What is Machine Embroidery?

K.C. Bruning

Machine embroidery is the process by which designs are sewn onto an item with a piece of electronic equipment, be it an embroidery or sewing machine. The process can be done both commercially and in the home. Patterns can either be programmed into a machine via a computer, or executed manually in a process called free-motion machine embroidery.

Machine embroidery can be carried out on an industrial scale with multiple needles on one machine.
Machine embroidery can be carried out on an industrial scale with multiple needles on one machine.

A free-motion embroidery machine must be handled by an operator throughout the process. The item to be embroidered is stretched across a hoop and secured. Then the item is manipulated under the machine’s needle so that the desired pattern is sewn into the fabric. While this method can create unique designs, it is also more time-consuming and expensive than an automated method. For this reason, computerized machine embroidery has essentially replaced free-motion embroidery, particularly in commercial settings, but also among hobbyists.

Embroidery is often used to decorate quilts and linens.
Embroidery is often used to decorate quilts and linens.

Computerized machine embroidery can be done automatically. Once the operator has programmed the pattern, the item simply needs to be fed into the machine. Most computerized embroidery machines come with pre-programmed patterns which can often be supplemented with additional programs.

There are both single- and multiple-needle versions of computerized machines. Most consumer machines are single needle, which means that the thread needs to be changed for designs with multiple colors. Multiple needle machines are generally found in industrial settings and can be fully automated for multi-color designs.

All items to be run through embroidery machines must be somehow stabilized so that the fabric will be taut enough to take the design. A smaller item can usually be sufficiently stabilized by being stretched across a fabric hoop and secured. Larger items usually have some sort of stabilizing material affixed to the back of the fabric, which is removed when the design is complete. In order to ease the removal process, these fabrics are usually designed to be torn, melted or otherwise whisked away once the fabric has been embroidered.

While there are home machines made specifically for creating embroidery, several types of sewing machines also have an embroidery feature. There are many publications, websites, and companies which offer patterns, software, tutorials, and practical advice for machine embroidery enthusiasts. Complete designs can be purchased and used as is or customized via special computer programs.

There tends to be less design flexibility with industrial machines. Most machines come with a series of pre-programmed stitches and finishes which are then supplemented with additional programs or patterns. While there can be some changes made to these patterns, they are often meant to be used as is. Many machine manufacturers will produce their own exclusive patterns and programs which cannot be used with other models, though there are some types that allow software from different sources and pattern adjustments.

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