New Freeform Machine Embroidery Tips & Project

Imagine, if you will, me in my studio trying to use adhesive-backed water-soluble stabilizer. I carefully peel away the non-stick backing only to find that the sticky part doesn't stay put on my work surface.

So now I am trying to hold down one edge of the stabilizer with one hand and peel away the backing with the other, but as I lift the last part of the backing off I realize I am stuck to the other end. Meanwhile, my long-haired cat, Dickens jumps on the table, causing a puff of his luxurious fur to sprinkle down on the adhesive. Great.

And I haven't even gotten to the stitching part, where if I'm not careful to interlock everything into a grid, the entire design could fall apart.

I love the ethereal effects you can achieve with water-soluble stabilizer, fibers, and free-motion machine embroidery. The combination can create a stunning focal point for an art quilt or wall-hanging, or even be used to create a garment. But working with the stabilizer can be tricky-unless you know some tricks of the trade.

Fortunately, I was able to pick up several tips from fiber artist Liz Kettle who was a guest on "Quilting Arts TV" series 600 with a segment on free-form machine embroidery. She not only revealed some of her tips on how to handle the stabilizer, but also how to free-motion stitch in a way that you create a grid to lock in all the fibers, without having to incorporate a griddy design.

Here are highlights of her advice, with project directions below.

  • To reveal the adhesive on the stabilizer, place it on a paper work surface and peel back just one corner of the backing. Use a piece of low-tack tape (such as painter's tape) to hold the corner in place. Next peel back the other corner, holding it down with low-tack tape. Keep pulling off the backing slowly, adding a bit of tape along the edge of the adhesive in the middle of each side and at the corners on the other end. Now your stabilizer is will stay put and not stick to you.
  • Save your sheet of non-stick backing. If you have to stop while adding your fibers to the design, you can cover it with the backing so dust, stray threads, and pet hair won't get on it. Covering the adhesive will also prevent it from drying out.
  • Don't keep beverages on the same worktable as your water-soluble stabilizer. If the drink spills, the stabilizer will dissolve.
  • Keep in mind that to hold your design together, you will have to stitch everything down. However, you can do this without having to create a square grid. Note how Liz uses meandering lines, circles, and zigzags that intersect but don't have that square, "griddy" look.
  • Start stitching over the most difficult pieces of fiber first, such as plump pieces of wool roving. Loosely stitch over them to keep them in place. Next, stitch more solid pieces, like the ribbons. In the piece shown here, the ribbons are part of the grid that holds the piece together.
  • To make certain your piece doesn't fall apart, be careful to connect all elements and the stitching, such as when you change thread colors. To stitch straight lines (such as the "rays" in the piece pictured), free-motion stitch back and forth over the line 4-5 times, then go over the stitching with a very narrow zigzag stitch to hold the lines in place.
  • To give the piece more dimension, add hand embroidery stitches like French knots and embellishments such as beads or sequins. Be sure to do this before you dissolve the stabilizer.

Free-form Embroidery Project
By Liz Kettle


  • Adhesive-backed water-soluble stabilizer (Aqua-Magic Plus, Aquabond, Avalon Fix)
  • Scissors
  • Lightweight, clear water-soluble stabilizer
  • Permanent marker
  • Pattern drawn on paper
  • Masking tape
  • Wool or silk roving
  • Assorted ribbons and yarns
  • Assorted threads: cotton, rayon, silk, metallics
  • Size 90 machine embroidery needle

Optional: Small bits of fabric; Angelina fibers  


  1. Cut a piece of sticky-backed water-soluble stabilizer larger than your drawn design. Allow a 1 1/2"-2" margin of stabilizer on all sides of the design.
  2. Lay the stabilizer on a firm surface with the paper-backed sticky side up. Begin in one corner and carefully pull back the paper backing to expose the sticky surface. As you expose a corner or side, use masking tape to hold the stabilizer down on your work surface. Slide your drawn design underneath the stabilizer.
  3. Place fiber, fabric, yarns, and threads over parts of the drawn design. It is easiest to place the non-fuzzy fibers first. Paper can even be used.
  4. Place a piece of lightweight water-soluble film (often called topping or backing) on top of the adhesive water-soluble film and the fibers you have laid down. Press the top layer down firmly to secure it.
  5. Use a permanent marker to trace the pattern on top of the top layer of water-soluble stabilizer. Don't worry about tracing the exact lines of the original pattern.
  6. Set up your machine for free-motion stitching. Begin by stitching all the areas with loose fibers, yarns, and ribbons. Then, stitch on any remaining drawn lines multiple times. Make sure that all stitching connects on multiple points. Be sure the stitching on the loose fibers connects to the edges of the embroidery and ribbons that run along both sides. All elements must connect to all other elements.
  7. Stitch around the perimeter multiple times, and finish all straight stitched lines with a zigzag stitch to bundle the loose thread together.
  8. Add hand embroidery stitching. Simple stitches work well; try French knots, cross stitches, a running stitch, and couching. Secure the hand stitches in the loose fibers by placing them on machine stitch lines.
  9. Rinse the finished embroidery under warm running water to remove the stabilizer. Block the piece if necessary.

With Liz's tips at hand, I'm ready to dive into my stash of fibers and try creating a lovely, lacy piece of machine embroidery like this one. To see Liz demonstrate her techniques, be sure to get your DVD set from "QATV" Series 600, available now.

Other topics you may enjoy:


Machine Embroidery, Quilting Daily Blog

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