Advent Trees: free motion embroidery

  • By: joleenllorence
  • Date: August 17, 2022
  • Time to read: 9 min.

I’ve been building up to this one, because it’s the first time in this series that I’ve tackled something I find a bit daunting. While I’ve done some free motion embroidery before, I’m certainly no expert, and to be honest I’ve been feeling a bit nervous at the prospect of displaying my less-than-perfect skills on this blog for all to see.

But the point about this series is to try to convince you to try something different, and give things a go even if you’re not an expert. And I can’t advocate that if I’m not prepared to do it myself. So here goes, warts and all – free motion embroidery by someone who is not an expert.

Free Motion Embroidery

Free motion embroidery is a technique where you basically draw with the sewing machine and move the fabric freely in any direction. It’s an extremely versatile way to create patterns with thread, and when it’s done well it can be quite beautiful.

You can use it to create free hand embroidery, or to add details to applique. I love the embroidered applique designs of Poppy Treffry, but if you Google ‘free motion embroidery‘ you’ll find loads of examples, from simple to amazingly intricate.

It’s also used in quilting, to create free motion quilting patterns over the surface of a quilt. The top and bottom of the quilt are layered with quilt wadding in between, and then you stitch through all three layers to quilt it. Leah Day’s Free Motion Quilting Project is a great resource for hundreds of patterns for free motion quilting, but you can use them for any project. These tend to be all-over abstract patterns rather than specific embroidered shapes.

Setting Up Your Machine

Every machine is different, and some can be temperamental when it comes to free motion embroidery. Here are the basic steps, but you should check your sewing machine manual for any additional settings.

  1. Lower the feed dogs – the feed dogs usually move the fabric through the machine, but you’ll be doing this yourself.
  2. Use an open toe embroidery or darning foot or a spring action foot.
  3. Lower the top tension (I went from 4.6 for normal sewing down to 3.0).
  4. I find having the spool vertical rather than horizontal can help.
  5. Make sure the presser foot is lowered before you start sewing – you need this to engage the tension discs and feed the thread smoothly.

I’ve also seen it recommended to reduce the stitch length to 0; I can’t see any difference on my machine, but it’s worth trying out to see if it helps you.

Getting Started

If you’re embroidering onto a single layer of fabric you’ll need some kind of stabiliser, and an embroidery hoop, to keep the fabric taut.

In free motion quilting, you don’t need to use an embroidery hoop, as the quilt sandwich provides enough stability. I’ve adapted that technique here in my advent tree design, by layering the fabric with felt, which should provide enough stability that you don’t need to worry about stabiliser or hoops.

Try a test piece – if you have a problem with puckering, then try using a hoop.

Free motion embroidery is all about controlling the machine and the fabric to work together. This is one big exercise in multi-tasking, because you need to:

  • keep the machine speed running steadily
  • work out where your design is going next
  • move the fabric into that space at a steady speed
  • keep your stitches smooth

As well as keeping the balance between the needle and the fabric speeds, you are also trying to plan ahead, and control where the needle lands. This is a lot to do!

Here are some tips on getting started:

  1. Match your bobbin thread to your top thread, so minor tension problems don’t show.
  2. Start and stop at the edges of your fabric, out of sight. This gives you time to get into the rhythm before you reach the important areas.
  3. Place your fabric underneath the foot, and bring both threads to the top where you can keep them out of the way.
  4. Take a few stitches in the same place to secure the thread.
  5. Start by getting the machine speed right. This wants to be a good steady speed, but not so fast you lose control.
  6. Once you’ve got that speed steady, start moving the fabric. You don’t need to turn it round, just movve it back and forwards or side to side. Try and find a speed at which you re getting nice even stitches and feel in control, and try to maintain that speed.
  7. If you find yourself losing control, panicking or speeding up, then stop, take a few deep breaths and start again.
  8.  If you need to stop and start in the middle of the fabric, cut off all threads on the underside – if they get caught up they can break your thread.
  9. If your machine starts to make a funny clunking noise, stop! Check your underside – you could be getting thread build-up. Also try re-threading (and make sure you remembered to lower the feed dogs – not that I would forget…).

(Note: feeling in control is all relative when you first start!)

Getting The Speed Right

The bit that requires the most practice in free motion embroidery is getting the needle and fabric moving at the right speed together.

There are a lot of examples in YouTube of people doing this correctly, but not many examples of what happens when you do it wrong. So I tried four samples to show you what happens when your needle and fabric are either moving too fast or too slow.

(I apologise for the camera angles in these videos; it’s hard enough doing the free motion embroidery, without having to do it with a video camera propped up in front!)

Needle Moving too Fast

Here I have my foot down hard on the pedal and the needle’s rocketing away at top speed:

It’s difficult to move the fabric fast enough and the pace feels frantic, like I’m racing to keep up – my heart rate was approaching that needle speed! This puts a lot of stress on the thread and can lead to breakages.

When you take a closer look at the sample below (click to enlarge) you can see that the stitches are very small and dense; I wasn’t able to move the fabric fast enough. This increases the danger of getting a build-up of thread on the underside which can then cause breakages.

Needle Moving too Slowly

Here’s the opposite problem; the needle is moving too slowly.

This feels more comfortable; I’m in control, the machine’s not racing away from me and I have time to plan my next move. In general, this is not as bad a problem as running too fast. But look at the stitches:

They’re quite long and uneven and the loops are a little angular. This is because it’s difficult to move the fabric at a consistent speed that’s slow enough to match the speed of the needle. Because you can end up pulling the fabric too far, it can cause the thread to break.

So although this feels like you have more control, you only have control over the machine speed; it’s difficult to get a smooth fluid fabric movement.

Fabric Moving too Fast

I tried to keep the machine speed at a nice steady in-between pace for these two samples. First we have the fabric moving too fast:

Again, it feels quite frantic – gotta move the fabric, gotta move the fabric! As a result, I can’t control the fabric smoothly, and I have a tendency to overshoot, so the stitches are long and the loops are jagged and angular:

The sample looks similar to when the needle moves too slowly, but the long stitches and jagged loops tends to be more pronounced. The extra speed puts a lot of stress on the needle and can cause breakages, especially with fancy threads.

Fabric Moving too Slowly

The final sample is when the needle is moving at a good steady speed, but I’m not moving the fabric fast enough.

This is not too bad – there’s a feeling of control, but the stitches tend to be very small and close together, giving a very dense stitching. I don’t know if this is true generally, but I find when I do it I have a tendency to create very small tight loops and patterns.

Just Right!

Finally, here’s a sample for the Goldilocks among you – my attempt to get a good balance between the needle speed and the fabric speed.

I feel in control, the speed is staying roughly constant and the stitches are generally a good length and mostly uniform. The loops are relatively smooth:

As I’m not an expert, of course it’s not perfect – some of my stitches get a little small especially on some of my tighter loops, and I lost control a bit in the bottom corner because I was too close to the edge, which gave a jagged loop. But having done this, I now know how it should feel when it’s going right.

Free motion Embroidery on the Advent Tree

Similar to the sewing in circles version, we are going to create a piece of fabric with free motion embroidery all over it and then cut out the template from the best piece.

Cut your felt and fabric at a generous size; I’d suggest a good 20cm (8inch) square or even larger. The larger the square you use, the more practice you will get, and the more chance that you will find an area good enough to cut out and use as a tree! Starting off is often when your embroidery is at its most uneven, so using a large square means you can start and stop at the edges and avoid this area when cutting your tree.

Start with a test piece to check your settings.


If you are new to free motion embroidery, I suggest trying a simple looping pattern like this:

You can cross over another line whenever you need to, just focus on looping and travelling. You might want to try practicing it with pen and paper first, just to get the feel of it.

IF you’ve tried it before and are looking for something a little more challenging, you could try a more structured pattern. You could even draw out your design first using a water-soluble pen, and then try to embroider on top of it. This sounds like it might be easier, but trying to stick to the pattern lines and proportions is a lot trickier than it looks!

Fixing mistakes

Cover the whole fabric with loops or your pattern of choice. Don’t worry about mistakes – remember you don’t have to use that bit.

When you’ve finished you may be a little dissatisfied with how it looks; perhaps some of your loops are more like triangles, some of the stitches are a little (or a lot) too long or short, and some places are very densely embroidered, while others are a bit sparse.

Before you rip it all out or start again, try doing more embroidery using a complementary colour. I used a lighter shade of the same colour. This has the effect of creating a more dense pattern, so your eye is less drawn to individual mistakes elements. The two shades also adds depth and gives the illusion that it’s all more complicated than it really is.


Finally, use the window template to find the best piece of embroidered fabric to cut out. Fray Check the edges and make up the tree as usual, following the instructions.

If you can’t find an area of fabric that you’re happy with, choose the best, and cover up mistakes with beads or other embellishments.

Here’s the finished tree:

This is one of those techniques that takes practice – the more you do it, the better you get. This all-over looping pattern is a good starting point, but if you fancy more of a challenge, you could try:

  • a more intricate pattern – search for ‘free motion quilting‘ for all-over designs.
  • using metallic thread – this doubles the risk of thread breakages, so not for the faint-hearted!
  • drawing out a design first and trying to follow it

I hope this encourages you to have a go too. Don’t worry if it goes wrong, don’t worry if it’s not perfect – it takes practice, and the more you practice the better you’ll get. And remember – however bad your attempt gets, at least you don’t have to post it for all to see, like I have done!

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