Hi! Welcome to the world of machine embroidery. I’m Brian, your guide in this journey. Who am I? I am the one who has been there before you. I’ll try to take you through this as gently as I can but be warned: A sense of humor will be your ticket to success. If you can’t laugh at yourself and your own mistakes, you won’t survive this journey. So, turn that frown upside down and let’s set off. We’re going to visit school for a bit of background, but eventually we’ll visit all sorts of places in the embroidery universe!
A Brief History
Personalization is a wonderful part of human existence that goes back as far as we do. Ever since the first garment, somebody started decorating it. Embroidery stitches have been popular and at times practical (Sashiko is an example), as an addition to garments of all types. Of course, for most of history, stitches were added by hand.
The Scots, who consider themselves the most inventive people on the planet (it rains a lot, so they stay inside and tinker), tried making an embroidery machine in the 1400s. It sort-of worked. We don’t have pictures of it, but as they did invent much that began the modern world, it’s not so far-fetched. Other than that, embroidery was done by craftsmen and women of varying skills and took great amounts of time. Then the industrial age began, steel flowed, and finally, machines began to help. At first there were big, ugly, cumbersome things which came out of Switzerland. An amazing amount of resources went into making this equipment, from fancy looms to Jacquard’s punch cards that controlled them. The machines stayed big and ugly for over a century, evolving into something that produces what we think of today as embroidery. The main manufacturer of big embroidery machines was Schiffli, but there were others, mostly Swiss. We have lots of history on that age, but we’ll bore you with those details some other time. Next, there came transistors, which led to robots and modern computers, which led to the ultimate refinement and most glorious purpose of computing: Putting lace on little girls’ dresses. Well, ok, you get the idea.
In the late 1970s embroidery machines met the computer age, and that began transitions of labor. In the world of big iron machine embroidery, the ‘Puncher’ was the person who had the skill and experience to make the machine go, stitch by stitch, and make embroidered pieces, usually lace or emblems (patches). The design was drawn on paper at a scale of 6x. The puncher would move a pointer into position over the paper, and with each rotation of the machine’s giant flywheel, he’d punch the paper with the pointer. That action dropped the needle through the fabric, making a stitch. Hence, punching is not pugilistic, rather it describes putting holes in paper.
While a design was punched, a paper tape could record the action, getting its own series of holes made. That tape could be played back into the machine, like a hideous iron player piano, and more lace or emblems could be created. Because of this, old timers call designs, “tapes.”
When computers came into it, the first thing they did was record the tapes onto digital media, such as floppy disks. This was called digitizing – transferring embroidery data from tape to computer.
Skilled punchers were rare, and more production was desired (there was a patch craze in the 1970s), so computers were used to help speed up design making. The programmers studied the actions the punchers recorded, and got some of their terms together, making computerized tools for stitch types, such as satin stitches and fills. Drawing a satin column by defining its shape, and not having to place each stitch, saved enormous amounts of time. Knowing when, where and how to place those stitch objects was still regarded as specialized knowledge and required extensive training. Additionally, that computer was expensive, along with the board and puck (pre-mouse) system that became the punching device. Only large producers could afford such things at the time.
The skilled punchers still regarded their craft as trade secrets, and that protected their jobs for a time. But the truth was that once computing was involved, the concepts became obvious. Experience is required, but the process can be explained. Still, to this day, you hear of embroidery “Secrets.”
Folks, this is the 21st century. Embroidery secrets, along with those of the Masons and Illuminati, are all out there freely. There are no secrets anymore.
Up and Running
You have a machine. It’s unboxed, threaded up, plugged in and now it is staring at you, daring you to use it. What next? The most basic thing to learn is this: How to get the machine running.
This is one of the few things you have to learn. It’s like riding a bicycle: You just do, then later you’ll decide when and where to ride.
All these machines have to be threaded correctly. There’s a simple process that the makers of the machine, or dealers who sold it to you, will be able to show you. We’ll get into what makes a stitch a bit later. If you just have to know before you get started, use a web search for “lockstitch”. Later, we’ll also discuss some troubleshooting tips. But you can’t troubleshoot until you begin to embroider.
So we’ll proceed, knowing that you know how to turn the machine on and thread it.
Next, if you’re lucky, and not a tightwad, you have a machine that has some kind of design built-in. Maybe it’s a font. Perfect. It doesn’t matter what it is. This isn’t even going to be refrigerator art.
Fabric and Stabilizer
Get some fabric. What kind? Well, a lot of people do stitchouts on felt. It is relatively inexpensive, and makes things look good. It is also somewhat stable, and fairly easy to hoop. There are drawbacks, but for now, it’s a fabric with which to start.
You’ll need the fabric, and also some kind of stabilizer. What’s that all about? Well, it’s a long story, but the basics are this: fabric stretches and gathers, right? As the machine is moving, the fabric is pulled and pushed and smashed. Then the thread goes through the fabric, but that isn’t just making a hole: It is pushing fibers of the fabric out of the way so the stitch can go through. Those fibers of the fabric have been pushed around in different directions. It’s chaos. Stabilizer does not let itself get pushed around.
Stabilizer appears to be a paper-like substance but is actually a mat of tough fibers (often cellulose and/or nylon) laid in all directions. The combination and direction of those fibers prevents stretch at any angle. Also, holes that are made in the stabilizer tend not to turn into tears, which, if you think about it, would be actually moving the stitches.
Appearances can be deceiving: PAPER, PAPER TOWELS AND COFFEE FILTERS ARE NOT STABILIZER!
Stabilizer attaches to the fabric or simply sits behind it, helping keep the fabric supported. The stitches anchor to the stabilizer, not the fabric.
There are several kinds of stabilizer. You’ll learn about those as we go, but start with a tear-away, medium weight. Your friendly sewing store clerk will be able to help you locate this. That’s ‘tear’ as in, ‘to rip’, not ‘to cry’, although sometimes, that happens too. Why tear-away? Simply, it is the most-often used stabilizer in hobby embroidery. The idea of its use is that it supports the fabric, which has been tortured out of shape by the embroidery. Once you have finished sewing, you tear off the part of the stabilizer that sits outside the edge of the embroidery, leaving the stabilizer trapped between the bobbin stitches and the fabric, where no one can see or feel it against their skin.
Oh, right, I guess we need to mention that the stabilizer goes under the fabric. There are stabilizers that go on top and we’ll discuss those separately.
Hooping Your First Piece
Cut a piece of stabilizer and a piece of fabric a bit bigger than your hoop. If you have more than one hoop, choose one around 4” (10cm.) square. Or, pick the smallest one that is big enough to hold a design that you have chosen. The stabilizer and fabric will have to be big enough to go in the hoop, with enough extra to be held well in place by the second half of the hoop.
When you do something like cross-stitch or needlepoint, you get used to snugging the fabric tightly in a hoop. This is not that. Think of it this way: When you embroider the design, you are stitching it down on the fabric, permanently distorting the fabric into the shape that it is in while hooped. It’s a time capsule, showing your hooping skill for eternity. If you stretch it in the hoop, then embroider on it, you will have a permanently stretched fabric. The stabilizer should be in the hoop tightly. The fabric should be relaxed and perfectly flat, as smooth as you can make it.
Tip for the future: If it’s a wearable item, pre-washing helps for embroidery, similar to how it helps for fitting. It’s going to shrink, so you might as well get that out of the way before adding love, time and labor.
Now, here you will need to follow the machine instructions to make your first stitchout. We can’t help, sorry. You need to understand how to start your machine. (Usually there’s a Start button.) But, please come back once you have that first glorious embroidery!
Let the Adventure Begin!
You’re back! So soon? Ok, you must be ready to set off on the adventure!
Time to put on your thinking cap, please, as we enter Machineland.
Now that you have seen and done some embroidery, you’ll understand that a lot is going on here. An embroidery machine is not a ‘Thread Printer.’ An embroidery design is not an image. It has nothing to do with an image. You, silly human, see an image as a result of the stitches being laid down. The embroidery design is a set of stitches. Stitches that run here and stitches that run there, stitches that run… No, I’m not Dr. Seuss, so I won’t continue that sentence.
“Embroidery Designs are NOT images!”
The point is that there is no such thing as “conversion” from an image into embroidery. There is the process of laying down stitches to represent an image. It is complex because the fabric likes to show through, the fabric likes to move around while the design sews: The fabric likes to stretch, rip and pucker. It would be fair to say that the fabric does not like to be embroidered. And this movement is taken into account when the stitches are laid into the design, if it’s done properly. So the design itself will not look, on a computer screen, exactly like what you’ll see once sewn.
Another big difference between stitches and any other computer-related art is that fact that stitches follow every movement. You cannot start and stop stitching as easily as a plotter lifts a pen. Such a stop does exist, and is called a jump stitch, and is generally avoided at all costs because the thread has to tie off, get cut, move to another place, tie in (which is never a sure thing) and then continue. It is time-consuming, visible in the result, can unravel, and generally is not desired.
Today, when we refer to embroidery, we are referring to computerized embroidery. Yes, there are those who do it by hand, but that’s an entirely separate topic.
Computers require files. A file is the data that relates to one thing: a document, such as this one you’re reading, or an embroidery file, which the machine reads. The embroidery file is simply a set of commands that tell the machine what to do. Step 1: Go here (x,y)
Step 2: Go here (x.y)
Stop: User will do something
Step 53000: Go here (x,y).
See, it isn’t an image at all. It’s a set of very specific commands to move the robot arm (known as a pantograph) around while the machine sews. At each location, the arm pauses so the machine can create a stitch.
In case you are from the USA and wonder why all the embroidery hoops and densities are in metric, you have to consider that: 1.) the rest of the world bought into the metric system whether it made sense or not, and, 2.) Machines move in increments of 0.1mm. Plus, how accurate can you get trying to describe tiny movements in inches? You can’t get precise enough unless you are a machinist or have lived with one long enough. So, millimeters it is. Any time you see a hoop sold in the USA, know that the hoop is not really sized in inches, and some marketing geek just did a conversion (which isn’t accurate) so your hoop isn’t really 4″; It is 100mm. Close enough for horseshoes, hand grenades and embroidery hoops.
Usually, it doesn’t exist. Machines are color blind. Commercial embroidery files don’t even possess data inside them to record color. Whatever color is needed is what the machine operator puts on the machine. Some machines have color displays, but only a limited idea of what to show, perhaps a thread that’s encoded in the file. The machine still has no idea what that means, nor does it care what color you thread it with. It won’t “ask you” for a certain color. And it won’t get mad at you if you make a yellow rose from a red rose design.
Commercial machines, along with some home ones, have more than one needle. The idea is that the needles get threaded with whatever colors are going to be used. Generally, the machines aren’t made aware of what colors are on them, but some today can be told. When the embroidery design gives a command, ‘Stop and change color’ the machine will cut the thread and move to the next needle to continue sewing. It is fun to watch, but doesn’t really require putting a lot of information in the embroidery design file.
File types are denoted by the extension on the file name such as .dst, .pes, etc. Thus you can have a design for a commercial machine: mydesign.dst and a version of that design translated to a file for a home machine: mydesign.pes.
Not all file types are equal. In fact, the commercial file type, being old, is the most primitive of all. It does not hold color, and does not hold single commands that allow the machine to move more than 1.21cm. If the machine has to move more than that, it requires several commands.
Many home formats do have color, but most only have a pre-selected palette of colors that they understand. Their language is, “I know color 001. Color #1 is Blue. It is only ever called blue and it is only this particular blue.” So anytime you convert a design file to that format, you may have a blue, or a teal, or a purple, but you get blue 001. File types such as .JEF, .HUS, .VIP, .XXX, .PCS and others behave in this manner. Other file types like .PES have versions. Early versions have a limited color set. Later versions may include custom colors.
Working Files are a different thing. When we get around to using computer programs to create or edit designs, we’ll use a file that is specific to that program. It contains a lot more information. You can use colors, threads and even add design notes. You can simply type words to be embroidered, and edit those words later. The working file, for example .BE, will be the one you want to keep, as you may always generate a stitch file from it.
Working files can be edited, stitch files run the machine.
Not to make things too confusing, but some manufacturers have placed stitches in their working file and then made the machines capable of reading that part. Brother .pes, Husqvarna .vip and .vp3 are examples.
Naturally, you can import a stitch file, and the program interprets it for you, allowing you to do higher level things, such as resizing. This is where the computer really becomes useful in embroidery. More on that topic to come.
Getting the Design to the Machine
During the 1970s and 80s there were punch cards or punched paper tape used to hold design data. You fed the tape into the machine to get it to sew. Then came floppies, which may still be in use, but belong in a museum. Embroidery machines made great progress in the 1990s as solid-state storage was introduced. First, there were design cards, which were like early digital camera or SD cards that would have designs pre-loaded on them. Then there were writable cards, which allowed designs to be used across different machines, once conversion of the formats began. Next came the USB wired machines. Later, USB flash drives became normal, and some machines began to accept those. Today it’s a blend of USB and even wireless communication to put an embroidery design on a machine.
Currently, USB is most prevalent. If you have a machine that plugs into your computer, it shows up as a drive letter (Windows) or volume (Mac). Copying the file to that drive/volume puts it on the machine. You then go to the machine to call it up and sew it.
The alternate option for USB is to put the design on a USB drive while at the computer, then take that drive and plug it into the machine. There are a couple common issues with this technology. First is that if the design is too big in dimension for the machine to sew, it might not even acknowledge the file exists on the USB drive. Another issue, mainly for older models, is that the computers in the machines cannot address the size of modern USB drives. Those machines were made in the 1,4,8 and 16 Megabyte drive era, and today everything is 1000-10000 times that size. The file might be on there, but the machine can’t read its address. In this case, find an older, smaller USB drive (and hey, they’re less expensive, so that’s a bonus!). If you’re unsure, sometimes the manufacturers or their retailers are helpful and knowledgeable enough to let you know any size limit.
Some machines (notably Janome) require the designs to be in specially named folders such as “embf”. And some machines will fail if the USB drive was written by a Mac, which adds hidden files of the same extension as the format.
Other oddities exist, such as the Viking Designer 1 which first had a floppy drive, with a whole set of files, and later the USB version with sets of sets of files. Writing to this requires a software utility. Or the Brother PE-Design basic which can only read the version 1 of their own format, .pes, while 12 exist today.
In short, there are a bunch of ways to put designs on the machine, but if it isn’t working, there are specific things to look for, depending on the model. Get some help from someone who knows the machine.
There are software products that help, such as Embrilliance, which deletes those hidden Mac files when saving to USB. It also has the utilities for Viking, Brother and other brands.
On our journey: Welcome to the town of Stabilization
We are now in the land of stabilizers! Let’s start with a couple terms: Topping and Stabilizer.
A topping goes on top of the fabric and may be a stabilizer, but usually is not: It is there to allow the stitches to go into the fabric where they’re supposed to. Fabric makers have all kinds of texture they put out and we love that. But that texture, when you think about, is really a set of hills and valleys. Now imagine you’re some poor thread wandering into the fabric to make a stitch – you hit a hill or fall into a valley and now you’re not exactly where you were supposed to be. Valleys tend to clump bunches of stitches together, and hills get sparsely populated. And the result is ugly. So, toppings are added to help put the stitches where they belong. Now, toppings, being on top and likely to be seen, often are removed after the embroidery. How? Magic. Some are water-based so they literally rinse out, others sublimate from solid to gas under heat. (Don’t you wish now that you listened to Mr. Wilkens in 8th grade science?)
Stabilizer is the stuff that goes behind the fabric. You know how fabric stretches? Stabilizer does not. If the stuff you’re using for stabilizer can stretch, even on a bias, it is merely a backing, which may stiffen the fabric, but probably does not help embroidery.
Stabilizer will stay in the embroidered product. Often, excess stabilizer is cut or torn away, so that it is less obvious on the finished piece, but rest assured, it is there, holding those stitches apart, like Atlas holding the world on his shoulders while we sleep.
The people who name stabilizers did not get creative. If you can tear it, it’s called tearaway and if you can’t, it’s called cutaway. Well, at least its easy to remember, right? Cutaway is better but leaves more visible stabilizer forever behind the embroidery. In a hat, it is unlikely anyone cares. On a tea towel, the back is often visible, so the tear-away is torn right to the edge of the design, and it’s not so ugly.
Of course, the thickness or weight of these stabilizers can vary from one application to another. For instance, you might need a light cut away in a t-shirt, but you don’t want it to be obvious to someone reading your RAMONES logo. Therefore, a light mesh-based cutaway is used. Cutaway mesh is soft against the skin and thus is okay for children’s’ goods.
Now, let me introduce you to that fact that we have rules. Like all rules, they’re there for your safety.
Rule 1: Always use stabilizer. Even that denim jacket will be too soft to prevent those stitches from moving around. There are other rules, but this is most important.
Other stabilizer oddities involve unique design types. For instance, the process of creating lace, which is self-supporting, using no fabric, but instead is sewn onto a water-soluble topping (preferably a fibrous one, not a perfectly clear one.) The topping is rinsed out completely after the embroidery is done. These freestanding lace (FSL) designs are the rare exception where no stabilizer remains with the final product. FSL designs are digitized in such ways as to tie themselves up with lots of little knots, making the lacework. Incidentally, those old doilies in grandma’s top drawer were done almost exactly the same way. In the Shiffli days, the product was ‘aetzed’ or etched, as we might say. A solvent was used to remove the stuff, leaving only the thread.
Tip: You can make almost any design into a freestanding lace design by cheating and using tulle as a fabric.
We could spend days here in Stabilizerland. But we have to move on. Before we go, though, I’ll clue you into a Secret: There are only a few makers of the stuff, so it basically is all the same, brand-to-brand, so get a deal on it!
Welcome to Designland
Okay, the whole point is to get a design onto a thing. Maybe Dad’s BBQ apron needs a grill image, or daughter Judy is getting married and lace or hearts are called for. This is it. This is why we are here. We are now in Designland!
All designs are not created equal. Some are better than others, some are terrible no matter what, and some are just right. You not only have the challenge of discovering something cute enough to sew, but also ensuring that it will sew well and not ruin the thing you’re sewing it on!
So, who makes designs? There are people who love to do it and give them away, of course, and they range from amateur to professional, and then there are people who are paid to do it. (Not that you can’t love it and be paid. That’s best.)
In most of the last few decades, when deciding how to pay a person who created a design, a simple metric was used: Stitch Count. That meant they got paid more if the design required more stitches. Now, they could fudge, and you could argue that they all had reputations to defend, but let’s face it: Most designs had too many stitches. There is also an issue of “Full Coverage”. If you’re in marketing, and know nothing of embroidery, you want your Pantone green leafy logo 100% covering over the trendy pink bags for your event. Yes, I’m talking to you, marketing school grads. Embroidery is a medium that doesn’t always produce the best product with 100% coverage because that makes a bulletproof patch on the side of the item you embroider.
What to do? How would you know? The website has a picture of the design, and it looks okay. Well, there are two kinds of images: Computer-generated ones and photographs of stitched designs. If the company is reputable, and the design is something like a font, computer-generated images are fine. Smaller design houses rightly pride themselves on stitching out every design they produce, and they display photographs of those designs. That pride is commendable and usually also means that if you have a problem, they’ll help you fix it. But be wary when you see a stitchout on felt. It’s a perfect fabric to make embroidery really stand out. Not that they’re hiding design defects, but you know no more about how it sews than the ones with computer-generated images.
Reputation counts when it comes to design makers. And most are very diligent.
There’s another problem when choosing a design: What was it intended for? A design digitized for a polo shirt probably will not sew well on a hat. The digitizing is quite different. When choosing a design, ask the company if they think it is appropriate to be sewn on the thing you want to make.
Companies that have sold tons of stock designs over many decades often will have what you’re looking for, image-wise. But beware that stock designs will be very heavy and thickly sewn (guaranteeing full coverage) and may not be appropriate for hats, unless marked as such. Further, the designs will come with suggested color sheets, as the files they give you will rarely have the actual colors used coded into them. Worse, if the file was converted by them, it was done as some big batch and no human ever bothered to examine each and every design in every file version. It’s impractical.
Good design companies often provide free samples of their work. This has two benefits: You get to see their quality, and they get to keep you coming in to shop. Freebies are a good thing. Just don’t collect them all and never do anything with them. Remember the National Geographic magazines you’ve collected from the 70s? You’ve never reopened one of them. Why have the clutter?
Because the design companies may not have good file conversions, use your own software to convert and colorize commercial stock designs. There is also one patented product which helps analyze and repair stock design files, but that’s getting into sales, and we’re still in Designland.
While we’re here in Designland, let’s briefly touch on a subject that is so hot you will never be free of it if you enjoy social media for the hobby/profession. That topic is copyright. It has a few aspects worth mentioning.
Welcome to New Copyright
Digitizing is hard, but being an artist is harder (or inventor, this writer adds). Everyone sees something great, and it seems so obvious, so perfect, they want to make one. Naturally this is affront to the originator.
Rule 2: Please don’t share designs. Let your friend buy their own copy. The digitizer really needs the sale, so please, if you like them, help them grow their business. Thank you.
Here’s a common discussion: In the United States, unlike most European countries, a typeface is not a copyright-able thing. Font makers knock each other off constantly, and as such the digitizers wind up with the same fonts too. Some actually pay a font foundry for the rights to it, and that’s a commendable thing, but their competitor will make the same font from another source art that’s indistinguishable. Look for quality when getting a font design, particularly one that’s native (remember working files) so it can be sized and make nice stitching.
There are design companies who do nothing but knock-off others. And you’ll hear about it from time to time. It’s valid, but hey, if the design is good (it may sew better than the originator’s version) you may wind up with the knock off.
In kindness to the creators please use the original, if discoverable and reasonable.
Once you are in possession of a design, you cannot resell it as an electronic file, even if you modify it, except under rare licensing provisions, such as with some software makers. Well one, anyway.
What you can do is make stuff to give away, and you’ll not offend anyone. If you make stuff and sell that stuff, you might ask the design maker if there’s a limit – often 100 or 500 units is okay by them, but if you go get 10,000 items with their design produced and they’re a hit on Amazon, let them get a piece of the action, or at least the credit: Clue them in. They might even have your next best-selling thing in the works.
Everyone asks about Disney and Harley-Davidson, two well-known defenders of their copyright and images. There are rumors of Disney police hunting down innocent craft-fair sellers and shutting them down with lawsuits for selling stuff violating their copyright. Okay, in this hitchhiker’s history, the worst from those folks is that there are tattletales who live online and love to ‘report’ infractions. That sometimes causes the company to send a letter.
There’s also a snake who sells books of stock design art and then hunts around for people who used (what’s been sold as stock art) that material and digitized it, claiming that specific right was not granted and now you owe him a bunch of money. Hogwash. But larger companies have settled. So, if you’re going to sell designs, treat existing art as a reference or inspiration and then draw your own version. Then if you ever get a letter, ignore it or tell them to go pound sand.
Now when a big shop made championship shirts for the winning team, of course the big franchise came down on them hard. If you’re here, this isn’t you.
Want to put a Winnie the Pooh design on your new grandson’s onesie? Well it may or not be a copyright thing, but in reality, no one will care, except that recipient will love what you’ve made.
Want to learn to draw by copying Bugs Bunny? Every artist in the world has copied their favorite characters for that purpose. It really comes down to whether or not you are harming a copyright holder. If you’re not taking a sale away from them, or denigrating their product, the actual harm is gone, and the courts have weighed in that generally, no harm = no foul. No, I am not a lawyer, but ask any lawyer to take a case where no money or reputation can be recovered, and they’ll probably say the same thing. Still, my free advice is only worth what you’ve paid, so if you have a question, ask someone in the profession. And if you’re questioning yourself on whether or not you can get away with something, that’s enough right there to tell you to stop.
This is also true in social media groups. If you put a Star Wars design you are making just to show technique or ask a question, there is always some self-appointed copyright tattler who will make some annoying comment. Delete it. Don’t respond, as they will drag you into a conversation that has no purpose. Most of the conversation will be positive and constructive. And don’t sell your design. Put it on Elroy’s bedspread and enjoy. Remember, no one has been harmed, and you’ve made someone very happy. Those things should be the commonsense guide to copyright.
Back to Designs
Before we leave Designland we should talk briefly about types of designs. There are stock designs, which have been around for many years and have been used by commercial embroidery companies for all sorts of things. You’ve seen it on everything from Varsity jackets to sportswear.
Custom designs are for logos or fashion – such as Tommy Bahama or Adidas.
Most of those designs have fills, satin columns and runs for outlining. But there are some other design types to mention.
The original embroidery product, lace, is embroidered on a wash-away substrate. Once the product is embroidered, it is put in water and all that’s left is the thread. This type of embroidery is called Freestanding Lace. (FSL)
Applique is the other common type of embroidery. A positioning stitch is laid down on some stabilizer or fabric, and then a cut piece of fabric is placed in that stitch. Alternately, a larger piece of fabric is laid down and sewn into place, then cut to shape. Once the fabric is down, final stitching can occur.
Patches are done this way quite often. It’s more efficient to embroider on a bit of fabric that’s the correct color, than to stitch a full background. Plus, you can apply an applique or patch to something that would be very hard to embroider upon directly, such as a jacket back.
Quilters use a lot of applique designs, where the fabric bits are the color, and the embroidery is mainly there to sew it all together.
In-The-Hoop projects (ITH) are complete things you make using embroidery. There are purses and quilt blocks and gloves and doll figures. Some of the projects even have you set zippers using the embroidery machine. ITH projects are wildly popular, as the creativity you add is limited to the personalization of color or monogram, but the project is completely made by you, if you follow the instructions.
Foam, 3D, or Puffy (Gunold has a trademark on that) is one of those styles that never goes away, but like roller skates and the hula hoop, it seems to have periods of time when it comes back in vogue. Foam lifts the thread off the background (usually a hat) creating an texture difference. It is not hard to work with, but there are a couple things to know when working with foam. First, not all designs are made for foam. Actually, only designs that are specifically made for it work properly (usually, no, sometimes). Foam will still stick out in little ‘pokies’ between the threads. You can use a heat gun or hairdryer to melt those back. Don’t get too close, and try not to melt your thread. For hobby machines, 2-3mm thick is as thick as you go. Commercial machines can go higher, but normally stay 4-5mm, although there are those willing to push the the technique to nearly double that. Craft foam sold at hobby or fabric stores is similar, but know in advance that you’ll have lots more little bits sticking out.
Can you use a design to repair something? Yes; yes you can. An FSL-type grid can be stitched over a tear or rip in fabric to hold it together. Use a thread that’s similar in strength to the fabric. Now what if you have a hole in something? Slap a patch on it or embroider right over it (use stabilizer)!
What other weird design uses are there? Tons. How about stitching a low density design on a greeting card? Or treating individual stitches as copper punch design (Use the thinnest copper sheet you can find and a #14 ball point needle.)
Next Stop, Bastingham
Now that we’ve covered hoops and designs, let’s visit a component that crosses in-between: Basting stitches. In ye olden days, people would scour the web, or custom make, a basting design: a series of stitches that went outside the design to hold the fabric and stabilizer together before the design was sewn. Once sewn, the basting stitches would be removed. (Pro tip: Don’t baste on leather, the holes are permanent!) Back in the day, these basting designs were individual and hopefully large enough to surround the design, but not run into the hoop. Then some creative soul (who also likes to write about embroidery) made a software basting function and the design could then have a basting color layer added to the start of it automatically. Optionally, the hoop itself could have a basting color layer created. Basting helps hold that stabilizer sandwich together before the machine takes a bite. It is very useful especially when there’s a topping, like water-soluble, involved, or when you’re floating the goods above the hoop.
Welcome to Threadville
The original machine embroidery thread is Rayon. It is shiny and runs smoothly. It also breaks, which is why Polyester took over. But Polyester wasn’t as shiny, so they invented ways to polish it. Now, it is usually too shiny, but it doesn’t break as easily. Cotton and silk work too. But the thread diameter of those is typically different than the common 40wt. Poly and Rayon, so you might need to adjust the density (You might look to see if there’s software for that!) or look for designs created specially for those types of thread.
- Cotton for quilting comes in different sizes. Use the lightweight stuff for embroidery, preferably something sold for that job. Heavier cotton like Jeans thread is just a bad idea.
- Leather? Well, you will need a leather (sharp) needle. Unlike fabric, leather (and vinyl) get holes punched through. The leather needle holds that hole open long enough for the needle to get back out, allowing for tension to be normal. If it didn’t, the leather would grab the thread, making it hard to regulate the tension.
- Some designs are patches that are going to to be ‘cut’ with a hot knife or soldering iron after sewing. If you’re using this technique then use a natural fiber thread: poly will melt. Although Rayon is technically manufactured, being made of wood pulp, it can stand the heat a little better. Cotton, if possible, is also a good candidate, at least if the design has a satin border and it doesn’t require the shine.
- Fuzzy thread is now available from a few companies. It is often used for fur effects. It can be left as-sewn or combed up to fluff it more, after stitching. It is heavy, some are 10-12 wt. Less density or a design made for it is required.
- Glow-in-the-dark thread is now common. It isn’t super bright, but on Halloween it gives a fun aspect to a costume, if you’re one of the last three folks making your own.
- Color-changing thread exists too. Usually white, it can turn colors in sunlight. I’ve seen bridal gowns with this embroidery and the effect can be beautiful, depending on the creativity and placement.
- Twist means it has multiple color strands. It leaves a more organic color and texture. Watch the weight – it can run heavy, and a slightly larger needle can help. You can do your own twist – using 2 threads of different colors, threaded together. You wouldn’t want to run a lot of designs this way, but a one-off will look nice. It won’t ruin anything for you to try it, just make sure both are threaded correctly (tension and takeup) so your machine doesn’t get something whacky happening. Use a bigger needle.
- Variegated changes colors along the length. Some, like hand floss (don’t run in your machine) has a smooth transition, and that thread is unfortunately rare. Usually, though, machine embroidery thread changes color quickly. Don’t use on a fill unless you want a prison bar effect.
- Metallic. This sounds bad, and it can be. Yes, metal is going to grind along through all the parts of the machine it touches. But the effect is shiny, shimmery and, well, metallic. There are foil (mylar) metallics which are flat if you look close. Those tend to have feed problems in many machines. There are others where metallic particles are glued onto a monofilament, or similar, center thread. These are more common, and they can break if you run them fast – heat will cut the monofilament. Use a needle for metallics or a titanium needle, which can dissipate the heat. Some metallics are easier to work with than others, and some simply won’t run in some machines. You’ll have to experiment.
- Monofilament thread in clear or smoky does exist and can run, usually for quilting topstitches. Slow the machine down. Use a small needle.
- Working on a fireproof suit? Whether it is Santa or NASCAR your design recipient might be glad Nomex makes fireproof thread too. (Fireproof or fire resistant? I dunno, ask the manufacturer.) Don’t poke holes in the fireproof fabric unless you have to, please.
Whatever thread you’re using, there are a few things you can look for:
- Is it old? Toss it. If it breaks easily, toss it. If it has been in the sun, unwrap it enough to see the original color.
- If it seems ‘linty’ but strong, there are silicon thread sprays which can get some life out of them. Don’t soak it and don’t get silicon in your machine. I’m not paying for you to have a repairman clean it out.
- If it stretches, that is good – it will produce more even tension, but if it stretches too easily, it will pucker your fabric. If it has no stretch, it will probably break, at high speed anyway.
- Some machine/thread combinations require vertical unspooling – a thread stand, placed behind the machine (out of way from the hoop arm) can let the thread spool up. These threads tend to have a cone narrower at the top, which is a good indication to go up. Watch for it to fall off the spool, though, as it will coil around the base of the thread spool and grab. Use a spool net if this is happening.
- Spools often have slits or thread grabbers to help you put the spool away. Naturally, if the thread is grabbed during stitching, this is a Bad Thing. You may need to sand or file those a bit.
- If the spool forms twisted loops as it comes off, those loops will get into the machine, open the tension and break the tread. Sometimes this can be cured by reversing the spool, especially a horizontally feeding one. If not, don’t use it unless you are prepared to use your fingers or some gadget to ensure no loops go into the machine. Again, vertical spooling can help.
- Some thread, cheaper stuff from companies that know no better, has knots in the middle of a spool. Larger name brands will not sell a spool with a knot. Yes, you pay for that. If it breaks, just re-thread and try again. Usually a knot is not a big deal, but on occasion it can break a thin needle.
You can re-thread every time. It is good to be in practice. But learn a basic weaver’s knot and you can pull the thread through the machine (presser foot up to release the tension discs) all the way to the needle. Sometimes, if your needle is a bit large, the knot will pass through the eye, but be prepared for it to stop there. Hope you got a machine with a good needle threader! There are also gizmos that help thread those needles, and they’re worthwhile. Wear your reading glasses if you need them.
Here we are at Needletown
There are size and point type information about needles that you should be aware of. Also, unlike your grandma’s Singer or green Kenmore, don’t plan to use the same needle for 50 years.
Size ex: 90/14, 75/11. These are important numbers to know because they indicate the thickness of the needle and the size of the eye is proportional. Use the smallest needle that lets the thread flow easily. 70 or 75 depending on manufacturer is most common for rayon or polyester and ‘normal’ fabrics. Upwards of 90/14 for thicker threads or tougher stuff. You probably should not go with anything bigger. There is a trick used by old-timers where they thread a loose needle and see if it can dance up and down on a piece of thread as they tilt it. This isn’t precise, but it won’t lead you wrong, either. Usually, you’ll just end up with a needle one size over what you could have gotten away with, and that’s just fine. When in doubt, go up in size. If you are keen to experiment, try the smaller one on a scrap and see how it performs.
The numbers used to indicate the size of the needle are in two versions, usually separated by a slash. The first number is the diameter of the needle in tenths of a millimeter. The second number is loosely related to the Imperial wire gauge system. (Imperial actually meant English, but today they sometimes employ the metric system, so now these units are considered U.S. or North American.)
The millimeter number is interesting as it dictates the density of the embroidery that can be done. If the needle is, for example, 0.4mm thick, then the holes it makes shouldn’t be closer than 0.4mm because that would just cause the needle to go into the same hole, not make a new one. For this reasons, designs are created for a specific thread and needle combination. Typically that combination is 40wt polyester thread and a 75 needle.
Point, ex: Ballpoint, universal, embroidery, sharp, leather, metallic. Most of the time you will not want to cut the fabric, leather and vinyl being the obvious exceptions. Embroidery needles are not ‘needle-sharp’. They have a slightly rounded tip. This allows for the needle to nudge the fabric out of the way as it goes through – in-between the tiny gaps in the fabric. Full ballpoint needles are good for stretchy and knitted fabrics. Modified ballpoints are also called Universal, and work for most knits and weaves. There are also stretch needles which have a ball, but the opening of the eye is adjusted to let the thread come through easier, similar to a leather needle. In all cases, try for needles that are sold as “Embroidery” because the eye geometry and materials are adjusted for that versus general sewing.
Metallic embroidery needles also help and can stand up against more grinding from the thread. They won’t hurt if you use them all the time, but they cost more.
Material: Titanium needles are tougher and displace some heat. Good for all kinds of thread, they last a long time and won’t deflect easily (breaking against the needle plate). Again, costly, but if you get a deal, go for it.
The needle plate is where the needle goes down into the machine. If it has burrs or is rough in any way, replace it, or if you can’t, remove the burrs and polish it smooth. A nail file can do the trick, but that’s only a last-ditch tool to try to finish a one-off project. Take it to a repair shop or order a needle plate. If you’re embroidering a lot, especially for money, get a spare needle plate on hand for that one day when you need it. Then, when that happens, send me a happy-face emoji.
When to change the needle? As I have said throughout this text, when in doubt, change it out. If a thread breaks twice on me, and I see no other obvious reason why, then I change the needle. 90% of the time, that cures it, especially when I’m using metallic threads.
Sticky stuff on your needle? Yes, many sticky tear-away stabilizers will leave glue on your needle. A cotton swab or wipe with some goo-begone or other solvent (try it first) can take the glue off. You’ll have to do it a lot for the project, though. Also, please, please, please test to see that your goo remover is not going to affect your fabric. If it does, swap needles, and clean the needle while it’s out of the machine. A good candidate is alcohol, if you really want to try cleaning it while still in the machine. If you get lucky, that’s going to clean it and is less likely than other VOCs to ruin your fabric. In any case, you won’t need a lot. Do NOT spray or hose down the needle while it is in the machine.
One way to prevent that gluey stuff from getting on your needle in the first place is to know your stabilizer. Some are more irregularly glued up than others. Name brands tend to have better QA on their glue-up process. Another thing to do is spray your own adhesive on the stabilizer. Be aware there are two kinds of spray adhesive: Permanent and Volatile. Price will tell you which is which. Permanent will stay sticky on your floor until is it glued to dirt. Volatile will dissipate and leave nothing behind. That’s why it is $12 a can, compared to the $3 stuff from the home improvement store.
A brief stop at Scissor Pass
Embroidery scissors come in a couple basic varieties. Straight ones, like the ones that came with your machine, and curved ones. They serve more than one purpose. First, cutting a design away from stabilizer, topping, etc. This should be a tough, usually small, straight edge. Note that scissors have two different sides: an anvil (flat) and a cutting edge. If you can, cut with the cutting edge moving toward the anvil.
Curved snips are good for trimming threads such as jumps and for cutting out applique. These are hard to sharpen, so don’t cut stabilizer with them if you can help it.
If you need to remove stitches, the curved ones are pointy enough to get under the bobbin thread. Careful…. …oops, you cut the fabric. It happens. Try to only cut the bobbin thread and then top thread will pull up. There are beard trimmers that work reasonably well for removing large numbers of stitches. If the fabric isn’t cut, you can probably re-stabilize (overdo it this time) and start again.
Scissors are easily cleaned, the same as needles. Use some goo remover or that WD stuff (which by the way is not fish oil, in spite of what some email suggests — don’t ingest it!)
Lots of Hoopla
Hoops used to be made solely by the machine makers and they were limited in size and shape. Today many aftermarket makers of hoops exist. Beware of some, though, as they either don’t really fit, won’t line up (multi-position) or have un-centered centers. Hoops have a bottom and a top. Place the bottom down, followed by whatever you’re hooping, then push the top onto that. It should go in slightly snug. If not, you’ll have a lot of tightening to do and the material will slip out of place. Do not over tighten before pushing the hoop together. You can break something (including you) and probably will mess up your design by stretching the fabric oddly. There are many hooping stations, which aid in the process by holding the hoop while you lay the item in and close the hoop. Get one. Don’t be cheap. Yes, Dad can make one, as long as it does the job.
Remember, some hoops are off-center, particularly known for this are magnetic hoops. Just be wary.
Most hobby machine hoops connect at just one point. Think about how hard it is to move the fabric around to the accuracy of 0.1mm with all that weight and drag, and only one connection point. That’s a tough job and it’s the reason for lots of registration issues – things sewn later in the design do not meet up with things sewn earlier. Other machines connect at two points: One on either side. This is better. For commercial machines, there are also sash frames which are adjustable large frames allowing the sewing of big flat items such as bedding and draperies.
Hoops come in shapes too! Round and Oval are common shapes. The bugger is that the machine doesn’t usually know the shape of the hoop and can easily crash into the hoop while sewing. It is always your job to ensure the design will fit in the hoop, regardless of shape.
Hoop clamps are available for many hoops, and the heavy duty spring clamps from your office supply stores can even help. Look into a set of clamps. They help by holding the fabric out of the way and also preventing things from shifting around during sewing.
Some embroiderers try to avoid problems by hooping the stabilizer, and then floating the fabric over top of the hoop. You will find people fall into the hoop-all or float-all camps. The truth is that you will learn advantages for both. Hooping is a skill, and if you can’t get good at it, float the fabric. I’ll say this: Unless you have a hoop that is designed to accommodate heavy things like quilts and bath towels, those are reasonable candidates for floating. The corner of a hankie or collar might best be stuck to a piece of the sticky tearaway that’s been hooped, with some the sticky side up revealed. Tea towel, pillowcase, sweatshirt: Whatever. I suggest you learn to hoop those things if you have hand strength for the job.
The marketplace today is full of hoop options – snaps, magnets, springs, clamps. Don’t buy a set until you use one of that type for a few projects. Be aware that some of them affect the center of the design placement. On a commercial machine that often makes no difference, but on hobby machines, they always center in their sewing field – you have to jog the design into position when the hoop is off-center.
Don’t pinch your finger with the magnet. Too late? Yeah, it happens.
Unless you are hooping something that will be stretched when worn, like leggings (Yes, you can embroider those hose!) or active-wear, don’t stretch it in the hoop. The stretch gets stitched-in permanently. Flat, smooth and relaxed are the normal goals.
Tip: If you’re stitching a bunch of things that just get stuck down, it is okay to add some new sticky stabilizer to the bottom to cover up the hole left by a previous design. This is a real time-saver when you’re monogramming all those handkerchief corners!
Perhaps you could only afford the machine that sews a small field but want to do a large design. It’s understandable, but there are perils here. If you are able to make a larger design a scene out of multiple small designs, do that. Your other option is to split a design, and sometimes that works great, other times it’s a mess. Remember that designs stitch continuously, and you cannot just cut them in half to make 2 pieces. It’s complex. Yes, there’s software to do it, even automated, but have a close look at the resultant pieces before sewing.
If you have to reposition the fabric in the hoop, use printed templates to help get the fabric hooped correctly. If your machine can adjust the placement or rotation of the design before you sew, that makes it much easier.
You can embroider hats. There are a few ways to do it. The first thing to know about hats produced in volume is that they are embroidered as flat pieces of fabric, then assembled into the hats afterward. That’s the way to get the most design with the least trouble. But as you probably don’t have the luxury of a hat that isn’t made yet, you can stick the hat flat to a piece of sticky stabilizer. The softer the hat, the better for this. There are also hoops that hold hats and rotate around instead of moving left/right. These are primarily for commercial machines, and even there the quality differences from one brand to another can be enormous.
If possible, the best thing to do for a hat is to make a patch and then sew it on.
Final destination: Now Stitching
We made it to one of the more fun parts of embroidery!
Rule 3: Watch it sew! Don’t push Start and walk away.
Walking away is inviting Mr. Murphy to the table and surely something will happen. Plus, by watching the design sew, you will be gaining an understanding of how designs are constructed. That education is priceless and can only be gained by running lots of embroidery. And hey, it’s fun to watch the design take shape.
Tension – it exists in your shoulders, neck and stitches. But tension is not in the design file. (Yes, Mr. Professional, I know there’s one, but we’re not in Machineland, so cool your jets.) To repeat: Tension is not part of the design. Your design and software have no control over it.
If the tension is off, it isn’t the fault of the design. It is a problem with threading, either top or bottom. The most common problem is looping underneath (especially after a color change.) Those are a result of not having the top thread in the tension. Raise the presser foot to open the tension and re-thread it.
If the bobbin thread is coming up, you may not have the bobbin thread in its tension correctly, or the bobbin in backwards (Yikes, yes, there really is a right side.) or lint in the little flat spring on the bobbin case, or even a bobbin case spring that’s gone loose. Sometimes the bobbin coming up is a too-tight top tension, but that’s more rarely the case.
Use pre-wound bobbins that are correct for the machine. Yes, you can wind your own, and match colors, hooray! But most of the time, you’ll grab a black or white plastic or paper sided pre-wound bobbin. There are differences in those which can affect tension and even hinder or abet sewing ability. One obvious example is the magnetic bobbin. Don’t use it in drop-in (top-loading) bobbin cases, as most of those are magnetic themselves. The machine manufacturer will tell you what you can use.
Try some different ones before you buy a gross of them. I have a machine that likes the plastic sided ones from Nebs, but another machine that is happiest with the paper ones from anywhere. The point is, no, they are not all the same.
Rule 4: Change the needle.
Did your thread break? It is probably that the thread bound up as it was unspooling. A thread loop caught the bottom of the spool and that slight hang-up caused the break. But if that isn’t the case, you might be tempted to change the needle. Good idea.
If you read it earlier, sorry, but it is worth repeating: My system is that if I get two breaks in short order, I change the needle. One thread break can be any random thing. Some people change according to time sewing, or stitch count, and others change every day, or at the start of a project. Do whatever works for you. But the needles wear, and you can’t see it with your eyes, even with those 2x reading glasses from the Dollar Store.
With a fresh needle, good tensions and a clean bobbin case area (called the race) you can be assured that any thread breaks now are something you’re not doing right up top. Check it out thoroughly.
Rule 5: Fingers out!
There are times when you know you can ‘help’ by holding something down, or in place, while the machine is sewing. Slow it down, naturally, but get your dang fingers away from there. You will get bit. Use a pencil or chopstick or something else that has no nerve endings to do what you want.
When things like colors of a design don’t line up right, that’s a registration issue. Now, unbelievable as it sounds, a big cause of that is the arm of the machine hitting something while sewing or changing thread. Yeah, I know, this sounds silly. But get the one out of the way first.
The physical weight of whatever you’re sewing can cause drag on the machine which can result in a loss of registration. If it’s a quilt or jacket, support that weight during embroidery.
Incorrect stabilization is the most common culprit for registration loss, especially outlines. The fabric has been pushed around during the embroidery enough that it no longer is in position when that final color comes to run around. Sometimes you need to stick the stabilizer on. Some are already sticky, and other times you need a spray. Then add a topping if you can. That makes a sandwich of smooth stable surfaces which should help with registration loss.
The design itself may be the issue. Now here’s a thing: If it looks perfect on screen, it probably hasn’t compensated for the distortion that occurs during sewing. A good design will have areas of stitches that overlap, sometimes significantly, to help the final product look right, in spite of the fabric movement during sewing.
You will hear the term ‘compensation’. This means the stitches are adjusted a bit to handle the effects of tension and loading a bunch of thread into the weave of the fabric.
Puckering – especially after the fabric is removed from the hoop – is caused by having stretched the fabric in the hoop. If you stretch it, and then sew it into place, you have a permanently stretched blob in the middle of your fabric. That’s going to pucker. Honestly, most designs ever embroidered have some minimal pucker, and that’s because of the amount of thread being packed into the fabric. But when you hoop, remember that it is supposed to be the stabilizer which is ‘drum tight’ not necessarily the fabric.
In our travels we’ve seen the basics of machine embroidery – from design to stitched piece, and you’ve been given some feel for the whole process. But nothing you read can ever compare with actually doing it. Use the machine you have. Run it until it is worn out. You’ll enjoy the freedom of making personalized stuff anytime you like.
Where to go from here
Now, let’s get one fact out in the open: Step by step isn’t a thing.
There are so many of you who ask, where do I begin? Well, that’s really not even a question. Suppose you overheard the following:
“Teach me how to drive.”
“Now show me where to go.”
See, it’s like that. Either you have some inspiration to do a project, or you don’t. You’ll either be inspired to make something, or you won’t. This isn’t education for education’s sake. This is all because you wanted to do something, and in order to accomplish that goal, you’re willing to put up with the whole learning curve, the cost of a machine, designs, etc.
Will you find things to inspire you, as you learn? Of course, you will. We wouldn’t be here otherwise. Just don’t ask something silly, like what flavor of ice cream should you choose as a favorite. There isn’t a step-by-step. It’s a big messy thing, like life itself: You have to follow whichever road inspires you.
What we can tell you is that once you’re comfortable running the machine, you’ll want to customize the designs. Size, color, lettering, etc. Those things are best accomplished with embroidery software (albeit that some machines can do amazing things on their own) where the software has a user interface designed to help you make changes easily.
Finally, you can be at a point where you yourself will create designs or elements. It isn’t that hard to do basic things, and there are tons of resources to help you get all the way to advanced digitizing.
Because the topics of software and digitizing are specialized, we’re going to leave those for their own lessons. Poke around and you’ll find them.
There are many companies that spend all day thinking up things for you to make. And there are many instructors who have projects you can purchase and download, letting you get accomplished at many techniques. Find some instructors that you like. There’s a World Wide Web of them, each one putting themselves out there in effort to help YOU.
I hope you have enjoyed this journey and that you have discovered some parts of the embroidery world you did not know previously. Thanks for coming along!
For more resources, visit Embrilliance.com, the Embrilliance Facebook page, the Embrilliance channel on YouTube (which has playlists by topic of interest), the Facebook groups Brilliant Embrilliance Embroidery and StitchArtist Digitizing Fans and then follow some of our team such as Lisa of Sew-Bubbles or Erich Campbell.
And remember, “First, Don’t Panic. And don’t go anywhere without your stabilizer.”