“How do I keep the fabric from puckering?”
This question is singularly the most asked I’ve seen in my experience with embroiderers. It’s understandable; there’s no singular solution to puckering, no one supply to buy or technique to try that will eliminate it outright. With the bad news out of the way, here’s the glimmer of hope; a holistic approach can reduce puckering. We can’t avoid altering our garments’ smoothness and hand, but we can combat the movement and stress inherent in embroidery to get the flattest, cleanest, and most comfortable embroideries possible, even on thin and unstable materials.
Using a holistic approach, it doesn’t (necessarily) mean we’re off to see an embroidery energy-worker to realign our needle-eye chakra; A holistic approach means we account for all the variables and how they affect each other.
We consider the nature of the ground fabric, the qualities and application of support materials like stabilizers, adhesives and toppings, the characteristics of the thread and the way it’s tensioned, the speed we run the machine and the way we hoop- this extends to characteristics of the digitized design, from density, to underlay, to sequencing- all are critical and contribute to the whole. A well-made embroidery balances the influences of these variables to achieve the best possible quality for a given combination of materials.
Let’s examine the components of embroidery with an eye toward mitigating the forces that cause puckering:
Thin materials are popular, from handkerchiefs to quilting cotton to t-shirts. Given a choice, you may want to find pieces that aren’t the most gossamer available, especially if you want to stitch a dense design. Get to know ‘best compromise’ that give you the light look you want while still using the most stable version of your intended ground. When choosing a substrate, take time to understand its properties. Know how much and in what direction it stretches, if it has a texture or grain that might affect the embroidery (like the vertical ribbing in a jersey knit that swallows vertical lines of straight stitching), and imagine how your ground’s color will affect colors in the intended decoration. Try for stability, but when you absolutely must have an unstable fabric, know that you will be making up for that instability with your stabilizer and hooping method.
You can’t overestimate the importance of stabilizer. First things first- with a properly digitized small design, a single piece of permanent stabilizer can give a clean look. When selecting stabilizer, you’ll want one that doesn’t stretch, shrink when washed, or lose integrity during stitching. Thin substrates suffer from show-through- a standard cutaway backing has the stability we need, but the thick, card-stock like material leaves hard-edged silhouettes around designs even with the best trimming. Its girth can even weigh down and distort thin materials when worn. Many embroiderers go astray trying to avoid these undesirable effects.
The temptation is to use tearaway for everything, but unstable ground materials rely entirely on the structural integrity of stabilizer to avoid distorting during embroidery. Tearaway can loosen during stitching, losing integrity as stitch counts pile up. This makes it a poor choice for many designs. The act of tearing away the excess can even damage thin materials if we stretch them as we tear, leading occasionally to small holes at stress points in the design. By contrast, a thinner cut-away polymesh or performance stabilizer can provide dimensional stability (it doesn’t stretch) while getting rid of the heavy edge of a standard cutaway.
For materials that will be viewed on both sides and/or are see-through, a thick, fibrous water-soluble backing can be used to provide stability during stitching and complete removability, but be forewarned that stabilizer isn’t just for stitching; it keeps decorations stable and flat after stitching, too. If you remove all stabilizer from a design, you may not like how it loses its shape or distorts over time. Using wash-away on traditional garments is possible, but unconnected elements in your design will float free from each-other after washing, and heavy designs will distort. You may also notice some loosening and ‘loopiness’ in your stitching when you wash the garment.
Due to reduced stretch and the lower tensions it requires in comparison to polyester, some embroiderers favor rayon thread for use on thin fabrics. Remember that you can’t bleach garments decorated with rayon thread.
Many embroiderers use adhesives to marry the garment/fabric to the stabilizer.Make sure you use light, embroidery-specific spray adhesives to avoid gumming up your needles or leaving excess residue on your substrate.
Digitizing and Design
Digitizing for thin, unstable fabrics requires special consideration; as such, most stock designs are digitized as ‘all around’ designs for medium weight fabrics, and may not run well on unstable materials.
For light materials, the best options will be light, open designs without densely filled areas. Outline work and simple single-color designs made primarily of straight stitches and/or open satins are ideal, whereas large, full-coverage fills can stretch and weigh down the thin material. This causes rippling through both excessively spreading apart the threads in the fabric as stitches are forced through them. Our embroidery threads act like wedges, spreading apart the threads that make up the ground. Larger areas of full coverage force the decoration area to remain stiff as the rest of the light material flows and drapes naturally while open designs allow it to remain flexible.
You can reduce density while retaining the look of complete coverage by reducing contrast between the stitching and ground colors. Running white thread on black fabric reveals the flaws in any design, but the converse is true; tone-on-tone color schemes allow for drastically reduced densities. Less density often means less puckering and distortion. Even with colors that contrast, the closer the garment and thread colors are, the more forgiving the design will be of lighter densities.
Structural underlay lifts top stitching from the garment surface and obscures the ground material below, allowing us to drop densities in top stitching. Underlay can also serve to stabilize shifting material. By underlaying a design or design area before top stitching, we secure the substrate to our stabilizer making sure our ground isn’t floating free and thus more easily distorted.
Use the ‘Tablecloth Method’ of sequencing: Imagine your design area as a table and your substrate as the tablecloth: just as one would start from the center and smooth wrinkles in the cloth toward the edges, you can avoid capturing loose fabric and puckering by sequencing your design to run from the center toward the edges. Even if it is impossible to entirely sequence your design in this way, you can use an initial underlay under a filled area in a ‘snowflake’ pattern. This both smooths the fabric and secures the design area to the stabilizer before stitching the design.
Avoid stitching toward previously stitched areas; this can create a ripple as you ‘push’ unsecured material against elements firmly fixed to the backing- this ripple becomes permanent pucker. If you’ve studied your material and know the direction it stretches, avoid ‘pushing’ toward that direction in your sequencing and keep your stitch angles such that they don’t pull or push in the material’s weakest dimension.
Don’t stretch your material to the utmost. Allow your material to lay naturally as it would when worn and maintain the hoop ring tight enough to stay taut without overly stretching the material. It’s tempting to arrest the movement of the fabric by stretching it, but stretched fabric will rebound once released from the hoop, wrinkling and puckering terribly around the design area which remains stretched now that it’s attached to a stable backing. Some embroiderers stabilize the ground by lightly adhering it to the backing with spray adhesive. This can help with shifting, but it you must combine it with careful sequencing as described above- no safe amount of adhesive will compensate for an extremely poor sequence or excessive density.
For slippery materials or those easily damaged by hooping, try the ‘window’ method. Take a piece of backing larger than the hoop and cut a window slightly larger than your finished design from the center of this piece. Hoop your garment regularly with a piece of complete stabilizer, laying the ‘window’ atop the ground, sandwiching the garment. This results in a firmer grip without abrading the fibers in your ground.
You can ‘float’ a thin material by hooping only the stabilizer and adhering the garment to that, but I tend to stick with the ‘window method’ if at all possible. Traditional hooping provides the most stability and reduces the chance for the free material outside of the decoration area to adversely affect the run. If you decide you must ‘float’, consider using underlay to marry the substrate firmly to the backing before stitching heavier elements. You can even use long, removable basting stitches to tack down materials, so long as your material won’t show scarring from the needle penetrations.
This is simple, more speed means more stress. Small amounts of distortion and puckering may improve simply by reducing the run speed.
Distortion is a natural byproduct of the embroidery process; We must accept it, but we can learn to work with that inevitable alteration of the surface. If you follow a holistic approach, pairing the proper ground with a suitable design, reducing the stress on the material with stable backing, light stitching, careful pathing, soft hooping, and leaving yourself time to run the design at a sane, low-stress pace, you’ll find that you can reduce puckering and distortion in your designs.
Erich Campbell is an award-winning machine embroidery digitizer and designer and a decorated apparel industry expert, frequently contributing articles and interviews to embroidery industry magazines such as Printwear, Stitches, and Wearables as well as a host of blogs, social media groups, and other industry resources.
Erich is an evangelist for the craft, a stitch-obsessed embroidery believer, and firmly holds to constant, lifelong learning and the free exchange of technique and experience through conversations with his fellow embroiderers. A small collection of his original stock designs can be found at The Only Stitch