I’m a pretty positive person. I try not to let myself get too heated up about little things; That’s why it’s hard sometimes for me to admit that I can get frustrated as much as the next guy with an unhealthy obsession with embroidery. The things that truly frustrate me are few and far between, but among them is one that causes a fair amount of mental anguish among my fellow machine embroiderers, either because they feel as I do, or because their participation in the frustrating offence has made it much harder than it should be for them to produce quality embroidery. I decided to share my peeve with you good people, not just because it’s cathartic for the old Ghost, but because it might just help you avoid some common mistakes.
Call it Stabilizer
Even with my commercial customers who may or may not care whatsoever about my process, I rarely refer to stabilizers as “backing.” I know, this sounds a bit picky, but it stems from the almost daily exercise of helping new embroiderers with their poor results that stem from mistakes with this critical, but seemingly dull part of our otherwise fun creative process. Too frequently, a lack of care about stabilizers and how they are used has caused them to lose a piece to puckering, poor registration, or even holes in their garments during embroidery, or overzealous tear-away removal. Because it is treated as some sort of necessary evil, I even find them trying to omit stabilizer from their process. They decide that they don’t need to fully cover the hoop due to some false sense of economy, they use the wrong type of stabilizer or remove far too much of it after the embroidery process leaving the design crumpled or stretched. Sometimes they use odd materials like paper, coffee filters, plastic grocery bags, dryer sheets, or other materials that don’t have any of the qualities that stabilizer needs, just because they look similar to the real thing.
This is why I try to remember not to call stabilizer ‘backing’- I want to emphasize that it has a job to do, it stabilizes the garment, not only during embroidery, but in almost all cases, even after the process is complete. We forget that every stitch is a loop trying to tighten around the fabric between the penetrations, and that each stitch drives a permanent wedge between the fibers already present in a garment. The garment often needs help to stand up to these stresses- it needs additional stability; hence, why we add a layer of non-directional, dimensionally stable material to help things out. The fibers in the most common stabilizers are matted together in every which way, so they don’t stretch along any one direction more than another like our knit and woven garments do- that’s the secret. That stability, spread to all edges of the hoop, also gives the garment reliable movement during the embroidery process.
When we call stabilizer “backing”, it is equated to topping materials, the most common of which is water-soluble and is intended to be removed after stitching, having performed its duty by keeping stitches from sinking into the substrate during the embroidery process. It is a great help with some garments, but is nowhere near as necessary to the process as ‘backing’. It’s like an ice cream sundae- you can do without the sprinkles (topping), as nice as they may be, but you’ll have a heck of a time moving it from the kitchen to the table if it no longer comes in a bowl (stabilizer).
Machine embroidery puts a great deal of stress on fabrics – stabilizer fights that distortion and keeps the embroidery and the surrounding area smooth and free of wrinkles for the life of the garment. Light and stretchy fabrics are particularly susceptible to distortion and puckering if stabilizers are fully removed, if easily torn stabilizers are used, or if stabilizer isn’t properly applied. It’s tempting beyond belief to use something too light or to use only wash-away stabilizers for those light fabrics because you want to avoid any of the stabilizer showing through, but unless you have an extremely open and sparse embroidery design that won’t weigh down or distort that light material, very likely one specifically made for the purpose, you’ll find that eliminating stabilizer, even after the garment is finished with the embroidery process, will allow your design to distort. Standard, fully filled embroidery designs need the permanent presence of stabilizer to look their best on almost every substrate.
This leads to my other stabilizer related frustration – when it is used, it’s often used excessively. Many embroiderers faced with a file that is poorly digitized to compensate for the natural stresses of the process will ‘fix’ their ailing designs’ poor registration by using a stack of 3-5 layers of stabilizer to render their garment as stiff as cardboard. It may keep the design’s outlines from shifting, but nobody wants to wear the iron shield of an over-stabilized design. The key to the stabilizer problem is balance- use all you need, but make sure that your design isn’t forcing you to use more than you should. A great design usually does well with one piece of solid stabilizer on most medium weight materials.
Though stabilizers can add bulk, properly digitized files with the right amount of pull compensation, balanced densities, and structural underlay allow you to use only what is needed, leaving your garments with a better drape and feel. Luckily, we no longer live in the world we did when I first controlled a machine; we no longer have only two chief types of stabilizer, one a heavy cutaway and one a light tearaway; we not have multiple weights, and wonderful light, thin, but incredibly strong stabilizers impregnated with non-staining needle lubricants and which are specifically made not to show through thin materials. We have an embarrassment of choices to fit every situation- look into the available options and choose the right one to help your garment. It’s a tough life for a piece of material about to get a thread tattoo- make sure you give it the support it needs.
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