Saturday, November 29, 2014

Embroidery Machines - a Guide For Beginners by Someone That Is In No Way An Expert

When I first started seriously considering buying an embroidery machine, I began scouring the Internet for advice, reviews, and general knowledge.  I knew they made pretty pictures, and that you had to have something to make those pictures, but that was about it.   Then I started reading more, got intimidated and gave up on my dream of owning one.  Finally I did more searching and decided that I could figure it all out, eventually and took the plunge.  I still don't know everything and I'm constantly finding out new features, but here's what I gathered.

(The machine in action!)

Things to know about actual machines:

Prices will vary from around $250 up to tens of thousands of dollars.  The more you spend, the more you get.  Those super pricey ones come with lots of extras like various sized hoops (including giant hoops), free software, multiple needles that will run themselves, starter packages of supplies, one on one training (only if you buy at an actual sewing machine store and not some big retailer) and (I assume) a servant to clean your house while you are busy scouring the web for awesome embroidery patterns and ideas.  I could be mistaken about the servant, but at those prices, I hope I'm not!

Everyone has their own favorite brand.  Some people swear by one and spit upon the others (Not literally, I hope).  Someone else will say that you need to go high end and if you spend less than $1,000 your machine is a piece of junk.  Personally, I went with what I could afford and checked online reviews.

All advice I received did agree on this:  Go for the biggest hoop you can get!  I really wanted a larger hoop, but looking at what I planned to use it on (embroidering wallets and purse flaps) I decided I could live with the small hoop.  A second reason I went small was because I do have a habit of starting something, investing in the supplies, and then they sit in a corner for years, waiting for me to have time.  If I actually did use my little machine, I knew that in a few years I could upgrade and be confident it wouldn't be a waste of money.

Personally, I'm using a PE500 by Brother, and I've had no trouble with it, other than user error and the limit of the small hoop.

The parts:

The most talked about part of the machine (In my opinion) is the HOOP.  Everyone talks about hoop sizes.  Your machine will come with (at least) one hoop that is the biggest size it can use.  Mine can use a 4x4 hoop, and also a little tiny one (not included, but it shows a picture of it).  That doesn't mean the hoop is actually 4"x4", it means the stitching area is (just under) 4"x4"  My hoop is more like 5 1/2" by 7".  The machine actually moves the hoop around, so even if you buy a bigger hoop, it might not fit in your machine.  There are some that are extended and can be used to make bigger designs on smaller machines, but I haven't had a chance to get one and try it out.

I first thought 4x4 was super tiny, then I took a ruler and actually drew a box that size.  It's surprisingly big!  I measured some of the things I wanted to embroidery and realized it would be a perfect size.
(My very first thing I ever made!)
The Supplies:

Needles - plan on buying these in bulk.  My machine came with 4 spares, and I broke them all within the first few weeks.  There is a learning curve to using one of these things, even if you have been sewing for years.  I'd also suggest safety glasses if you are going to crouch down and watch it sew, I've had a few flying needle pieces come at me!  Just like in sewing, you need various sizes for different materials.

Stabilizer - This deserves an entire post about what types to use for what projects and how to know when to use them.  I'm not anywhere near an expert on this, but if you are just starting out, buying some medium weight tear away, medium weight cut away, and water soluble stabilizers should get you started.  I bought pre-cut 8"x8" squares from amazon, in packs of 100, and I'm just now starting to buy in rolls and cutting my own to save a few cents per sheet.  Tear away is great for ITH (In The Hoop) projects like bows, felties, finger puppets, etc.  Cut away is used for clothing, cotton fabric, or anything that will need more stability.  Wash away is for free standing lace, and also if you want to embroider on thick/fluffy things like towels and fleece.  If you are doing some stitch heavy embroidery, you will need to do several layers of stabilizer, and possible some basting glue to secure the fabric/vinyl.
(Sparkle vinyl, with fill stitches that took several layers of tear away stabilizer - I used one full piece and several layers of my scraps, then spray basting glue on the vinyl)

Stuff to embroider on - I started with regular quilting cotton, but I have since expanded to t-shirts, towels, felt and vinyl.  I've seen people even embroider on toilet paper, so there's no limit to what you could use!  Each one will take a different combination of stabilizers to make it the 'best' so you will have to experiment.

(T-shirt with small embroidery at the bottom)
(Centered design on a little girl's shirt, after washing the hoop mark went away)

(Free standing lace on wash away stabilizer)

(Lace after the stabilizer was washed away)

Thread - Prepare to invest in thread.  LOTS of thread.  I bought a set of 40 different colors when I started, and that was nowhere near enough colors!  If you want to do stuff with shading, you'll need several different shades of the same color, like on my bunny boat.  The paper boat part called for 3 different shades of grey, I think.  It does make a difference!  My machine isn't picky about thread, but some of the brands seem to only like certain threads.  And of course the thread is NOT cheap.  I still haven't tried regular sewing thread in my machine, although I've been told it will work...In the meantime I think I have about 100 different colors right now, including variegated threads and metallic.
(There is a darker grey on the 'back' of the boat sides, and the two front pieces might be different too)
(Same design, same fabric, different colors of thread)

My machine came with a little pair of scissors, but I ended up investing in a more expensive pair of embroidery scissors (Yay for Joann's coupons!!).  They need to be sharp, tiny, and slightly curved.  I also have a pair of tweezers I keep nearby to catch the thread as it goes through the auto-threader and pick up trimmed thread ends when they are being stubborn and sticking to the fabric.  The tweezers are just some beauty ones I got at the dollar store, but they are so useful!  I even use them to put a new needle in because sometimes my fingers can't get it in straight no matter how hard I try.  Also, keep a trash can nearby; you'll end up with tons of thread ends and scraps of stabilizer that will get everywhere.  I have some quilting basting spray that I will use on stretchy stuff or things that might move/slide.  Some designs call for you to 'float' a piece of felt or fabric on the back of the hoop and I'll either use the spray or sometimes washi tape.  I've also heard the paper medical tape works well, but I haven't tried it.  Scotch tape works in a pinch, but it doesn't tear away as easily when you sew over it.

The Fun Part:

After you have all your supplies and figured out how to set everything up for your machine (READ THE MANUAL!! It really does help!), it's time to spend even more money, er, I mean, invest in some fun things to make with it!  There are free patterns all over the Internet, but if you are looking for something specific, you may end up buying it.  One important part of buying/finding files is making sure it has the right file extension.  My Brother machine uses .pes files or .dst files.  Each brand has a specific type of file that works, and while you can find programs to convert them, it's usually best to buy the right one to begin with!  Also, double check the size of the stitched out file before you buy!  Anything under 4"x4" will fit in my hoop, usually they are 3.90" or less.

Some of my favorite pattern sites:

Bobbin' For Appliques
Dejah Vue Designs
Embroidery Garden
French Frills
Urban Threads

Be sure to join groups on Face Book that are dedicated to the various types of embroidery, they will often have free patterns, notifications on sales, and helpful people that can guide and troubleshoot.  Everything I know about embroidery I either learned from them or through trial and error!

I hope this helps anyone looking into a personal embroidery machine, and I'd love to try to answer questions or hear your advice on avoiding mistakes and frustrations! 

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