Sunday, 29 November 2015

Quick Stitch Project - Thread Bowl

Starting free machine embroidery can be scary prospect, even for experienced stitchers.  I recall my own first experience very clearly - even after stitching on a sewing machine for years it felt completely alien.  This memory will forever stay with me and I now do all I can to ensure that others first experience of free stitching is a positive one.  The trick is to choose a first free stitch where inevitable first wobbly stitching is a positive and a pretty 'thread bowl' like this very much fits the bill.
 After using a sewing machine that controls the stitch length and direction, to find your hands in charge of both of these things is a bit like when you're first in charge of steering a car - it feels very unnatural and achieving any degree of control feels a near impossibility.  The fact is, however, that just as a learning to steer a car comes with practice and confidence, so does free machine embroidery.  The great thing about making thread bowls is that what might be perceived as imperfect first stitching adds to the texture - as this photo shows.
The starting point is to take a piece of water soluble fabric that is double the size of a large embroidery hoop - at least 12" in diameter.  I like to use 'Avalon' water soluble fabric which is easy washed away in cold water.  Fold the fabric piece in half and lay on top of the hoop.  Next scatter a few fibres, threads or ribbons in between the two layers - very little is needed, just something to add a bit of substance.  Then trap the double layer of water soluble fabric and fibres within in the embroidery hoop - pulling as tight as you can as you tighten the screw on the side.
Next to stitching.  To free stitch you need a darning foot and depending on your sewing machine type, the appearance can vary.  I have 3 different darning feet for my Bernina and all have their uses.  An open toe darning foot gives the best visibility, but the ends of the foot can get caught in the stitching.  A transparent foot is gives good visibility too I find.  All of the feet usually come with some sort of spring mechanism as shown at the top of each of mine.
You also need to be able to drop the feed dogs on your sewing machine - the teeth on the needle plate that normally pull the fabric through as being stitched.  If you don't know how to do this, refer to your instruction manual or have a look around your sewing machine for a button - it is sometimes well hidden on the back.  If you find that that feeds don't drop, you may be able to purchase a 'darning plate' or use a substitute for covering the feeds up.
Using the correct needle is also really important for free stitching  and you need to consider the thread and fabric - see this post for advice on sewing machine needles
If you have difficulty getting the embroidery hoop under the darning foot, push the bottom of the foot up with your finger to ease the hoop under.  It can help to avoid tangled stitches in free stitching by bringing up the bobbin thread to the top of the work before starting to stitch - put the needle in and out of the fabric once using the hand wheel and pull on the top thread to bring the bobbin thread up through the fabric.  Hold onto both thread ends for the first half a dozen stitches and then snip the thread ends off.    I then started off this bowl by stitching a few straight lines to make a bit of a grid - alternatively you can just start stitching in any old direction.
More often than not I simply stitch randomly around the hoop in any style that takes my fancy.  Here's a little video clip of the kind of free stitching a thread bowl in action.
There really are no hard and fast rules - wavy lines, big or small loops - just do what you feel most comfortable with.  The harder you press on the presser foot and the slower you move your hands, the smaller the stitches will be.  Light on the presser foot and fast on the hands creates big stitches.  Experiment to see the different effects.  You can also use pretty much any thread you like - you just need to match the needle to the thread.
Once you have reached a point that you have lots of dense stitching, you can then remove the water soluble fabric from the hoop.  If you would like a very defined edge around the thread bowl, add a bit of final stitching now - either free hand of revert to a normal foot and a pattern such as a zig zag.  Then trim back the water soluble fabric to within 1cm of the edge of the stitching - you might be able to salvage a piece for later use.
Finally wash off the water soluble fabric under a cold tap - the Avalon fabric quickly disappears.  I wash the stitching very quickly to leave a little 'gloopyness' from the product to hold the shape of the thread bowl.  I then mould the stitched piece over a small bowl - glass is good so that you can easily see when you have level the moulding level.  You can put a bit of cling film around the bowl first, although I usually find that any residue from the water soluble fabric usually washes away easily off glass easily enough.
Finally leave your bowl to dry naturally overnight or use a hair dryer if you would like to speed up the drying.  Once nice and dry, I use a small sharp knife to release the edge of the thread bowl from the glass and then it usually pops off quite easily.  If you have any unwanted water soluble fabric left around the top of the bowl, just remove with damp fingers.
Making thread bowls is a really fun and creative introduction to free machine embroidery and it is very motivating to make something with your first attempt that you are happy with.  They are perfect for placing a small gift in or simply beautiful on their own.  Do give making them a try and I would love to see photographs of finished creations.


  1. That is a good tip, to play and get used to moving something around under the needle.
    I saw your display at the Red Brick building, it is very near my home. I enjoyed your work very much.

  2. Thank you Kath - free machine embroidery really is much easier than often anticipated and I'm on a mission to show this to others!