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Tools & Supplies

Bobbin Work: When Threads Are Too Thick for the Needle

 Bobbin work adds surface texture and highlights the quilting on a vest with random rows of silk ribbon and varied weights of thread.

If you don’t want to embroider by hand but can’t resist all those incredible decorative threads and ribbons that won’t fit through a sewing-machine needle, why not try bobbin work? It’s an old technique that you can use on garments as well as soft home furnishings, but it takes on a new dimension with all the wonderful threads available today.

Essentially bobbin work amounts to sewing upside down-the decorative thread goes in the bobbin, and you sew from the wrong side- therefore the embellishment thread doesn’t need to go through the needle. You can use various types of stitches-straight, programmed, and free-motion-but, whatever your stitch choice, there are things to consider to get the desired effects. I’ll show you this easy technique and introduce you to threads you’ve probably never considered using in the sewing machine.

You can use threads that come on spools or skeins
There are many types of threads and ribbons that can be used for bobbin work, and you’ll find some of them in craft stores, yarn shops, and your local fabric store. I group bobbin-work threads into four categories: decorative sergers threads; needlepoint, cross stitch, and embroidery threads; knitting yarns and crochet threads; and craft and miscellaneous threads.

Threads to choose fromWith bobbin work, you’re not restricted to conventional sewing-machine threads. For unique stitch patterns and hand-sewn textures, experiment with decorative serger threads; needlepoint, cross-stitch, and heavy embroidery threads; knitting and crochet threads; and other craft threads.

Decorative serger threads
include those like Halo from Superior Threads, Décor 6 from Madeira, Pearl Crown Rayon from YLI, and Ombre soft metallic from Kreinik. Among needlepoint, cross-stitch, and embroidery threads are those such as Watercolours (four-ply cotton), Waterlilies (12-strand silk), and Wildflowers (one-ply cotton) from the Caron Collection, Kreinik silk and embroidery threads, Madeira four-strand silk floss, and YLI silk ribbons (2mm and 4mm).

Knitting yarns and crochet threads include those like DMC pearl cotton and Cordonnet, and Knit-Cro Sheen and Cro-Sheen from Coats & Clark. And craft and miscellaneous threads include such things as the designer threads from Threadline and fine novelty yarns from On the Surface.

The listings here are just a few of the current offerings. New threads are emerging all the time, and you already may have great possibilities in your sewing basket. Most threads will work as long as they fit through the throat plate of the sewing machine. Stay away from threads and yarns that are too nubby and coarse, like bouclé yarns. And don’t try to use grosgrain ribbons, because they are not flexible enough.

What about the needle thread?
Before I address preparing your machine’s bobbin for this technique, I’ll mention additional factors that will make doing bobbin work more fun and give you the best results:

First, keep in mind that the needle thread will show a little on the right side (remember, you’re stitching from the wrong side), since it will anchor and “couch” the bobbin thread or yarn. Hence, choose a color of needle thread that works with the thread you’re using in the bobbin. Regular sewing thread is fine to use, or choose a thin, decorative thread, like a metallic, to add a bit of sparkle to your embroidery. You can also use monofilament thread in the needle, which is strong and invisible. It’s available in a clear color to use with light- to medium-colored bobbin threads, or in a smoke color to use with darker threads. Select a sewing-machine needle that’s appropriate for the thread you choose.

Consider the presser foot, too. For straight-stitching, use an all-purpose foot; for free-motion stitching, a darning foot; and for programmed stitches, an embroidery foot.

Right side downConfiguration of a stitch: By sewing with fabric’s right side face down (photo), the decorative bobbin thread shows on the right side. The needle thread can either match the bobbin thread-in this case, silk ribbon-or contrast with it for effect (drawing).

Fabric and stabilizers

I’ve done bobbin work successfully on all kinds of fabrics, including knits, velvets, and sheers, and in most cases, it’s necessary to use a stabilizer to prevent puckering. There’s not space in this article to fully cover stabilizers but I’ll give you an overview of the four types I use: tear-aways, water-soluble and liquid stabilizers, fusible stabilizers, and batting (I don’t use heat-aways because they’re hard to remove entirely from stitched threads).

Tear-away stabilizers come in different weights, provide a sturdy backing, and generally can be easily removed from the stitched area. With elaborate stitch patterns, however, you may not be able to remove all the tear-away, and it will be visible on the wrong side.

Water-soluble and liquid stabilizers can be washed out after you have finished stitching, so be sure the fabric you use them on is washable.

Fusible stabilizers are permanent and generally add bulk to the fabric. Therefore, I don’t recommend them for garments, but they’re suitable for projects like place mats, pillows, and other accessories.

Batting can also be used as a permanent stabilizer. It gives a quilted effect and adds substantial body to the fabric to support the stitches.

To decide which stabilizer is best for the fabric and thread you’re using, do some bobbin-work stitches on a 12-in. test square of fabric with the stabilizer in place.

It’s a matter of tension
Using thicker threads in the bobbin may require that you loosen the bobbin tension of your machine in order for the thread to flow easily through the hole in the needle plate. I’ll talk about that in a moment, but first, let me explain how machine tension in general affects the appearance of a stitch. The tension discs at the top of the machine are responsible for controlling the amount of drag placed on the needle thread. Similarly, the bobbin tension is responsible for how easily the thread flows from the bobbin case. If either tension is too tight, there is more resistance on the thread, which will affect the look of the stitch and possibly cause the fabric to pucker. If the top or bobbin tension is too loose, the stitches will be uneven.

Programmed stitchesBasic utility and built-in programmed stitches can look like hand embroidery (above). Straight machine stitches take on a new life (below), when sewn with heavy or novelty threads and silk ribbons in the bobbin.Straight machine stitches

It’s always wise to check the tension with every new thread you use by making a test sample on your chosen fabric. If the bobbin thread loops to the top of the fabric, the top tension may be too tight or the bobbin thread too loose, and the reverse may be true if the top thread pulls tightly to the fabric’s wrong side. You can also check the bobbin tension by pulling up a length of thread from the opening on the bobbin. For normal tension, it should pull out easily, but not too freely.

Two types of bobbins
There are many makes and models of sewing machines, but only two types of bobbins: drop-in bobbins that fit into a built-in bobbin case and load from the top, and bobbins that fit into a removable bobbin case that’s inserted into the machine from the front or the side. In order to adjust the bobbin tension for bobbin work on a top-loading bobbin, you may need to remove the cover plate and unscrew the bobbin case. Some machine manuals have instructions for adjusting this type of bobbin tension, but if you’re unsure how to make this adjustment, simply bypass the tension springs in the bobbin case and let the thread flow directly through the hole on the throat plate. If you have questions about your particular model, check with your dealer.

If your machine has a front- or side-loading bobbin, you’ll need to loosen the tiny screw on the bobbin case by turning it slightly to the left. Then, of course, you’ll need to bring the tension back for regular sewing. For this reason, I suggest getting a second bobbin case to use exclusively for bobbin work.

You may need to adjust the upper tension as well. To do this, turn the top tension dial a number or two higher than normal to offset the looser tension in the bobbin. And remember to return it to its normal setting for regular sewing.

Winding the bobbin
Decorative threads and ribbons that can’t fit through the needle won’t pass easily through a machine’s bobbin-winder tension points either. But you can still wind the bobbin on the machine: Start by feeding the thread end through the hole at the top of the bobbin, from the inside out, leaving a 1-in. to 2-in. tail of thread, and make three or four complete wraps around the bobbin by hand. Place the bobbin on the winding pin, click it in place, and trim the thread tail so it’s flush with the top of the bobbin. Then, place the thread spool on a pencil, pinch the thread between your thumb and forefinger to give it a little tension, and press the foot pedal slowly to engage the bobbin winder. You may need to guide the thread up and down the bobbin so that it fills evenly, and be careful not to fill it beyond the edges of the bobbin or it won’t fit into the bobbin case. For ribbons and threads on a skein, start the process in the same way, but feed them over your fingers, being careful to keep ribbons flat and untwisted as they wrap around the bobbin.

Should the feed dogs be up or down?
You can use heavy threads and ribbons successfully in the bobbin with the feed dogs engaged as for regular sewing. And you can put the dogs down for free-motion stitching.

With feed dogs up, you can sew regular straight stitches, utility stitches, and programmed decorative stitches. For example, you can finish a garment using a simple straight stitch to achieve the look of elegant topstitching. Use a longer stitch length (about 3mm) to showcase the thread. And for more creative effects, loosen the bobbin tension as far as possible, and the thread will weave loosely back and forth, producing a lacy, free-form stitching line. Utility stitches take on a new dimension when used with decorative threads in the bobbin-a zigzag, for example, looks more intricate. If you’re using programmed stitch patterns, stick to those with simple outlines. The more intricate patterns, or those that include satin stitches or tight reverse stitching, can cause puckering and/or create little tunnels under the stitching. Whatever stitch you choose, always experiment on a small square of fabric, since it’s hard to predict the results when using unconventional threads in the bobbin.

Free-motion stitching is another fun way to do bobbin work. You need to move the fabric along by hand, because the feed dogs are lowered and not there to help, but you can stitch in any direction you want. It’s best to use an embroidery hoop for free-motion work so you can keep the fabric as taught as possible, but some fabrics may require a stabilizer as well. And remember, you’ll mark and stitch on the wrong side of the fabric, so you don’t need to worry about the markings showing on the right side.

Starting and stopping
To begin stitching, take a single stitch and pull gently on the needle thread until the bobbin thread comes to the top. Pull both threads behind the presser foot and stitch, taking several close-together stitches to lock the threads in place. To end a row of stitches, lock it with several close-together stitches, raise the needle, and pull the fabric back. Leave at least a 6-in. tail of bobbin thread, and, using a small hand-sewing tapestry needle, pull the bobbin thread to the fabric’s wrong side and tie it with the needle thread in one overhand knot.

Stitching tips

•  For large stitching jobs, fill several bobbins at once to keep bobbin-winding interruptions to a minimum.
•  When using yarns and threads from a skein, first wind them onto a spool, using the E-Z Winder tool.
•  A drop of fray-retardant solvent, like Fray Check, prevents heavy, multi-strand threads from unraveling.
•  When loosening the tension screw on a removable bobbin case, work over a piece of soft fabric to prevent losing the screw if it accidentally falls from the case.

Try it out

Try it out
Play with bobbin work by making an evening bag: Cut a rectangle of fabric (we chose silk dupioni), about 9-1/2 in. by 17 in. Baste a layer of medium-weight stabilizer to the fabric’s wrong side, divide the fabric in thirds, and stitch rows of bobbin work horizontally across one outer third. Cut a similar rectangle of lining, and stitch the two, right sides together, leaving an opening on one edge. Turn to the right side, hand-stitch the opening closed, and press. Fold into thirds with the stitched section on top to form the flap, and machine-stitch the outer edges of the center and bottom thirds.

Once you try bobbin work, you’ll love the surprising results. It’s a fun way to embellish by machine, and it looks like you did it by hand.

Sharee Dawn Roberts sews and teaches embellishment in Paducah, Kentucky.

Photos: Sloan Howard; drawing: Karen Meyer


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  1. PapayaStudio | | #1

    What a great idea I'm going to try this out!

  2. LadySewWise | | #2

    I am going to try this. Thanks for sharring.

  3. User avater
    mbzaj | | #3

    Thank you so much for this article. I have been interested in purchasing a foot for couching, but at 50.00 a foot, I think this is a great alternative for not more than I would be doing it. Thanks!

  4. sewphisticated | | #4

    I came to this article wondering "what the heck is bobbin work?"

    I came away thinking "ahh, this looks fun and easy to do!"

    And now I'm off to gather the bits I need for my first playful project.

    Thank you Sharee Dawn Roberts for this intelligent, well written and instructive article!

  5. User avater
    Dominikafanya | | #5

    Lovely! I will definitely try this soon.

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