Machine Embroidery

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    What fascinates me about freehand machine embroidery (or Freemotion

embroidery) is the actual making of the stitches: guiding the work under the

needle, making the patterns and manipulating tensions for different effects.

It's endlessly fascinating and very satisfying; I can work at the machine for

hours at an end and never become bored. The sampler to the left shows a

number of "user-friendly" techniques, in which the patterns are stitched

     in either one pass of the needle or one pass per colour,

     beginning on one edge of the work and finishing at the opposite

     edge, so avoiding stops and starts and tying off threads.

    Alternatively, it means doing as much as possible with one pass of

the needle within the work space (as with a spot motif, for example) and finishing

where you began, so that you need tie only one knot with the two pairs of threads.

     I particularly love those effects obtained by layering fabrics and stitches, by

optical colour-mixing, and by manipulating fabrics. Texture is very important.

    While I sometimes add some hand embroidery "for punctuation" (Once an

English teacher ...), my machine embroidery is almost entirely (99.9%) freehand.

The last time I raised the feed dogs to embroider (as opposed to sewing

garments), was to stitch the three rows of Satin Stitch on the mask below left

 - in 2002. I wanted the formality and rigid mechanical perfection of the stitch

      as a contrast with the hand-guided filling lines of Sulky

      Sliver inside the outlines made by the satin stitch.

      Generally, I dislike satin stitch, especially as an edging

      or as an edge finish for appliqué. I call satin stitch a

knee-jerk stitch. Because "it's always been used", it doesn't occur to many that

there might be other, fresher options. See my article in Down Under Quilts,

Issue #57, on alternative finishes for bonded (fused) appliqué.

Some Favourite Techniques

Optical Colour-mixing

     This is a very important feature of my machine embroidery. It is the use of

contrast bobbin threads brought to the surface of the work by adjusting either

the top tension (tighter) or both top (tighter) and the Pointillists, though without

the application of their colour theory. It can be used in a similar way to lend

greater vibrancy to a piece by making colours vibrate against each other on the

retina, or it can simply be used for shading. I use it a great deal in combination

with my own filling, mossing

           In this close-up (left) of a teaching sampler, you can see an

      example of Cable Stitch, the classic heavy-thread stitch. The pink

      thread (here, pearl cotton No. 8) goes in the bobbin and the

      stitching is done from the back of the work. I have chosen to

use a contrast colour (deeper pink) on top. You can see it at each stitch, as

it has been pulled to the top of the work (underneath during stitching) by the

heavy thread. A differently-coloured top thread would give a different effect.

    If you enlarge the close-up of Split Personality (below), you can see that the

bobbin thread is being pulled to the top of the work (stitched from the right side)


     to modify the colour of the top thread. This is for two

     purposes: (a) to achieve a colour somewhere between

    the top and bobbin threads, as in the iris, and (b) to shade,

    by varying the tensions, especially the top, so that the

varying amounts of the two colours give the impression of shading. The effect

can be subtly extended by ringing the changes in the two colours used.


The (Bernina) Reverse Feather Stitch

    Not only can the recognised defects in practical sewing be turned into creative

opportunities, but stitches can be used in a way never intended - which includes

using the back of stitches on the front of the work.

    Though feather stitch is normally done from the front of the work (high top

tension and normal to loose bobbin tension), it can easily be done the other way

round (and a loosened top tension is quicker to return to normal when finished).

    I call this the Bernina Reverse Feather Stitch, but it can be worked on any

vertical-bobbin-case machine which has an oscillating bobbin case and a hole in

the end of the projecting "finger".

    Some older Husqvarnas are like this, as are some older vertical-bobbin-case

Janomes (which, incidentally, will accept the Bernina bobbin case, the similar

Janome bobbin case "finger" not being equipped with a hole).

    In machines so equipped, when the thread is put through the hole after being

taken through the bobbin tension, the bobbin thread is tightened (as if you had

turned the screw ten to fifteen minutes to the right), and now pulls the top thread to

the back (underside) of the work.


    Insert the bobbin into the case with the thread running clockwise. Take the thread through the slot (lower right, to the left of

the tension screw) and under the tension bar till it comes out in the larger hole. Insert the thread into the hole in the "finger" to

tighten the bobbin tension without having to adjust the screw.   

    On Berninas, this technique is used for zigzag, satin stitch, buttonholes, twin and triple

needling, and for any programmed decorative motifs incorporating zigzag or satin-stitch

elements. Stitches become sharper and crisper, with no fear of the bobbin thread

showing (as, for example, can happen on the outer side of a curved line of satin stitch).

    I like to tighten the bobbin thread in this way, then loosen the top tension by a

notch (number) or two, and, working from the back, work a feather stitch in which the

top thread becomes the colour of the "feathers".

    Remember: feather stitch cannot be done unless

            the machine is run fast and

            the work moved quite fast in loops, curves, or with sudden changes of


It cannot be done in straight lines or on gentle curves, and the looser the tension on

the feathering thread, the more consistently tight the curves must be if the stitch

is not to look messy. (Yes, though there are no rules in FME, certain classic stitches

have their classic form!) The tight thread should pull the loose one in around curves

(away from the site of the stitch) and keep it flat to the fabric.

    It used not to be possible to use this technique on Bernina 1630's and Artista

180's, as they have a rotary shuttle rather than an oscillating one (in order to

accommodate the 9mm-wide  programmed stitches). Any extension beyond the

bobbin case is therefore out of the question.

    However, with the advent of the gold-latch bobbin case, this technique is possible.

This bobbin case has a metal "pigtail" through which the thread is passed in order to

tighten it. Insert the bobbin (thread in clockwise direction), then take the thread

through the pigtail. Be careful not to catch the thread behind the bobbin case

when you insert it.


N.B. (May, 2009) On some new models of oscillating-shuttle Berninas, the bobbin-case

tension spring is in yellow metal. As a result, some people are confusing it with a

gold-latch bobbin case.

But that has a yellow-metal latch (the hinged "handle" by which you insert and remove

it), just as the black-latch bobbin case for oscillating machines has a Teflon-coated latch

to distinguish it from another bobbin case. Nor will a gold-latch bobbin case (or its bobbin)

fit into an oscillating-shuttle machine.


    On other brands of machine, it is necessary to tighten bobbin tension by turning the tension

screw to the right and restore it to normal after stitching the feather stitch by turning it to

the left. Be sure you have made a note of how much you have altered it!


My Machines

    April, 2013

I have five machines, all Berninas: an 830 (my first Bernina,

bought in Oxford in 1976), a 1230 (the old workhorse), a 1530, an Artista 165

(an upgrade from the 170), and a loan 630 (with BSR).

    I wouldn't use any other brand of machine. The Bernina is tough and

reliable. It not only does high-quality conventional sewing and programmed

 embroidery, but, of greater importance to me, it is versatile and has been

 designed and programmed in the most user-friendly of ways, which makes it

 ideal for my style of FME.

    Moreover, I have developed all my techniques on a Bernina, and know that I

can do what I do with the greatest ease and convenience only on a Bernina.

    How and why? If you're interested, e-mail me and I'll give you the details.

    And no, I'm not on the payroll. Nor do I receive commission on sales. My opinion

will be honest, warts and all.


THE BSR (Bernina Stitch Regulator)

    The BSR is an interesting and useful foot which enables the operator do produce

 freehand quilting with even stitches. It can be used only on the Auroras and the new

Artistas (such as the 630). Older machines (pre-Artista) will not take the foot, as they

are not equipped with the necessary hard and software.

    I find that the BSR is good for freehand quilting, (rather than FME) but you must

move the work quite slowly. If you move fast, the machine cannot keep up with you,

and stitches will not be even. Slow and smooth is the watchword.


    For Examples of my Machine Embroideries:

                                     go to Faces

                                           or to Bark, Lichen and Fungi

                                           or to Layering

                                       or return to Artworks