Free Machine Embroidery, or free motion embroidery as it's sometimes referred to, is the art of drawing or mark making with your sewing machine. The needle is used as a pencil or pen to create artwork or even to write with. When I refer to free machine embroidery I am talking about using the machine and guiding the fabric and needle yourself, rather than programming the sewing machine and leaving it to do the work for you. (I am not deriding this form, just that I am not trained it in and the technical skills would probably be far too advanced for me to figure out! )
Free machine embroidered artwork can be extremely intricate and heavily embroidered or more minimal with lots of negative space. It is much faster than hand embroidery meaning that work can be completed quicker. Hand and free machine embroidery can be combined on the same piece of work and as they give slightly different embroidered effects it can be a really interesting thing to do.
Free machine embroidery can be done on a variety of materials including the most obvious fabric, but also paper, balsa wood and thin metal too. It is possible to hand embroider into these materials, however it is hard going on the hands and frequent stops are needed. You can free machine embroider into thicker balsa wood and metal than you can hand embroider into.
Can you do free machine embroidery with a normal sewing machine?
Absolutely! I have used my 20+ year old Janome sewing machine for many years to create all of my free machine embroidered artwork, including my time at art college. It is a mid range sewing machine and works extremely well for this.
It is important to stabilise or make the fabric taught in some way to be able to free machine embroider effectively - I use an embroidery hoop for fabric, though you can also use stabilisers. It is not necessary to use a hoop for paper, metal, wood or very heavy weight fabrics such as upholstery fabrics. You will also need a free machine embroidery or darning foot to help with tension. It is also necessary to be able to drop your feed dogs or cover them with a plate - the sewing machine instruction manual will explain how to do this.
Free machine embroidery is also fantastic to combine with applique. Applique is building up an image or design with different fabrics to create artwork. One of the ways to hold the fabrics down on to the background layer is to go around them with free machine embroidery as I have done in the older piece above. The free machine embroidery allows you to follow curves and corners much more easily than the traditional way of sewing. You can also add free machine embroidered details too.
Writing with free machine embroidery
Just as the needle of your sewing machine can be used as a mark making or drawing tool, it can also be used as a pen. It's possible to free machine embroider writing - though it does take some practice! Some people find it easier to write the words on to the fabric in removalable pen and embroider over the lines and others find it easier to just go for it without any markings. Neither is right or wrong, it's simply personal preference. Adding writing or words to textile artwork is a lovely way to develop a narrative, hint at feelings or play with meaning.
I hope that's answered some questions around free machine embroidery and what it is. If you'd like to learn more and have a go yourself you may like to try my online instant workshop that can be found here or join an in person class locally to you. There are also many online videos or books that can help you on your way.
I'd love to see your free machine embroidery or hear your thoughts - feel free to pop them in the comments below.