Organizing Theory & Artistry

How to “Embroider” With a Standard Sewing Machine

Another handmade gift this Christmas arose from another family request.  Several Christmases ago, I ordered custom screenprinted shirts with my eldest daughter’s artwork on them.  They turned out great and I received requests to do it again with my younger daughter’s artwork.  The only problem is that the screenprint order minimum is pretty high (at least 25 or so) and while we peppered our family and friends with shirts from the first go-round, I wasn’t sure if we wanted to do that again.

So, I needed another alternative to put my daughter’s artwork on a shirt in a high quality way but in a limited quantity.

I recently used my embroidery machine for one of our Halloween costumes so I wondered if I could embroider a custom design onto shirts.   It turns out that you can but you have to have special software for your machine that converts designs into instructions the machine can read.  I was in a hurry and didn’t have such software nor any time to find someone who did.

After a little Googling, I found two YouTube videos suggesting that you could “embroider” with just a regular sewing machine.  Some recommend that you use a “free hand” embroidery foot that allows you to flexibly manipulate the fabric and sew in multiple directions but some people don’t use even that!

Artist Julie Dunbar is the queen of freehand machine embroidery and while I was inspired by her YouTube video profile by Threadbangers, I just discovered that Martha Stewart also did a profile on her a while back and you can even download some of her cute design templates from Martha’s site.

While I loved the look of Julie Dunbar’s designs, it wasn’t exactly what I needed for my artwork project since my daughter did not draw in lines of uniform thickness.  Some were thick and some were thin.  So, what to do?  My inspiration came from this YouTube video of a woman embroidering cat appliques using just the zigzag stitch by varying the thickness of the stitch as she sewed.  You can tell she has had a lot of practice and her technique is pretty amazing.

So, I ended up using a cross between the Dunbar technique and the cat applique technique.

Warning:  If you are a perfectionist you will not like freehand embroidery.  There are a lot of imperfections to this method, which just add to the handmade quality.  If you are trying to reproduce the results of machine embroidery and everything has to be exact or match, this method is probably not going to satisfy you.

Before you start, preshrink the clothing you want to attach the design to (i.e. wash and dry it as you normally would, preferably in hot water).

First, trace your pattern with a waterproof marker onto water-soluble stabilizer.  I used the sulky SuperSolvy brand that I found at Hancock Fabrics (just coincidentally when they were having a 50% off sale on sewing notions).

Then attach the stabilizer to your fabric.  Julie Dunbar likes painters tape.  I just used sewing pins.

Play around with your sewing machine to find a stitch and stitch width that gives you the look you want.  It might be the zigzag stitch or a buttonhole stitch.  I am not sure what the name of the stitch is that I used.  It was number 20 from a list of unusual stitches.

If you want, you can try putting an embroidery hoop around the stabilizer and the fabric but sometimes this doesn’t work so well.  Julie Dunbar doesn’t use a hoop and I found it was generally easier not to as well.

Begin sewing your design.  It won’t always sew exactly perfectly in line.  You have to move the fabric through the machine at a steady, slow pace.  If you have the freehand foot, you can just back up and go forward again as you need to.  Sometimes you might slip off the design a bit so it won’t be 100% accurate but it will probably be about 90-95% accurate.

If you don’t use the hoop, you have to be conscious of keeping the fabric and stabilizer taut (but not too taut—again this is one of the imperfections of this method).

When you are done, your design will look something like this.

Julie Dunbar advises that you then pull the top threads to the backside of the work and tie a knot with the bobbin threads to keep the threads from unraveling.  I tried this and sometimes I was able to figure out how to do it and sometimes I didn’t have time or it didn’t work so I just clipped the threads short.

I then cut away the excess stabilizer from the design (may not be necessary).  I found that while you can run the finished design under a faucet to rinse off the stabilizer, the stabilizer tends to get a bit gummy when wet so it worked out better to just wash the shirts again in the washing machine with soap.  After washing, here was the result:

Here are some of the other finished designs:

I used cotton knit fabric so my finished designs show a little puckering from the nature of the fabric but again, this is all part of the art of the shirts.  Each one is a unique original.  From regular viewing distance, no one will notice all those imperfections.

The perfect gift presentation for these shirts was to roll them up and wrap them in our eco-friendly accumulated stockpile of lesser art works that I showed you last year.

I like how they came out, imperfections and all!

What do you think of this technique?  What would you use it for?  Please share in the comments.