Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Pernicious Puckers and Detestable Thread Loopies: Trouble-Shooting in Machine Embroidery

Okay, so remember the Big, Bodacious Birdie that I spent the better part of two days embroidering for the Machine Embroidery Blog Hop a couple of weeks ago?  I promised I would do a follow up about some of my trouble-shooting, and here it is.

I really need to do a huge disclaimer here first to let you all know that I am NOT a very experienced machine embroiderer.  I have embroidered monogrammed gifts here and there, a quilt label or two, and a couple of Bob the Builder designs on tiny little sweatshirts, and I have done some outline quilting with my embroidery module, but that's about it.  Now that I've invested in a new machine with superior embroidery capabilities and a great, big Jumbo Hoop to go with it, I'm determined to do more embroidery than I did in the past, and I'm hell-bent on solving the most irksome problems that have plagued my machine embroidery projects from the very beginning: Pernicious Puckering and DetestableThread Loopies of Doom!

Puckering with Organ Titanium 80/12BP Embroidery Needle
So, for the ME Blog Hop, I tried to follow the Anita Goodesign directions to the letter, but the directions were specifically written for the applique block designs and I was embroidering an individual, NON-applique motif that I had enlarged by about 10-12% in my Bernina embroidery software.  I noticed some puckering around the fill stitching with the very first thread color, but I didn't stop and start over because I honestly didn't know what to change and I had to get the design stitched out and the post written up for my blog hop deadline.  I decided to use this as a learning opportunity, knowing that I could use the finished design for free-motion quilting practice if it turned out really awful and unusable.  So I stitched away...

I take a scientific approach to these kinds of problems.  Step one was the research phase, where I read several books on machine embroidery and compared advice from different authors.  (See my book reviews here).  As soon as I noticed that my birdie design was puckering, I got the books out again and started hunting through them for ideas.  I had learned that puckering is usually a symptom of stretching the fabric when you're hooping it, but that puckering can also be caused by insufficient stabilizing or by using a ball point needle when a sharp needle would have been more appropriate for your fabric.  Since my silk fabric had been interfaced with Pellon Ultra Weft, then spray-basted with 505 to a piece of muslin that was spray-basted to a piece of midweight tearaway embroidery stabilizer, I thought for sure I had the stabilizing part of the equation under control.  With all four layers sandwiched together and then starched, it felt like I was hooping a piece of card stock instead of fabric. 
The first color in this design was a dense fill stitch for the top bird, but most of the subsequent colors were satin stitched elements, and lordy, how the Loopies of Doom reared their ugly heads! 
Behold, the Detestable Thread Loopies of Doom!
I knew I could fix these ugly upper thread loops after the design was finished (I'll show you how later in the post), but there were SO many of them and honestly, I knew I must be doing something wrong and I was determined to figure out what it was.  These upper thread loops have plagued my embroidery projects from the very beginning, when I tried just cutting them off (bad idea -- it makes your whole design unravel!).  My preliminary internet research revealed that many people think this problem is just inherent to domestic embroidery machines, or that it's more of a problem with certain machine brands than others. Not so! These upper thread loops, which are most common with satin stitches, indicate that there is an issue with the upper thread misbehaving as your needle passes down into your fabric to form a stitch. Our variables are the needle, the thread, and the fabric.  So I experimented with changing one variable at a time, taking notes about what I had tried and what results I noticed, before changing a different variable.  The first suspect is the needle, so I started changing them out after each color change and taking notes on what I had tried so far and what results I was getting. 
H80/12TBP = 80/12 Titanium BALL POINT!
I had started out with one of what I thought was the best embroidery needles in my drawer, an 80/12 Organ Titanium Coated Embroidery Needle.  Titanium coated needles last 5-7x as long as chrome plated needles, so they are worth the higher price point.  But what did this give me?  Thread loopies!  I put in a new needle of the same type, brand and size, in case the first needle had a burr or defect.  Still thread loopies.  That was when I noticed that my package said BALLPOINT embroidery needles.  One of my books had explained that most of the flat shank embroidery needles sold for domestic (non-commercial) embroidery machines had a ballpoint tip, whereas the round shank embroidery needles for commercial machines came in a much greater variety to suit a wider range of fabrics. 

90/14 SHARP Embroidery Needles
Aha!  I dug around in my drawer (it helps to have a stockpile of lots of different needles) and tried a size 90/14 Organ Sharp Embroidery Needle.  Guess what?  Once I had switched from a ballpoint needle to a sharp point needle, I saw no more puckering with this design, even when the second bird stitched out with the same dense fill stitch that caused puckering right out of the gate.  I still was seeing thread loopies, but fewer than before. 

I consulted my book again, the one about embroidering on "difficult materials," and saw that the author recommended using a MICROTEX needle instead of an embroidery needle when embroidering a densely woven silk fabric like mine.  More digging in the needle drawer yielded a pack of 70/10 Schmetz Microtex needles.  DISASTER!  Uber thread loops!  Eek!  The size 70 needle made a hole that was much too small for the 40 weight Isacord embroidery thread to pass through smoothly. 

The Winner!!!
Finally, I put in a larger 90/14 Schmetz Microtex Needle, and my thread loopies were almost completely eliminated.  If you think about it, this makes sense.  Microtex needles are designed with a very slim, acute point, for precise stitching through densely woven microfibre, silk (like my silk shantung!), satins, and artificial leather, and the larger 90/14 size was better suited to my thread.

I said that the 90/14 Microtex needle ALMOST eliminated all of the thread loopies.  I eventually figured out that the remaining loops resulted from the way the slippery embroidery thread was falling off the spool too rapidly, reducing the tension on the upper thread even though it was properly threaded through the tension disks.  I had started out with my embroidery thread on the horizontal spool pin, then tried it on the machine's vertical spool pin (I didn't like how the larger embroidery spool wobbled around there) and finally put it on a free-standing cone thread stand next to my machine to facilitate speedy color changes (this was before I got the adapter to attach my Multiple Spool Holder to my new 750 QE machine).  I was using the thread net thingy with the first couple of colors on the horizontal spool holder to keep the thread from unwinding too fast and getting caught, but I stopped using the net when I went vertical with the thread because it was slowing down my color changes, I was lazy, and didn't believe the thread net was doing anything anyway.  Wrong! 

No Thread Net
See how slack the red embroidery thread is in the photo above, how it drapes between thread guides on its way to the tension disks?  Somewhere I read that these ugly thread loopies can be caused by upper thread tension that is too loose, but I couldn't believe that the default embroidery tension on my fancy-schmancy new machine would need to be adjusted for plain old Isacord thread. 

Thread Net to the Rescue!
Noticing the slack in my embroidery thread as it fed to the machine, I decided to try putting the silly little net thing on the thread (it reminds me of the hair nets worn by lunch ladies in school cafeterias).  Believe it or not, this silly little fishnet stocking thing immediately corrected the upper thread tension, eliminating the remaining thread loops.  Who knew?!

This is how the thread looks at the back of the machine when I have a thread net on the spool:

Thread Delivery is Taut When Using Thread Net on Embroidery Spool
See how nice and taut it is, with no loose slack between the thread guides?  So finally, after 3+ hours of embroidery, testing out four different kinds of needles and several different setups for upper thread delivery, I finally figured out that Microtex 90/14 needle + Thread Net = No Puckering or Thread Loops on Silk Shantung!
Here's that finished design again, still in the hoop.  You can see the initial puckering and horizontal wrinkling that I had with the first ballpoint embroidery needle around the body and tail of the top bird.  All of my thread loopies are still in the design at this point as well.
Remember that ugly thread loopy photo I showed you at the beginning of this post?  Here it is again:
And here is that same portion of the embroidery design, after I pulled the thread loops to the back of the design with a simple sweater pull repair tool that cost less than $2:
Thread Loopies Gone!
Essential Embroidery Tools: Hemostat, Curved Scissors, and Snag Repair Tool for Thread Loopies
These are the three most important embroidery tools that did NOT come with your machine.  The curved scissors at the top of this photo is perfect for trimming jump stitches while your design is stitching out.  The snag repair tool at right gets inserted into your completed embroidery design from the right side, right next to a thread loop.  You simply twist the tool slightly as you pull it through the embroidery design, and it catches the thread loop and pulls it to the back side of your work. 
So, what's the other tool in that photo, at bottom left?  It's a hemostat.  It looks like a scissor/tweezers but it has serrated edges that tightly grip as little as a single slippery embroidery thread when the handles lock together. 
Because I hate to waste bobbin thread, I keep sewing until my bobbin completely runs out, and I end up with 5-7 satin stitches of white bobbin thread on the top of my design that I have to remove before I can back the machine up and continue embroidering my design.  I use my curved scissors to clip through the center of those satin stitches from the right side of my design (without severing the top embroidery thread), still in the hoop, and then I can grab one side of the clipped satin stitches with my hemostat tool and pull them all out with one tug.  Easy-peasy!  Then I just back the machine up those few stitches and continue embroidering the design. 
Lest you think that I have finally solved all of the mysteries of machine embroidery, let me show you what happened when I unhooped this design:
This excess fabric and puffiness in between embroidered areas is a different kind of puckering from what was happening with the ballpoint needle around the top bird.  I think the slippery silk fabric slipped loose at the edges of my hoop, and I think this because my "embroidering difficult fabrics" book advised wrapping the inner hoop with self-adhesive VetRap to prevent this problem with silks. 
Remember how I said that I tried to follow the Anita Goodesign instructions as much as possible, but their directions were for an applique block?  They were having you hoop only your muslin and stabilizer, and then overlay your silk fabrics as applique pieces that would be secured individually as part of the embroidered applique process, so their silk wasn't in the hoop at all.  Although I had four layers sandwiched together for this design, I noticed upon completion that the Pellon Ultra Weft interfacing was pulling away from the silk in places and that the 505 spray had not prevented my silk fabric from separating and moving away from the muslin and tearaway stabilizer that it was hooped with.
Since I had spent over four hours stitching out this design, I tried to "fix" this problem by ironing the completed design from the back side, face down over a terry cloth towel, as I have heard many people recommend.  Hmmm...
After Ironing!!!  :-(
I am NEVER GOING TO DO THIS, EVER AGAIN!!!!  Surely you heard my lunatic screaming reverberating around the planet?  Apparently, I don't know how to iron, either!  Soon after this picture was taken, my darling husband spilled COFFEE on this design, too.  So this stitch out is destined for free-motion quilting practice after all.  It will be interesting to see whether I can quilt out all that excess waviness in the design with close echoing or pebbling or something, and I can practice other designs around the embroidery.  But I have NOT given up on this.
I'm going to try this design again, using the 90/14 Microtex needle, but next time I'm going to:
  • Wrap my inner hoop with self-adhesive bandage tape to better grip the slippery silk
  • Engage my machine's basting function to secure all layers around the hoop's perimeter prior to stitching the design
  • Try a different fusible interfacing for my silk fabric.  I brought home two different options from Sew Much Fun the other day, products specifically designed to support dense embroidery designs on lightweight fabrics without changing the hand of the fabric
I'll let you know how that works out!
UPDATED 6/17/2013:  I was able to save this project with free-motion quilting!  You can read about that in this post. 


Unknown said...

I'm impressed with how thorough you were in troubleshooting the puckers and loops! It's such a pretty design -- well worth the effort.

Jean(ie) said...

Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I have a brand new embroidery machine and I'm sooo chicken to try it out (despite the fact I downloaded some awesome designs). I'm so scared I'll break it and mess things up. LOL!

I know. The machine does it all itself. It's just going to take practice, as well as trial and error.

Thanks so much for the tips!!!!!!

Jackie's Stitches said...

Very informative! I'm brand spanking new to embroidery - actually newer than that. I'm pretty sure I followed everything you experienced and resolved. Love your determination!

Jenny K. Lyon said...

Excellent post! I spent the entire day yesterday with loopies and tension issues while free motion quilting so I know the feeling. I love how you worked through each problem one-by-one which is the only way to do it.

Anonymous said...

It is too much to explain but something you might look into adequately but I will try. Anita Goodesign's have too much underlay stitches. Too many layers to get the affect and too dense. This alone will make you have all the problems you are talking about.

I work with the density. If a design has layers and layers of color I totally take out the underlay stitches and sometime I even take out some of the layers of colors that don't have too many stitches and won't ruin the overall affect. No puckering and no loopy.

They design these things and then embroider them out on commercial machines which is a different animal. I got stuck with more designs than I will ever use because I joined their club. So I had to take some serious time to make them workable. Wish I help personally. Gave a class once. elli

Anonymous said...

Rebecca Grace - You really wrote an excellent dissertation on embroidery! The one thing I have done to totally eliminate loopies is that I switched to Superior Threads Titanium Topstitching needles for all my sewing and embroidery. No loopies ever! Highly recommend. I keep them in 70's, 80's and 90's. I use mostly the 90's for machine embroidery with Isacord. Claudia W

Rebecca Grace said...

6:08 PM Anonymous: I can't blame the digitizing, because I have wrestled with puckering and upper thread loops on every design from every source: Viking, Bernina, Cactus Punch, Amazing Threads, you name it. I had these problems on my first embroidery machine, a Viking Rose, and on each of the Berninas I've owned since then. And I've seen these designs stitched by others on the same domestic machines and they come out beautifully.

10:55 PM Anonymous: You know, I did use one Superior Threads brand embroidery thread, the variegated purple, in this design, and when I bought it I remember the saleslady telling me that Superior Threads recommends a 90/14 Topstitch needle. A topstitch needle does have a sharper point than a ballpoint embroidery needle, so that would explain why it's working so much better for you, but I think that would be more like the Organ 90/14 Embroidery Sharp. I'm pretty sure that the Microtex 90/14, which has an acute sharp point, is the right solution for the fine, very densely woven silk shantung I was using for this project.

Anonymous said...

You are right, you can't blame the digitizing. I have found that it is not just Anita Goodesign but other designs as well like you are speaking of. I evaluate each design I work with. If it has many layers and especially dense underlay, I take it to the program to be tweaked. You said that you had not been embroidering for any length of time. I taught the very first Artista program that came out years and years (LOL) ago. There was no information like now and I had to figure everything out for myself. You may not agree with me but just think about it. Think about all those stitches in that really beautiful design and the layers and layers the birds have on the light weight fabric you have chosen. So in a way it is the digitizing. If you embroidered one of those birds on felt you would have little or no puckering. Each stitch and layer you put into the fabric that is light weight takes up space and pulls in. I will bet if you looked the designer in the eye and said "did you mean this design to go on light weight fabric. If he or she were honest they would say no. I tweak, lower density, take out underlay if the design (bird) has more than two layers and never hoop the fabric and I never get a pucker. If I do I tweak some more and they turn out beautiful. Also why are so many new artists designing with only one layer and no underlay? The consumer has less problem and fewer complaints. I wish you so much good luck and few tears. elli

Rebecca Grace said...

Thanks, Elli. I will keep that in mind. I know I could remove underlay with my software, but I would have to read up on how to do it in the Bible-length user manual. I am not very confident about making those kinds of changes to designs. But the main reason I feel like I should be able to get this design to sew out nicely as-is is that it came on a project collection CD where the directions spedifically called for silk dupioni interfaced with the ultra welft, a layer of cotton muslin, and one layer of midweight tearaway. I used the same fabric and stabilizers as the digitizer's sample, only difference is that my silk was hooped rather than basted in place. To be continued...

Barb said...

Thank you Rebecca Grace! Your website is becoming this newbie embroider's bible. Your explanations are so thorough. And your work is so beautiful!

Rebecca Grace said...

Wow -- thank you! I am so grateful to the many others who have helped me. It's nice to know that I've been able to pay a little of that forward. :-)

Kathleen said...

Thanks for linking this up. I have a fine crochet hook somewhere that is similar to the tool you are I will look for it so I know when I need it!