Trouble-shooting Tips for Machine Quilting and Embroidery

I admire quilt artists who paint pictures with thread. The best ones remind me of Georges Seurat's pointillist paintings with their ability to make variations of little stitches in different colors come together to create a whole image full of light and texture through free-motion machine quilting and embroidery.

free machine embroidery example
Window depicted in thread via free-motion machine embroidery, by Carol Shinn.

Like any other technique, "painting" with machine embroidery takes practice to get the result you want. And there are many technical variables that come into play, such as tension, choice of feet, the warp and weft of the fabric, and type of machine quilting thread used.

And still, even if you're experienced and have gathered all the appropriate equipment, problems crop up. Don't they always? That's when it's good to have experts you can turn to for troubleshooting advice.

One of those experts is Carol Shinn, who literally wrote the book on the subject. In Freestyle Machine Embroidery: Techniques and Inspiration for Fiber Art, Carol gives detailed advice and examples of how to achieve the effects you're after with machine embroidery, and what to do when things go awry.

Here are just three examples of her trouble-shooting advice:

Changing a color
If a color isn't working, change it. If a color isn't dark enough, brush on a darker shade of paint. Thinned acrylic paint may dull the surface, but fabric paint is more transparent and may not cover the mistake as well. In either case, stitch over the painted surface to make it blends with the rest of the piece. If the original color is too dark, it is better to rip out the problem and re-stitch the area.

machine stitching detail
In this detail, you can see how the machine stitching creates the colors and textures of the window.

Defining a straight edge
If you have trouble defining the straight edge on  a shape, temporarily lay a strip of masking tape along the edge, then carefully stitch right up to the edge of the tape. The tape provides a visual guide that is cleaner than a drawn line because a drawn line will bump over the threads, get messy, and be hard to cover. This technique works best on a surface that already has some stitchingmasking tape placed directly on a heat transfer may remove part of the transfer when it is pulled off.

Ripping Out
If an isolated area looks over-labored and clumsy, you have two choices: rip the stitches and rework the area or cut out the area altogether and replace it with a patch of new stitching. Ripping out and re-stitching is the first choice. I use magnifying headgear when I use a ripping tool so that I can see what I'm doing. The aim is to get the threads out without ripping out bits of the base fabric as well. I find that a strong T-pin pulls out small stitches more easily than a conventional ripping tool does. Tweezers are useful for pulling out loose bits of thread.

These are such practical, no-nonsense tipsnothing esoteric or complicated. And you can apply them to just about any style of machine quilting or embroidery.

Freestyle Machine Embroidery is an indispensible resource for quilt artists. It's now available as a convenient downloadable eBook, too.

P.S. What's your best method for ripping out stitches? Do you have any other tips? Share them below.

Other topics you may enjoy:


Machine Embroidery, Machine Stitching, Quilting Daily Blog

One thought on “Trouble-shooting Tips for Machine Quilting and Embroidery

  1. I have developed a technique I have not seen you use. I did these quilts where I had sewed over paper as I had seen on quilting arts. The task of ripping out the paper was tedious. Then it dawned on me trace on to wash away stablizer with a pencil lay it in top of the quilt and I can get a more percise picture. this is very noce for zendoodles or small decor on bracelets. It is easy to trace things in magazines (like line drawings).