Saturday 16 May 2015

Sewing Tip 3: Freehand Machine Embroidery

Fun Embellishment Technique

Freehand Embroidery is great for making labels, like this one for a shirt made out of guess what
Master Recycler Class labels - embroidery done with template
Here's a fun way to spend some time: find the hand-foot-eye coordination sweet-spot, let your mind go, and embroider like a zen monk in a fast car. I use this relaxing machine embroidery technique to make my labels, or apply "serger dregs" embellishment to garments. It was also used to embroider words of love onto the Humatrope collar, make the boxer dog pocket of the Perfect Twirling Nightie and for a set of name tags for the Master Recycling class*, **.
*Master Recyclers is a program, in its first year here in Vancouver, that turns students into teachers, or at least advocates, for the promoting and outreach of waste reduction, recycling and composting, and is organized by the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation and its waste committee.
Labels of 100% hand-me-down materials: custom-made fabric by manufacturer of disposable diapers for BCIT's medical invention lab for prototype infant anti-strangulation vest for hospital use. The rest from estate donations to Our Social Fabric: unwanted Solvy, half-full, lonely bobbins and nearly-empty or ancient spools of dried-out, cotton thread.

Machine Set-Up: darning foot attached, feed dogs down, presser foot half-lowered


    Get your machine ready: remove the regular presser foot and attach the special darning foot, standard issue for even the simplest of sewing machines.

    A sturdier needle generally works best. (A lighter one is prone to breaking, and the thread may shred in the smaller eye.) I like to use a 90 or 100, with cotton thread. Avoid polyester: it heats up and stretches as it moves quickly through the tension disks, causing the work to pucker slightly when it cools. Poor quality thread, likewise, is unsuitable, as it will shred at high speed.

    Lower the feed dogs so the machine can't grab the fabric. You get to drive the car anywhere you feel like - forward, backward, sideways - at any speed you like. You can even do donuts in the parking lot! Get ready for some fun!
    Solvy can be basted (ideal for larger areas) or taped into place


    Place the fabric under the darning foot, and lower the presser foot only half way down. You may have to do a little detective work to find out how to get your machine into "light grip" mode.

    Hold the fabric taut with two hands, and move it in an even motion, while using a consistent pressure on the foot pedal. Both a faster machine and slower hands produce tighter stitches. You're the only car on the road, so take that baby out and see what it can do! It will take intense focus at first to get used to the feeling - foot! eyes! hands! - but you will be cruising along in zen driving mode before long. Remember to breathe, and keep your shoulders away from your ears.

    Just like driving a car, the stitches will go where you are looking. You don't look at the tires of your car, so don't look at the needle! Keep your eyes in front of the needle, where you are trying to go.
    Write with Sharpie on Solvy to make a template
    Freehand machine embroidery is excellent for using up odds and ends of less-useful thread

    Template or Freehand:

    Depending on the look you are trying to achieve, you can either stitch over top of a template, for accurate size and placement of lettering, or stitch freehand and go with the flow.

    To make a template, plan the design on a piece of paper and trace onto a sheet of water-soluable Solvy stabilizer with a Sharpie. Baste or tape the Solvy onto the fabric, and stitch on top of the lettering. The ink will disappear when the Solvy is removed.
    Embroidery done without a template - Humatrope collar detail
    For freehand embroidery without a template, the Solvy is optional but recommended. The presser foot glides more easily across Solvy than fabric, for more consistent stitches and tension. I usually regret skipping the Solvy step unless the fabric is very sturdy.


    • For cursive writing that really looks like your own handwriting, slant the machine in front of you like you would when writing a love letter on a piece of paper.
    • For larger areas, the fabric may need to be rolled up "scroll-like" for better control.
    Freehand embroidery over serger dregs - c. 1960 knit tricot

    Fun variation:

    Sandwich a textile strip between the main fabric and the embroidery threads. I use thin strips of fabric scrap cut off by the serger, but you could also embroider onto bias strips, rick rack, narrow ribbon, etc. This is easy-peasy lemon squeezy with the use of a glue stick:
        Serger dregs held on by light application of glue stick
      Write your message on your fabric using a glue stick with a fairly light hand. Arrange serger dregs on top.
      Solvy, diagonal basting - ready to embroider
      Cover the area to be embroidered with a sheet of lightweight water-soluble Solvy. For best results, diagonal-baste the Solvy onto the fabric. It won't move around or bunch up if it's basted, and the machining is generally a breeze.  I actually think I save time by hand-basting, instead of pinning.

      If I can't convince you to baste, at the very least, pin the corners and every 2 inches, or so, or use scotch tape. Avoid sewing over the pins, which will likely damage the needle and possibly wreck the darning foot. 

      (Sewing Rant: Always immediately chuck any needle that ever hits a pin, even if the needle seems unharmed. Not doing so will come back to bite you in the butt in wasted time and poor stitch formation.)
      Long stitches: puttering along. Short stitches: hang on to your hat!
      Proceed as above for freehand machine embroidery, but follow the curve of the textile to affix it to the fabric. Go over the line 3 or 4 times to make sure it is firmly attached. Play around with speed, stitch density, thread colour.
        Remove excess Solvy like ripping off a Bandaid: bravely!
      Remove excess Solvy. Throw the work into the washer on a gentle cycle, or soak and rub by hand. The Solvy and the glue will disappear like magic.
      Cheetah print fleece, boxer dog pocket - two thread colours, with template
      Freehand machine embroidery: not just for fast-driving monks any more! Versatile, easy, fun, satisfying, and well worth the effort to change the presser foot; I hope you might give it a try. Enjoy!


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