13 August 2011

Free-motion machine embroidery

Sorry for the long break since the last post; the reason for the delay isn't so much that I haven't been completing projects, but that none of them were projects I could write about, except to say how pleased I was with the results. During the last week or so, however, I've decided to once again try my hand at free-motion embroidery, a fabric-embellishment technique that I've been using to decorate my homemade fabric boxes.

In general I tend to stay away from classic machine embroidery or appliqué--the kind which uses satin-zigzag stitch. This is in part because I don't like the look of thick lines of thread (I avoid heavy embroidery flosses for the same reason), and in part because it's nearly impossible to create a delicate image with dense zigzag stitch lines.
red straight-stitch embroidery

My dislike for the satin-zigzag stitch aside, I do love embellishing fabrics, and for that I use my family sewing machine's straight stitch in free motion. Done properly, and with a little practice, the effect of straight-stitch embroidery can range from playful and cartoonish to elegant and delicate. When beads, wire thread, or a touch of hand embroidery are added, the fabric becomes downright ornate. This versatility is mostly a result of the intuitive nature of free-motion embroidery; the process is a lot like sketching, except that the pencil is suspended in mid-air and you move the paper underneath it. Even better, every sewing machine has a basic straight stitch option and so can be used to do free-motion embroidery. There are only a few rules to keep in mind before you begin:

1) Remember to drop the feed dogs, remove the presser foot, and (just to be safe) move the presser foot presser to "0". During normal sewing, these three tools are used to guide your fabric in a straight, even line. During free-motion stitching, they only get in the way.

straight stitch embroidery flowers
2) Check the needle thread tension; it's usually a good idea to use a higher needle thread tension than you normally do, especially if you're planning to embroider a lot of tight curves. Always use the same thread for both the needle and bobbin.

3) Stretch the fabric you want to embroider over an embroidery hoop, and place it under the needle so that the rim faces upward and the fabric is flat against the throat plate. It's very important to stretch the fabric as tightly as possible. Because the presser foot has been removed and the feed dogs lowered, there is nothing left to hold the fabric flat under the needle. If the cloth hasn't been stretched tightly over the embroidery frame, then every time the needle digs in and out of the cloth it will pull the fabric down and up. This will make the fabric hard to control, and will also cause the stitches to become loose, so that loops of thread will stick out of the fabric on both sides.

4) Use fabrics with a firm, close weave, to avoid puckering, and to avoid distortion of the cloth when it is stretched. The white cloth here (photo pending) is a light muslin, and the stitches have caused puckering throughout. In contrast, the thicker beige cotton pictured above is smooth underneath the embroidered leaves. Twill fabrics, especially, are a good choice for free-motion embroidery, while very light fabrics like chiffon will show heavy distortion and puckering. Knits should probably never be used.

Finally, remember that there's a 3/4-inch border in which you won't be able to embroider because of the raised rim of the embroidery loop. Give yourself a lot of space to work with, and don't hesitate to layer colours, or improvise lines as you sew--machine embroidery is a versatile technique, and one that can be adjusted for all sorts of projects.

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