Decorative Machine Stitching Lesson 1

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 I have sold sewing machines for 42 years so I’ve “seen a thing or two”.  Machines have always had decorative stitches, but we didn’t always have a variety of threads.  It’s the thread, needle, tension, and stabilizer combination that makes for successful decorative stitching.  Sounds confusing, but it’s really not when I give you my little “cheat sheets” on how to set your machine.

I do have a disclaimer.  We have been a Brother dealer for about 25 years and an Elna dealer before that.  The information I will share will be directed to the Brother machine for the tension settings, and accessories.  Since Brother makes Babylock sewing machines, you will find the same settings easy to follow.  I can’t speak for other brands, but a sewing machine is a sewing machine with tension settings, stitch selections, needles choices and needed stabilizers.  I feel anything I say will be able to be applied to other machines.

The one with the most decorative stitches doesn’t win here. Most often, the more basic stitches are preferred for heavy threads. In the coming weeks, I will cover settings for working with not only heavy 12 wt thread, but also metallic thread.  I will also show you the set up for bobbin work and various feet for using cords.  All of your practice pieces can be used, even if just for a small accent in a larger project, so don’t toss them!

This lesson we are going to start stitching with 12wt thread in the needle.  Remember, the lower the # of the thread, the thicker it is.  The lowest number that will comfortably go in almost every machine with a 100 Topstitch needle is a 12wt.  You will find that different brands of 12wt will actually be slightly different in weight.  The brand that we have found works consistently in all of the machines we have used is the Sulky Brand.  We have carried several others over the years and always come back to Sulky as the machines easily stitch with this one. We also like this one because you can get small spools on many of their colors.  You will use a different thread on the bobbin so your thread will go a long way when decorative stitching.

The next consideration is the top tension.  Again, simple.   Set it to “1”.  The Brother/Babylock machines have a “normal” tension of 4, so it is considerably looser.  The tension needs to be loose so that your bobbin thread will be able to pull the heavy thread to the backside of your work.  This way, the bobbin thread won’t show. My choice for bobbin thread is Metrosene 50wt.  We need a bobbin thread that is heavy enough to hold down our 12wt thread.  If we have a very light bobbin thread, we won’t be able to loosen the top tension enough to keep the heavy top thread from pulling our bobbin thread up.

You will have better results if you use cotton or cotton/linen blends of fabric as your background.  I always use spray starch to stiffen my fabric.  For all your practice pieces, use Sulky Tear Easy under the fabric.  This is all the stabilizer you will need if you spray starch your cotton or cotton/linen fabric.

The needle choice is a deal breaker.  It’s simple. Use a 100 Topstitch needle for success.  The very first thing I do when beginning to use a heavy thread is change the needle.  If you have a machine with one of those great automatic needle threaders and you use it without putting in a 100 Topstitch needle, you will bend it and have to have it replaced.  Ask me how I know!.  Always, put in a 100 Topstitch needle FIRST.

Your last consideration is the foot you use on your sewing machine.  For the Brother/Babylock it is the “N” foot.  The “N” foot rests on what I call sliders so that there is a gap to allow the thicker threads to move easily under the foot.  Regardless of what foot your machine suggests, if you are using 12wt thread, use the “N” foot.

I stitched some samples for you to see the impressive difference in Aurifil 50wt on the right and Sulky 12wt thread on the left.  Each of these samples easily shows how heavy thread can make your stitching look more like hand work.  These are all simple stitches, nothing fancy.

OK…it’s time to try it yourself.  Check off the following and you are ready to go:

  1.  Topstitch size 100 needle in your machine before you begin
  2.  Sulky 12wt cotton thread in the needle
  3.  Metrosene 50wt cotton in the bobbin (match the top thread or the background)
  4. Use the “N” foot for Brother/Babylock.  It rests on sliders to allow for heavy thread.
  5. Set your top tension to “1”
  6. Spray starch your cotton or cotton/linen fabric and use Tear Easy underneath
  7. Select a stitch, change the tension and sew.  Remember, experiment with different widths and lengths for the stitches.


If you need any supplies, you can find them all on our website.

Essex Cotton/Linen

Tear Easy Stabilizer

Sulky 12wt Thread and Topstitch Needle

I hope you will find as much enjoyment in learning your sewing machine as I have had over the years.

Needle Knowledge

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Know Your Needles for machine or hand stitching
Know Your Needles booklet available on our Needles & Threads page.

As a seller of home sewing machines for over 40 years, we have seen many changes.  Machines have more capabilities and we have more choices in fabrics and thread.  With these new choices, we need different needles for different jobs.  We are not talking about industrial machines or long arm quilting machines….we know home sewing machines!

We stock over 10 types of needles and about 5 sizes in each type.  It can be very intimidating when trying to decide which needle and size to use.

Sizes of needles typically range from 70 – 110. This is a metric measurement having to do with the size of the shaft, but it roughly equates to the 10 – 18 size that might be more familiar.  If you look on the needle package it shows both numbers, ie: 80/12.  Regardless of the type of needle you select, the larger the size of the needle, the larger the needle.  You will use the small sizes for lightweight fabric and thin thread. The large sizes work with heavier fabrics and thick thread. Simple enough.

We are often asked for an “all purpose needle”.  Unfortunately, there is no such needle as there are so many fabrics and threads available.  The “Know Your Needles” booklet lists needles for both machine and hand sewing.  It is a great reference for needles.  We have some suggestions that will help you decide which needle to use.

First question: Are you sewing knits or wovens?  Sewing with knits requires a Universal Needle or Stretch Needle.  The size depends on the thickness of the knit.   If you are a quilter, you have just eliminated two types of needles.

Schmetz Microtex Needles
Schmetz Microtex Needles


If you are a quilter using woven fabrics and batiks, we suggest the Microtex needle size 80.  It has a very thin sharp point and a narrow shaft.  If you want to keep it simple, use the Microtex 80 needle for all your quilt piecing.

As a side note, selecting the correct needle also means selecting the correct thread. We tell our customers to purchase a top quality thread and needle, then sew on whatever fabric you want.  Top quality thread would be Aurifil or the finer DMC 50wt.

Now, back to needles…..

Schmetz Embroidery Needles
Schmetz Embroidery Needles


If you are going to do free-motion quilting or work with an embroidery machine, you would want to select an Embroidery needle.  They are designed to stitch in many directions making them great for machine embroidery, free motion quilting or thread painting.  We typically use the 75/11 size unless we are using a heavy thread in which case you will want to use a 90/14.

Schmetz Jeans Needles
Schmetz Jeans Needles


If you find yourself working on densely woven materials such as denim, canvas, or upholstery fabric, then your choice would be the Jeans needle.  This one comes in sizes 70,80,90,100,110.  These are great needles for making tote bags. Remember, the size of the needle gets larger as your fabric gets heavier.

Schmetz Topstitch Needles
Schmetz Topstitch Needles


Another favorite needle of ours is the Topstitch needle.  This needle has a large shaft and very long eye with deep groves to allow heavier threads to stitch.  We use these primarily for decorative stitching with 12 weight threads.  Our favorite size is the 100 Topstich because we love to use 12wt thread.  If you want to try metallic threads, there is a Metallic needle with a fine shaft and large elongated eye.

In a nutshell, you don’t need an arsenal of needles….start with  Microtex 80, Embroidery 75/11 and 90, Jeans 80 and 90, and Topstitch 100. (If you don’t do decorative stitching, you could wait on the Topstitch 100)

There are always special jobs when you will need a smaller needle and finer thread, but we are talking about piecing with woven fabrics.  Add needle types and sizes as you try decorative stitching or venture into garment sewing.

Probably the most important bit of advice is to change your needle often.  Our advice:  new project = new needle.   Lesson learned:  A customer brought in her machine complaining of skipping stitches.   Her needle was badly bent.  The damage the  needle did to the bobbin case and hook on her machine was a $100.00 repair.  A new needle is about $1.25.

Although we carry several brands of sewing machine needles, our favorite is Schmetz.  They have great packaging to hold your needles, and now their needles are color coordinated for the type and the size. The top color is the type of needle and the bottom color is the size. You can see the two colors on the needles shown above.

Needle types: Microtex = purple; Embroidery = red; Jeans = Blue; Topstitch = Aqua; Metallic = Pink

Needle sizes:  70/10 = green; 80/12 = orange; 90/14 = blue; 100/16 = purple; 110/18 = yellow

We hope this will help you get the best needle for the job.  We have the needles and booklet available for order on our website at “Needles and Thread” 

Crazy Curves Template

Some quilts you just love to make again and again because they look so different with different fabric choices.   We have used the Crazy Curve Template over and over to create the Crazy Curve Quilt and some of its variations.

Crazy Curves Quilt

The quilt shown here is one we did about 7 years ago and we still love it.  It currently hangs in the Lounge at The Main House, our retreat center across our parking lot.

We have completed our third video in a Series we have decided to call “If I can You Can”..

This latest video features the 7″ Crazy Curves Template.  The Circle of Circles Crazy Curves quilt,  pictured here, actually uses both the 7″ Template and the 3 1/2″ Template.  Each of the blocks is constructed the same way.

If you purchase just the Crazy Curves Templates, you will find layout instructions inside the package.  If you want clear pictures and great instructions, then you might want to purchase the book Crazy Curves Continues which includes the directions for the Circle of Circles as well as many other possible patterns.

If you prefer just the freedom of the Crazy Curves, all you need is the 7″ Template and 20 Fat Quarters.  Hope you will enjoy watching our video on working with the template.



Hope you will enjoy watching our video on working with the Crazy Curves template.

Let’s Keep in Touch

I never thought much about the lack of posting on this blog.  I knew customers could just come into the shop and enjoy being there. Who would want to read about it when you could be there in person.  We so enjoyed the conversation, coffee, and fabric hunting.   Reality has struck and we live in a different world than a few months ago.

In order to cope with this new reality, we have spiffed up our Facebook page and are posting “new stuff” there daily to keep us all inspired or entertained.

After the experience of filming our 42nd Anniversary Quilt Show, we decided to give it another try.  Armed with an Emmy winning broadcaster as our camera person and the best webmaster ever this reluctant spokesperson has made a 5 minute video on working with Ombre fabrics.  We do know one thing, we won’t lose that spokesperson to the lights of a film career.  Just get past the funny accent I never knew I had and enjoy the information.

You will love bringing ombre fabrics into your quilting world.  The shading is done for you and it makes everything look amazing.

Once you’ve seen the video, click the links below the video to find these Ombre fabrics and patterns on our website



Find these fun fabrics, patterns and books on our website by clicking these links:

Products tagged with “Ombre”, including fabrics, patterns, books and quilt kits

Ombre Fabrics by Jennifer Sampou

Gelato Ombre Fabrics by EE Schenck

90 Degree Triangle Tool


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