For about a year now I've been moderating a wonderful private Facebook group for softie designers. It's called the While She Naps Softie Designers Forum and we currently have just over 100 members.
One of our new members is Ann Mackowski. Ann joined last week and when she introduced herself she explained that her business up until now has been designing patterns to use on embroidery machines, but she’s interested in expanding into softie sewing patterns, too, and that’s how she found us. The group was curious about how Ann makes softies using an embroidery machine. Ann posted a few photos of the process she uses to create an “in the hoop” softie. Everyone in our group was fascinated.
I was eager to learn even more about embroidery machine-made softies so I reached out to Ann and she very kindly agreed to tell me more about "in the hoop."
A sampling of "in the hoop" softies created on embroidery machines. Baby Lion by DigitizedCreations, Owl Softie by FennyZborduuratelier, Bunny Rabbit by DollsAndDaydreams, Owl Softies by Embroidery Garden, Flipper the Frog by GG Designs, Lion by swak embroidery, Anoushka Babushka Doll by BigDreamsEmbroidery, Racoon Softie by MommaMC, Little Chooky byt BeeStitchin
Before we hear from Ann, let me say that up until now when I thought of an embroidery machine I imagined something you would use to add a monogram to a baby blanket or a sweatshirt. You set it and press “go” and it stitches away. Not super creative, and not something you’d use to make a three-dimensional object.
In a way I was right, but there's more to it than I'd thought. Ann told me, “The simplest definition is that an embroidery machine uses a computerized file to stitch out a design. This file tells the machine what kind of stitches to use, how many and where. The user chooses the thread colors, the fabric and the stabilizer."
"Most machines come with a set number of designs loaded on them. Most of these designs are quite generic and kind of dated, so users start looking for other options quickly. For more designs, users turn to established companies like Dakota Collectibles and EMB Library. But like the rest of the sewing pattern industry, there is a growing field of indie designers, too.”
A quick Etsy search brings up over 8,000 digital embroidery patterns. Sara of Dolls and Daydreams, a highly successful softie and doll pattern seller on Etsy, now has 12 "in the hoop" toy patterns. Take a look at DigitizedCreations on Etsy to see a nice assortment of ITH patterns as well.
So how do you go from pre-set motifs to making a softie?
“Creating a three-dimensional object using an embroidery machine is referred to as ‘in the hoop’ (ITH),” Ann says, although she acknowledges that this term is a bit misleading because all embroidery is done in the hoop. “The term ITH has come to refer to a three-dimensional object assembled using an embroidery machine.”
Many sewists are drawn to embroidery machines for the automation. Every stitch is consistent with the last, and, according to Ann, “Many ITH customers do not actually know how to sew at all or do not want to. ITH opens up a whole world of opportunity for these people. It seems to take some of the fear out of the process for them.”
Ann explained that ITH patterns are quick and fairly simple, too. “There is no cutting out pattern pieces because the machine stitches the template right onto the fabric for you. Complex details like faces are stitched right onto the softie, so there is no need to learn hand embroidery. Complex designs rarely takes more than an hour and many are much faster."
"The results are fairly consistent from one softie from a design to the next," Ann says. "I can make 20 little owls that all look the same - or I can switch it up with different thread colors and different fabrics to make something completely different. Some people merge in letters using software to add a name to the owl's belly or even a small design like a heart or a cancer awareness ribbon.” ITH patterns allow you to be creative and productive, and make it easy to get professional results.
How do you make a softie?
Let’s get down to the nitty gritty. How do you use an embroidery machine to make an ITH softie? I asked Ann to take me through the process of creating her owl softie step-by-step.
1. Transfer the design from your computer to your embroidery machine. When you purchase an ITH pattern you receive a digital file that you then transfer directly to your embroidery machine via either a diskette (if you have an older machine), a dedicated card reader, or a memory stick via a USB port. The files are formatted specifically for each of the different brands of embroidery machines. For example, Brother brand machines use .PES and Vikings use .VIP or .VP3 file formats.
2. Lay fabric on top of stabilizer in a hoop that comes with your machine. The field sizes on embroidery machines range from 100 mm x 100 mm (often referred to as a 4 x 4, but actually a bit smaller), up to nearly 8 x 12 inches. Ann warns of “hoop envy.” “If you have a 4 x 4 machine, no matter what size hoops you buy for it, it will still only stitch a file that is under 100 mm x 100 mm - it will refuse to load anything larger. If you are sewing names on baby bibs this isn't really an issue, but when you start talking about sewing in the hoop softies it starts to matter quickly. The general advice that most people will give is to get the biggest hoop you can afford. It may not seem like a big deal until you start stitching but you quickly develop hoop envy when working on the 3d projects.”
3. Start your machine. It will auto-stitch the outline of the toy. Note that embroidery machines use embroidery thread, which is a bit more lightweight than all-purpose sewing thread.
4. Lay down the face fabric. The machine will then auto-stitch the outline of the face. The pattern will tell the machine when to start and stop so that you can change thread colors or add more fabrics. Remove the hoop from the machine and trim around the face fabric. To finish the face the machine satin stitches around it.
4. Repeat this process, appliqueing the wings, and stitching the eyes and beak onto the body.
5. Place the backing fabric on top of everything you have just stitched, right sides together, just like you would do with a softie on a sewing machine. The machine stitches an outline and leaves a hole for turning. Remove the toy from the machine, tear away the stabilizer and trim around the edges. Turn it right side out and stuff and sew it shut by hand.
Ann’s owl is created in “one hooping.” More complex toys require multiple hoopings. This means you’ll make one set of pieces, take it off the machine and start again making another piece or set of pieces. They are connected in some way, either using the machine or by hand. Others are created in two hoopings and then parts are sewed together by hand - those are often referred to as semi-ITH.
How do you design an ITH pattern?
To design an ITH pattern you'll need a digitizing program such as Embird, Floriani, Bernina, PE Design, or Wilcom. Each of these can convert the file you create into formats used by the embroidery machines currently on the market. If you'd like to create an ITH pattern, but don't want to buy and learn the software, you might consider collaborating with a digitizer who can turn your designs into ITH patterns.
The software allows you to assign each area specific properties that tell the machine whether to stop for a thread color change, do a zigzag or satin stitch, etc. Ann says, "A well-digitized design will have as few color changes and jumps from one area to another as possible, so sometimes it is not as simple as it might seem."
What machine should you buy?
I’ve never shopped for an embroidery machine and I wondered what most people get, and whether they can also be used as a sewing machine. Ann explained that embroidery machines come in several forms. The simplest kind is a single needle, embroidery only machine. This machine only uses embroidery designs and can’t be used as a sewing machine.
Photo: Husqvarna Viking
Then there are hybrid machines that can both sew and embroider. These machines have an arm and bed that attaches to the machine for embroidery and are removed and stored for sewing. The price point is a bit higher than a comparable embroidery only machine, but you have the added functionality. Ann owns a Viking Ruby hybrid machine.
The third type is still a very small segment of the market because of the cost - the multi-needle machine. Ann says, “They are the dream machine for many embroiderers for a few reasons - they stitch faster, they have a free arm, which makes embroidering on tubular items like shirts or bags much easier and best of all, there is much less time spent on rethreading the machines. On a single needle machine, each time you change colors in a design, you have to unthread and re-thread your machine. Depending on the design, this can mean unthreading and rethreading your machine upwards of 10 times. The catch is the cost - the least expensive multi-needle machines with 4 needles are still upward of $5,000 which is obviously quite an investment compared to the single needle machines that start under $300. They also tend to have a much larger sewing field, with one brand cracking the 20" mark.”
Thank you, Ann, for sharing your expertise on ITH patterns with us. It's been fascinating!
If you have any questions about embroidery machines or "in the hoop" patterns, please ask. And if you have a favorite ITH designer to recommend, we would love to check them out so please share.