Embroidery for Beginners - Machine Embroidery 101

Estimated read time: 6 minutes

Embroidery is a timeless art form and a wonderful way to add a custom flourish to a variety of textiles. What’s more, learning how to embroider can be relatively easy if you follow a few basic tips and tricks. Read on for our comprehensive guide to embroidery for beginners.

What’s the difference between machine embroidery and hand embroidery?

Both machine and hand embroidery are enjoyable pastimes, but they utilize decidedly different equipment and skills.

Hand embroidery has been around since antiquity. The only essential supplies are needle, thread, and fabric, although a hoop is often used to maintain tension on the fabric. There are hundreds of different stitches and techniques that can be used for hand embroidery. Stranded cotton embroidery floss and smoothly woven fabric are beginner embroidery basics, along with an embroidery or crewel hand-sewing needle.

Machine embroidery is divided into two types: hand-guided stitching, or needlepainting, and programmed machine embroidery.

For hand-guided machine embroidery for beginners, you'll need a sewing machine with feed dogs that can be disabled or covered. There are no stitches to learn in hand-guided embroidery. Instead, the operator takes control of the fabric's movement and lays stitches on the fabric surface in any direction. It's very much like free-motion quilting and can either follow a sketched design or be worked completely freehand.

Programmable machine embroidery is a product of the industrial revolution, but only entered the home-sewing market during the last decades of the 20th century. It's completely machine guided for consistent results. Designs in a wide range of styles are available, as well as a variety of fonts for monograms and lettering. Some of the designs look so much like hand embroidery it's hard to tell the difference!

What supplies do I need to get started with programmable machine embroidery?

When it comes to embroidery basics, you’ll first need a machine that can read the embroidery designs and stitch them. You can choose between embroidery-only machines and those that combine both sewing and embroidery functions. (Combination machines also allow you to experiment with hand-guided embroidery.) The machine will come with an embroidery hoop or hoops that can be mounted on the machine.

Next, you'll need a selection of threads. Most machine embroidery designs have been digitized to stitch correctly with 40-weight machine embroidery threads. Don't switch to another thread weight when you're starting out (unless the design you've chosen specifies it); the stitches will either appear too far apart or overlap unattractively. Do invest in several colors of thread since buying a collection of colors is a simple way to start, and you can add other colors as you begin specific projects. Basic embroidery threads are usually polyester or rayon and come in a range of finishes from shiny to matte.

You'll also need bobbin thread. For the proper tension, digitized designs are stitched with a lightweight bobbin thread. The good news is, you'll only need white thread for your bobbin, regardless of the colors on the embroidery's right side, because the bobbin thread isn't visible from the front of the work. Add black bobbin thread to your supplies if you're embroidering on dark fabrics.

Begin with a machine needle designed for embroidery that is optimized to work with embroidery threads at high speed. Embroidery needles are available in sizes 11 and 14. The smaller (size 11) needle will work on most fabrics, but it's nice to have a size 14 needle available for heavy fabrics, or if you have problems with thread breakage at the needle.

One great advantage in embroidery by machine rather than by hand is that it looks great on almost any fabric. The secret lies in the unseen underlayer we refer to as stabilizer.

When you're learning how to do embroidery, the choices for embroidery stabilizers may seem daunting. To get started in embroidery, you can purchase just three: a tear-away, for embroidering on stable woven fabrics; a cut-away, to support embroidery throughout the life of a knit fabric; and water-soluble, to use as a topper on towels or as a base for freestanding lace designs.

What’s the best embroidery machine for me?

Today, machine embroidery designs are available in a variety of formats, and Brother offers a variety of embroidery machines, many of which are great for beginners. Consider the following factors in order to narrow the field and find the best simple embroidery machine for you:

  • Cost: An embroidery-only machine with limited embroidery field size isn't hard to fit into most budgets, while a top-of-the-line combination sewing and embroidery machine is more of an investment. Machines are also available at every point in between. Visit a dealer to try a variety of machines so that you can choose one that fits your budget and includes features you want and need.
  • Embroidery Size: In general, the embroidery fields on home machines start at 4" x 4" and increase to sizes that will accommodate an entire jacket back in one hooping. If you want just a taste of embroidery, the smaller embroidery fields like 4" x 4" and 5" x 7" will lower the machine's cost and may prove more versatile than you think as you learn to manipulate designs. It's important to know that hoop size and embroidery field are not necessarily the same. If your machine's field is 4" x 4", attaching a 6" x 10" hoop won't allow you to stitch larger designs—even if you can make the larger hoop fit onto the machine.
  • Features: What sort of screen does the machine have? How easy is it to transfer designs to the machine for stitching? What can you do with designs in the machine: change the size, rotate, program multiple designs into the embroidery field for one hooping? Are accessories (other hoop sizes or computer software) or upgrades available to increase your capabilities?
  • Training: What embroidery how to resources are available to you once you've made the purchase? Dealers may offer classes or individual instruction as part of the purchase price, while brands may also offer videos and online projects to help you discover all the features of your machine.

How do I start embroidering and use an embroidery hoop?

Once you have your machine, that’s when the fun truly begins. Follow our six-step embroidery tutorial to get started.

  1. Press your garment or fabric if necessary, and choose the threads for your design. Wind one or more bobbins and set one into the bobbin case. Transfer the design to your machine from your computer, a USB drive, or another source, or choose from built-in motifs.
  2. Mark the location of the design on your project. Use a removable marking tool to draw horizontal and vertical centerlines that intersect at the center of the design placement.
  3. Lay the outer ring of your embroidery hoop onto your work surface. Place one or more layers of stabilizer, slightly larger than the hoop, on the outer ring. Lay the project on the stabilizer, aligning the centerlines with the marks on the hoop, and insert the inner ring of the hoop. Press it downward to hold the fabric securely in the hoop; the fabric and stabilizer should be taut but not stretched. (Note: For hand embroiderers, this hooping will seem upside down! For hand embroidery, the fabric lies across the top of the inner hoop for easy access, but for hooped machine embroidery, the fabric is held below the inner hoop to keep it against the machine bed.)
  4. Attach the hoop to the machine. Refine the design placement with machine controls, if possible, using the centerlines and center intersection as guides. Thread the first color of embroidery thread into the needle and lower the presser foot.
  5. Press start. Your machine will take you through the stitching process, stopping when necessary for color changes. When the design is complete, take the hoop off the machine and remove the project from the hoop.
  6. Tear or cut away the excess stabilizer, and your project is complete.

Check out these links to a few easy embroidery projects to get started: