Focus on… free machining

26 March 2020
We take an in-depth look at the exciting embroidery style, free machining, that really sets your art in motion!

What is free machining?

This tremendous technique, also known as free-motion embroidery, allows you to be as creative as your imagination can handle! To create free-motion machine embroidery, the embroiderer runs the sewing machine and moves fabric under the needle to create a design. The ‘feed dogs’ are lowered and the embroiderer moves the fabric manually. In this way, the stitches form an image on a piece of fabric.

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What equipment and supplies do I need for free machining?

  • Sewing machine (ideally with the ability to drop the feed dogs, however you can get a cover for them if your machine can’t do that)
  • Darning foot (closed or open toe foot)
  • Embroidery hoop
  • Fabric
  • Iron-on interfacing
  • Embroidery threads

Two little dicky birds - free machining by Anne Brooke

Handy guide on free machining

Fantastic free-machine artist Anne Brooke gives her hints and tips on how to make the most of free machining.

Setting up your machine

1. Attach your darning foot and lower, or cover your feed dogs. Set up with the same thread top and bottom. Your tension should usually be on auto, or four. Sometimes you need to lower the tension on the top but that depends on your machine.

You’ll need to select a straight stitch and have it on length 0. Iron the interfacing on the back of your fabric. This will give some support while stitching. Secure your fabric into the embroidery hoop and place it under your darning foot. Check that your hoop will go under your darning foot - if not, you can attach the fabric to the hoop once it is underneath.

Top tip! ‘Feed dogs’ are generally two or three short, thin metal bars with diagonal teeth that move back and forth in slots of a sewing machine’s needle plate.

Getting started

2. It’s good to get into the habit of drawing the thread up from the bottom when you are getting started. Hold onto the top thread and turn the needle down and up, pull on the thread and the bottom thread will appear. This can be trimmed off after a couple of stitches. It can also be helpful, if your machine can, to have it set on the ‘needle down’ position. This can stop your fabric moving when you stop stitching.

Top tip! If the upper thread is visible on the wrong side of the fabric, tighten the upper tension. If the bobbin thread is visible on the right side then loosen the upper tension.

All ready to play

3. To start with, just have a play with your machine. Sew straight lines, curvy, cross overs and meander, etc. Just to get a feel of your machine. You do not need to turn the fabric as, by lowering the feed dogs, you have full movement in any direction. It’s all about getting the balance between the speed of the machine and how quickly you move the fabric.

It’s a little like rubbing your tummy and patting your head! If you have a speed control on your machine, feel free to use it. Place your hands on the edges of your hoop to help steer the fabric. Once you have a feel for your machine, you can start drawing out your planned design. You can try drawing with a fabric pen; I use Aqua Trickmarker which is water soluble and can be removed with a wet brush once the embroidery is complete. A good practice pattern is your name; write it and then stitch over the top.

Free machining - Anne Brooke

Top tip! As the darning foot doesn’t lower down very far, you can make the mistake of starting to stitch with the foot raised. This will result in a lot of thread at the back of your piece. Always ensure you hear the ‘cluck’ of lowering the foot before you start.

Alternative methods

4. Another way to use free machining is to appliqué fabric shapes onto your background using Bondaweb to fix in place. Again, stitch around the shapes, adding as many additional details as you like. These could be drawn on with a dissolvable fabric pen or you could freestyle.

Final tips

5. Stitch around some of the shapes two or three times; one of your lines will be right! (The trick is not to tell anyone which ones are wrong!) Now you have covered the basics you can start to develop your own free-machine doodles. Enjoy!

Anne Brooke is an artist and tutor at Shed 7½ in Brighouse, West Yorkshire. She runs a variety of workshops, including free machine embroidery for beginners. Take a look at her website for more information:

Now you’re clued up on free machining, why not learn about another popular embroidery style with our focus on… needle felting!

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