Create Design Details with Easy Free-Motion Embroidery Techniques

Sew Graphic

Design inspiration comes from everywhere, and one place I constantly find design ideas is in graphic design. I'm obsessed with creative typography and love to incorporate letters and numbers into my sewing projects with embroidery, stamping, fabric prints featuring type, appliqué, and more. Even if you can't read what it says, just the graphic nature of letter forms, in any language, can add a unique graphic element to your project.

Alphabet Soup Quilt designed by Rachel Hauser.
  Alphabet Soup Quilt designed by Rachel Hauser.


So this was my inspiration for one of our project themes in the Fall 2011 issue of Stitch, called What's Your Type? I challenged designers to create projects that used type in a clever way in their design-and they didn't disappoint! These talented designers incorporated type into their projects through hand embroidery, free-motion stitching, quilting, and appliqué. The results were incredibly creative.

Case in point-designer Missy Shepler created this amazing Quilted Text Pillow featuring a super-cool free-motion stippling technique. Here are the basics of this technique:

You will need:

– 2 small spools (about 320 yd [293m]) each of 3 different shades of one color of sewing thread to build visual depth.

– One 12" (30.5 cm) or larger handquilting hoop (a machine-embroidery hoop may work as well; make sure the hoop is thin enough to slip below the machine's presser foot)

Free-Motion Stippling by Machine

To get started, lower or cover the sewing machine's feed dogs (see the owner's manual for specifics) and attach a darning or free-motion foot.

-Lay the fabric on the outer quilting hoop, centering the text within the hoop. Secure the inner hoop in place, pulling the fabric taut without distorting the fabric weave. The fabric should lie flat against the work surface beneath the hoop, the opposite of their position for hand embroidery.

-With the fabric under the presser foot, bring the bobbin thread to the surface (right side) of the work. Hold both thread tails as you begin stitching. Tie off the threads by making a few stitches in place, then cut the thread tails close to the fabric. Repeat the process to tie off at the end of the stippling.

Quilted Text Pillow designed by Missy Shepler.
  Quilted Text Pillow designed by Missy Shepler.

Quilted Text Pillow, detail.
  Quilted Text Pillow, detail.


-In free-motion work, the stitch length is controlled by a combination of needle speed and hand movement. Begin sewing at a slow to moderate rate, moving the fabric smoothly with your hands, moving it just a small distance to achieve more control. As you gain confidence, speed up the needle and move your hands more quickly. With practice, you'll develop a feel for the balance between needle and hands.

-Traditionally, machine stippling is a continuous meandering line, usually worked with smooth curves as the edges of a puzzle piece. Move the fabric forward and backward, side to side, and even diagonally. The process is like drawing by moving the paper under a stationary pencil.

-Adjust the size of the stippled curves to fit the project, but remember that very small stippling over a large area can make the project stiff.

-Overlap stitches as desired. The goal in this project is to create dense stitching around the letters so that the unstitched letters will stand out.

Follow these steps to achieve a similar look to what's shown on the pillow:

1. Starting with the lightest shade of thread, free-motion stipple in the spaces between and around the letters of the feature word (if using letters with enclosed spaces such as O or P, you should also stitch inside the enclosed spaces to define them), being careful to leave the letters themselves unstitched. Extend the stitching 1/2" (1.3 cm) to 1" (2.5 cm) beyond the letters, creating a cloud of stitching around the letter shapes. Remember that more stitches will be added with the other thread colors, so don't make the stippling too dense.

2. Once the letters are well defined, tie off and switch to the next darkest shade of thread and stitch over the area again, leaving some of the lighter stippling uncovered around the outer edges. Repeat with the darkest shade of thread. The letters should be very well defined and easy to read.

You want to try this at home, don't you! How could you not-it creates a really interesting effect on the fabric. For the full instructions to create the pillow plus more inspired project designs, check out the Stitch Fall issue. And be sure to incorporate whatever inspires you into your next project.

Happy sewing,


Other sewing topics you may enjoy:


Machine Embroidery Designs

One thought on “Create Design Details with Easy Free-Motion Embroidery Techniques

  1. I just got my Fall issue of Stitch and this was my favorite article!!! I <3 typography, fonts and text...and cannot wait to play with some of the projects from this article!