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Lampshade Inspiration - The art of free machine embroidery

Updated: Nov 23, 2023

Via our #memadeshade Instagram competition we’ve seen our lampshade makers use a variety of art and craft skills, as the basis for making beautiful lampshades. Today we wanted to shine a light - sorry, no pun intended ;) - on free machine embroidery and introduce you to the principles, techniques and some of our talented makers who create stunning lampshades, using this imaginative textile art.

So what is free machine embroidery? Also known as free motion embroidery, free machine embroidery is essentially the art of drawing with your sewing machine and although it's a little trickier than it sounds, it’s also a fun and creative way of putting a sewing machine to a different use other than sewing a straight lines.

Landscape lampshade - Jo Hill Textiles -

What are the techniques of free machine embroidery?

There are a couple of different ways of using free machine embroidery creatively. The first is to use just a variety of colours of cotton to highlight a pattern on an existing fabric or to alternatively to draw your own designs on a blank canvas. The other main technique is to applique shapes or scraps of fabrics to form the basis of your design and then to decoratively over stitch these. You can see a mixture of the two techniques in the work of the featured free machine embroidery lampshade makers.

Design process - Dear Emma -

Free machine embroidery as a whole also lends itself well to recycling and upcycling, breathing fresh life into unwanted fabrics, vintage scraps and leftovers from other projects, which mean each product, whether that be a lampshade, cushion or bag, is unique and one of kind.

What equipment do I need to try free machine embroidery?

The basic equipment you’ll need to try this craft, alongside your machine, is a darning foot and a wooden or plastic embroidery hoop. Darning feet are a either circular or shaped like a horse shoe and are spring loaded allowing the foot to bounce to create more fluid stiches. Both branded feet for your make of machine and universal feet are available, the latter being much cheaper.

Using a darning foot - Dear Emma -

An embroidery hoop helps to keep the fabric taught as you sew, providing stability for the stitches and they come in a wide variety of sizes. There are thinner edged plastic versions available especially for free machine embroidery. As a beginner the hoop can be a little cumbersome, so try applying interfacing to your fabric, which will give you a stable canvass to practise on.

Using an embroidery hoop - Dear Emma -

Textile artist, Jo Hill of Jo Hill Textiles offers this advice for beginners ‘Use a fabric that is firm, with body but not too thick, an embroidery hoop so you don't get wrinkles and use good quality strong thread and needles.’

Embroidering onto stable fabric - Jo Hill Textiles -

How to free machine embroider

To allow your needle to move freely you’ll need to ‘drop your feed dogs’. These are the serrated teeth that you’ll find below the tip of needle in the needle plate of the machine. To drop them refer to your machine manual.

Feed dogs dropped

Thread you needle and bobbin with a good quality cotton and position your fabric in the hoop so it’s taught. Fit the hoop under the needle so that the needle sits just off the centre. Drop and raise the needle into the fabric using the hand wheel, this will anchor the cotton into the fabric. Start sewing your design!

Tips for making a lampshade using free machine embroidery

Turning to the professionals, we asked two Dannells lampshade makers, who use their talents in free machine embroidery to make stunning lampshades, to share their tips on what to consider when combining these two skills.

Jo Hill Textiles

Instagram @johilltextiles

Jo Hill, of Jo Hill Textiles, says, ‘Free machine embroidery is a completely different skill to normal sewing, it's great fun drawing with the sewing machine, but like any skill you need to build up muscle memory, do little and often.

Jo’s years of textile design experience have led her to create stunning pieces of original textile art inspired by British wildlife, evoking the beautiful colours of the countryside. By combining hand-dyed fabrics and free motion embroidery, she then uses the sewing machine to 'draw' the details of the design, bringing the piece to life.

And Jo’s tips for making free machine embroidery lampshades?

‘Don't leave trailing threads on the back as they will cast shadows when the lampshade is lit.’

You can read about Jo and her creative business in her Meet the Maker interview.

Dear Emma Designs - Cathy Emmott


It is from her tiny garden workshop in the Yorkshire Dales, that Cathy doodles and sketches a unique range of designs for her creative business, Dear Emma Designs. Her ideas are brought to life using a combination of free-motion machine and hand embroidery, lovingly embellished to reflect her love of garden birds, insects and wild flowers and the charming streets scenes of Yorkshire. These are turned into a range of products including lampshades and lanterns. Each of Cathy’s pieces are made individually from high quality linens, cottons and new and vintage snippets of fabrics.

So what’s Cathy’s tip for creating a free machine embroidery design that will become a lampshade?

‘It’s probably not to add to many layers of fabric when creating your design as this can thicken the base fabric and also stop light showing through when the shade is lit’.

Using this advice in her own work, Cathy has cleverly used high quality digital prints of her free machine embroidery designs for her lanterns which she then highlights, in places, with free-motion stitching and hand cuts the windows to emphasize the light shining through.

How to get started in free machine embroidery

Beginners workshops are available both in person and online, both of which are a supportive and fun way of mastering free machine embroidery.

Jo Hill’s beginners introduction to Free motion embroidery course and other textile techniques is called 'Flowers and Grasses' and is a permanently open as an access course, meaning you can join and complete at a time to suit you. This would be perfect for people wishing to then go on to making lampshades. Find the course here.

Also, if you'd like an instant way to satisfy the urge to try this new skill, Jo has a range of free machine embroidery kits, which contain all of the components required to make your finished item, and some include luxury hand-dyed fabric pieces too. All you'll need is your sewing machine, a darning/embroidery foot and thread, plus the usual accessories such as fabric scissors and an iron.

So if this has got your creative juices flowing, dig out the sketch book, your fabric stash and your sewing machine and get to work trying out this fun craft. Who knows that by combining your design with one of our Lampshade Making Kits, you could be soon making free machine embroidery lampshades of your own.


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