Capturing skies and seas using machine embroidery: part two – technique & process

20 January 2022
Stoer Head Lighthouse embroidery by Rachel Wright 'Stoer Head Lighthouse' by Rachel Wright
In part two of her feature textile artist, Rachel Wright shares how she sets about capturing the detail of the expressive skies and stormy seas in her machine embroidered work.

Rachel Wright explains how she uses fabrics as her palette, the needle as her brush and thread for mark making to create beautifully detailed nature-themed machine embroideries that draw you in.


When doing demonstrations, I'm often asked about my methods and techniques. Many people express an actual fear of free machine embroidery and find it a particularly difficult skill to get to grips with. To be honest it's equally difficult to give good advice. I often find myself explaining that I'm only an expert at the techniques I've developed for myself over many years, sewing four to five hours a day, on my particular machine in my own particular way. 

A sewing machine can be temperamental, like the fine nib of an ink pen which gets accustomed to the way an individual writes and won’t write nicely in the hands of anyone else. I know my own 30-year-old beloved Bernina inside out – its foibles, the best settings for the tension, the best thread for the results I need and the best backing fabric. But all this doesn't mean it would be the same for someone else on a different machine. 

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Artistic process

'Swoop of Swallows' drawing by Rachel Wright - step one

'Swoop of Swallows' by Rachel Wright – step one

1. My starting point is to draw directly onto the cotton calico, which I use as my standard base fabric. I draw quickly, sketching out just a rough estimation of my composition. 

2. Next, I gather together a palette of fabrics, choosing from my vast stash of fabrics which offer the colours, tones, markings and textures that I am looking for. 

3. I always begin with the focal point for the viewer. This is often the horizon in a land or seascape, or the eyes if it’s an animal or bird. 

'Morning Dip' by Rachel Wright

'Morning Dip' by Rachel Wright

4. Working carefully in small areas I cut out tiny fabric pieces. These can be just millimetres in size! Then I place them, sometimes pinning as I go, before I start to stitch. 

5. I use Madeira rayon 40’s as my thread of choice. I love their colour range and the soft sheen on the thread. 

'Swoop of Swallows' by Rachel Wright - step two

'Swoop of Swallows' by Rachel Wright – step two

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6. I work with the feed dogs lowered and a small darning foot for stability. No hoop, though – I find this allows me maximum freedom and space to work. 

7. I've tried stabilisers over the years and find I prefer to work without. This does mean having to tweak and coax the fabrics into keeping the whole piece relatively flat. 

8. Once I begin stitching, I'm constantly changing my top thread colour. This is something I do so often I think I could do it blindfolded!

9. Although my bobbin thread is changed less frequently, I tend to have light, dark, and medium tones already threaded on to spools, which I use accordingly. 

10. The stitching is the magical element that brings everything together. It serves the very practical purpose of holding the fabrics in their carefully chosen place but also enhances, adding drawn detail into the piece. 

'Swoop of Swallows' by Rachel Wright - step three

'Swoop of Swallows' by Rachel Wright – step three

11. Once immersed in this process, inspiration flows and the joy of the materials themselves takes hold. It's easy to get carried away, so after a couple of hours of sewing I find it useful to take a break, put the kettle on, pull up a weed or two in the garden, hang out some washing and then return to the work with fresh eyes. 

12. I can often be found in my workroom gazing up at my work in progress because I’ve popped it up on my pin board rather than under my machine. Sitting back, taking stock, and really looking at the work, evaluating and amending are all crucial to my process.

'Swoop of Swallows' by Rachel Wright

'Swoop of Swallows' by Rachel Wright 

Final words of advice

It's easy to become quickly disheartened and frustrated when a technique doesn’t work immediately and demand quick fix answers but unfortunately there aren’t any.

My advice would be practise, practise, practise! Get to know your machine like the back of your hand. Experiment, make mistakes, and learn from them. Then go again. 

Your results won’t ever be perfect the first time. Of course, there will be some frustration – Rome wasn’t built in a day. There's one thing I can guarantee though – if you persevere, you'll learn so much. You'll have a lot of fun along the way and maybe develop an artistic signature of your own!

'Making Hay' by Rachel Wright

'Making Hay' by Rachel Wright

Find out more

Rachel Wright textile artist

Twitter: @RSetford 
Instagram: @rachelsetford 

Missed part one? Read about Rachel's artistic insight here... Or, learn about the process of creating realistic water embroideries using hand embroidery and mixed media. And if you fancy having a go yourself, 'The Great Wave off Kanagawa' project by Tamina Astrid is one not to be missed!

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