Free Motion Machine Embroidery – A First Try

For the past week or so, I’ve been exploring the wonderful world of free motion machine embroidery. While my first tentative steps into this new realm have been a bit faltering, I’ve been delighted to discover a whole new world of freedom and artistic possibility. Not that I’m any sort of artist, you understand. But I’m really enjoying the freedom of simply playing with a sewing machine without the constraints of patterns, seam allowances and the rigid demands of garment construction.

IMGP5132Don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not saying that free motion machine embroidery is without its own set of demands and frustrations. It certainly has plenty. But there is a great freedom in the process and a wonderful scope for creative expression. You can take an image ….. any kind of image, I suppose, and create a beautiful piece of artwork, imbued with colours and textures of your own choosing. It’s fun, it’s absorbing and the results (even if you are a total novice like me) can be very pleasing.

Free motion machine embroidery has to be the perfect compromise between hand stitching and using one of those fully automated, computer programmed embroidery machines. The former takes forever and the latter takes much of the creative participation out of the whole process. I have seen some astonishingly beautiful embroidery work that was produced by one of those fully programmable sewing machines. But to my mind, using such a machine to create embroidery is about on a par with me using my computer printer to create art.

There’s already a ton of information available on the internet, regarding the actual processes involved in free motion machine embroidery. All of it has been provided by people who are way more clever than me so I won’t presume to repeat any of it here. If you are interested, just Google ‘Free Motion Machine Embroidery”.

I thought it might be worthwhile though, to give a little insight into my own initial discoveries but, more importantly, to encourage you to have a go at this wonderfully absorbing and creative activity. At very least, you might discover a fun little side activity to your normal sewing endeavors. At best though, you just might discover a whole new facet to your sewing, that can be incorporated into all manner of sewed items. You can dress up a plain garment or snazzy up a tote bag, create a wall hanging or monogram your bath towels. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.

DSCF2186I must stress again, that I am only a novice at this. The sum total of my experience is limited to only two items and neither of them are ‘finished’. And although I do plan to actually complete one of them, the sole purpose was just to give free motion machine embroidery a try. I think I might become hooked and I just can’t say enough to encourage you to have a go.

I have a collection of older sewing machines and, so far, my attempts at this have been limited to two swing needle Singers (a 306K and a 320K2), a Janome 574 zig zag and a Bernina Record 730.

Of these, only the latter machine turned out to be suitable for the little bit of work that I have done and none of them performed at all well when I tried to embroider with no foot on the machine. In every case, I found it necessary to use a darning foot. This might be in part due to the kind of thread that I was using. I just used polyester sewing thread because that is what I had on hand. All of the machines gave me trouble in that I found it difficult or impossible to raise the bobbin thread, either up through the needle plate or, more often, up through the work itself.  Without the darning foot, all of the machines skipped stitches.

When using a darning foot, each of the machines actually worked. The use of a darning foot though, interferes with the view of the work and makes it almost impossible to achieve the level of accuracy that is needed when, for example, stitching against an outline or up to the edge of an adjoining colour.

Only one of my darning feet would actually work with my swing needle Singers and that is the proprietary Singer darning foot that was specifically designed for them. The reason is that a special darning plate is provided which covers the feed dogs but it also raises the level of the work about ¼ inch (6mm). This has the effect of preventing any of my other darning feet from working with these machines. The Singer darning foot does a great job ….. so long as you don’t need to see where you are stitching. The opening for the needle is just a slot through which you are trying to observe your stitching line …… impossible.

I didn’t persevere enough with the little Janome to give it anything like a fair trial. But it was the worst of all the machines I tried, I couldn’t coax it to make consistent stitches on any terms.

I ended up using the Bernina Record 730 with its proprietary foot. While the one that I used doesn’t seem to have a number printed on it (perhaps it is after-market?) it is a foot that has a round hole of ¼ inch diameter where the needle penetrates the work ….. almost large enough to at least give me a sporting chance to see where I’m sewing.

DSCF2189I spent some considerable time experimenting with threads and colours. What I discovered is that you can create some interesting colours and (more importantly) textures by using multiple colours in a given area and (even better) by using more than one thread in a single needle! (There was much fussing about with upper and lower tensions to make this work.)

It is already clear to me that I could achieve a much better result if I had a better view of the work (i.e. if I could embroider without any presser foot at all). I know there are some machines that are capable of doing this. In particular, I would like to work out how to do this with my swing needle Singers. The reason is, I reckon I could create an ‘accessory’ that would enable me to alter the width of a satin stitch, as I was sewing ….. but only with a machine that uses exposed fashion cams (i.e Singer 306, 319 or 320). Being able to do this would enable the sewing of entirely different embroidery styles. For now, I am limited to straight stitch or to using satin stitch zig zag, but only at a fixed width.

DSCF2190As things stand, I have ordered a whole lot of rayon embroidery threads in various colours and my experimenting is at a halt, while I wait for those. I also need to get back to some more conventional work. Can’t wait to return to this though and I am so hanging out to see what the little bear picture will look like with the sky and grass coloured in.

If you find yourself feeling the least bit bored or frustrated with your normal sewing and you haven’t had a go at free motion machine embroidery, I really do urge you to give it a bash. It’s the most enjoyment I’ve had out of my sewing experience so far!

2015-07-09 P.S.

Finally got my free motion machine embroidery project finished yesterday and I’m really pleased with how it turned out. I didn’t realise how much time it takes to complete a project of this kind. Admittedly, in my case, a lot of that time went in experimenting with different sewing machines; trying to get them to sew correctly. Neither did I ever dream how stressful it becomes. When you have invested a considerable amount of time in a project, the magnitude of the disaster if you mess up just seems to increase, exponentially! It isn’t like you can just unpick the stitching in this kind of work.

IMGP5156 [1024x768]

Anyhow, I did finish it and I think it looks OK. It only remains for me to work out how to frame it and I’m hoping the result will be good enough to hang in my little grandson’s nursery. I did learn a lot making this project. There’s a great deal to learn about how to set up your machine to get it to sew well. And every machine seems to be different. I think the most demanding aspect of my particular project was in getting my machines to sew with multiple threads in a single needle.

This set-up seemed to magnify the problems associated with getting upper and lower tensions in synch …. A predictable problem, I suppose. There were countless experiments with sample pieces of cloth and lots of false starts. But I discovered such wonderful rewards from persevering with it. The subtleties in colour that you can achieve with more than one thread are great and I couldn’t get anything like as pleasing a result by sewing one colour at a time. Also, I’m amazed at the variations in texture that are possible by simply varying the stitch length and density.

I can see how people might become addicted to this particular aspect of sewing and sewing machines. I’m not sure though, that it would be good for me. I don’t reckon the nerves would cope with the stress, when you’ve spent ages on a project, are nearly finished … and one wrong move can mess up the whole thing!

2015-08-07  P.S.

I ended up buying a cheap battery clock and used the cut down clock case for my frame. I mounted the embroidery on a piece of board and used a file folder for material for the the border. I think the result should look OK for a nursery.

Final Bear

Cheers All,

Andrew.  2015-06-09


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