I am often asked how I go about a free motion machine embroidery. I am self-taught and my style has evolved over the last few years. I started using simple appliqué designs and as I became more confident using free motion machine embroidery techniques, the designs became more detailed.
I still love appliqué work – however, the focus is on the design more than the stitching itself. I think of the difference between pure free motion embroidery and appliqué being like the difference between an oil painting and a silk screen print.
Technically, to free motion embroider I just drop the feed dogs on my sewing machine (those metal teeth that pull the fabric under the presser foot), switch to a darning foot and away I go.
The fabric needs to be held taut to stop it gathering up as you sew and I use a mixture of ‘stitch and tear’ (which is ironed on to the back of the fabric and is ripped off once the piece is complete), a bamboo embroidery hoop and a printable, soluble stabiliser that sticks to the front of the fabric.
The composition takes a bit more work.
I start with a photo – where I can I use my own, but my range of subjects is limited. I hear owls every night, but I never see them! Wildlife reference books and websites are useful starting points. In order to get proportions and perspectives I will either draw or paint directly on to the fabric or print a photo on to the fabric stabiliser. When I draw I need to use a board to put the paper at an angle or everything ends up long and thin if I draw on a horizontal surface. Naturally I cannot put the sewing machine at an angle, so I need a starting image on the fabric.
As I sew I cover whatever image I start with, so I stitch the main lines to keep on track and fill in the detail by eye from my reference image(s). It may sound strange, but I have to stitch the eyes of an animal first, as soon as I have an outline. The eyes make it feel real and starting with them I am sure helps the realism of the final piece.
This type of detailed embroidery takes quite some time – even when using a sewing machine – so I try to change thread as little as possible. This means that flecks and spots and spines etc are best done early on. Each spot is joined by a line of thread that will be covered with subsequent layers of thread.
Whereas with paint you can mix colours to get just the shade you need, with thread you need to think impressionism. Layering colours of threads gives the impression of the shade you are looking for – and also adds texture (without having to wait for colours to dry!)
Once I feel the piece is finished I put it aside for a day or two. Looking at it with fresh eyes lets me see areas that need more work.
The final stage is to frame the piece. Sometimes I will use a traditional oak frame, but mainly I frame embroideries in woodgrain effect flexi hoops. It just highlights the fact that it is an embroidery rather than a painting. I also like circles. Squares are good too, but I am not so keen in rectangles. Odd, huh!