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This article is the first in a three-part series covering the basics of free machine embroidery and is written by Julie Briggs of The Sewing Directory. The fabric was kindly supplied by Plush Addict.

Free Machine Embroidery - Part One

Get started with free machine embroidery

This three-part series will de-mystify the techniques of free machine embroidery by taking you from the basics right through to adjusting tensions and making a small project to show off your new skills.

 In this first part, we will learn how to set up your sewing machine, understand basic tension settings, get into the rhythm of stitching and how to overcome some of the problems you may encounter.


You will need...

Supplies for machine embroidery

Sewing machine

Free motion embroidery foot

Wooden hand embroidery hoop – 20cm is a good size

Plush AddictLinen look cotton or calico – our fabric was kindly supplied by Plush Addict

Cotton threads of the same weight (40 – 50wt) for top and bobbin

Machine embroidery needles (size 70 or 80). Look for machine embroidery needles (red shaft on Schmetz needles)


Setting Up Your Machine

You can stitch free machine embroidery with any domestic sewing machine that has a straight stitch – in other words, any machine!

 Dropping the feed dogs

The aim is for you to be able to move your fabric in any direction to over-ride the feed dogs on your sewing machine. In order to do this, it is useful to have a machine where the feed dogs can be disengaged by pressing a switch – check your manual for details. Alternatively, you may have a plate that you can cover the feed dogs but this is not as useful as there will be a definite ‘ridge’ under your fabric.


Darning foot

You should start to free machine embroider by using a darning foot on your sewing machine. Some experienced people don’t use a foot at all but by using a foot, your fingers will be better protected and, crucially, you won’t forget to lower the foot before sewing – believe me this is a common mistake when you don’t use a foot and will result in stitches with no top tension at all and a mess of threads!

 Remove your standard straight stitch foot and replace with a darning foot. These come in different shapes but the most useful darning foot has an open toe so that you can see your stitches as you sew. They often have a spring mechanism so that your foot jumps to help move the fabric around as you stitch. Your machine may come with this foot as standard or you can buy this as an extra accessory.

You need to set your straight stitch length to zero as your own stitching action will determine the length of your stitches. Some machines will automatically set your stitch length to zero when the feed dogs are disengaged, as on my Janome machine.

 Now for the tension settings - your machine may tell you which tension setting you need once the feed dogs are disengaged and many will select the ‘Auto’ tension setting. If your machine does not advise which tension settings to use then you need to set the tension as follows:

  • Select a cotton thread and use this in both the bobbin and for the top thread.
  • Select your top tension to be ‘normal’- about 4 or 5 as an average setting. Keep the bobbin tension as for normal sewing at this stage. If you find the top tension is too tight once you start stitching, then loosen the top tension down to 3 and try again.
  • Your tension needs to be even on the top and bobbin.

Preparing to Stitch

Preparing fabric for free machine embroidery

Take your wooden hoop and place a piece of calico as tightly as possible into the hoop – tighten the fabric as much as you can with the screw on the side. You can ‘bind’ the hoop with strips of calico to help the fabric grip the hoop even more.

 Once you are more confident with free machine embroidery, you could try stabilising your fabric using Stitch ’n’ Tear or a similar stabiliser, and stitching without the use of a hoop. This will give you more freedom to move your fabric around. If you are free motion quilting, the quilt sandwich will stabilise the fabric so there is no need to use a hoop. Feel free to experiment as you gain confidence.


Machine ready for free machine stitching

Turn the hoop over so the fabric sits against the sewing machine base and push it underneath the foot. You may need to raise the presser foot bar to its highest point to achieve this.


Bring threads to the top

Turn the sewing machine wheel and bring through the bobbin thread to the top so both threads are through the fabric. Make a few on-the-spot stitches to lock the threads in place, or use the very useful lockstitch function on your sewing machine if you have one.

 Trim off the threads very close to the fabric so they don’t get caught up.


Start Stitching

Example of free motion stitching

Grip the hoop at both sides and then get yourself into a comfortable position – try to relax your shoulders. If you can, use a scrap piece of fabric to get yourself relaxed and in the correct position for stitching before you tackle your main piece.

Start stitching in a smooth rhythmic motion, running the machine at a fairly fast speed but moving the hoop slowly and smoothly to create small, even stitches. It will take some practice to get an even motion and avoid jerkiness. You can stitch in any direction you choose – try stitching round and round to create circles and from side to side. Try writing your name in stitch in a continuous motion – it’s a bit like doodling with a pencil.


Zigzag Free Machine Stitching

Zig zag free motion stitching

Once you’re comfortable with straight stitching, change your stitch to zigzag. Check if you need to change the foot on your machine – I used the clear view foot for my Janome as this is the only one you can use for zigzag free motion embroidery. Your stitch length can remain at zero but you can vary the width so the needle swings less or more depending on the width selected. Have a play and see what you can achieve with zigzag stitches.



Some of the most common problems involve thread breakages, needles breaking and loops appearing on your work where you don’t want them.

 Try these suggestions to alleviate the problems you are having -

  • Check the machine is threaded correctly and re-thread both the top thread and bobbin if necessary.
  • Check the top tension and slacken if necessary. It may be too tight.
  • Use a good quality, fairly strong thread. Cheap thread is always a false economy.
  • Change the needle to a larger size. The needle may be too small for the thickness of fabric you are using.
  • Select a new needle every time you start a new project. This can avoid a lot of headaches!
  • Practice running the machine quite fast and moving your fabric slowly and smoothly to make small stitches. A jerky action will often cause a needle to break as larger stitches pull the needle too much to cause snapping.
  • Give your machine a good clean to rid it of lint.

 In part two, you will learn how to handle ‘difficult’ threads, look at ideas for patterns to make a sampler of patterns and learn how to alter the tensions to give special effects.


Parts two and three of the series can be found here as they are added.

3-part series on free machine embroidery