How Do Embroidery Machines Work? (2022 Guide for Beginners)

We’ve all come back from a holiday with a cheesy t-shirt or slippers that have our holiday destination embroidered onto it. You know, that’s unlikely to be hand embroidery work, and most likely to be machine embroidery.

The first time my grandmother let me use her embroidery machine, I was amazed at how well it handled even the most complex of creative tasks!

Whether you want to add a personal touch to something in your wardrobe or an umbrella, or start embroidering professionally you might be wondering: What is an embroidery machine? And how does it work? If you’ve pondered how embroidery machines work, look no further.

How do embroidery machines work?

An embroidery machine is similar to a sewing machine, except that instead of attaching fabric together, it sews intricate designs with a repetitive stitch.

DID YOU KNOW?

The first embroidery machine was invented in 1846 by Frenchman Josue Heilmann 20 years before the first sewing machine was patented!

An embroidery machine will uniformly carry out stitches in varying texture and density to create decorations and patterns on fabric. These machines can be deployed in commercial environments where different sizes of designs have to be created in a short space of time.

Embroidery Machines
Close-Up Image of a Multi-Needle Embroidery Machine

A hoop is attached to an embroidery machine, where the fabric is held taut in place. If the fabric moves, there is a chance it will fall out and the design will not line up.

During the embroidering the frame will move underneath the needle on a predefined path by the embroidery machines software. Designs can either be uploaded to the embroidery machine from a computer via USB port, or be pre-programmed in. 

Once a design has been chosen, modern embroidery machines will allow the user to play around with size, placement and color theme on the small screen.

It’s as simple as pressing a start button, and the machine embroidery begins. The only thing the user may have to do is to change the color thread when required. 

Is an embroidery machine hard to use? 

To be honest, it’s no harder than any other skill that a person is willing to spend time to learn, and if you’ve used a sewing machine you may have an advantage as they have similar hardware.

It may take a little while to get used to the new techniques and terms such as cut away and fringe. Once you’ve figured out bobbin thread, computer and pattern-making software and punching designs, embroidery work on the machine will be a breeze.

NOTE

A fringe is a stitching technique that creates dimensional loops and a cut away is a type of stabilizer that is used behind the fabric being embroidered that needs to be trimmed back with scissors after embroidering. 

Do embroidery machines also sew? 

Whilst some machines are devoted to only embroidery, other machines have a dual function. Instead of having two machines at home, some computerized embroidery machines do the work of home sewing machines too.

A Seamstress Embroidering Colorful Florals With Her Hands

For hybrid machines, there will be a removable arm used during the embroidery process which includes a detachable hoop. To embroider on a dual function machine, adjustments will need to be made such as switching out the presser foot to a darning foot, lowering the feed dogs and attaching the arm to an embroidery arm.

How to use an embroidery machine for a beginner

While sewing skills are useful, you don’t need to be an expert to navigate an embroidery machine..

Read the manual 

It may be stating the obvious, but first things first – read the manual! It will help you to familiarize yourself with various parts such as the arm, needle plate and bobbin. 

Calibration

Once you’ve read the manual, attach the embroidery unit without the hoop, lift the presser foot and plug in and power up the machine. It’s going to calibrate itself, and the arm on the machine is going to move around, so make sure there is nothing close by that can get knocked over.

Feet

Close-Up Image of an Embroidery Foot

You will need to attach an embroidery or darning foot if the machine does not have this attached already. You can find tutorials of how to do this online. The foot can be attached with either a screw or it will pop off easily, it will differ depending on the machine.

Needles 

An embroidery needle is required. 75/11, 80/12 or 90/14 are the most used sizes of embroidery needles for machines.

These have a slightly bigger eye and a specially shaped scarf than other types of sewing needles, which allow decorative or fragile threads to pass through without shredding or tearing.

During most embroidery work, only one needle is used.

If you are using a heavier weight fabric such as denim or canvas, you will need to use a thicker needle like a 14/90. If you will embroider on a thinner weight fabric such as cotton or linen, you will want to use a smaller needle such as 11/75. 

Like regular sewing, you want to make sure that you are changing the needle every few projects as the needle gets blunt over time. 

Here’s a video explaining how to choose needles for embroidery:

YouTube video
Choosing Embroidery Needle

Hooping

Now you are ready to attach fabric to the hoop, then to the machine following the manufacturers guidelines.

Design

Most computerized embroidery machines have preloaded designs and fonts built in or a built in USB drive to connect to your own library. Some companies offer an online PDF or catalog on their website with embroidery designs that you can upload to your machine. These may be free designs but if embroidering a licensed character there could be a charge. 

Assess whether or not your machine has built in designs, or if you should import your own via USB. Once your embroidery design has been selected, and the position has been set on the fabric you are ready to begin!

DID YOU KNOW?

Embroidery is speculated to date as far back as 30,000BC! Recent archeological finds showed fossilized remains of heavily hand-stitched and decorated clothing, boots and hats!

Does an embroidery machine work automatically?

Computerized embroidery sewing machines automatically create an embroidery design from the pre-programmed digital pattern that has been selected.

Most machines will operate automatically so you can do other things while the machine runs. An embroidery machine will automatically start, and then stop and cut the thread when a color thread change is necessary.

Is it better to embroider by hand or machine?

For centuries hand embroiderers would decorate, mark and mend their clothes and possessions using top thread and fabric.

Nowadays, it depends on the skills of the person using the needles! Hand embroidery can result in stitching a beautiful piece of artwork, whereas using a machine produces a professional looking work in a fraction of the time it takes to do something similar by hand.

Making an Embroidery of a Human Portrait
Making an Embroidery of a Human Portrait

Hand embroidery is a cheap hobby without the expense or worry or a bobbin or machine, as long as you have needles, thread and fabric you can begin!

What is hooping?

Hooping is the term used, when fabric is put into an embroidery hoop to hold it taut during the sewing process. An embroidery hoop is then attached to the arm. This is important so the design is positioned properly.

4 x 4”, 5 x 7” and 6 x 10” are the most common sized embroidery hoops. Some machines will accept more than one hoop size, whilst others will only accept one. 

TIP

Larger designs require a bigger hoop which may need to be purchased separately, and vice versa for smaller designs.

What is a stabilizer?

A stabilizer is a thin fabric such as muslin, that stiffens fabrics to hold in place while hooping. 

Stabilizers can be attached with a light spray on adhesive, or heat. There are different types of stabilizer, such as tear away where it is torn away after the embroidery process is complete. Heat away will turn into ash with the heat of an iron, and a water soluble stabilizer will dissolve in water to get rid of it.

I use tear away stabilizer on the majority of my projects. This is really easy for a beginner to use, and can be bought in sheets or rolls – and it’s often the cheapest!

RECOMMENDATION

Special scissors are really useful. They have a stoop to them, so the user is able to cut away thread without battling with the hoop. Some scissors have a protective edge which means you won’t cut any fabric away by accident!

What is digitizing?

This is the process of taking an image or artwork and converting it into a digital file format that an embroidery machine understands using software. The software allows embroidery machines to understand the needle’s path.

You have to digitize the image usually from a JPG or PNG file and convert it into an embroidery file. The type of embroidery machine determines the file needed and software that should be used: e.g. Brother embroidery machines use a .kwk embroidery format. 

If you have knowledge of computers, this can be fairly easy to get to grips with – the more you practise digitizing images the easier it will be. 

Stitching and embroidery thread need to be considered for aesthetics when digitizing art. The three most common stitch types for embroidering are:

Straight stitch

Used for:

  • Shading
  • Outlining
  • Detailed work

Satin stitch

Used for:

  • Words and text
  • Borders
  • Achieving a shiny finish

Fill stitch

Used for:

  • Filling in a blank space
  • Larger designs
  • Creating a textured look

What kind of embroidery machine do I need?

For specific embroidery designs you will need a machine that is capable of the process. You can free motion embroidery on a regular sewing machine by lowering the feed dogs and moving the fabrics underneath the needle manually, but for detailed professional work, you may need a dedicated machine. 

Assess your needs. If you envisage yourself embroidering on small projects such as top pockets and bookmarks you will probably need a relatively cheap machine with a small throat space.

NOTE

The throat space is the area between the body of the machine and the needle.

If you do purchase a computerized embroidery machine, make sure to check the warranty which will provide cover in case of malfunction.

Conclusion

This art form really is one of the coolest ways to leave a personal touch on something. I hope you can now answer the question: “how do embroidery machines work?” in your sewing circle! 

People say the greatest gift is knowledge, so while you’re here, would you share this post with any budding embroiderers who have been curious to take the plunge into the embroidering world? If you already took the plunge, try an embroidery subscription box to mix things up!

Happy machine embroidery!

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Kris Daub
Kris Daub
[email protected] byCurated I'm a maker at heart! I love to create and tech others to create. I particularly sewing and hand crafts like ebroidery. I also love larger home decorating projects. ✂️ ?