Skull-A-Day 4.0 - Tutorial - #25 Freeform Embroidery Skull

This week, I wanted to combine my love of sugar skulls with my knowledge of machine sewing and embroidery. I wanted to challenge myself, as I have been machine sewing since I was 12 and embroidering since I was a small child. I used a technique called freeform machine embroidery. There are a few different variations of this. In the future, I might try a harder on that doesn't use fabric as it's base, but a dissolvable stabilizer is used to add in fusing delicate things like ribbons, fibers, yarns, trims with machine embroidery. For this project, I think even a novice sewer could handle it as long as they take their time. I took photos while I made it, which is a nice change for you all.

  • Black Cotton Fabric - You want it to be a good quality/slightly thick, so it will hold up to all the stitching. You can use any color that you wish. I used black, so the colors would stand out well.
  • Machine Thread - I used regular spools of thread of a sewing machine. I used white, 2 shades of green, orange, pink and purple. You can use any colors you want.
  • A Denim Weight Sewing Machine Needle - You will be sewing through layers of thread, and will need a sturdy needle to do this safely.
  • A Sewing Machine - That you can lower the feet dogs on. You have to do this in order to use this kind of foot. Having a speed control is good too. You will be able to move your fabric around freely, so it's easy to make a mistake if you are going fast. Because there are so many overlapping stitches, it's almost impossible to fix a mistake.
  • A Embroidery Foot for horizontal foot machines - It has a spring. You will have to unscrew the main attachment for feet, to attach this one.
  • A Screw Driver - You get the idea.
  • An Embroidery Hoop - This is to stabilize your fabric while you work. You want to make sure it's not too large where you can't easily move it around on your machine while working. Probably nothing larger than the width of your sewing arm of your machine (from the needle to the right side where your opening for fabric ends and your machine goes up)
  • Scissors - For cutting thread.
  • Bobbin - Load it with thread that is the same color as the fabric.
  • Seam Ripper - In case you are brave enough or picky enough to want to fix any errors. There will be a lot of overlapping stitches, so that is going to be really tedious to fix.
  • A Light Colored Pencil or Regular Pencil - I used a light one because I used black fabric. You could use a regular one if you have lighter colored fabric. Basically, you want to use a color that will show up well on your fabric, but able to be covered with the thread when stitched over.


1) Separate your embroidery hoop. Lay the smaller circle down. Lay your fabric nice side down, centered over the small circle. Put the larger adjustable circle over the fabric. Secure to fit over the smaller circle, by twisting the closing screw tight.

2) Flip the hoop over, so the good side of the fabric is up. Use your pencil to lightly draw out your shape. In this case, I drew the outline of the skull, nose, mouth and teeth.

3) Lower the feed dogs on your machine. If you don't know how to lower them on your machine, read your manual. Feed dogs are the "teeth" that help pull fabric along as you sew. Since this is freeform, you don't want them pulling the fabric.

4) Using the screw driver, loosen the screw that hold the foot attachment on.

5) Change needle to the denim one. Load the bobbin with thread that is the same color as the fabric and load into the machine.

6) Lay the hoop, drawing side up, on the machine.

7)Slip the embroidery foot onto the bar and screw the foot into place. If you don't have the hoop already laying on the machine, it's really hard to get the wood edge of the hoop under the bottom of the foot after the foot is already attached.

8) Thread your machine with the color you want to use for the main part of your design. In this case, I threaded the machine with white, for the skull.

9) Sewing slowly, sew the outline of the skull head. Make 3 or 4 passes, just so you have a semi-consistent line. Do the same thing for the eyes and nose.

10) For the teeth, make "n" shapes. Sew the lines a few times, so there is a consistent line of where the teeth are.

11) To fill in the teeth, sew forward, backward and a bit diagonal, so the area is lightly covered.

12) To fill in the rest of the skull, sew in a circle motion. Depending on how fast you sew, these might end up looking more like triangles. Be careful not to sew past your outlines for the head, nose and skull. Sew slowly around those areas.

13) Time for the decorations. I started with the leaves. Thread your machine with regular green thread.

14) Slowly sew outlines for leaf shapes. Sewing forward and backward in small sections, fill in the leaf shape.

15) Thread your machine with the light green thread. Using the same forward and backward method, sew over part of the regular green filled leaf and a little past it, to make highlights.

16) Time for the flowers. Thread your machine with the hot pink thread. For each flower, sew petal shaped outlines. One on each side, one in the middle and two in between those. Using the same back and forth sewing, fill in the petals.

17) Change the thread to orange. Sew around the edge of the petals. Go back and forth to make defined orange lines. Sew in a zig zag motion to lightly go over the center pink of the petals. You don't want to fill this in, because you want the pink to still show.

Do steps 13-17 on both sides of the skull...left and right.

18) Change the thread to purple. Carefully, sew an outline for a teardrop/petal shape above the eye. Fill that in using the same back and forth technique that you used for the leaves and flowers. I made a total of 5 above/beside each eye. Try to keep them symmetrical, but it's hard to do this part.

19) Use the pencil to lightly draw two swirls under each eye/beside the nose.

20) Carefully sew along the drawn swirls. You will sew over this several times, so the swirls are easily seen and consistent.

This is the finished top.

This is the back. Notice, the black bobbin thread. You will also notice a lot of puckers. This is because I used a stretch cotton. This was a bad idea. Don't do that. The fabric is glittery on the back, so that is why there are so many, sparkles.

You can use this as a framed piece of art, embroidery on a bag, an applique for a jacket...etc. You get the idea. Take this project and expand beyond the basic. That is all for now. Happy makery!


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