How to Use Your Sewing Machine Like a Pencil (Yup, You Read That Right)

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Move over, pencil and pen. We're using our sewing machines to draw. That's right, free-motion machine embroidery uses your basic sewing machine to draw pictures with thread.

And it's not just for quilters! Here's how anyone with a sewing machine can do it.

1. Gather Your Equipment

As with any task, you need the rights tools for the job. Other than the usual (fabric, thread, a seam ripper and a nice, sharp machine needle), the essentials are:

  • A darning foot Usually rounded, a darning foot lets you stitch without your fabric flagging (that's when the material gets pulled up with the needle). Check the website of your sewing-machine manufacturer to see which style of foot fits your model.
  • An embroidery hoop  You don't need a model-specific hoop for free-motion . Just remember that, unlike with hand embroidery, with free-motion you want to use the hoop "back to front" — the fabric should lay flat against the throat plate. Size-wise, anything goes! But generally speaking, the smaller the hoop, the more control you'll have. Personally, I find that a 6-to-8-inch hoop is the perfect size for intricate designs.
  • Embroidery scissors Sharp embroidery scissors make life much simpler when tackling loose and connecting threads. A seam ripper also comes in handy to undo any mistakes.
  • Trick marker or pencil Use these to draw out your design, of course. Sold at haberdasheries or online, a trick marker vanishes over time or when washed. This means you don't have to worry about getting your designs right on the lines. A good old-fashioned pencil also works!

2. Set Up Your Machine

There are just a few things you'll need to do.

  • Install your darning foot If you aren't sure how to do this, instructions should be available in the owner's manual or on the manufacturer's website.
  • Tackle tension This will allow your fabric and thread to work in harmony and run smoothly. The standard tension setting is around 4 or 5, so you will need to reduce your top tension to around 1 or 2.
  • Lower the feed dogs This is the most important thing to remember! Feed dogs let your fabric be pulled across the machine during standard stitching. These must be lowered to allow you to move your fabric yourself in any direction. You'll find instructions on how to do that in your owner's manual or online. Not all sewing machines have the ability to drop the feed, so check that yours can.
  • Set your stitch length Set your stitch length to zero for greater control and accuracy.

3. Start Stitching

Simply press your foot control and push your hoop in any direction. Some tips:

  • Ensure your fabric is tight in the hoop to prevent puckering, but don't worry if areas of heavy stitching become warped. This is normal! Over time you'll learn how to control it.
  • Always begin with some tester scraps of fabric before stitching onto more expensive cloths. This will help you be sure all the settings are correct and help you harmonize with your machine.
  • Start with open, free lines then eventually begin to experiment with more intricate, detailed work. Try different movements: open curves, zigzags and spirals.
  • The more you experiment with fabrics, layering, stitch pattern and line work, the more comfortable and creative you will be. Don't put pressure on yourself to follow design lines perfectly on your first attempt — just take the time to get to know your machine and materials.
  • Don't restrict yourself to the size of your hoop. You can work on a larger scale and use a smaller hoop for detailed areas.
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How to Use Your Sewing Machine Like a Pencil (Yup, You Read That Right)