The popularity and availability of home embroidery machines has opened a whole venue of crafting possibilities. Rather than hand-stitching names and images to customize fabric crafts, machine embroidery can save time and effort while still allowing artistic flair in choices of pattern, size, position and color. With embroidery machines, a learning curve exists in the technical operations of the specific machine. Fortunately, user manuals are generally clear and thorough regarding presser feet, motion arms, threading and controls. The basics that apply to all machine embroidery, however, regardless of make, model, home or professional, are not always readily available to newcomers. Some root choices set the foundation to use an embroidery machine.
Select stabilizer/backing material. Some rare machine embroidery projects can bypass the use of stabilizer, but they are very few. Even a painter's canvas needs a frame for stability and support. Similarly, a stabilizer holds the fabric in place and provides a thicker material for thread to catch. Commercial stabilizers include options for cut-away, tear-away, wash-away, heat-away, fusible and self-adhesive features. Stabilizers, particularly wash-away, can also be used as a topping layer to add thickness and prevent tearing and stitching distortion issues.
Select fabric/material. If the machine embroidery pattern will be stitched directly on a finished product such as a shirt, an apron or a bag, the material is predetermined. That material will dictate choices in stabilizer, thread, needle size and pattern selection. For example, if you machine embroider a sturdy apron or bag, a lightweight stabilizer for backing material may suffice. If you machine embroider a loose knit shirt with a lot of stretch, a top stabilizer can help prevent tears and pulls; a heavier stabilizer for backing material may also be helpful, but if the shirt material is very thin, a heavy stabilizer will show clearly through the material. If the pattern is stitched on your own choice of fabric, for quilt squares, bookmarks or your own handmade items, your options increase. Generally, for machine embroidery sheer, stretchy or ultra-rugged materials (such as leather) are more difficult. Sheer and stretchy fabric present similar problems associated with T-shirt material. Excessively thick and rugged materials may require a thicker needle or needles with project-specific tips. Certain dense fleece and terrycloth material may "absorb" a machine embroidery pattern. If loose-weave material is required, a thicker stabilizer on bottom and top, plus the choice of a more solid object in the pattern can help reduce the appearance of "swallowing" the image in the depths of the cloth. Most projects are possible given wise choices, but choice of fabric can prevent frustration.
Decide whether to hoop or not to hoop. Using self-adhesive stabilizer or strategic pinning can provide the option to hoop the stabilizer without hooping the actual fabric. For "problem" fabrics that tend to stretch, move or test the capacity of the hoop; attaching them to the hooped stabilizer can be much easier and more effective. Instead of pulling and releasing tension on the actual fabric, the hoop frame and tension are applied primarily on the bottom stabilizer. Placement, adjustment and tension on the actual fabric are made on the adhesive layer of the stabilizer and with strategically placed pins to prevent slippage. This not only reduces the possibility of damage and distortion to the fabric, but also allows machine embroidery on excessively thick material (fleece, heavy terrycloth) while reducing the possibility of damage to your machine's hoop (which is generally made of plastic).
For optimal fabrics, those that do not stretch excessively or do offer sufficient density without being so thick as to risk damage to the hoop, hooping can offer relatively evenly distributed tension, pressure and stability. The decision to hoop fabric or not will depend on the project.
Select a needle. Machine embroidery needles come in various sizes and styles, just as traditional sewing machine needles are available for specific tasks and projects. The size of the needle is relative to the density and characteristics of the fabric. The needle tips (blunt, sharp, ball) are also relative to the fabric and the project. For fabrics and projects on the outer edges of the bell curve, see the needle manufacturer's specifications and recommendations. For hobbyists, a medium or average machine embroidery needle is sufficient for most projects.
Select a pattern. Again, for the hobbyist, choosing a machine embroidery pattern, text and fonts will be a matter of preference and custom needs for the project. Advanced hobbyists and professionals may consider a pattern's stitch density, number of stitches, pull and any number of other factors, but these are generally machine embroiderers who create, edit and customize their own files. For most users, selecting a pattern or text is confined to those options that come with a machine or to downloads of free or purchased additions.