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Machine Embroidery for Beginners: How to Use an Embroidery Machine

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Learning how to use an embroidery machine can be very daunting for beginners!  The manual included with my first embroidery machine, at least, left a lot to be desired.  It taught me how to work the embroidery machine rather than how to succeed at learning to embroider.  Many of my first projects were utter failures because I didn’t know the basics of machine embroidery and instead jumped right in.

Therefore, I want to help you learn how to use an embroidery machine in this machine embroidery for beginners tutorial.  This tutorial is going to cover a LOT of information, so be patient with yourself as you learn!  Take a break between sections even if you need to so you don’t get so overwhelmed.

(And quick FYI: while there is a lot of overlap between single-needle and more commercial, multi-needle embroidery machines, this tutorial is tailored towards learning how to use a single-needle home embroidery machine.)

Now, let’s get started with the embroidery basics first!

machine embroidery for beginners

Machine Embroidery for Beginners: Understanding Supplies

If you’ve never used an embroidery machine, the first thing you need to do is make sure you have all the supplies and accessories that you’ll need to get started.  I’ve written a brief post on embroidery supplies for beginners that you can check out, but I’ll give you a more detailed overview of the main ones below and how to know what to choose.

Machine Embroidery Stabilizer Choices

choosing embroidery stabilizers for beginners

Every project you stitch needs to have an embroidery stabilizer on the back of it. These stabilizers will provide support for your fabric while the machine stitches the design. Without stabilizer, you may end up with fabric stuck in the needle plate of your machine, puckered stitches, torn fabric, or a big mess.

There are many different types of stabilizers, so you need to know which types are going to work best with each project.  In general, you’ll choose your stabilizer based on the density and weave of your fabric and the stitch density of your embroidery design.

The four main types of machine embroidery stabilizers are cut-away, tear-away, wash-away, and heat-away.

It’s a good idea to have at least one weight of each of the first three stabilizers below in your arsenal.

  • Cut-away stabilizers are very stable and will remain on the back of your project after you’re done stitching.  You’ll be able to trim away any excess stabilizer with small embroidery scissors.  Because cut-away stabilizers provide a lot of stability, these are going to be your best choice of stabilizer for stretchy, unstable fabrics like t-shirt knits. Same with designs with very high stitch density.
  • Tear-away stabilizers, on the other hand, are fairly unstable and are easily torn away from the back of your fabric after stitching.  These won’t provide the needed support for unstable, stretchy fabrics so work best with stable, woven, nonstretchy fabrics and simpler designs.
  • Wash-away stabilizers are perfect for projects that are too unstable for tear-away stabilizer but still need to have no residual stabilizer on the back after embroidering. Examples include tulle and embroidering free-standing lace.  When you’re done embroidering, dipping the project in water dissolves the stabilizer.  There is also something called water-soluble topping that can be placed on top of squishy fabrics with nap or pile like terry cloth towels or fleece.  This topping keeps the stitches from sinking into the nap of the fabric and disappearing!
  • Heat-soluble stabilizers are infrequently used but are intended for the same use as wash-away. These work best on delicate fabrics that shouldn’t be washed after stitching.

This is just a brief overview of stabilizers, but you can read so much more and grab a free printable embroidery stabilizer chart here.

Machine Embroidery Needles

machine embroidery needles for beginners

You could use a regular sewing machine needle in many circumstances when embroidering, or you can use a specialized embroidery machine needle.  Embroidery needles differ from sewing needles in that they have a widened groove and an elongated eye to better accommodate embroidery thread.  This altered needle anatomy also decreases thread breakage and shredding when the needle starts moving super fast and producing friction when embroidering.

Thus, for most routine projects, I’d recommend starting with an embroidery machine needle unless you know you’ll need a more specialized type of sewing needle.

Since embroidery needles come in different sizes, you’ll want to pick the needle size based on the weight of your fabric.  Thick, heavyweight fabrics require a much larger needle than thin, delicate fabrics.  And just remember, a bigger needle number corresponds to a bigger needle thickness.

The tips of embroidery needles are also either ballpoint (rounded), sharp (pointy), or universal (in between the two).  While universal needles work well for most projects, some densely woven fabrics may need a sharp needle, and knitted fabrics may work best with a ballpoint needle that will gently slide between fabric yarns rather than pierce them.

Here’s an entire guide about machine embroidery needles, and if you decide to go the sewing needle route for certain projects, grab my free sewing needle printable chart and guide!

Thread Types for Machine Embroidery

machine embroidery needles for beginners

Hop on over to machine embroidery thread types explained for all the details, but here’s an overview. Because embroidery machines stitch so quickly and produce so much friction between the thread and eye of the needle, you need to choose a robust, good-quality embroidery thread. Sewing machine threads are not designed for prolonged use in an embroidery machine!

The two most common types of embroidery thread are rayon and polyester. I prefer 100% polyester embroidery threads because they are more colorfast and bleach-resistant, but either of these types will work. There are also cotton embroidery threads along with other fun types of threads like metallic, glow-in-the-dark, and variegated, but these are more difficult to use as a general rule.

Embroidery machine threads also come in different weights. Since most embroidery designs are digitized for 40 wt thread, I’d recommend starting with that until you learn more about embroidery. Bobbin thread is usually a different weight and can vary by the machine manufacturer, so check your manual for the exact information.  My machine uses 60 wt bobbin thread.  (And, I almost always buy pre-threaded white bobbins, since most of the time the back of your design will not be visible. Big time-saver!)

Machine Embroidery Blanks

Of course, you need something to embroider on!  These embroidery “blanks” can include anything from a towel to toilet paper.  The general rule is the item needs to be less than ~6mm thick, and it needs to be only one layer of fabric after it’s hooped.  (If you can’t move one side of a shirt, for instance, out from under the embroidery hoop after hooping, you’ll end up stitching two sides together!  More about this later.)

The easiest blanks, in my opinion, to learn to embroider with are stable, woven fabrics.  Learning to hoop stretchy fabrics can be difficult for beginners.  So, grab a piece of good-quality quilting cotton or a towel, for example, and consider making something easy to embroider your first project!

Do you need to prewash before embroidering?

If you’ve chosen an embroidery blank that will ever need to be washed, you should prewash it before embroidering. This allows the fabric to shrink before you stitch. For instance, a 100% cotton t-shirt will shrink a decent bit during the first wash. Thus, it’s best to shrink the item before you embroider it with polyester thread, which will have none (or very minimal) shrinkage. Failing to wash can lead to puckering and distorted designs after the first cycle through the washer!

The exception to the rule here are items that are not washer-safe and instead require dry cleaning.

All About Embroidery Machine Designs for Beginners

types of embroidery desigs

Almost all modern embroidery machines will come with some number of built-in designs.  These designs are often less than impressive and need to be supplemented with designs you download or purchase.  Let’s now talk about how to find and choose designs for your projects.

Types of Embroidery Designs

There are so many different types of designs you can use with your embroidery machine. Here are a few common types:

  • Fill-stitch designs.  These are your traditional embroidery designs that are, well, filled with stitches.
  • Applique designs.  Applique designs have a border stitch (usually a satin or other decorative stitch) that attaches a piece of fabric to your embroidery blank. While seemingly intimidating, they are actually easy to stitch and take less time. (Read: how to applique with an embroidery machine to learn more.)
  • Redwork or blackwork designs. These are simple single-line running stitch designs that work great on delicate fabrics like tea towels. You can also stitch designs like these on quilts or even card-stock cards.
  • Free-standing lace designs.  FSL designs are stitched on just water-soluble stabilizer without fabric. When the stabilizer is washed away, you are left with a beautiful lace design!
  • In-the-hoop designs. Quite possibly one of the coolest things you can do with an embroidery machine, in-the-hoop designs are small projects (ex: coaster, pouch, bookmark) stitched entirely by your embroidery machine! You can also find in-the-hoop piecing designs to create quilt blocks.

Different projects will need different types of designs.  For instance, a big, fluffy towel?  A simple running stitch design is not going to show up.  A delicate tea towel?  A dense fill-stitch design may be too bulky and probably won’t even stitch out well on a thin towel.

Machine File Format

Different manufacturers of embroidery machines require different embroidery machine file formats.  For my Brother embroidery machine, the compatible file format is .PES.  For my library’s Janome embroidery machine, .JEF is the required format.  Before you start downloading designs, you need to find out the file format from your machine’s manual. Remember to always download designs in that format if you don’t want to have to convert them.

Max Hoop Size vs Design Size

Make sure you also know the maximum embroidery area for your machine.  For my old Brother SE625 embroidery machine, this was 4″x4″.  For my super awesome Brother SE1900 machine, this is 5″x7″.  What embroidery area means is this is the largest-sized embroidery design your machine can accommodate at one time. So, you won’t be able to stitch a 5″x7″ design on a max 4″x4″ machine.

That is unless you have embroidery software to split big designs into multiple parts (or if you resize the design to be smaller).  Splitting a design simply means using embroidery software to take a big design and split it into multiple smaller designs that you stitch in succession after rehooping your embroidery blank.

Rehooping and splitting designs are not the easiest things for beginners, so don’t challenge yourself with it yet until you’ve got the basics under your belt first!

Where to Download Designs

Downloading free embroidery designs

If you don’t create your own designs or use the designs built into your machine, you can download designs online. For the budget-minded beginner machine embroidery users, I’ve put together some great resources to help you find thousands of designs for your new machine below:

Embroidery Software for Beginners: The Basics

embroidery software considerations for beginners

If your embroidery machine came with software, then that’s awesome! Most entry-level machines don’t, though. (None of mine ever have!) If you want to edit, view, or create new designs you will need some type of embroidery software. Don’t worry, you can do the basics for free or very cheap!

Viewing Thumbnails

Embroidery file formats are not recognizable to your computer. Thus, when you download new embroidery designs, your computer will not show a picture. Unless you’re the most organized person on the planet and rename and file away all your designs just so, you’ll likely need what’s called a thumbnailer embroidery software. A thumbnailer software, once downloaded to your computer, tells your computer to show you a picture of the embroidery image rather than the default blank image.

The FREE Wilcom TrueSizer and Bernina ARTlink are two software that will help you view thumbnails. The paid Embrilliance Thumbnailer is arguably the most popular premium option.

Editing and Splitting Designs

So, say you download a cute design in a size 3.5″x3.5″ but you need to embroider it in a 2″x2″ area? You’ll need some way to resize it. While your machine will give you some leeway in shrinking or enlarging designs, you can only do so much within the machine interface. This is because taking a 15,000 stitch design and shrinking it by 50% or enlarging it by 50%, for instance, changes the stitch density too much. This results in thick, overlapped stitching or thin, stitching that won’t cover your blank.  You’ll need at least basic software to resize and recalculate stitch density if you plan to resize files.

Embroidery software also helps with combining multiple design files into one design, adding lettering to designs, previewing thread color changes, and so much more. Two basic (and affordable) software that can do these basic things are Embrilliance Essentials and Sew What Pro. These softwares also allow you to split large designs into sections to accommodate smaller embroidery hoops.

Creating New Designs (Digitizing)

If you want to create new designs, you’ll need digitizing software. Digitizing software is expensive and can be difficult to use for machine embroidery beginners, so I recommend mastering the basics of machine embroidery before you purchase one and overwhelm yourself!

(If you’re familiar with vector graphics, however, you’ll have an easier time of things.  Inkscape with Ink/stitch extension is a FREE, open-source embroidery software worth playing with to give you an idea of how embroidery software works.)

How to Set Up Your Embroidery Machine

Now that you’ve collected some basic supplies and learned more about designs, let’s actually start doing some embroidering!  Well, or setting up, at least.

Marking Embroidery Blanks

mark your t-shirt to be embroidered on

Before you hoop or float any embroidery project, you first need to mark your embroidery blank.  This means deciding where you want your design to go and then marking the center on your embroidery blank.

There are many different marking tools, but my two favorites are water-soluble fabric pens and chalk wheels.  I’ll use pens for most light-colored, non-delicate fabrics and the chalk wheel for darker fabrics or delicate fabrics that won’t tolerate water.  I make one long line horizontally and one long line vertically to mark the center of my design, helping me later line the design up with my hoop and machine.

While you can eyeball design placement (I’m almost always guilty of this), you can also print out a template from most embroidery softwares. Cut the template out from paper, and then lay the paper over your embroidery blank to get a preview. Then, mark your blank once you’re happy with the location.

And, if you need help with embroidery design placement, I’d recommend checking out this list of placement standards from AllStitch. It gives common design placement locations for shirts, towels, and many more items.

How to Hoop Fabric

hooping fabric: embroidery for beginners tutorial

Learning to properly hoop fabric for machine embroidery is very important for beginners.  You have to make sure the fabric is hooped tautly, but with no stretching or distortion.

When hooping embroidery blanks, you’ll first place a layer of stabilizer on top of the bottom hoop frame, then place the embroidery blank, and last press the top hoop onto the two layers.  It’s then important to pull away any residual or excess fabric from the back of the hoop once you’ve hooped your marked fabric.

It can help to use temporary fabric adhesive, sticky adhesive stabilizer, or even fusible stabilizer to temporarily adhere the piece of stabilizer to the back of your fabric when hooping.

Read more about how to use a machine embroidery hoop for beginners to find out all the details and see a step-by-step tutorial!

Floating Fabric When You Can’t Hoop

floating fabric for beginner machine embroidery

Sometimes fabrics that are too small to be hooped, fabrics that are too thick to be hooped, or even fabrics that will be destroyed by the pressure from hooping need to be “floated.”  What this means is you hoop only your stabilizer and then adhere your fabric or embroidery blank onto the front of the stabilizer.

I’ve gone over in great detail 6 different ways to float fabric for machine embroidery if you want to check it out for more information!

How to Use an Embroidery Machine: Tutorial for Beginners

Now, we’ve picked out all the right supplies and set up our project.  The hard part is done, so let’s get to the fun part: actually embroidering with the machine!

(A lot of these directions will now be very broad because so many different manufacturers have so many different machine interfaces! I’ll have a few pictures of the interface of my Brother machine, but unless you have a similar machine, yours may not look exactly like this!)

Threading The Embroidery Machine & Setting the Needle

how to thread an embroidery machine

Single-needle embroidery machines are threaded very similarly to sewing machines.  In fact, on my SE1900 machine, the set-up for sewing and embroidery threading is the same!

I’m a pretty sub-par YouTube video maker, but here’s a video of me threading my Brother SE1900.  It’s a little more complicated to thread than some of the other embroidery machines out there, but the general process will give you an idea of how to thread your embroidery machine.

Threading the embroidery machine before you turn it on is safest if you’re new to embroidery and want to prevent any accidental injuries before you get the hang of things.

Also, before you turn on your machine, make sure you have the correct needle in the needle clamp. If you don’t know how to do this, I have a picture tutorial for how to change a sewing machine needle you can look through. And if for some reason your machine does not have an automatic needle threader or it’s too finicky, here are some simple ways to thread a sewing machine needle.

Turning On and Changing the Presser Foot

Next, turn on your embroidery machine. If you have a sewing and embroidery combo machine, make sure you’ve removed the flatbed sewing attachment and attached the embroidery arm. Then, make sure you’ve removed the presser foot holder and attached the embroidery foot.

When your machine first turns on, you’ll likely hear some loud noises as the machine gets prepared. Don’t worry if things move around on their own either!

Attaching the Hoop

how to attach an embroidery hoop for beginners

Now, attach your hoop to your machine.  For my Brother SE1900, this means attaching the hoop to the carriage on the left side of my machine.  With some machines, you’ll attach the hoop on the right side. You’ll do best to refer to your specific user manual for this task.

Once the hoop is attached, make sure you only have a single layer of fabric. So, if you’re embroidering on a shirt, you need to pull the back of the shirt out from under the hoop so you don’t stitch it together. To hold the excess fabric out of the way, you can use hair clips, clothespins, painter’s tape, or even pins. Pick what you have around and what you find works best for you!  Here’s an example of using hairclips below. Just make sure your machine won’t run into the clips before you start embroidering. (You should be able to preview the design borders before pressing start.)

remove the excess fabric out of the way

Selecting and Aligning the Design

Once you have your hoop attached and your machine on, you will load your embroidery design. Most machines have built-in designs to use, which will be the easiest to access unless you already know how to load new designs to your machine.   Select one of these designs to then start customizing it.

Fabric hooped in the right direction and tautly?

You’ll see a lot of options where you can go through and change things about the design.  For this beginner embroidery machine tutorial, the most important thing is just to make sure the design is oriented correctly relative to your embroidery blank. Stitching a design upside down is no fun! You should be able to flip the design up or down or rotate left or right if you need to align with the direction of your blank.

move the design around to center it with the center of the embroidery blank

Then, move your design around to center if with the center of your marked area.  The above interface moves the hoop around to help me center my needle directly on top of the center of my fabric where I marked my design.

Double Check So You Don’t Ruin Your Project!

Guys, I’ve ruined more projects than I can count from carelessness! So, before you start to stitch, go through this quick list and make sure you’ve done everything right. It takes less time to double-check than it does to remove embroidery stitches. (Trust me, this is NO FUN!)

  • Right needle?
  • Right stabilizer?
  • Correct color, weight, and type of bobbin and upper thread?
  • Fabric hooped in the right direction and design oriented correctly?
  • Not going to stitch two layers together?
  • Do you need to adjust tension or sewing speed?
  • Will the excess fabric be out of the way of the machine head?
  • Have you previewed the design stitching area with your machine? Are any pins or clips out of the way?

Press Start!

Now the magic happens! Sit back and be proud of yourself until your first color is done stitching.

When to Change Threads on Your Embroidery Machine

changing thread colors on an embroidery machine

In every design you will load to your single-needle embroidery machine, stops will be programmed in at the end of each thread color.  You will have to manually change your thread color.  Then, you can press the start button to begin the next step of the embroidery process. You’ll continue this until you’ve stitched through all your colors.

Cleaning Up Afterwards

Remove your beautiful finished project from the hoop and trim away, wash away, or cut away the stabilizer from the back of your project. (This depends on what type of stabilizer you used.) Remove any water-soluble topping as well.

Then, trim away any jump threads. Jump threads are the little threads between two separate stitched areas of the same color where the machine jumps from one section to another. Some machines cut jump threads automatically, whereas on most entry-level machines, you’ll have to cut them by yourself. This is easily done with a small pair of embroidery scissors or snips. trim any jump stitchesIf you embroidered a onesie or shirt where the back of the embroidery design may be itchy on your chest, consider ironing a piece of tender touch backing onto the back of the design as well.

Fun Projects to Embroider

I’ve been slowly working on putting together individual tutorials for projects that I’ve done so you can see the step-by-step embroidery process.  If you think you’re ready to start embroidering, then check some of these out!  These will help guide you through the stabilizer selection and hooping process for many different embroidery blanks.

Machine Embroidery For Beginners – Conclusion

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning how to use your embroidery machine and learned some embroidery tips and techniques. If there’s something I’ve missed or something else you need help with, please let me know, and I’ll get to work on more tutorials!

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