Experiment with Free Motion Machine Embroidery

"Bars and Stars 1" - Free Machine EmbroideryI usually like to do my art quilts by hand, as that makes them portable, and allows me to take them with me when I travel. However, I am recently working on smaller, more affordable pieces for people who like the look of my style but don’t want to invvest yet in one of my more intricate pieces.. To accomplish this goal, I brought out my sewing machine. I have a Bernina 1630 that I bought over fifteen years ago and just love. It has a number of pre-programmed stitches built into its inner computer system, but for the most part, I’ve used it to sew seams. I decided to see what could be done with some free motion work (as opposed to stylized motifs programmed into embroidery sewing machines.)In that style of sewing, you drop the feed dogs that move the pieces of fabric thorugh the machine at the same rate. You can then use the needle as you would a pencil or pen, except that the fabric gets moved around, instead of your hand, to make the marks. I used as a reference a marvelous book, Freestyle Machine Embroidery, by Carol Shinn. Her clear descriptions and marvelous photographs of her intricately stitched work are truly inspiring and of course, I wanted mine to look as richly textured as hers.

Detail of free machine embroidery - "Stars and Bars 1"In this detail piece of my first effort, “Stars and Bars 1”, the ribbon “bars” are tacked down with horizontal stripes of various colored lines, and the centers of the black circles have black stitched lines going around inside of them. I spent about 4-5 hours, attaching the fabric pieces, and embellishing them with “drawn” lines of thread. However, when it came to finishing the look of the piece, I fell back to what I know best, namely sewing on buttons and beads by hand. Those additions added another 8 hours of work to the completition. I love the look of the finished piece, but unfortunately, a lot of the machine embroidery in this first effort came to be covered up.

Free motion machine embroidery with hand beading - "Stars and Bars 2"In this second piece, “Stars and Bars 2”, I used the same “bar” ribbon but a different black and white ribbon. In this full view, you can a little more of the free motion, horizontal stitches in the white areas near the top of the photo. To accomplish this free motion ability, you need to drop the feed dogs, and use a darning foot so you can move the fabric easily to where you want. With some practice, I got the tensions between the upper and lower threads in the bottom even, so that there were no  big wads of thread either on the front or back. I was a little less obsessive with the buttons and beads, so there is more of the machine stitching visible. I remembered to use a 40 weight machine embroidery thread on this piece. While thicker in nature, so the stitching makes a bigger statement, that type of thread is not strong enough to take the push and pull of seams in clothing.

Detail of free motion machine embroidery with hand beading - "Stars and Bars 2"In the detail photo on the left, you can see more of the thread “sketching” that I did with the needle. I also used more buttons (which take up more surface area) and fewer of the size 8 seed beads to cut down the production time (about four hours faster than the first piece). I still need to work on production techniques and probably make a limited series more like a production line in order to save time and make these pieces more economical. I do really appreciate artists like Ms. Shinn who have really perfected free motion machine embroidery to the heights that they have. Still, for a first effort in a long time, I’m pleased with my two pieces.

Have you done any machine embroidery? Do you have any suggestions for this beginner and others?

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You can see more of my art work on my web site at www.fiberfantasies.com

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