Managing Large Embroidery Projects

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The wall hanging I made a couple of years ago

Most of our embroidery projects are small or quick – something we can turn out in a few minutes, or in a few short sessions: a monogram, a single-color design. We’ve got plenty of thread and stabilizer hanging around, and our project is there waiting to receive the design.

Occasionally though we want to do something grander: an embroidered quilt, a wall hanging – something with some square footage to it. So how do you plan for that? I find the keys are to be prepared and to stay organized.

One of the first things to do – the first thing to always do with any sewing project – is read the instructions. Not just a glance to see if you have the materials, or what notions you’ll need to buy; but sit down and go step-by-step and really understand what the project is asking for.

Once you’ve done that, the next thing is to make a list: what fabrics, battings, stabilizers, applique scraps, needles, threads and bobbins are required? Do you need spray adhesive, additional types of stabilizer or toppers, other notions like a zipper, ribbons or buttons? Just like a sewing pattern, you want to write down everything.

You’ll also need to make sure you have enough fabric and stabilizer; do you have the size of stabilizer you’ll need for the hoops you’re using? Remember the design will dictate which size hoop you use – always use the smallest hoop that will hold the design. Sometimes the company will tell you how much fabric you need, sometimes the design is not set and you’ll have to figure it out.

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I keep threads for an embroidery project together on a tray

Two examples of projects I’m doing now; Landscape Christmas and Crane Tapestry, both by Anita Goodesign. Crane Tapestry is fairly set: you have two sizes to choose from, there’s a background fabric, two applique fabrics, and three thread colors. Since it’s so simple, they’re able to tell you approximately how much fabric you’ll need.

Landscape Christmas however, is not a set project; you choose which blocks you want and how you want to arrange them. I wanted to make a table topper to match a wall hanging I made a few years ago, so I first measured my table, then decided which arrangements of blocks in which sizes would best cover the table. I made a list of these blocks, the size I was using, the number I needed of each and a sketch showing the configuration I decided on – because I would never remember what I had chosen later. This allowed me to get an approximate square footage of fabric and batting I’d need.


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My diagram, and the probably inaccurate math I used to calculate my fabric needs

I next print out the design sheets; these tell you which threads and appliques you’ll need, and in which order. They will also have either a photo of the design or block, or a full-size diagram that you can cut out as a template. Some embroidery designs come with both, it depends on the company you’re using.

I then make a list of the colors or thread numbers that are used; this usually turns out to be a very long list. Sometimes I find that across a dozen blocks, eight or nine shades (or more!) of a color will be used. This often has to do with the designer’s ideas about what color an object should be – street lamps are this color grey, car wheels are this color, door knobs are yet another. Then within these objects, there’s shading and highlighting, and you can wind up with two or three colors per object. (Sometimes too I think they just have a whole set of thread colors to choose from, and use as many as they see in front of them!)


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The list of colors on the left – it gets long! The embroidery design sheet on the right

For myself, that’s a lot of unnecessary differentiation. I look to see whether the similarly colored objects are next to each other; if they are, then I try to maintain some differences in color. Usually though, they’re not even on the same block, so I just re-use the colors where I can, reducing the total number of colors needed. I often get a reduction of one quarter to one third this way. So instead of seven shades of red, twelve shades of blue and eighteen (yes, eighteen!) shades of grey, I can get it down to three or so of each.

Having narrowed down my list I bring it to my own thread collection. I match the colors as best as I can, assuming I’m using similar colors. But this is where you also get to choose which colors you want and what you’d like to change. Maybe you’re doing a quilt with roses, but instead of all one color, you’d like each one to be different. Or maybe the opposite; you want all your Sunbonnet Sue towels to use the same appliques and fabrics for each one. Whatever it is you’re deciding to change, take the time to write it down on the design sheets and your list of colors; trust me, you won’t remember later what you had decided to use for which, and you’ll be frustrated trying to figure it out all over again.

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All the fabrics for my appliques, waiting their turn

I then gathered the remaining supplies; fabrics, applique scraps and anything else specific to the project. Because I had taken the time to do all this work in advance, I was actually able to put this project down a couple of months ago and pick it back up just recently.

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Cutting mat, ruler and rotary cutter for trimming down finished blocks. There will be quite a pile of finished blocks when I’m done

In fact, I do this will all my sewing projects; I keep the fabrics and notions together in a bag or box, I keep a list of the steps and where I am, any adjustments I need to make, and I mark the steps off as I go. This comes in handy whether I need to put a project aside for a few weeks, or even a few months – or years, as I describe here on the blog of Roz, our lovely local fabric supplier!

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