Advent Trees: sewing in circles

Learn how to sew in circles, continuing in my advent tree series.
This is the next post in the series of advent trees – a chance to try out some new embellishment techniques. In this post I’ll be looking at some more decorative stitching – this time using a handy trick to sew in circles.

You don’t have to have hundreds of fancy stitches on your sewing machine to produce decorative stitching. For this tree, I used only straight stitch and zigzag stitch, but added interest by using a metallic thread and sewing in circles instead of straight lines.

Here’s how to do it.

Sewing in circles

The basic trick to sewing in circles is to use a drawing pin, in much the same way you use the point of a compass to draw a circle (although it may some time since you last did this!). Larger circles are easier to sew, so start large and work down to smaller ones. As ever, if you’re new to this try a practice piece first.

  1. Use a piece of tape to stick a drawing pin point up to your stitch plate. Magic tape is great for this as it sticks well, but comes off easily without leaving a sticky residue on your machine. I tend to put the drawing pin on the horizontal line that lines up with the needle, because I’m a bit finicky like that, but it doesn’t matter unless you want to measure circles precisely.

    Use tape to stick a drawing pin point up.
    The pin marks the centre of your circle, and the distance between the pin and your needle is the radius – the closer the pin is to the needle, the smaller the radius so the smaller the circle.

  2. Place the fabric on top of the pin.The pin will be at the centre of the circle and off to one side, because you’ll be sewing around the edge of the circle. Place the fabric over the pin.
  3. Sew steadily, guiding the fabric in a circle.As you sew, the pin will force the fabric to turn in a circle. If you are sewing a full circle, start somewhere unobtrusive. If you’re sewing a part-circle, as here, start near the edge. As you sew, the pin will force the fabric to turn in a circle.

Here are a few more tips on sewing circles:

  • The smaller the circle, the more the fabric needs to turn – for tight circles, slow down to give the fabric a chance to shift.
  • As you sew, you want to guide the fabric in a circle, pivoting on the drawing pin and keeping the fabric smooth.
  • Use a smaller stitch length for smaller circles to keep the line smooth – my small circles have stitch lengths of 1-1.5, while the larger ones are 2.5-3.
  • If you’re using a straight stitch then there shouldn’t be any problem with joins, but if you’re using a zigzag, the stitch may not meet up perfectly at the end – put the start/stop somewhere where it won’t show.
  • If you’re sewing part circles, or using straight stitch then finish ends by backstitching as usual. If you’re using a decorative stitch of some sort and sewing full circles where the whole circle will be visible on the finished work, leave long thread tails, pull them to the back and tie securely.

Sewing the decorative circles advent tree

  1. Check the previous post for instructions on how to make the basic tree, and to get the template.Cut your top piece of felt and fabric larger than the template – we’ll sew over the whole piece and then cut back to the template at the end.
  2. Layer the fabric on the felt, and sew circles all over.
    • Start with large circles: I sewed three to four circles all the same size, some in straight stitch and some in zigzag, spaced over the whole fabric.
    • Sew several concentric circles (circles with the same centre) – mark a point on the fabric for the centre with a water-soluble pen or some other temporary marker. Place this point on top of the drawing pin and sew a circle. Then move the drawing pin (closer to the needle for smaller circles), and repeat. Vary the spacing between circles.
      Concentric circles - use the same centre, but change the distance of the drawing pin from the needle
    • Fill up the space with more and more sets of concentric circles, overlapping previous circles. It doesn’t matter how you do this, but to ensure lots of overlapping, I tended to choose a new centre point actually on the stitching of an existing circle.
    • As well as varying straight and zigzag, you can change the stitch length and widths on the zigzag, or trying sew a zigzag on top of a straight line for a different look.
    • Minor mistakes such as wonky stitching will get lost in the overall pattern, the more circles you sew. Here you can see I accidentally used the wrong centre for my circle, so the inner circle is not centred – oops!
      Minor mistakes - like this inner circle that isn't centred - won't show overall.
  3. Cut the triangle template from the fabric, and seal the edges with Fray Check. The larger the piece of fabric you started with, the more choice you have here – try different positions (a windowed template is useful here) for the best look. You can place your template at any angle – all the stitching means you don’t have to worry about keeping the grainline straight.

    Cut the template from the fabric, choosing the best position.

  4. Complete the tree following the instructions on how to make the basic tree. I sewed a straight stitch in a matching colour round the edge first and then the blanket stitch on top, for added security.The finished tree, with sewn decorative circles

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Troubleshooting: metallic thread

Metallic threads can look great, but can be tricky to use.

  • Make sure you’re using a thread suitable for machine embroidery.
  • Use a special metallic thread needle – it has a larger eye, which helps reduce shredding.
  • Metallic thread can twist and break if it spools horizontally; set your spool pin to upright.
  • Metallic thread has no stretch to it, so lower your top tension right down – I went down to about 2 compared to a usual tension of 4.6
  • Slow down! If you put the thread under too much tension by sewing fast it tend to break.

There’s a great guide to sewing with metallic thread here.
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So how else could you play with this idea? Here are some suggestions for the advent tree:

  • Deliberately sew circles that aren’t concentric.
  • Sew all the circles the same size, equally spaced, for a very geometric design.
  • Use decorative stitches – you don’t have to stick with straight and zigzag if you have more options.
  • With some careful planning and positioning of the centre point, you should be able to get other curved shapes, such as a wavy line.
  • Play with different colours: for example, straight stitch concentric circles very close together in gradually varying shades of colour.

Alternatively, of course, you could use this technique on something completely different. Cut a large piece of fabric and some kind of backing (I like felt because it’s cheap, and it stabilises and adds bulk at the same time, but you could use stabiliser on its own, or quilting wadding), cover it with circles and then treat as single piece of fabric to cut your pattern pieces. I’d really like to make a bag like this – I shall have to add it to my ever-increasing list of projects.

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