How to Embroider Free-Standing Lace (FSL) with Your Machine

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When I first got my embroidery machine, I had no idea how many things you could do with it!  Once I started expanding my horizons, I soon came upon the concept of embroidering free-standing lace. 

After that, I was hooked! 

Thus, let’s talk about how to machine embroider free-standing lace, also known as FSL.

free-standing lace embroidery tutorial

What is FSL Embroidery?

Free-standing lace embroidery designs are designs that support themselves after the stabilizer is removed.  You stitch directly onto stabilizer rather than onto fabric to create these embroidered beauties. 

Examples of FSL projects include FSL Christmas ornaments, bookmarks, earrings, clothing decorations, and so much more.

Finding & Digitizing Free-Standing Lace Designs

If you plan to embroider free-standing lace, you need to make sure the design is digitized to be stitched on just stabilizer. 

Luckily, designs usually designate if they can successfully be used as FSL so you don’t waste precious time or supplies on an inappropriate design.

If the design is not digitized properly for FSL, though, the threads will unravel once the stabilizer is removed.  Then, it’s not very free-standing at all!  

In general, FSL designs have a greater density and also extra underlay stitches to continue stabilizing the design after the stabilizer is washed away. I’m only a hobbyist digitizer, so I recommend John Deer’s course if you want to learn exactly how to make your own FSL designs. 

If you’re looking for a free free-standing lace embroidery design to try this skill out on, this is the one I used here

Best Stabilizer for Free-Standing Lace

I always use water-soluble stabilizer (2 layers) when embroidering free-standing lace. 

I used to double up on the paper, fibrousy type of wash-away stabilizer.  But, I like to experiment.  This latest round of FSL Christmas ornaments I made, I changed things up and instead used a layer of fibrous wash-away stabilizer on the bottom and a layer of water-soluble heavy-weight film above that.  It worked better! 

Whereas the wash-away sometimes separated from areas of really dense stitching, the water-soluble film provided more support and prevented the deterioration of the stabilizer.

It might be worth doing some experiments with your machine to find what works best for you.  Combos to consider are two layers of wash-away, one layer of wash-away and one layer of water-soluble topping, and two layers of wash-away and one layer of water-soluble topping.

FSL Embroidery Supplies

  • 75/11 embroidery needle (smaller-sized needles will leave smaller holes, which makes for a better final product!)
  • 1 layer of wash-away (paper-like type) and 1 layer of heavy-weight water-soluble film stabilizer (like Sulky Ultra Solvy) or 2 layers of paper-like wash-away stabilizer
  • Thread (check the design for recommendations if purchased. If no recommendations, consider 40 wt embroidery thread first. Rayon or polyester work well, and even cotton provides a nice matte finish.)
  • FSL digitized design

How to Do Free-Standing Lace Embroidery: Tutorial

Now, for the fun part!  Here’s how to set up your machine to embroider lace.

1. Set Up Your Hoop

First, place your layer of water-soluble topping on top of the wash-away stabilizer.  Then, hoop the two layers tautly inside the smallest hoop that will fit your design. 

Smaller hoops work better with dense FSL designs, in my experience.  (If you’re new to embroidery and hooping, check out some of my embroidery hooping tips and tricks.)  It’s very important that the stabilizer be tight enough that it doesn’t move when your machine is stitching.

layer two layers of stabilizer in the hoop

2. Set Up Your Machine

Download your embroidery design to your embroidery machine, and get it set up and ready to stitch.  One great thing about stitching FSL is you don’t have to worry about centering your design since there’s no fabric!

Next, double-check that your needle and thread are compatible. 

It’s important to also check your bobbin thread.  While you can get away with using white machine embroidery bobbin thread for most projects with unexposed backs, your FSL design will be much more professional if the bobbin color matches the color of the upper thread. 

Just think, what lace accents have you ever seen with cream thread, for example, on the front and white threads on the back?

3. Start Embroidering

start stitching and wait for it to finish

Place your embroidery hoop on the embroidery arm, place your presser foot down, and press start!  Watch your machine start to embroider the lace design.  Change colors as directed.

If your machine is a speedy stitcher, consider decreasing stitching speeds if you’re having issues with a good result.

4. Finishing Up

how to remove the topping from the free-standing lace

When the design is done stitching, remove the hoop from the machine and open it up to release your design and stabilizer.  Gently pull away the water-soluble topping from the front of the design.  No big deal if you don’t get it all.

cut away the washaway around the fsl design

Then, use scissors to trim the wash-away stabilizer on the bottom close to the sides of the design.  Also, cut any easily accessible jump stitches or threads.

soak the freestanding lace in a bowl of water

Get a small bowl of warm water and submerge your design.  The water-soluble topping and wash-away stabilizer should dissolve fairly quickly. 

Once you see it mostly gone, remove the design.  By removing it before every little bit of stabilizer is gone from the base of the stitches, you’ll leave a residue behind to increase the design firmness.

let the fsl dry on a towel

Take your FSL project out of the water carefully and lay it on a dry towel.  Make sure it is laid flat, as that is how it will dry.  If you want a more 3-D design, try laying it at an angle!

Once the lace is dry, cut any other excess threads you missed the first time around.  If the design seems warped, you can give it a good pressing to straighten it out.  (Use a pressing cloth.)  If it’s still too droopy, try adding spray starch or other liquid stabilizer and pressing again to give it a bit more rigidity!

FSL Embroidery – Conclusion

And that’s how you set up your embroidery machine to do free-standing lace.  Just think of all the possibilities of embellishments and gifts that you can make in the future!


  1. Julie Mathany says:

    I enjoyed your posts, Thankyou, like you I love my embroidery machine. Alway looking for ways to improve.

  2. Wonderful post. I just recently started trying the ornaments (I attach a ribbon & call them bookmarks) but wasn’t happy with my stabilizer experiments. This really helped me on that issue so Thank You.

  3. P. Wilkerson says:

    Do you have a recommendation for a spray on glitter that can enhance FSL ornaments?

    1. I’ve never used it on FSL, but I do have Krylon glitter spray that works great on fabric.

      My go-to is usually metallic threads for extra shimmer, though.

  4. Carol Wolf says:

    Have you ever used a metal hoop for FSL? I could use extra magnets. I only have one clip hoop and have a lot of files to stitch out for a craft show. Thank you.

    1. I’ve used my Brother brand magnetic hoop for FSL with no issues. I’ve never tried my DIME Monster Snap Hoop, though, as it doesn’t hold stabilizer quite as taut. (It’s my go-to for quilting, though.) Might be worth a try to see if your specific hoop with added magnets would work. As long as the stabilizer is taut and doesn’t move, I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t!

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