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Moving on with Free Machine Embroidery

Free machine embroidery techniques

This guide to free machine embroidery is written by Julie Briggs of The Sewing Directory. 

In this article, a follow on to our introduction to free machine embroidery, we will take things a bit further by using tricky threads and investigating some ideas to overcome problems, look at ideas for patterns for free machine embroidery by making a small sample piece to refer to and further techniques achieved by adjusting tension and using different threads in the bobbin.

You will need…

Threads for machine embroidery

Sewing machine

Free motion embroidery foot

Wooden hand embroidery hoop or stabiliser (see this article)

Linen look cotton or calico

Machine embroidery threads e.g. Rayons, Sulky

Perle cotton no. 5 or 8

Spare bobbin holder for free machine embroidery (optional)

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

Topstitch needles

Working with Tricky Threads

Using silky and slippery threads in a sewing machine

Some machine embroidery threads can be quite difficult to handle as they are quite slippery and break more easily when put under tension. I find that my horizontal spool holder has a tendency for the thread to get twisted around the spool pin. Here are some potential solutions.

Holding slipper threads on a spool stand
  • Use an upright spool holder or thread stand – by standing the thread upright, it is less likely to get twisted around the spool pin and run off the spool more evenly. If your spool pin is horizontal, your machine may have a spare pin you can clip on vertically, or you can buy a separate thread stand and run the thread up from behind the machine into the tension system. These thread stands have a guide which takes the thread up and over into the machine, thereby taking the thread from the centre of the spool.
  • Lowering the top tension – if the thread persistently breaks, try lowering the top tension slightly. Experiment to see what works.
  • Use a thread net – some machines come with a special ‘net’ that you can pull over the top of the thread spool to try and contain the thread from unravelling unevenly.
  • Try using a topstitch needle, which has a bigger eye. The silky thread will get less friction as it passes through the needle and this may help to stop thread breakages.

Practicing Free Machine Stitching

Prepare a piece of calico and stitch a simple grid to give you a practice area for different types of stitching. Here are some of my favourites:
Vermicelli stitch

Vermicelli is stitched very closely but the lines never cross each other.

Pebbles stitch

Circles on top of each other and interlinked to make a pretty pattern.

Stitches for free machine embroidery

Stitch lines up and down to make an effective design.

Skills for free motion embroidery on your sewing machine

Stitch tight areas as dots and then a line down to start the next dot.


Tension Alterations

Free motion bobbin case

You can achieve some pretty effects if you adapt the tension on your sewing machine. The top tension should be easily adjustable by turning the tension wheel and you can return to ‘normal’ quite easily.

 Adjusting the bobbin tension is a little more difficult as you will need to adjust the tension by turning the screw on the bobbin case. For vertical loading bobbins, pull out the bobbin case completely and you will see a tiny screw that can be loosened by turning anti-clockwise. Make a diagram of where the screw sits before you start so you can return it to normal afterwards.

 For a horizontal loading bobbin, you will need to take off the needle plate to remove the bobbin case (a bit of a pain) and there is also a tiny screw to adjust tension in the same way.

 If you don’t like altering the tension on your bobbin, invest in a separate bobbin case for ‘fiddling’ with – make sure to mark which one is which! My Janome sewing machine has a horizontal loading bobbin with the ‘normal’ case marked with a red dot. I also have a Janome case with a blue dot for free motion stitching where the tension is already lowered. Check out your machine manufacturer to see what alternative bobbin cases you can buy.


Whip Stitch

A pretty effect obtained by drawing up the bobbin thread so it appears on the surface as a gentle star shape. Obtain this effect by tightening the top tension to 6 or 7 and loosening the bobbin tension a little – experiment to achieve different effects.


Feather Stitch

Feather stitch

An extreme version of whip stitch with loops galore! Raise the top tension almost to the highest setting and, if you can, don’t even put the bobbin thread through the tensioning in the case! Try it out and adjust for yourself and your machine.


Cable Stitch

Stitching cable stitch on a sewing machine

This technique involves winding a thick thread such as Perle cotton onto your bobbin by hand. You will then work with the fabric in reverse so that the bobbin thread is raised up to form the ‘right side’. Tensions need to be set as around normal for the top tension and as loose as you can – again you can bypass the bobbin tension if possible if your machine doesn’t protest!

Work slowly with these techniques and experiment to achieve different effects as you adjust the settings.

Continue your skills by making a small cushion cover using the techniques you have learnt here.