Published On: 01-31-2012 09:00am
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Embroidering goes against everything fabric normally wants to do. Fabric is flexible and pliable; it wants to shift, move, stretch, and distort. Yet do everything we can to have the fabric remain flat, still, and stable while we embroider so that we can properly line up our stitches.
There are two main tools that we use to control the fabric while we embroider: the hoop and the stabilizer. Hoops have been used to aid embroidery for centuries. Hand embroidery requires nothing more, as the artist can adjust where to place the needle if the fabric shifts. Machines don’t care or notice if fabric shifts, so once you introduce a machine, you need something more. That something is stabilizer.
What is stabilizer?
It is a non-woven product that is placed against the back of the fabric. It’s job is to help keep the fabric from shifting within the hoop during embroidery. The important thing is that it is not a woven product – it does not have warp and weft threads that can move in relation to each other. If you are going to embroider on a non-woven fabric (like propylene or felt), you don’t need to use it. Otherwise, it is best to use some type of stabilizer.
Types of Stabilizer
Thirty years ago, there were only two types of stabilizer: cut away and tear away. Topping was available, but rarely used. These days, there are many more types available, but they generally still fall into these basic categories.
Cut Away Stabilizer
Cut away stabilizers have strong fibers that resist tearing. These fibers continue to hold the embroidery in place long after the garment has been embroidered – including during laundering. If you’ve ever seen embroidery that starts to look wonky and distorted after being washed, it didn’t use cut-away stabilizer. (If it looks wonky immediately after the first washing, it probably did not use any stabilizer at all – this is common with items produced cheaply abroad and sold at very low prices at big box stores.)
To use it, hoop the fabric along with the stabilizer, embroider, and then cut away the excess – about ¼” away from the embroidery is fine. You can use temporary spray adhesive (such as 505 or KK2000) to stick the fabric to the stabilizer before hooping. This can prevent the fabric from stretching during hooping (if you stretch the fabric before you embroider it, it will pucker). Knit fabrics, especially, benefit from using a cut away along with temporary adhesive.
Cut away is best used when the back of the finished product will not be seen. It comes in many weights. As with other stabilizers, it is best to match the weight of the stabilizer with the weight of the fabric and/or the density of the design.
For example, t-shirts cannot handle dense, detailed designs; it is best to use a light, open design along with a light weight cutaway, such as a no-show mesh (Polymesh), which has been attached with spray adhesive or fusing. I have used this technique on this t-shirt design. Canvas, however, is a heavier fabric; it can handle dense designs as well as heavy cut away (such as Pellon 30).
My favorite cut-away stabilizer to work with is hands down, Polymesh. It comes in white, black, and beige (good for under white t-shirts because it is skin-colored). It’s thin, flexible, and seems to be able to handle dense stitching as well as light stitching. (On rare occasions, I may need two layers, but usually one works beautifully.) Fusible polymesh is also available, though the standard paired with spray adhesive works well too.
Tear Away Stabilizer
This type of stabilizer has weaker fibers so that you can tear away excess stabilizer from the back when you are done embroidering. It is best for when you will see the back of the work, such as on handkerchiefs or towels. It doesn’t hold up to multiple launderings as well as cut away stabilizer, but it works for most applications.
Like cut away stabilizer, it comes in several weights: light, medium, and heavy. And like cut away, you can use two or more layers of a lighter weight stabilizer to mimic the effect of a heavy weight stabilizer. In fact, using two layers of a light or medium weight tear away stabilizer is often better than using a single layer of heavy weight because you can tear away each layer individually, putting less strain on the stitching. For patches, I will use 5 or 6 layers of tear-away stabilizer (assuming the patch is completely filled in with stitches). I also use it for some of my Christmas ornaments.
I usually use Pellon’s Tear Easy. It is less expensive than Polymesh, but I get such better results using the cut away Polymesh, that I usually only use Tear Easy where cut away is not appropriate.
Wash-away Stabilizer or Topping
These stabilizers are usually made from corn starch and are generally used as “topping’’. It’s called “topping” because it is placed on top of the fabric before embroidery; its purpose is to create an even surface for the threads to lay on top of. Not all fabrics need topping – just the ones with an uneven surface or nap. For example: terrycloth, velvet, corduroy, and pique (usually used for polos – it has a fine, waffle-like weave) need topping to look good or else the embroidery threads will sink into the texture during stitching and get lost. Just tear it away from the top when you are done. You can get rid of any remaining pieces with water – a damp paper towel under a hot iron will remove it quickly and easily without getting the item too damp.
Wash-away can also be used as a stabilizer when you are embroidering on a sheer material, such as organza, or when making free-standing lace. For free standing lace, you hoop one or two layers of wash away stabilizer, then embroider a special lace file. When you are done, you tear away as much stabilizer as possible and rinse out whatever you missed with water. A short rinse will leave the lace slightly stiff (because it still has lots of starch in it); soaking it for a longer period of time will result in a softer lace.
I have also used wash-away stabilizer during sewing to make applying some trims more manageable by sandwiching really frilly or lacy open materials between two layers of wash-away. It can also be used to create exotic fabric effects, which is outside the scope of this article. I shall address it in a future entry.
The most common material used for topping is Sulky’s Solvy, which looks like a clear film. Badgemaster is a heavyweight wash away stabilizer, which is also clear, but thick like a thin vinyl. I sometimes use Badgemaster for making machine lace, though two layers of Solvy is usually sufficient. It’s easier and cheaper to get a hold of Solvy in bulk, so I rarely use other types.
Fusible – There are cut-away as well as tear-away fusible stabilizers available. You apply them to the back of the fabric using an iron and a damp pressing cloth before you embroider. I use it to stabilize fabric when I am embroidering quilt blocks as well as stitched art – having a single layer of fabric makes it easier to work with later when I am piecing the quilt or mounting the fabric for framing.
Fusible stabilizer also works well when you are doing light weight knits, like t-shirts. You can use the same fusible interfacing used for sewing as a stabilizer. You can also get products specifically designed for embroidery, such as fusible polymesh.
Sticky-sided stabilizer - these are stabilizers that have a sticky side, which can stick to either the fabric or your hoop. Some have a peel (like a regular sticker). Others can be dampened to make them sticky. Usually they are tear-away stabilizers, but a few are not. I use it when I need to embroider on difficult items or in difficult places.
For example, the corner of a handkerchief is difficult to hoop because you can’t get two of the edges in between the hoops. To embroider the corner, I’ll hoop Sticky + and then stick the hanky to the stabilizer.
I will also use it on things that would develop permanent marks, or “hoop burn”, if I hooped the fabric as usual (velvet, leather). Some items, like backpack material (600 denier polyester) or thick terrycloth towels, are so difficult to get into a hoop that it’s easier to hoop sticky-back and then stick on the item. (I will attach tear-away or cut-away stabilizer using spray adhesive to the fabric first as most of the sticky stabilizers are too light weight to do the job alone.) I also use it with specialty hoops on my commercial machine that are designed to work with sticky sided stabilizer.
One of the most common sticky stabilizers is Sulky’s Sticky+, which has a peel and a thin, papery texture. It is excellent for when I need to embroider something that is too small to get into a hoop or another difficult item. However, it can be difficult to peel off the back of the work.
Burn-away – disintegrates under a hot iron. It can be used much like wash away – good for where you want a wash away like stabilizer but you cannot get the item wet. Just make sure the item can handle the high heat of being ironed.