometimes threads are particularly bouncy and can bounce out of the tension discs or the little catch just above the needle - so if you are having problems with tension, check this hasn't happened.  If in doubt, take the thread off and rethread everything - from scratch, not just the bit that goes through the needle....We had a horrendous case of skipped stitches in class the other day, and it turned out that the bobbin had been wound very loosely - sometimes this happens during winding and you won't notice it until you start to have problems stitching, so rethreading includes rewinding the bobbin if necessary as well.

T is for Tension

For the spool, a high number is tight - and a low number is loose.  Usually.  Always loosen it one notch from "normal" for free machining, and another notch for using metallic or delicate threads.  Loosening the top tension is kinder on delicate threads, and allows it to be drawn through the fabric a little so the bobbin thread will not show.  If you do want the bobbin to show, for example with whip stitch, then you need to tighten the tension - and use a stronger thread that won't snap under pressure!

Sometimes you can't avoid adjusting the bobbin tension, particularly if you want to have a go at cable stitch (using thicker threads in the bobbin - like Carol Naylor).  You just need to locate the tiny tension screw on the edge of the bobbin case, and the most important thing is to remember which way to turn it:


well, that and not dropping the tiny little screw onto the carpet...

and finally,

T is for Technique

While problems never disappear and threads will shred for anyone, needles will always break if you hit hard things (like beads, wire, fingers...) and machines will always need cleaning and oiling, a lot of problems will diminish with time and practice.  One of the biggest problems with free machining and one that can easily cause puckering and broken needles, is learning how to coordinate the speed of the machine with the speed you move your work.  Move too fast and you may break a needle; move too slow and you may have problems with thread build up and lumps and bumps.  And another easy one that I find is easily overlooked - and something that was mentioned a lot in the survey - don't forget to hold your threads when you start to stitch!  I think it is becoming easier to forget this, as a lot of the new machines let you get away with it - but with free machine embroidery you ALWAYS have to do this, as there is no pressure between the needle and the fabric holding the threads in place.

Finally, if you do find you have a major bird's nest under your work, you've forgotten to put the presser foot lever down.  Happens to us all.


  1. Very useful reminders, thank you!
    One day I'll learn to throw away needles before they're broken... maybe?

  2. Really interesting reading all that, and I'll be back the next time I have problems :-). Drop the tiny screw, me? Never!!!!! (Thought I was the only one to be found crawling around on the carpet getting cross!)

  3. I didn't take part in the survey, oops! It's good to know we all have the same problems.

  4. Excellent survey results and I couldn't agree more!

  5. Well, I think we must all SNORTT in the face of adversity, well done the Girl! Your tips are fabulous & next time I'm looking at a nest or crawling around the floor looking for screws in amongst all the snippets (again) I'll remember you ;)(Do people really change tension between types of threads? Oh.)

  6. Wow....what fantastic advice; I must save all that. (Near the end I though it said 'don't forget to hold your breath when you start to stitch' ....because that's what I do :-)

  7. I didn't see the survey..oh well. I can just add a stop th ethread slipping down off the spool put a thick disc of felt on the spindle first . It helps.


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