Stabilizer Smarts 101

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Stabilizer Smarts 101

A frequently-asked question over on our  Viking Designer Gems list on Yahoo Groups, is what stabilizer would be best to use with a particular project.  So, here is some basic info, so you can make this decision a little easier for yourself.

First, an explanation why you even need stabilizer (or backing, as it is referred to in the commercial embroidery industry), in the first place:  Most fabrics we’re embroidering on have some degree of stretch or shifting; frequently, more in one direction than the other.  This shifting or stretching can be magnified during the stitch out process, and you are laying down additional stitches between the warp and weft of a fabric, or, if stitching out on a knit, between the knitted stitches.  This can cause your fabric to move and shift during your stitch out.  This often explains why the ”registry” or design outline is really off at the end of the stitch out (if your design has an outline stitch, this is usually laid down at the end of the stitch out process).  So, where your fabric started in the hoop, may not be where it ends up at the end of the stitch out, with all those stitches laid into the fabric.  Especially pronounced without a stabilizer to keep the shifting and movement down to a minimum.  Some fabrics are worse than others.  Fabrics with a built-in stretch – such as denim, twills, other loosely woven fabrics, and knits.  So, you need to provide your fabric a non-shifting foundation to help it stay in place during a stitch out.

Second thing that often comes up with new embroiderers coming from the sewing world: The difference between embroidery stabilizers and fabric interfacing.  Yes, there IS a difference!  They are different products (although at a glance, some may resemble the other), and they are designed to do different things.  Interfacings are designed to give fabrics more body and substance.  Interfacings may stretch in one direction, and aren’t made to be able to hold additional stitches.  Stabilizers, on the other hand, are specifically manufactured to do both of those things – prevent stretching or shifting of your base fabric, and to be able to provide additional substance with which to hold those embroidery stitches.  So, be sure you’re not trying to cut corners by substituting interfacing in place of embroidery stabilizers.  Can or should you use both?  Sure!  There may be a time that you have a unique situation where using both an interfacing and a stabilizer would be the best bet.  For example – I wanted to do a fairly dense embroidery design on a rather flimsy and thin knit fabric.  I decided that I needed to first, “beef up” that fabric, so I chose to use a fusible knit interfacing first.  Then, I used a medium weight cutaway stabilizer.  That gave me a more substantial fabric base, plus provided a stable and “deeper” area to have the stitches placed into, so I wouldn’t have the design distort this thin fabric and cause cupping due to a rather dense design going into not many fibers.

So, we know why we use embroidery stabilizers, and what actually constitutes an embroidery stabilizer.  Now, what about those million different kinds of stabilizers?  How on earth do you know which one to pick?

Let’s start with a very basic tenant that will serve you well when trying to make the decision on best stabilizer to use for your particular project:  The less stable your fabric, the more stable the stabilizer should be.  What fabrics are less stable?  In general, as mentioned above, knits and loosely woven fabrics, as well as woven fabrics with inherent or purposeful stretch (as in twills and wovens with lycra, respectively, as examples.)  Traditionally, it is recommended to use cutaway stabilizers with knits and very unstable woven fabrics, and tearaway stabilizers with stable woven fabrics.   There can be exceptions to this, but in general, this is a very good rule of thumb to get you started.

Next thing to consider when selecting a stabilizer is the weight of your fabric (not withstanding its inherent stability), as well as the density and size of the embroidery design.  Some things to think about regarding your embroidery design.   Although you might want to stitch out a very large and dense design onto your thin and flimsy tee shirt, you may find that the design is just not suitable to be stitched out on such a lightweight fabric.  So, take into consideration your garment or fabric in making an embroidery design selection.  Tee shirts do better with less dense, more open designs.  Not that you couldn’t try, but I would strongly suggest a test stitch out when you’re trying to do something outside good common sense.

That brings me to another important adage with machine embroidery: Test stitch outs are a wise investment.  I can’t tell you how many folks have come to our Gems list, bemoaning their ruined shirt, towel, or other irreplaceable garment or item because they failed to take the time to do a test stitch out.  If you have a project that is complex, has a dense design, an irreplaceable garment or item, it will serve you well to do a test stitch out, first, to make sure you don’t end up with a nasty surprise, after the stitch out.  I remind folks that professional digitizers live by their test stitch outs – they are worthy investments.  You can fix any issues ahead of time, and save yourself hours of unpicking or worse, no way to resurrect your ruined project.

Okay, for specific stabilizer recommendations:  Every embroiderer has their opinion, and you can get just about as many opinions as there are machine embroiderers, as there are a lot of great stabilizers made these days.  Several good manufacturers to go with, and many are equally as good.  This machine embroiderer is going to give you her opinion, based on about 25 years, give or take, of machine embroidery.  You can take my recommendations and include them with other experienced machine embroiderers so you can make the best-informed decision for your projects.

The following brands can be depended upon to provide you excellent stabilization, granted you’re using the right product for the right situation:

  1. Viking’s “Inspira” brand
  2. Floriani Stabilizers
  3. Jenny Haskins (manufactured by Floriani to Jenny’s specifications)
  4. John Solomon
  5. Vilene (yes, this is actually a brand, and not just the fibrous water soluble stabilizer, which is actually their D0102 product)
  6. OESD Stabilizers (Bernina’s brand)

This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but these are the brands I tend to go to, as they are easily available and very reliable. Now, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t good no-name brand stabilizers out there that might not carry that “big name” price tag, but give you excellent results.  I have had great success using AllStitch’s stabilizer products.  I use their no-name medium cutaway and really like it. AllStitch carries some name brand stabilizers, such as Vilene, and some of their other stabilizers are no-name brands, but are of excellent quality.  Know that there are probably three, maybe four manufacturers out there for all the name brand (and no-name) stabilizers you can buy.  They private label the products and manufacture them based on each of those company’s standards.  I have found that I can save some money purchasing from AllStitch, and especially if I purchase in larger quantities.  So, don’t be afraid to purchase from a well-known or well-liked independent company that comes recommended from those whose opinions you trust.

Specific stabilizers that I keep in my “Stabilizer Arsenal”:

Vilene D0102 fibrous water soluble stabilizer (WSS)/Inspira AquaMesh/Floriani Wet n’Gone:

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I use these three interchangeably.  I find that I cannot tell the difference in hand, or in my projects. I use this particular water soluble stabilizer mainly for free-standing lace (FSL), or for embroidering on terry towels. Good quality, heavy terry towels are extremely stable. They really don’t need additional stabilization. Plus, I find they are often just too thick to hoop up, and having broken a hoop in the past trying to hoop a terry towel up, I prefer to use a hoopless method.  I hoop up my fibrous WSS, center my towel, use my Fix Baste feature, then apply a NON-WSS topper (see below), and stitch away.  I then remove as much stabilizer from the back as I can trim away, then soak off the rest that might show.

Inspira’s Clear N’Melt/Floriani’s Heat Away:

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Again, cannot tell the difference between the two, and use these products most often as my choice for a  topper, when a topper is called for.  These are both heat-dissolving toppers. They will crumble away when touched with a medium heat iron. You may find that applying a piece of paper on top of the item will allow the crumbles to stick to the paper, and can be whisked away more easily. Why use a topper?  It is a good idea to use a “topper” (stabilizer and topper are not synonymous), to prevent my embroidery stitches from sinking down into a fabric that either has a nap or is “spongy”.  Terry, velvet, Minkee, velour, fleece, sweatshirt material, etc.  I prefer using a permanent topper, as opposed to a film WSS stabilizer, as I don’t want it to all wash away after the first washing.  If you’re stitching out a design that isn’t terribly dense, or doesn’t have a fair amount of underlay stitches, your nap (such as little terry loops) can work their way up through your design after a few washings. Not too terribly attractive!  So, I will use a permanent topper. Other options are tulle and nylon organza, selecting colors that are a close match to your fabric.  Tulle tears away pretty easily from the edges of a design, and nylon organza can be melted away with a stencil maker tool. Just keep in mind that you may not be able to remove that tulle between small gaps of your design, and you would not want to use nylon organza with a fabric that will melt (like fleece, Minkee, etc.) Also, test the heat-dissolving topper on a scrap of your fabric, just to make sure the crumbles don’t end up sticking to the nap of the fabric.

Floriani’s Heat N STA Light Tearaway Stabilizer:

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I have to thank one of our experienced list members on the Viking Designer Gem list, Helen R., for extolling the virtues of this great, all-purpose stabilizer.  It is an excellent product for many of the projects I tend to like to do. It works very well on quilting cottons, silk dupioni, light to medium weight linens and linen blends. And even with fairly dense designs if you also float an additional piece of plain tearaway stabilizer under your hoop.  It has a heat-activated adhesive side that you place against the back of your fabric or project, iron on with a medium heat dry iron, hoop it all up, and it will perform extremely well.  Stitching out on quilting cottons or batiks can be very challenging, and this product does an excellent job keeping the puckering down to a minimum.  It tears away very easily from the backs of the above fabrics.

Floriani’s Perfect Stick/Inspira Stick On Tearaway/Inspira Light & Tacky: 

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These stabilizers are great for difficult to hoop fabrics (like velvet or very thick nap fabrics). They have a sticky surface that allows you to just hoop up the stabilizer, score the perimeter of the paper covering with a pin remove the paper, exposing the sticky surface. Then, center your project, stick your fabric or project to the stabilizer, use your Fix Baste feature, and embroider away. Light & Tacky has a unique non-paper sticky surface, and has a little lighter adhesive quality.  Light & Tacky is recommended for use with the metal 180 x 130 magnetic accessory hoop for the Gems.   All of these sticky-backed stabilizers contain a small amount of silicone in the adhesive, which is very important. It reduces the gum-up that can occur on your needle during the embroidery process, which can be dragged down into the bobbin area.  This can cause a rather icky, sticky mess that may cause you a trip to the tech for a good clean out.  Don’t cut corners on this type of stabilizer – it’s worth the up front investment to save yourself a trip to the tech for a good bobbin area cleaning.  A little caveat with sticky-backed stabilizers: If you’re planning on using them for a project involving terry, or nap fabrics, do a little test “stick” to make sure the adhesive doesn’t pull out the terry loops or nap.  I had a project with terry towels using a sticky backed stabilizer that ended up pulling out a few more terry loops than I would have liked, while trying to remove the stabilizer.

Floriani’s No Show Nylon Fusible Mesh/SheerStitchTM No Show Fusible PolyMesh/John Solomon Polymesh Plus: 

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I use this very lightweight, non-stretch fusible cutaway stabilizer for lightweight knits.  Great for tee shirts. I fuse the stabilizer to the bottom of the project, hoop it all up, and then trim away any excess stabilizer from around the edges of the design. You may find that using a flesh-colored mesh under a white or light colored tee will appear more invisible to the eye than white – put both under your project to see which are less visible before making your selection. You may need to float a layer of regular light to medium weight cutaway stabilizer under your hoop if you’re trying to stitch out a larger or denser design.  Also, remember the permanent topper – so important with knits.  I use a heat-dissolving topper for my tee’s.

 Basic light weight tearaway stabilizers:  I use AllStitch’s Rip Stitch soft 1.8 oz tearaway stabilizer when I need to float an additional piece of tearaway under the hoop for a little added stabilization.  It tears away very easily and is soft to the touch.  But, any of the above mentioned stabilizer manufacturers make great options for a basic light weight tearaway stabilizer.

 Basic light and medium weight cutaway stabilizers:  I like AllStitch’s 2.5 and 3.3 cutaway stabilizers for my light and medium weight options.  Again, any of the above mentioned manufacturers have great options for basic cutaway stabilizers as well.

So, there you have the basics from my perspective. Sure, there are plenty of other more exotic options for more unusual machine embroidery situations, but these are the basics that can get you started with a good stabilizer set up in your sewing studio.  For more unusual circumstances, or if I have a fabric or garment item I’m not familiar with, I have a few resources that I will go to for advice and suggestions.  I’ve listed a few great ones, below.  I would recommend bookmarking them for your future use, too.  Floriani does a great job suggesting stitch count limitations for their products, which helps you gauge whether or not you need to use a light weight or medium product, or, float an additional layer of stabilizer under your hoop for optimal results:

Embroidery Library Fabrics 101: http://www.emblibrary.com/el/elprojects/Fabrics101.aspx

Embroidery Library Fabrics 101 & Design Guide: http://www.emblibrary.com/EL/elprojects/Projects.aspx?cs_productid=pr1153&cs_catalog=elprojects

Floriani’s Quick Reference Guide: http://www.rnkdistributing.com/reference.php

Floriani’s Stabilizer Workbook:  http://www.rnkdistributing.com/pdf-files/FlorianiWorkbookStabilizer.pdf

AllStitch Fundamentals of Choosing Machine Embroidery Backing: http://www.allstitch.net/content/fundamentals-of-choosing-machine-embroidery-backing-1038.cfm

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Cohen, my “Quilter’s Helper”

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12 responses »

  1. Lovely to see that you have a Blog Patty. As always, wonderful and very informative information. Also I just love the color of your freestanding Lace.
    Good Luck with the Blog / Lotta

  2. Thank you. Lotta, about time for me, huh?? I need to figure out how to add great blogs for others to see, and I’ll add yours. Still a little new at this, so learning slowly. And thank you for the compliment! Those snowflakes are going to get a little “bling” with some pretty copper and topaz Swarovski crystals when I have a moment. And stiffened up. I’ll send a few off to each of my three daughters for their Christmas trees. I really like the color, too.

  3. Such a nice article and so well written, Patty. Thanks so much for the information and even those of us who have been doing this a long time, it is a great refersher!! Roberta

    • Thank you, Carol, glad it could be helpful for your friend! I may write an additional article about specialty stabilizers and special situations a bit later. So much to say about stabilizers and toppers!

      • That sounds great, Patty. I subscribed to get emails when you post so I’ll be sure to see it. This information is useful for experienced embroiderers, too, because new stabilizers are introduced all the time.
        Carol B.

  4. What a terrific write-up on stabilizers. I have some friends who are new to machine embroidery that will really enjoy this information. We can continue to learn as long as we keep sewing, can’t we.
    I thank you so much. I also love your table runner plans.

  5. Hi Patty, you mention permanent toppers for some fabrics. Who makes and how are the permanent toppers branded? I have not found those while shopping.
    Thanks, Sarah

  6. Sure, there are several brands. Inspira makes a product called, “Clear N’Melt”. Floriani makes a very similar product called, “Heat n’ Gone”. And HoopItAll makes a thin vinyl topper called, “Cover Up”.

  7. Thank you for the great article! I have just a couple of questions I was hoping you could help me with. First, with the permanent topper, am I correct in assuming that you can not put the embroidered item in the dryer after washing? So for instance, if I used it on towels they could be washed but could not be put in the dryer. Second, what product would you recommendfor making patches (appliqued ones not just stitched)? I have seen badgemaster and vilene but it seems like the permanent topper you were talking about might be a great option especially if its an item that ever needs to be washed. Last but not least, I have a product called “Tear and Wash” I’m not sure if this is like the vilene or wet n gone, do you know anything about it? Thank you so much for your time, your advice would be greatly appreciated!

    • Sure you can put your item in the dryer, no problem. I’ve never had issues with drying any of my embroidered towels or garments that have permanent toppers. As far as badges go, I’ve not made any myself, but most folks will use a very stiff base material, such as drill cloth or buckram, and treat it like an applique. You can hoop up a fibrous type of water soluble stabilizer such as Viking’s Aqua Magic, then treat the patch like an applique. Use a strong fusible product like Heat N’Bond on the back. And Tear and Wash is by Inspira (a Viking product), and per their description, “Tear and Wash is a stabilizer composed of microfibers inside of wash-away paper. The paper dissolves completely in water, but the microfibers stay locked in the design for continuous support. It is a great backing for embroidery on towels, blankets and loosely woven fabrics.”

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