Getting Started in Machine Embroidery
Even if you're used to sewing, getting started with machine embroidery can be a bit daunting. It can be an expensive hobby and there are plenty of people waiting to take your money so you need to be sure you don't waste it.
Warning: I don't follow the herd. You will read things on this page, indeed on the whole website, that contradict what the Hobby Police will tell you.
What do you want to make?
Note this page does not begin with "Buying your machine"!
I avoided machine embroidery for many years because I didn't want to put fleur-de-lys on tea towels and I thought that's all you could do with them. Then there was a big "aha" moment when I realised I could do fancy quilting on them.
Here's what I make:
Quilts - the small kind that hang on the wall
Table runners - basically small horizontal quilts that tend to go on the sideboard and cupboards. Good luck getting any table in our house clear enough of junk to put a table runner on it, although there are Christmas miracles...
Small wallhangings and flag type things
Bags, toys, ornaments, cushions
Embroidered pictures for framing
Here's what I don't make:
Large bed size quilts (I make those on a sewing machine and send them to a longarmer to be quilted)
Embroidered clothes, towels, hats - other than the occasional Christmas tea towel or embroidered apron for the amusement of the giftee.
Placemats, rug mugs etc. It would be a very brave person who spilt food and drink on my embroidery.
I don't design my own stuff. I don't make ANYTHING with a view to selling it. I don't embroider anything for a favour. "Could you put a logo on 20 t-shirts for me?" Er, no. Nope, Nuh-uh. Not happening. This is a retirement hobby for me.
Apologies to those who want advice on making those things in the "I don't make..." list but it's better for me to be upfront rather than pretend I know what I'm doing and giving you the wrong advice.
Think about what you want to make!
Obviously you can change your mind later but you need to make sure you have the right machine and the right stabilisers and that you don't spend money on things you don't need.
Buying your first machine
Embroidery machines are expensive, no doubt about it. The price depends on:
1) The size - as in the size of the hoop they can sew on and the size of the motor for speed.
2) The level of fancy tricks the machine can offer and the designing software that comes with it.
3) How many machines the company and the dealer sell. Mainstream is cheaper than esoteric.
Before I bought my machine I looked around (on the internet, we were in lockdown) and watched a few demo videos. I soon discovered that Brother were the most popular and user friendly. I'm talking UK here but, as far as I can tell, Babylock are the same in the US. So I started looking at the Brother machines. You can download brochures and instructions manuals from the company and search for videos on You Tube. I mostly watched instruction videos (Sweet Pea are good for this) as I wanted to see the machine in action and not just have someone describe its features in a sales pitch. Show, don't tell...
Facebook gurus will tell you to choose a local dealer who has all the machines for sale and offers classes etc etc. Those huge stores are a myth in the UK and I wouldn't buy a pack of needles from some of the smaller shops near me. It was lockdown anyway so no-one was going out for a loaf of bread, never mind a sewing machine. I looked around on the internet and found Sewing Machines Direct. I was pleased to find the guy on the other end of the phone knew everything about the machines. They sell loads of machines and have a good reputation and it really didn't matter where they were since a courier was bringing it. I've since bought another embroidery machine and two sewing machines from them.
Embroidery machine or combo?
There are sewing machines that also do embroidery. I thought about having one of these since my sewing machine had recently died. The problem is you have to keep removing the embroidery arm for sewing. Also tension can be a problem. You can alter tension on a sewing machine if you need to but you should NEVER alter the tension on am embroidery machine. It seems to me a combinaton machine won't be good at either as there are too many compromises to be made. If space allows I'd recommend splitting your budget and buying separate sewing machine and an embroidery machine.
Embroidery machines use a hoop that locks into the embroidery arm (the bit that moves) of the machine. These come in standard sizes. (The sizes are nominal, not exact) eg 4" x 4", 5" x 7", 6" x 6", 6" x 10". I'm giving these in inches because metric in this area of life makes my head hurt although Brother machines have a 150mm x 150mm instead of 6" x 6" just to be awkward. Why mm? It's not kitchen units!
If you look at embroidery designs for sale you will usually see which sizes the design is made for and this will give you a good idea of the size you would like to work with. Sweet Pea are good for showing this visually without you having to dig for the information. Most companies offer a choice of sizes within the file you download, some need you to choose a size.
BUY THE MACHINE WITH THE BIGGEST HOOP SIZE YOU CAN AFFORD!
For once I'm in agreement with the Embroidery Police. It will make you very frustrated if you can't make the things you want to make.
I'll put my hand up and say I'm on my second machine now (two years after my first). I was happy with my first choice. It was a Brother Innovis 800E with a largest hoop size of 6" x 10" and I made loads of things with it. Once I knew I was hooked on this hobby I "upgraded" to a Brother V3 and sold the first machine to a friend. Its biggest hoop size is 7" x 12" but I ordered an extra pack to include 8" x 8" and 8" x 12" hoops. These are great for making large pictures and quilts. Quilting is my thing. It might not be yours. Choose hoop size carefully.
Do I need extra features?
There are mechanical features you might need/want and there is software. My first machine threaded the needle by pressing a lever. My second machine does that with a button very smoothly and also cuts jump threads. Now that I have those features I can't see how I managed without them.
However, features like software for editing designs and being able to send a picture from your phone to the machine and do things with it don't interest me at all. If I want to do things with pictures I make scrapbook pages, as you can see from the rest of this website.
Make sure you need the extras. Don't think you need them just because other people think they need them! Before you order the machine look down to the next model down to check whether that would work instead.
Single needle or multi-needle?
I'm very happy with my single needle machine and can change threads in seconds so I've never seen the need for a multi-needle machine and those things are ugly. My machine is in a corner of the alleged dining room and looks to the untrained eye like a big elegant sewing machine, albeit it with another sewing machine next to it. I wouldn't want my dining room looking like an industrial unit.
All the other "stuff"
When I bought my machine I lurked around in Facebook groups where folk told me I needed software and X, Y and Z stabiliser and the "right" threads. This turned out to be mostly nonsense and I could probably have bought another machine with the money I wasted.
Here's what I need for the type of embroidery I'm doing:
I use mostly quilting fabric which is 100% cotton. I already had 300 years' worth... I've had some success with heavier calico (UK term, it's called something different in the US but it's the canvas type fabric) used for framed pictures.
You can get faux leather for bags etc and I bought a pack of glittery fabrics on Amazon which I've used a lot.
(Sometimes called wadding in the UK although the term batting is gaining ground). When making quilted items you will need a flat style of batting, usually cotton or a blend. I use Simply Sew from Wool Warehouse. Be warned fluffy polyester battings can get tangled up in the machine as you sew them. Ask me how I know...
You need embroidery thread not whatever you use on your sewing machine. You will be told you MUST use this and that. I buy packs of Brothread when it's on sale during Amazon Prime days and individual colours I might need from Lords Sewing.
I don't always stick to the colours suggested in the instructions. I'll do my own thing or choose what looks like the closest colour in the drawer. If colour is more critical in a design eg for shading or colours of leaves etc I will use various colour conversion charts (easy to Google...) to work out what colour it should be. I use a lot of Anita Goodesign designs and they tend to use Floriani threads. I bought a "real thread" conversion chart for those so I can see the actual colour (also from Lords Sewing).
You need stabiliser/stabilizer in your hoop so the machine has something to stitch on as a base. There are various types for different purposes and I'll leave it to the experts to explain those to you. Suffice it to say I have a large box of stabilisers I've never used.
I made my first quilt blocks using a tear away stabiliser. I spent 10 minutes making the block and about an hour trying to pick out bits of stabiliser. I soon realised that that was a ridiculous hobby and made a real mess on the floor however close I was to the bin. I now use No Show Mesh that stays in - one layer on a simple project, two at an angle if there is a lot of stitching. I'll sometimes use ordinary cottong fabric as a stabliser in a simple quilt design.
You can save money on stabiliser by buying only the width you need (plus a wider roll for when you want to use it at an angle).
If you are making embroider pictures or high desnsity designs it's worth adding an iron-on woven interfacting to the first layer of fabric to prevent puckering. This is probably the MOST useful thing I learned.
I used a blue tip embroidery needle for everything. I might have to rethink this if I sew with faux leather. Get plenty of needles, they do wear out - or break.
Your machine will be able to wind a bobbin just like a sewing machine does or you can buy boxes of prewound bobbins. I buy thte latter as I know they work well and hold more thread than you can wind yourself. Make sure you buy the right size for your machine.
Zips, rings, buckles, magnetic clasps etc. I buy these from Amazon. I have a way of making bases very cheaply (tutorial to follow).