The other day I was asked by an acquaintance who was considering the purchase of her first embroidery machine if embroidery was difficult.
“Difficult” is always such a subjective word. If you’re stuck in your ways, aren’t interested in learning anything new, dread the idea of anything less than a perfect outcome, then you will find most any new challenge difficult. On the other hand, if you enjoy the prospect of a creative venture, then likely you’ll find the challenges interesting, stimulating, and fun. The real question is what do you need to know?
When I think back to what I knew when I bought my first embroidery machine versus what I’ve learned since then, I’m amazed that most of my early projects actually turned out as well as they did. I also often wonder that if people knew how much there was to learn to gain full mastery how many of them would turn and just walk away, if not run!
What I like about embroidery is that you can always learn something new and you can be as creative as you want to be. Here’s my list of the top 7 things you need to know to get off to a great start.
1. Learn your machine.
You can’t even create embroidery if you don’t know how to load a design and get it sewing. And, while to the non-initiated, this may seem like all you need to know, this is far from the truth! At the very least, on a home machine, you’ll need to know how to:
- Attach the embroidery unit
- Which foot to use and how to attach it
- Any extra controls you may have to set, such as tensions or dropping the feed dogs (most newer machines do this automatically)
- How to select and load a design
- How to make sure the design fits the hoop (most home machines won’t sew a design larger than the attached hoop)
- How to attach the hoop
- How to thread the machine (needle and bobbin)
- What types of bobbins you can use
- How to change a needle
Many new embroiderers have never sewn a stitch by machine before getting an embroidery machine while others have been sewing most of their lives. Sewing is not a prerequisite for embroidery but it certainly helps!
2. Select good quality thread.
Embroidery threads come in cotton, rayon, polyester, and metallic, just to name the most popular. They also come in various weights or thicknesses. Quality starts with how it’s made and is affected by age, how and where it’s stored, and how it’s handled. Better quality thread sews with fewer breaks and shredding, resulting in higher quality embroidery. Most designs are digitized for 40 weight thread and you can get excellent results with the newer trilobal polyesters on the market today. Be wary of “bargain” thread; it rarely is!
Selecting thread also includes the bobbin. Be sure to use a bobbin thread designed for embroidery. Regular sewing thread or serger thread is not a good substitute and can make your embroidery feel thick and stiff.
3. Use the proper needle.
The right needle is one that can carry the thread through the fabric without damaging the thread or the fabric and without excess flexing of the needle. Depending on what you are embroidering, you can get good results with a size 70 to 80 embroidery needle. The smaller the needle, the more accurate the stitch. Like most other products, some brands are better than others. Also, be sure to change the needle when it needs it—and that doesn’t mean just when it breaks!
4. Learn how to hoop.
The hoop is part of the stabilizing process and whenever possible the fabric should be placed between the rings of the hoop. Hooping properly means the fabric is at neutral tension, neither stretched nor loose, and in the proper location. Hooping also includes using the right stabilizer, both backing and topping, as required by the specific project. For some projects, I’ve spent more time hooping than it took for the design to sew. You can’t correct poor hooping so don’t skimp on this step!
5. Learn how to select the proper stabilizer(s), both backing and topping, as needed.
Choosing a stabilizer can feel overwhelming with today’s extensive variety. When I was first learning to embroider, I was told “cutaway for knits and tearaway for wovens,” but even with the handful of choices we had back then, this was not the best guideline to follow.
In addition to fabric, you need to consider the design. The more concentrated the stitches are, the more support it needs. The more stretchy the fabric, the more support it needs. Thickness or thinness is not an indication of stability. Very thin nylon organza is quite stable while thick fleecy sweatshirts are not. Instead, you need to know how stretchy the fabric is. Even fabrics like denim that we think of as being very stable aren’t. Did you ever pull a pair of jeans out of the dryer and have to wriggle into them while you held your breath? And did you find they were more comfortable in just a few hours? Did you lose weight?
More than likely you will need a cutaway for knits but tearaways are not always sufficient for wovens depending on the fabric weave and the design you intend to sew. Choosing the right stabilizer comes with experience and can’t be fully answered with a chart or magic formula.
6. Learn how stitches affect fabric.
While I’m not saying every embroiderer should become a digitizer, I do think the more you know about how designs are constructed, the better embroiderer you can be. Stitch length, density, and angle all factor in to how the design will affect the fabric. When you understand this, you’ll make better design/fabric/stabilizer choices. If you pick a design just because it’s cute you have the same chance of getting a good result as picking your spouse because he or she was cute!
Like the other tips on this list, I could easily write a book on this topic and in this case I have! It’s called Anatomy of a Design: How to Think Like a Digitizer and Become a Better Embroiderer. A bonus is that if you think you might want to digitize some day, this book is a great prelude.
7. When in doubt, appliqué!
OK, so maybe this doesn’t fully qualify as a tip but I really think appliqué is the most versatile and universal type of design and this my personal motto. I’ve even used appliqué to cover up stains, tears, and other embroidery mishaps. Appliqué works well on textured fabric, stretchy fabric, and high contrast colors where other full-stitch designs can have problems. A well done applique can be much more interesting than standard embroidery. If you don’t know how to appliqué with your embroidery machine, do give it try!
8. Just Do It!
The absolute best way to learn machine embroidery is to just do it. Take any classes offered by your dealer. Attend events with industry experts. Scour the internet for information (but make sure it comes from a reliable source!). Webinars, or online seminar, are a great way to learn from experts without ever leaving the comfort of your home. If you’re considering embroidery as a business or are just serious about the craft itself, hire a coach who’s specialty is embroidery.
Machine embroidery is fun. And like most anything, it’s more fun when you have successful outcomes. Take time to get acquainted with your machine and the process and you can have a hobby or a business that can last the rest of your life.