As the names suggest, embroidery machines allow for embroidery stitching, while sewing machines allow for regular stitching, also known as construction stitching. Some combination machines allow for both types of stitching. The overall look of embroidery and sewing machines don't differ too much. The real difference lies in the type of attachments that allow for the embroidery stitching.
Modern sewing machines offer hundreds of stitches, and any given machine may or may not include embroidery in its repertoire. An advanced embroidery machine works with a computer and can provide elaborate pre-programmed embroidery patterns, as well as the option to add more patterns that have been downloaded or scanned. Such machines often employ a hooping system that holds the fabric taut as the design is executed. An industrial embroidery machine might also be loaded with multiple needles that work together, offering the ability to trim thread and change thread color automatically, according to a pattern, with fewer stops and starts for the user. Sewing machines also can come in digitally-capable versions, and industrial versions.
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To understand the difference between a sewing machine and an embroidery machine it is helpful first to note the difference between straightforward sewing, or construction sewing, and the specialized sort of stitching known as embroidery. Some machines are only capable of construction stitching. Others can do both construction work and embroidery, perhaps by way of a removable embroidery attachment, while some highly specialized machines only sew embroidery stiching.
Construction sewing typically involves joining two pieces or fabric; finishing the edge of a single piece of fabric; or manipulating the drape of a piece of fabric, as with pleats or darts. Construction stitching may have a decorative aspect if the stitch is meant to be visible — someone might choose a straight stitch or a zig-zag, for example, based on a preference for how one or the other looks — but the dominant consideration is typically function.
Embroidery, by contrast, is primarily decorative. Stitched flourishes, such as a basic monogram or perhaps a detailed scene of flowers and butterflies, often are embroidered onto table linens, quilts and throw pillows. Embroidery generally involves 30- or 40-weight embroidery thread and a repetitive, texture-building stitching technique to outline patterns and fill them with color. Using a machine designed for embroidery stitching can help assure uniform stitches as well as save the operator some time.
Like regular sewing, embroidery can be done without a specialized embroidery machine. Embroidery can be achieved by meticulous hand-sewing or by using a challenging technique called free-motion embroidery with a traditional sewing machine.
Learning to take full advantage of all that a particular embroidery machine can do takes time. Experts recommend shopping with a dealer that allows prospective buyers to test machines in person, as well as offering demonstration classes and ongoing support to deepen understanding of all features. Some machine makers also offer extensive guidance and project ideas on their Web sites.