The Comedy of Machine Embroidery

by Gail Cowley

machine embroidery
Olive Marshall

OK - I'll admit straight away this is a cheat. It's not really intended as a how to do it manual. There are enough of those out there already!

It's more in the line of a comic commentary - those of you who have ever tried machine embroidery will understand what I mean. Can I just pause to ask - did you take to it like a duck to water? Was it ever so easy-peasy? Falling off a log sort of stuff? ..... I thought not!

As a City & Guilds tutor and assessor with a regular Sunday morning class, as well as a large number of distance students, I tend to hear about machine embroidery quite frequently. It particularly came to mind as I was writing this today, because it coincided with preparing the list for my attending students - the one entitled 'What you need to bring for next time'.

Item 5 particularly caught my eye - spare needles - casually lodged in-between various machine threads and an embroidery hoop. Only 2 words - yet they say so much to someone who is in the know. Spare needles are needed when existing needles are broken, a regular occurrence for those learning to use their sewing machine for embroidering with. Now for ordinary use of a sewing machine needles are rarely changed. I've had students that have been using the same needle since the last war and have never even considered they might need to change it.

Needles break when the machine's feed dogs are lowered and all the forward movement and manoeuvring becomes the responsibility of the operator, along with accelerating at the same time. A bit like driving a car this takes practice - a compromise between how hard to hit the foot control and how quickly to move the fabric. Too fast and the needle breaks, too slow and the fabric clogs ..... and the needle still breaks. Do you notice a pattern emerging here? Some machine needle salesperson somewhere will be very, very happy.

I've seen whole embroidery groups divide right down the middle on this issue - all those who can machine embroider competently stand to one side (small group, big smiles), all the others stand on the opposite side, (head hung in shame). Because of course if you finally master it - then you'll want to tell the world about it, won't you? It then becomes de rigueur to profess your total commitment to machine rather than hand embroidery, thus subtly letting everyone else in the group know that you are the lucky so-and-so who can actually do both and has a choice. You can do hand embroidery as a light embellishment over machine embroidery (I should point out here that it has to be your own machine embroidery to really add cachet - paying friends to supply you with theirs doesn't count).

To finish on an upbeat note..... For those of you who have despaired of ever getting the upper hand with your sewing machine - don't. It is more than possible with effort and a couple of spare days to practice in - 'course it also helps to have an experienced embroidery tutor to hand as well as someone getting your meals!! The fact of the matter is that sat on your own at home you tend to lose your sense of humour quickly, not to mention your iron will to see it through to the end.

My advice would be to try to source a weekly or summer school type course to take you through the basics - you'll never manage to work your way through a how-to-do-it book at home. That way the camaraderie of everyone beginning at once will spur you on and you’ll have lots of sympathy and support at a time where you'd normally just give up.

It really is worth persevering as it's a wonderful, versatile and timesaving way of creating beautiful embroidery - and to prove it I've included some of my own student's work here to inspire you onwards.

Happy Machine Embroidery to you all!

Below are details of the attended machine embroidery courses Gail tutors at Eccles Farm in Lancashire, as well as the C&G Embroidery Course. For further details contact 01257 463113 Wed-Sun 11-4 for attended courses or 01257 463163 for distance learning or check out the website for both at

Machine Embroidery

A structured course for embroiderers or patchworkers initially covering all basic techniques and then following through to more advanced finished pieces.

4 Day Machine Embroidery Summer School

Certificated by School of Stitched Textiles
Light Lunch and refreshments included as well as a 'starter pack' for the course (you will need your own machine)

7922 and Diploma City & Guilds Embroidery

This class covers every aspect of the craft and takes 3 years to complete Level 3 (old part 1). Diploma (old part 2) is also catered for.

Workshops and talks

Gail Cowley offers a range of day workshops and talks on different aspects of textiles and design throughout the UK and abroad.

machine embroidery
Karen Quickfall

machine embroidery
Abi Barclay

machine embroidery
Val Webster

machine embroidery
Jennie Puttick