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There’s nothing better when you embark on some new crafty journey then buying a good book. While they’re heavy, bulky and completely inconvenient when compared to digital files but I still vastly prefer paper and ink to their digital counterparts. I like it even more when said books prove to be excellent references that you come back to time and time again. When it comes to machine embroidery though, where is the best place to start?
Unfortunately machine embroidery (which here I will define as ‘computer aided manufacture embroidery’, not all the lovely freehand techniques you can do on machines) isn’t really a subject where there is a wealth of literature. I don’t know if this is because this is one technique that has really moved from the industrial setting to the home market relatively recently or it’s not a super popular domestic craft? It’s a shame as it can be a fantastically technical subject and I would argue is one probably far more overwhelming to get started with then most other things.
Enter ‘The Complete Machine Embroidery Manual‘ by Liz Keegan which really does what it says on the tin and is one of those treasured texts that I come back to time and time again. While I would love to see an extended version that is at least ten times the thickness, ‘The Complete Machine Embroidery Manual’ is a brilliant introduction to all the joys of what you can do on a machine.
The book is separated into 4 chapters, Embroidery Machines and Computers, Tools and Materials, Embroidery Designs and Decorative Stitches. There is a short ‘Common Problems’ troubleshooting guide at the end, which is similar to the troubleshooting guides you often find in sewing machine manuals with some added detail and an ‘Embroidery Aftercare’ section on washing, pressing, dry cleaning and storing your precious work without ruining it.
Chapter 1 breaks down the anatomy of the sewing machine, gives an introduction to basic tools and also how the embroidery interface on how a machine works. The example machine used in the book is a Bernina 580 but this section will always be a little tricky to write as each machine has their own quirks. The introduction to the computer is of a similar style – this is written for a Windows machine (though there are limited digitising and embroidery software options for Macs…) and while it does a good job of explaining how to use USBs to transfer designs, how to unzip files and other such computer basics, this may be a section that is too unique to feel useful. Liz Keegan does a good job of keeping it general and breaking down even basic skills for navigating file explorers, including dragging and dropping files and copying but if you’re a confident computer user you will probably find this section superfluous.
Embroidery software is a minefield of terminology and confusion. This doesn’t help that companies often have several bits of software with similar names but different functionalities and often complex modular designs where you might think you’re getting one thing you paid for but you’ve actually only paid for part of the package… This gets even more complex when you start talking about upgrading licenses as opposed to full new ones…
I think Liz Keegan does a great job of keeping it simple but again, this was always going to be a part of the book that aged badly and her coverage is far from comprehensive of what is out there. Avid digitisers note that she predominantly covers embroidery editing software, not digitising, and of course to keep you on your toes, there is a difference. If you’re someone who is very intimidated by the digital side of things, I think this is a reassuring hand-hold through the many, many options out there for doing machine embroidery and how you can get hold of designs. For those raring to get buying, there’s a good guide to how to decide what you need based on what you want to do to make the purchase that is right for you.
Chapter 2 is all the basics of threads, fabrics, hooping and placement. What I love about this is that it was one of the reference tables that are dotted throughout the book, comparing fabric weight, stabiliser, design types and needle size. These tables are one of the reasons I keep coming back to this book again and again. What I love is that she doesn’t just say ‘embroidery size 70’ as the needle recommendation, Keegan gives you a detailed breakdown of the reasoning and justification for the choices. This is absolutely brilliant as it is a fantastic shortcut to understanding what the experienced embroider knows instinctively and gives you an excellent framework for troubleshooting later when things aren’t going according to plan. It also accommodates for the fact that ‘cotton’ is not just a single fabric type, it comes in all sorts of densities and qualities and so you can work with the fabric you have in front of you, not just the perfect textbook specimen.
The hooping instructions are great I just feel this is one of the areas that the author could have been more generous with. It’s perfectly sufficient to get you started but what I missed was some more of the expert tricks and, given how important hooping is the quality of the finished project, perhaps some more troubleshooting advice and guidance.
Chapter 3 is the Pinterest-fodder chapter. It takes you on a beautifully illustrated tour of the many possibilities with machine embroidery designs. From applique to cutwork to Trapunto, each type of design has a two-page spread with hooping recommendations, thread types and general sagely advice. There are millions of embroidery designs for sale out there but I think this chapter does a great job of surveying the styles and possibilities and giving you everything you need to get started. It certainly helped me get over my fear of trying free-standing lace and also made applique delightfully easy to understand.
Chapter 4 is the oddball of the book. It’s all about decorative stitching i.e. what to do with the several hundred preprogrammed utterly bizarre stitches you never know how to use. It’s interesting and Keegan has some excellent creative advice to use all the stitches she samples in the book but it was one I wasn’t quite sure what to do with. Good for some inspiration and ideas, but given that running these stitches isn’t so complicated, I would have rather seen more pages devoted to other sections.
Getting things right on a machine is a precarious balancing act of all the physical components (needles, thread, stabilisers etc.) with the fabric and the right design. While the book doesn’t delve so much into how to digitise a design that will stitch well, it does an excellent job of guiding you through the rest and what to do if it goes wrong. If you’re particularly interested in clothing or garments (and their unique horrors) you might want a more specialised text. However, for anything you can hoop ‘flat’, I think there’s enough advice here to deal with most fabric types.
What I like about this book is that it is very broad in its scope – it’s hard to imagine many combinations of thread, fabric and design it doesn’t at least touch on. While there are some beautiful projects in here and fantastic examples of what is possible with a bit of skill and patience, this is not a project book in itself. The title of the ‘Embroidery Manual’ does it justice – this is more of a technical reference text to show what is possible and how to get it to work at an abstract level and it is up to you to bring along your particular problem of the day.
The book is really crisp and clean from a design perspective as well. It does an excellent job of having a lot of quite dense text presented in a way that doesn’t feel overwhelming. The photographs are brilliant and most processes are illustrated in a clear step by step fashion too. In some ways, this book feels like a cheat’s guide to enjoying fuss-free embroidery and a shortcut to a huge amount of expertise that it would take a long time to build through trial and error. The most invaluable part of this text is that all the ‘rules’ are explained – making it very easy to understand how to adapt them (or when you are likely to be able to get away with breaking them) as necessary. There’s not so much out there for machine embroidery – but in some ways I’m not sure you need much else with this book.
Very much so! Perhaps an experienced person in all the different types of machine embroidery and fabric challenges won’t need this but for anyone who wants to find out the wealth of possibilities that machine embroidery can bring, is feeling intimidated on where to start or wants just some general good advice to remove some of the frustration when the machine is chomping your fabric for what feels like no good reason. I wish it was ten times the size but the density of information is excellent.
Author: Liz Keegan
Publisher: Search Press
Dimensions: 24.8 x 19.0 x 1.0 cm