How to Embroider Free-Standing Lace (FSL) Designs

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When I first got my embroidery machine, I had no idea how many things it could do. 

Once I expanded my projects to include more than simple monogramming, I discovered the joy of embroidering free-standing lace. And after my first project, I was hooked. 

You see, free-standing lace is one of the easier embroidery projects to set up and also one of the most unique projects you can create. 

So, here’s how to embroider free-standing lace with your embroidery machine!

fsl embroidery

FSL Embroidery Defined

fsl embroidery design

FSL stands for free-standing lace, a type of embroidery design made of only thread. 

FSL embroidery designs are stitched directly onto stabilizer rather than fabric. The hallmark of an FSL project is the thread supports itself after stabilizer is removed. 

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

Free-Standing Designs: How They’re Made

what is fsl embroidery

To work as free-standing lace, embroidery designs must be digitized to stitch on only stabilizer and stand on their own after stabilizer is removed.

underlay stitching for digitizing

Designs can’t have large empty spaces, and they generally have a higher stitch density and an extra layer of underlay stitches, which will continue to stabilize the design after the stabilizer dissolves. 

If a design is not digitized properly for FSL, threads will unravel once the stabilizer is removed, making it not very free-standing.

However, if you have a design that can’t be truly free-standing, stitch it on a layer of organza, netting, or tulle. 

Then, trim the project and use it as a dimensional piece of embroidery! While the final product isn’t made of only thread, you’ll still maintain the 3D free-standing illusion. 

How to Digitize Free-Standing Lace Embroidery Designs

If you’re new to digitizing and not yet proficient, check out DIME’s My Lace Maker, which requires minimal digitizing skill to produce FSL designs.

This is because it has over 1000 built-in motifs and lace elements that can be combined to create your own free-standing designs. 

I also recommend John Deer’s FSL course. I’m only a hobbyist digitizer, but seasoned experts like John Deer will teach you everything you need to make free-standing lace embroidery designs. 

What Supplies You Need

FSL SUPPLIES

  • Embroidery machine and smallest possible hoop
  • Needle: 75/11 embroidery needle (Finer needles leave smaller holes, which means less likelihood of the design tearing away from the stabilizer)
  • Stabilizer: Wash-away or water-soluble stabilizer
  • Thread: Rayon or polyester 40wt embroidery thread, although 30wt cotton can provide a matte effect for vintage lace.
  • Scissors
  • FSL digitized design (Mine is from Creative Fabrica.)

Stabilizer for Free-Standing Lace

best stabilizer for free-standing lace

The best stabilizer for free-standing lace is two pieces of wash-away or water-soluble stabilizer. 

You can use papery, fibrous wash-away stabilizer or thick film-like water-soluble stabilizer like Sulky Ultra Solvy.

You can even mix a piece of each together for the best of both worlds. 

Just don’t use the thin Sulky Solvy topping, as that won’t hold up to the dense stitching of FSL designs. 

How to Do Free-Standing Lace Embroidery

how to do free-standing lace embroidery

Now, for the fun part! 

Here’s how to set up your machine to embroider lace.

1. Set Up Your Hoop.

hoop 2 layers washaway stabilizer

Hoop two layers of wash-away or water-soluble stabilizer tautly inside the smallest hoop that will fit your design. (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.

2. Set Up Your Machine.

One great thing about stitching FSL is you don’t have to worry about centering your design since there’s no fabric!

Thus, the next step is to load your FSL embroidery design on your machine. 

Then, check that you have the right needle, top thread, and bobbin thread. 

match bobbin thread

While you can get away with using white machine embroidery bobbin thread for projects with unexposed backs, FSL designs work best 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.

load hoop into machine

Place your embroidery hoop in the machine, lower your presser foot down, press start, and watch your machine start to embroider the lace design.

At each color change, switch both the top and bobbin threads as directed.

One thing I’ve noticed for dense designs with significant overlapping areas is threads can break more easily when my machine is speeding through the stitching. 

Thus, if you notice thread breaking, decrease the max stitching speed on your machine. 

4. Finish Up. 

When the machine is done embroidering, remove the hoop from the machine and release the stabilizer. 

trim close to edge of design

Then, use scissors to trim the wash-away stabilizer very close to the edge of the design.

Also, cut any easily accessible jump stitches or threads.

soak the freestanding lace in a bowl of water

There are several ways to remove the residual water-soluble stabilizer

My favorite way is submerging my design in a small bowl of warm water. Within a few minutes, the stabilizer dissolves, leaving a solution of water and the stabilizer. 

When you then remove the design, a little of that stabilizer solution is left on it, so the design will dry with more firmness. 

If you don’t want the firmness, as may be the case with cotton lace for a collar, for example, you can wash all the stabilizer off underneath a faucet. 

let fsl dry

Lay your design on a dry towel and pat out excess water.

Make sure the design is laid flat, as that is how it will dry. However, if you want a more 3-D design, try letting it dry at an angle!

Don’t wrap the design in a towel and leave it too long. I did that once and found it mildewed a few days later–oops!

Once the lace is dry, cut any other excess threads you missed the first time around. 

If the design seems warped after drying, press (using a pressing cloth) to straighten it out. If that doesn’t work, you can also try adding spray starch, Best Press, or other liquid stabilizer and pressing again for more rigidity. 

And that’s how you set up your embroidery machine to do free-standing lace!

FSL Jewelry and Other Applications 

embroidered fsl earrings and jewelry

FSL designs can be used to make embroidered jewelry, like the necklace combo below and the earrings above. 

embroidered necklace and earrings

And, even if you have a design that can be free-standing, that doesn’t mean it has to be. For example, you can add FSL designs to any fabric to create a fun look. 

Just think of all the possibilities of embellishments and embroidered gifts you can make in the future!

14 Comments

  1. 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.

    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.

  2. 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!

  3. Thank you so much for your website! I’m brand new to quilting, just got my machine a couple of weeks ago. Your site is my “go-to” to learn! I have been told that understanding stabilizers is one of the most difficult parts of machine embroidery! Thanks for a bit of clarification!

  4. What would be a good basic machine to start with. Mainly for me to see if I want to go on making these. Or maybe a middle of the road without going too high on $.
    I keep seeing these & think I want to do! Cannot hardly crochet anymore bc of hand/wrist issues but I can do hoops!
    Thank You for putting your all into your site. The tips/hints are great & with the reasons behind them, easy to understand.
    Sherry

    1. If you just want a machine to help you decide if making FSL is good fit for you, a 4″x4″ embroidery only machine is an easy and basic place to start. The Brother PE535 has been around for ages and is well-loved (It’s now updated to the PE545 if you want to work with wireless design transfer.) If you want slightly more area to embroider, you can also try the PE800 or the newer PE900 (much more expensive though, ugh.) Both of these machine have 5″x7″ hoops.

      The good thing about those two machines is if you love stitching FSL and want a machine with a bigger hoop, they resell for surprisingly close to what you pay for them. Thus, they’re a great way to experiment with embroidery before splurging on a $5000+ machine with a big hoop!

  5. I am having trouble stitching fsl designes. My machine stitches great until I try to fsl than it stops every 20-30 stitches. Any idea why? It is on every design i try

    1. What happens when it stops? Does the needle get stuck, thread tangle, thread break, etc.? Does the machine give an error code? Have you tried FSL designs that are built-in to your machine?

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