Free-machine Embroidery: Before You Start
© Carol Coleman
Since I began teaching and talking about free-machine embroidery, I have encountered so many embroiderers who seriously want to learn to use their sewing machine more creatively, but they find for a number of reasons, their efforts are disappointing, or even a total disaster.
I have also come up against most of the problems everyone else has, but after getting over the worst of them, I began to experiment and ended up using free-machine embroidery as my primary creative technique. Along this journey I continued to learn and refine the way I work and materials and equipment I use. I am sharing some of this to encourage many of you to try again if you have given up and to help those who may not have tried some of my tips.
Successful free-machine embroidery is a partnership between a comfortable and relaxed embroiderer and a smooth-running and responsive sewing machine, using materials and tools appropriate to the project and technique. Much of this is practice, but there are many small things that have big effects
Most of us overlook the importance of the chair we use, but I consider it to be a crucial piece of workroom equipment. Sitting for hours at the wrong height or angle, with insufficient support or cushioning can result in a lot more pain and discomfort than you bargained for. It also directly affects how well you operate your machine.
The best chair to use is one that is on wheels, swivels, adjusts for height, tilt and back support, so that you find it perfectly comfortable to sit in and can rise from it without struggling to turn, stand up and untangle yourself from the table legs all at the same time. Office chairs like this can range in price from the affordable to the outrageous, but they can also be picked up for free or small cost from businesses that are refurbishing and it is worth trying out Freecycle or other recycling organisations for a chair to suit you.
Having got your chair, adjust the height so that both of your feet are comfortably on the floor, but always have your knees level with, or below the height of your hips – never sit so low that your knees are higher than your hips. I did this for years as I work very close to my machine and thought a low-set chair took away stress from my neck, but all it did was give my hip joints trouble and it would take several minutes to stand fully upright after each embroidery session.
Use a strong table that is firm and stable with good leg room for you. It also helps if the edge is rounded (where you might rest your forearms) and if it isn’t, put some kind of padded covering over it. The working height of your sewing machine is just as important as the setting of your chair. Experiment with raising it up by several inches and see what the differences are. Can you see the needle better? Are your shoulders straighter? Are your arms positioned more comfortably? I use large offcuts of kitchen worktop and the occasional very large book to raise my machine by 4 or 5 inches from a standard table-top. You also need to experiment with how close to your machine you want to work – move it further onto the table or move your chair further back. Also check that you have positioned it directly in front of you so that you aren’t leaning off to one side. When you are sitting correctly and have your machine in the right place and covered any edges on which you rest your arms, you should find that being able to rest your arms whilst operating your machine makes a huge difference to the tension in your neck and shoulder muscles.
There is the old saying that it is a poor workman who blames his tools, but you do need the right tool for the job. I was given a sewing machine as a wedding present many years ago and it gave me no end of trouble trying to make the simplest of things. It was one of those that did 0 to 60mph in half a second, making anything beyond a simple straight seam almost impossible. It was also a very erratic and neurotic object that only worked properly when it felt like it Whenever I got it out for my modest dressmaking and soft furnishing projects, I never knew if I had caught it on a good day; I would never have been able to use it for free-machining. I used it as a doorstop for a while, but I finally managed to get a £20 part exchange deal for a sewing machine that would do as it is told. I think I got the last word.
I am going to discuss aspects of a sewing machine from a free-machine embroiderer’s point of view – aimed at arming a prospective buyer with information to help them make the right choice. I would say I use my machine for free-machine embroidery for 95% of the time, so if you are primarily a quilter or soft furnisher, then your priorities for certain aspects will be different.
Go to a retail outlet or show stand and try out all the machines you are considering and don’t be shy – you wouldn’t buy a car without a test drive. Try as many different makes and models that you can. You do not need anything more than a basic machine for free-machine embroidery. Take an embroidery hoop, a topstitch needle, machine embroidery thread (various sizes and manufacturers) and some dissolving material with you to give the machine a fair test for the kind of work you want it to do.
Set a budget that you will not exceed, but consider all machines equally below this price.
This is a vital requirement – it should follow the pressure you put on the foot pedal closely and you need to be able to accelerate and slow down smoothly and accurately and also stop and leave your needle in whatever position you have chosen. Some machines have a switch that means it stops at either the up or down position – this irritates me as I want it to stop where I tell it every time. Some machines have switches that allow you to go ‘ultra slow’ – this is a useful facility.
Dropping the feed teeth
You must be able to drop the feed teeth to allow free movement of fabric under the needle. I have had a go on one where it had a cover for the teeth, but this gave it an annoying bump under the fabric.
I prefer to have my bobbin accessible at the front of the machine so I can replace or change thread without taking my work off the machine and that fits in a little case that the tension can be altered for allowing a variety of threads and effects on the fabric surface.
Top thread spindle
Check how stable the reel or cop of thread sits on the top of the machine, how smoothly does it run and does it wobble excessively? Thread manufacturers seem to change the design of the spools at will and after a trouble-free 25 years of happy stitching, I now have to save my old tubes from their previous design and push them up inside the new design, so it spins on an old tube. If I don’t do this, then the new cop with a larger plastic bottom slides about and leans over the edge of my machine, giving an irritating wobble, making a rattling noise and more importantly, affects the tension.
The foot and needle area
Some machines have very bulky ‘ankles’. By this I mean the part of the machine that holds the needle, foot etc. This results in a large area around the inner ring of your embroidery hoop that is inaccessible for stitching.
Some of them are set so close to the bed of the machine that you have trouble getting an embroidery hoop underneath and may have to keep taking the foot off and on every time you need to remove your work.
How easy is it to change the needles?
What is included with your machine? Is an embroidery or darning foot available for this model and how much is it going to cost? How easy is it to put on? Do you need three hands, a magnifying glass and a screwdriver? You will need a lot more bobbins than come with the machine – how much are they and are they a generic sort, or will you need to buy only the manufacturer’s version. Do you get an extending table with it?
The bed of the machine
Whilst shopping for a backup sewing machine, I tried one that was aimed at quilters. It was beautifully smooth and quiet, large space for bulky materials to pass through, and seemed sturdy and strong, but instead of a flat bed, it was arched in order to encourage the movement of quilts through the space and onwards – this isn’t advisable for free-machine embroidery. Don’t forget to measure this space, as the bigger it is, the more versatile for free-machine embroidery, but you need a good flat surface to work on.
I use a basic electric sewing machine for all my work and after observing electronic/computerized machines being used in free-machine embroidery mode, I am reassured that I made the right choice for me. Settings on electronic machines can be inflexible, not allowing the operator to choose or override the ones designated for a particular task. Make sure you ask questions about settings from your supplier before you buy.
If you want to travel out to workshops or classes, the weight of your machine may be a consideration, however do not put this criteria at the top of your list. Far better to shortlist 2 or 3 machines after testing and then choose the lighter one. A lightweight machine that doesn’t perform would be a waste of its purchase price and of the costs of classes. Don’t be shy about asking for help with loading/unloading your machine when you go out to workshops. There are now lots of wheeled bags especially designed for transporting sewing machines.
It doesn’t matter what machine you use, if you have the wrong needle in it, then you are heading for a struggle. When free-machining, try to always match your needle to the thread you are using. This isn’t how most of us choose needles for ordinary sewing: we pick the needles to match the fabric. I use embroidery, topstitch or metallic needles in various sizes. Once they have become a bit blunt, I downgrade them for stitching through paper, ordinary sewing and mending. If you use a Topstitch size 14/90, then this will accommodate a wide variety of machine embroidery threads and see you through a lot of practicing. Once used, I never return a needle to its original packet, I put it into a separate box labelled with what it has been used for, that way you will always know that your needles in the proper packet are brand new.
Use the best quality embroidery thread available. Some cheaper thread may look very pretty, but may be weak and break or fray too easily or it may not be colourfast. Get used to the feel of a good thread so you can make intelligent decisions about what you buy. Metallic thread can be more difficult for a beginner to use, so move onto those after a bit of practice.
I operate my machine either barefoot or in just socks – this helps to give very close contact and control of your stitching.
I try to take a break at least every hour to stretch and walk around and maybe make a drink.
Give your eyes a rest by looking up frequently to change your focus.
Playing music, listening to the radio, listening to a TV programme can help relaxation and give a generally pleasant atmosphere.
Allow enough time to have a good session – you won’t be relaxed if you only have a few minutes to have a go.
Sewing machines are power tools; do not operate one if you have been drinking alcohol, or are otherwise impaired.
The kindest thing you can do for your machine is to keep it clean and free from fluff and debris. Do not over or under oil it; consult your machine manual for oiling instructions.
If you don’t have a manual for your machine, then do an internet search using the make and model and you may find one published that you can download. You may also be able to contact the manufacturer for a copy.
Please feel free to send feedback or offer tips to share.