Getting Great Free-Standing Lace Embroidery Results
Had your eye on some lace designs? Wondering how they are done? Are they difficult? Here's what you need to know.
Lacework is an Advanced Technique
And I don't mean just mean digitizing!
I really think that embroidering free-standing lace is not a project for the newbie or novice embroiderer because you have to optimize all sewing conditions:
- You need to be a master of your machine—especially controlling tensions, both needle and bobbin.
- You need to know how to avoid thread breaks and bird nesting.
- You need to know how to prevent skipped stitches.
- You need to mind your thread tails so they don't get sewn into the design.
- You need to pay careful attention to hooping and stabilizing.
- You need to know what kind of stabilizer and how much to use.
- You need to be patient and pay attention to the details.
- You need to know (and use) the type of bobbin your machine prefers, which may mean winding on machine bobbins instead of using pre-wounds.
Of course, all those things are basic requirements for getting great results with any design but with lace, small things that wouldn't be noticeable on direct embroidery (embroidery on fabric) will be in full view on lace because once the stabilizer is gone, you'll be able to see everything. And the more open the lace, the more visible it is!
Managing tensions is probably the biggest key to beautiful lace. Tensions that are too tight will cause gapping and a design that disintegrates, tensions that are too loose will cause looping, tensions that are just right will produce beautiful results. (The "Goldilocks Principle.")
Lacework Requires Extra Finishing Time
Once your design is embroidered, you'll need to do a little more work to finish it than just tearing away the stabilizer.
You'll need to trim off excess stabilizer around the design, then rinse out remaining product (refer to product for correct water temperature), then block or shape the lace and allow it to dry.
Some lace projects may require multiple pieces and some assembly. These designs usually have instructions to guide you.
Some designs can simply be smoothed out and left to dry on a wire cookie rack. Others need to be carefully pinned or blocked into shape.
In many cases you need to leave some stabilizer residue in the design to act as a starch to help the lace maintain it's shape. Long soaking may cause too much loss and the lace will need to have some starching product applied.
Don't rush finishing!
Most Lace Designs Cannot be Sewn as Direct Embroidery
"Standard designs" use the material on which it is being sewn as support. With lace, that structure must be recreated with stitching, which can (but doesn't have to) make for a very a very dense design.
Many lace designs available today for machine embroidery are what I call "instant lace." The digitizer creates a mesh of stitching by layering some open fill stitch grids at opposing angles, which then supports any decorative satin elements.
Although quick to digitize, to my eye, these don't look as pretty as "old-fashioned" lace or the lace designs by carefully hand-punched by some of the master lace digitizers.
The mock crochet snow flakes shown on the tree here are quite light and can be sewn as direct embroidery.
Advantages of Lace Designs
If you haven't become discouraged by this point, lets look at some advantages.
- Lace doesn't require fabric or a garment to embroider.
- If you somehow mess up your lace design, you have not ruined a potentially expensive garment along with it!
- Lace is multi-purpose. The finished lace can be used like other lace: embellish garments, household linens, or use as is.
- Lace embellishments can be made detachable so that the garment can be worn with or without it.
- Lace is usually one color. Complicated designs can not only have many colors, they can have many color repeats due to layering or to maintain optimal registration. On a single needle machine, this can mean a lot of "operator time" to change the threads.
- Lace can be easy to embroider when you have mastered your machine.
Troubleshooting Lace Embroidery Problems
The number one problem is sections of lace falling apart. When sewing a design on fabric, if you have registration problems, they may show up as gaps in the design or outlines being off. In a lace design, lace of registration results in disintegration.
When digitizing lace, stitches are placed so that they interlock and latch on to other sections. When sewing there is a certain amount of tension on the stitching that causes stitches to pull back and this is offset by "overshooting" the stitch point, which is often called compensation.
There is a fine balance between how much is the right amount. Too little and the stitching fails to connect. Too much and you can have stitches sticking out and looking sloppy.
This is why managing your machine tensions is so critical to a successful result. Correct tensions will pull the stitches tight enough not to loop and look sloppy and not so much that they pull the stitches so tightly that they fall apart.
Some machines will exhibit tension problems at certain angles. One of my machines will pull the bobbin thread more tightly on the inside of a curve between 1:00 and 3:00 positions.
You may need to experiment with both bobbin and needle thread tensions and also adjust them depending on different threads. Machine speed can also play a role in tensions. One of my machines displays radical differences in tension when sewing at top speed (too tight) versus slowest (a little too loose depending on thread).
The type of stabilizer you use will also contribute to the integrity of your lace. I have totally given up using any film-type water soluble stabilizers in favor of the fiber based versions.
Films perforate and stretch—and neither of those conditions are good for registration. I also have found that two layers are required with the fiber wash-aways (not wash-away tearaway!).
To further maximize registration, use the smallest hoop that will accommodate the design. I know it is tempting to gang up a bunch of small lace designs in one big hoop but I encourage you not to do that! You may be putting all those designs at the risk of have sections that don't connect properly.
Other common reasons for a design falling apart include thread breaks, skipped stitches, and intermittent thread tension problems caused by the thread catching on the spool or a a loop of thread passing through the machine.
Tip for Conserving Stabilizer
I have used all sizes of stabilizer. I prefer to get stabilizer on rolls rather than folded packages.
For a recent project with LOTS of snow flakes in 4x4 hoops, I used up a roll that was just slightly taller than my hoop. I unrolled the entire roll, folded it in half end to end then rewound it onto the tube and secured the roll with some clamp-type paper clips.
Then I just hooped the free end, embroidered, cut out just the finished flake and hooped the next segment. This method easily saved an inch and a half to 3" of stabilizer on each hooping.
Testing Your Machine
Professionally digitized designs are always tested. However, it doesn't guarantee you will get the same results. If you follow proper embroidery techniques and have a well-maintained machine, there's no reason why you shouldn't be able to get similar results.
Pick the smallest lace design or a representative one from the collection or project you wish to embroider. Follow the best practices discussed:
- Smallest hoop to accommodate the design
- Two layers of stabilizer securely hooped
- Well-maintained machine (clean, new/newish needle of the appropriate size and type, the proper bobbin type and thread, quality embroidery thread, proper tensions, etc.)
After stitching, hold the hooped design up to a light and inspect for any gaps. If the design is a symmetrical one, note if one segment fell apart and where it is. (Sometimes I test this by rotating the design to see if it is the design or the machine.)
Sew the design, remove stabilizer, rinse, and blot in a lint free towel. Hold the design up to light once again and gently tug on the design and see if it has maintained integrity. Pin, block, or shape as required and allow to dry.
Sometimes just small segments can be pinned into place during blocking and while they won't be permanent, this can certainly improve the appearance of your project. When dry, you can touch up with some clear-drying glue or some hand stitching, depending on the intended use.
Threads to Use
Unless otherwise noted on the designs, most designs are digitized for 40 weight embroidery thread and standard embroidery bobbin thread.
If you wish to match the bobbin thread to the top, keep in mind that regular embroidery thread is heavier than bobbin thread and will result in a thicker feeling design.
Lace designs often have short stitches that may not work well with heavier threads or some specialty threads. Of course, you are always free to experiment! There aren't too many hard and fast "rules" in embroidery so be creative!
Resizing Lace Designs
When ever you resize any design, there are no guarantees on the results. Lace designs often use hand-placed stitches or other specialty stitches that may not scale properly or may technically scale correctly but be incorrect for the use.
For example, in the mock crochet free-standing lace designs, I created custom motifs to duplicate the look of single, double, and triple crochet stitches.
For the "chain stitches," I ran a fixed width satin over a run. Enlarging the designs could add extra needle penetrations to the motifs and would widen the satins.
The wider satins would have a tendency to look loose and loopy unless sewn in a very heavy thread. In fact, when sewing these designs at actual size, I feel they look better with 30-weight thread instead of 40 and they work well with two 40-weight threads in the needle as well.
Tips for Resizing Designs
- Always use a good program for resizing; not all resizers are the same! My personal recommendation is Embrilliance Essentials.
- Always resize a copy of the design and test it to make sure the original quality is maintained.
What Designs Are on the Tree?
This small table-top tree has been decorated with the Winter Jewels Mock Crochet Snow Flakes collection and topped with the Heirloom Lace Angel. Check out all the lace designs here. The angel was embroidered in 40-weight rayon and the flakes in a variety of 30-weight threads as well as two 40-weight Softlight Metallic Thread in the needle.
Standard embroidery bobbin thread was used throughout. Both of these collections feature fully illustrated step-by-step instructions for creating your own heirlooms. I have also sewn the angel in a single thread of SoftLight Metallic and she is absolutely stunning that way.
Helpful Links to Products I Recommend & Use
Since I'm constantly being asked, "what did you use for [fill in the blank]," I've begun organizing my favorite products on this Resource page as a convenient place for you to find them.
I've also included links to where I get them, many of which are affiliate links. Hey, I can't stock everything! If I list something I haven't/don't use, I'll let you know that too.