Free motion couching

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Jaymil wrote
on 8 Oct 2011 7:32 AM

Hello everyone. I need some advice please.

I want to couch thick threads on the surface (as opposed to doing bobbin work). I don't want to use a zigzag stitch. I see Bernina have brought out a free motion couching foot but I have a fairly basic low shank Elna/Janome. Does anyone know of a way to do free motion couching on this machine? I am wondering if I could modify the big round transparent free motion quilting foot which Janome sells.

I would be grateful for any advice.



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on 8 Oct 2011 12:42 PM

Hi Jaymil

I'm primarly an embroiderer... using the sewing machine a lot for free work.   You can machine couch any thickness of thread (providing it passes through bobbin fittings).  The process is not one of laying the thick thread on the fabric and stitching over it - but rather stitching as you would normally with the machine - except the bobbin thread is replaced with thick thread.   I hand wind my chosen thick threads onto the bobbin.  Depending on thickness this can mean a limit to the length of thread available.  My Bernina (20 years old) has a bobbin case especially for use with thicker threads)  However the process does mean you work blind... turn the work over with the wrong side facing you.  So you stitch from the back. The 'normal' top thread will appear on the wrong side - and the thicker (couched) thread on the bobbin will now be on the right side.  But you use a normal straight stitch... no zig-zag necessary.  If you zig-zag, the thick thread will zig-zag.    It has the benefit of giving a clean line, but can be a problem with longer lengths, ie joins, and also you have to be careful, check frequently that the thick thread isn't bunching, flows through the bobbin smoothly.  With practice you get to know what your machine accepts, tensions etc.

If you want to use very thick threads, then the option is to lay it on the right side and machine in place - zig-zag over it, or... if careful, straight stitch down the centre of the thick thread.  These are not necessarily free motion options.    Any of the above do not require special equipment, needles, machine feet, bobbins....   Have fun playing.

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ckquilter wrote
on 9 Oct 2011 6:34 PM

hi jaymil

a question - why don't you want to use a zigzag? is it because your machine does not have one? if not, it will be slow, but you can use a straight stitch and do a jump stitch. 

the other reply to your question will also work - for anything you can wind onto the bobbin. it works well  and is very beautiful for some heavier threads. obviously it won't work for thick yarn, or beads or sequins or fabric or wire. and you do have to work from the wrong side and it will limit the length of thread you can use.

you do not need any special equipment to couch, free motion, anything your machine will stitch through. except a darning foot. if you have that, you are ready.

if your threads are thick enough, you can couch them with a straight stitch. other things i have couched, from the right side, with just a darning foot are:

strips of torn fabric, strips of torn sheers, many types and thicknesses of thread, angelina fibers (unfused), bead strands, sequin stands, cording, yarn, wire, easter basket grass.               usually i use a zigzag stitch, so that both edges of the couching material is held. but if the thread/yarn/fabric strip is wide enough, a straight stitch will hold it in place (one line of stitching down the middle, or a line of stitches down each edge).          the material being couched can go any direction you want. i have done words and phrases with couching, even done fairies with couched yarn.  so any shape or direction is doable (although when doing words or fairies i sew more slowly to be able to follow the design).

your top thread can be purely construction (the color blends with the couched material or use monofilament) or decorative, with a contrasting color thread or metallic thread or glow in the dark or solar reactive thread.                    the bobbin thread depends.  it can also be just about anything, depending on whether it is just construction, or is gonna show and needs to be decorative or needs to blend.

thread your machine. drop the feed dogs. put on the darning foot. (you can even skip the darning foot and use no presser foot if you put the material into a hoop. this will strongly limit the size you can work on. and be very careful to keep your fingers away from the needle).    and start sewing (remember to bring both threads to the surface. tack the beginning edge of the couched thread so it does not pull out. and then just sew slowly, moving the couched thread in the shape you want, and sewing over it as you go.) stop with the needle down if you need to turn your work. if you want a sharp point, sew up to the point, take a tack stitch so both sides of the couched thread are held at the point, then pull the couched thread in the new direction,  and continue sewing.    

you will also want to make sure your surface has enough stability to support the couching. usually i am working on a quilted piece, after (or as part of) the quilting. i don't usually need any additional stablizer. but if working on a jacket, or quilt top, you will need an appropriate stabilizer underneath.

if your machine does only a straight stitch, and you can't wind the couched material into the bobbin, then a jump stitch, while slow, will work. you make the zigzag , by moving the fabric, while the machine does a straight stitch. it helps a lot to have needle up/down. set it for needle up. take one stitch down and up, on one side of your couched thread; then with the needle up, move the fabric over so that the next stitch is on the other side of the couched thread.     it will be slow going; especially if you are following an intricate design.   but you will get into a rhythm with your machine after awhile and will be able to move at a continuous pace.          your stitches will not be as even and regular as a machine done zigzag  - so a sewing thread that blends with your couched thread will look better.           a well stabilized surface will help a lot.

you really don't need a fancy cording foot to do this. they can be nice if you are using a well behaved couching thread. but if you are couching anything else, they won't wok anyway.                               hope that helps                         ckquilter



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Jaymil wrote
on 10 Oct 2011 1:34 AM

Thank you very much for your long and  comprehensive reply. You are obviously a very experienced stitcher. Lots of good advice there !

I do have a zigzag stitch but I don't want to use it as it tends to 'squash' the couched thread more if it is a soft thick one. I want to do free motion couching for exactly the reason that it is 'freer'. The fancy free motion couching feet such as those for Bernina, Pfaff and Husqvana  actually guide the couching thread at the same time as stitching it down, and being on top it is easier to see what you are doing. 

When you couch thicker threads with a straight stitch do you pin or tack or hold the thread down in the pattern you want it to go? I can see how couching straightish lines and gentle curves could be done without too much difficulty but how do you do words and fairies? I am most impressed.

Thanks for your advice     Jaymil

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ckquilter wrote
on 10 Oct 2011 4:40 PM

hi jaymil

i have not had much problem with a zigzag squashing a thick thread. are you loosening the top tension so that the threads are not pulled tight?

a zigzag will catch the wispies when i couch a textured/fringed thread - so again, you have to go slow, andi use a stiletto to move the wisps aside as i couch, so they don't get caught,and will spring back up after the center of the yarn is couched.

the fancy feet do work - as long as the thread you are using fits in their grooves. the couching i do does  not usually fit - so i skipped the expense (spent it on thread and yarn instead) and just worked with my regular darning foot - which works fine for me.

evena straight stitch will slightly flatten a thick cord - probably as much or more than the zizag. i just realized something - your zigzag width must be wide enough to clear both sides of the couched thread - otherwise it will flatten the thread - could it be your zigzag is not wide enough and it is flattening the thread when it goes through it?  the thread you use in the machine is not supposed to actually stitch through the thread being couched. it is supposed to go over the top and clear it on both sides.  maybe this is why your couched thread is looking squashed?

i do not pin or tack the cord ahead of the sewing. you can't follow the detail if done that way. also , sewing over the couched thread makesit just slightly shorter than it was before being sewn, and a pinned thread would become too tight or need to be adjusted constantly - so i just feed the cord as i am sewing, and the machine takes what it needs.  doing a design like fairies - where the lines continuously go back over each other in a small area, would be impossible to pin. there would be too many pins to be able to sew.

i usually do words totally free hand - it is just like free motion quilting - except using a zigzag stitch and working over the top of the couching thread.

when i do fairies or other intricate shapes (you could do this for words also) i draw the design on water soluble stabilizer, pin the stabilizer to the top, exactly where i want it, and then just stitch over the drawn lines. again, it is just like free motion quilting, except with a zigzag and a couching thread . when done, just gently wash away the stabilizer.     your couched thread will need to be stable to water.                   

when doing shapes like that, there will be some cross points and possibly back tracking - go extra slow there. and try to minimize those. backtracking will make that line thicker than single lines. so i try and do all backtracking inside the design; and keep the outer edge of the design a consistent single thickness - it just looks better to my eye.              also, when backtracking - instead of laying the 2 couching lines next to each other, i try and lay the second couched thread right on top of the first - so the line is deeper, but not much thicker.

you could start by drawing your name on a practice piece.    it makes for a familiar feel. make the letters big the first time - several inches is pretty easy.make  sure your fabric is well stabilized .   make the letters round and open - it will be easier to sew and look better.   practice writing your name on a piece of paper- slowly, and with one continuous line - ie do NOT lift the pen from the paper; which is the same way you will be sewing.

 for an i - i usually use a crystal or bead for the dot. or go up the i, when you get to the top, make a small circle or heart or other closed shape, so that it ends back at the top of the upstroke, then backtrack down over the upstroke.                        for a t, go up to the top, then back track down to where the cross piece will be (i explained in the last reply how to make sharp points ), then go sideways for half of the cross, tack at the end, backtrack to the upright,       then do the same on the other side. come back to the middle, then backtrack down the lower part of the t.                 

remember, even when backtracking, when making a 90 degree corner- that is a point, and to make it sharp, you will need to tack both sides of the couched thread at that point, so that you can then change directions and have a sharp point.                                  after you have done your name, 2 or 3 inches tall - you will be able to do any design you want. 3 inches would be easier the first time. after that, even an inch would be doable, if you keep the couching thread not too heavy.

your darning foot can help you. an open one can catch on the couching thread. i prefer closed. a plastic see through can help. but i prefer them to be small - the great big ones are harder for me to see through.      a small metal one is not too bad - i usually prefer a small metal to a large plastic. but a small easily seen through pastic is my first choice. 

also, my machine will let me adjust the pressure on the presser foot. so when couching a very thick cord or yarn or strip of fabric; i reduce the pressure on thedarning foot, so it does not hang up on the thicker cord. and that makes it easier to backtrack also.  if  could not do that, then having the groove on the underside of the fancy couching foot would be more important..

hope that helps. let us know how it works out for you. even better, post a picture the project !  ckquilter


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hpthecat wrote
on 21 Oct 2011 5:26 AM

Try this on a practice sample, I've never done it, so I don't know if it will work, but it's worth a try:

Get one of those drinking straws, the kind that can bend. Tape it upside down to the side of the head of your machine. Make the bent end angle toward your needle and draw the yarn through the straw from above, then down through the hole in your couching foot and tack the yarn in place. Then...just take off and see what happens.....I think it might work perfect.

Let us know.

Bernina 820, Babylock Evolution, Babylock Embellisher, Babylock Audrey.

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Posts 135
on 18 Nov 2011 7:43 AM

I decided to give this a go.  As in theory it does sound ideal.  Alas it didn't work for me.  Well it works in the direction of where the straw end is, so if its angled in from the left, it will stitch on the couching thread to the left.  But the minute you go off in other directions it simply won't stitch on the thread.  I tried various places to put the straw - but always the same, stitches in line with the angle of the straw, but won't any other.  I cut a piece of straw and stuck it to my Big Foot - as per the made for the purpose feet - again it didn't work.  I had hoped that straight stitch free machine couching would be able to be done at reasonable speed - but it seems not.  I can do it of course, but it means stop/start move the couching thread into position, stitch over it, stop, move, start.....

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ckquilter wrote
on 18 Nov 2011 6:56 PM

hi jaymil

hope you  get it figured out soon. i would not use a straw - because then i am limited to couching what can be fed through a straw - and some things are too thick. also you can't see what you are doing.  and third, you can't place the yarn exactly where you need it.   which makes anything other then a straight line impossible.

but you really don't need a fancy foot or any other gizmo's.        you do need to zigzag though. i have couched over lots of different things, and as long as  the zigzag is wide enough to clear both sides of the item being couched - it won't flatten it. loosen your top tension some if you are worried.

if you are doing smooth shallow curves, you can sew at a medium speed. when doing fairies and small words, i sew slower - because i need to follow the lines accurately.    i just use a darning foot, zigag stitch and guide the couched yarn with my hands - no fancy equipment required - except    a stiletto of some kind - i use a long handled seam ripper - it works for me. but you could use a regular stiletto or even a wood skewer (justmake sure it is smooth - so you don't catch your yarn on any burrs).

you might try making a small sampler - just lay your couched item on a straight line and zigzag over it for a few inches. try a different thread in the needle. try aloosened top tension. try a different width zigzag.  you will figure out pretty quick which effect you prefer.

good luck                         ckquilter

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sewyou wrote
on 15 Nov 2012 6:37 PM

Are you still looking to do free motion couching? Saw this today. This is how to alter one of the free motion feet that Janome has to be able to do free motion couching. You can view how she altered the foot about 2 posts after this one. I haven't tried it, but it looks way cool.


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