Fabrics 101: Embroidering on Towels


Fabrics 101: Embroidering on
Tea Towels & Flour Sack Towels

Embroidered kitchen towels are staples of craft fairs everywhere. They're a delightful gift for friends and family. Tea towels and flour sack towels are the terrycloth towel's simpler cousin that have graced kitchens for centuries.

Questions arise as to which types of designs to use, and how to stabilize the fabric, to get excellent results. We've tested several combinations of designs, needles, and stabilizer, and shown below is our tried-and-true method to
get excellent results.

Choosing The Materials


Towels & Fabric:

Sturdy towels have several advantages: They'll last longer, they'll absorb more water when in use, they'll support a wide variety of design and stitch types, and they'll be less likely to let the stabilizer show through.

As you can see in this photo, the towels are on the thinner side. The weave is light and loose, and the fabric is partially transparent. I'd prefer a heavier towel, but sometimes we must use what we have.

Towels can be made (toweling + hem), or bought in discount chains (Target, Walmart), as well as online stores like All About Blanks,The Sewphisticated Stitcher, and Amazon.

If you have heavier, sturdier tea towels, then a wide range of designs can be used. But, if you are working with towels that have a loose weave, choose light and simple designs. If you try to embroidery complex designs onto light fabric, you'll probably see puckering.

Types of light and simple designs include redwork, toile, and light-stitching vintage embroidery designs. They're excellent choices for all types of fabric, including the light and loose-weave kitchen towels. These types of designs won't stand in the way of the towel drying dishes, and they're a good match for the fabric and stabilizer you'll be using, too.

NEEDLE: A 75/11 sharp sewing needle will produce crisp and neat-looking stitches. You may be used to embroidery needles; those have larger points, and they'll leave larger holes in the fabric. You can use an embroidery needle, and oftentimes get excellent results. But, if you see large holes in your fabric, or if your stitches look a little fuzzy, then switch to a sharp needle.

STABILIZER: Cutaway stabilizer is preferred, but tear-away or a fibrous water-soluble (like Vilene) can be used. Here's how to choose:

If you're working with a complex design (one with shading, highlighting, or a lot of satin stitches), use cutaway stabilizer. That will support the fabric the best during laundering and use. A sheer mesh stabilizer such as Sulky Soft 'n Sheer, or Floriani's No-Show Mesh, are fine choices.

If you're working with a very light design, like Redwork or toile, then you can use tear-away or a fibrous water-soluble (Vilene) with a sharp sewing needle, but not an embroidery needle. If you use an embroidery needle, then that larger tip will punch through the stabilizer and leave big holes, and then the stitches of the design will become misaligned.

If the towel will be displayed, and not really used or laundered, then tear-away or fibrous water-soluble will be fine. But if you're going to use the towel and launder it, then choose cutaway stabilizer. That will support the fabric the best.

We've stitched out the light-stitching Jacobean flower twice -- once with tear-away stabilizer and once with cutaway stabilizer. Keep reading to see the technique and samples!


Embroidering on Tea Towels or Flour Sack Towels


STABILIZER: To create a nice, tight bond between the towel and the stabilizer, spray the stabilizer with temporary adhesive. We like KK100. Then, smooth the stabilizer onto the back of the towel.


HOOPING: Hoop the towel and the stabilizer together. This keeps the fibers from shifting around as the hoop moves.


Embroider the design. This example features a light-stitching Vintage Jacobean Flower.

FINISHING: If you're using tear-away stabilizer, tear the excess carefully from the back of the embroidery. Use caution so that you do not tear or distort the towel fabric when removing the cutaway stabilizer.

You may want to use a pair of tweezers to remove small bits of tear-away stabilizer. The parts that remain, in this case behind the leaves and flowers, will help keep the stitches stabilized as the towel is used.

This is the front of the embroidery done with tearaway stabilizer.

The remaining stabilizer is not very visible here. The places where the stabilizer does remain have a stiffer feel than the rest of the towel.

We repeated the steps above with a sheer mesh cutaway stabilizer. At first glance, the results are the same. But after a few launderings, the towel with the cutaway stabilizer looks great, whereas the towel with tear-away stabilizer is looking a little rumpled.

Through repeated washing and use, tear-away stabilizer continues to break down, leaving less and less behind to support the fabric. But cutaway stabilizer remains to support the fabric. And, because the mesh stabilizer is soft and light, this towel has a more flexible feel overall than the one stitched with tearaway stabilizer.


This towel is resting on a dark background, so you can see the cutaway stabilizer through the fabric. To avoid this, if you're using cutaway stabilizer, choose a towel thick enough that you can't see through it.

There are various combinations of towels, stabilizers, and designs that will create a pleasing embroidered towel, so choose what works for you. For lasting quality, we recommend a heavy towel with sheer mesh stabilizer, trimmed very close to the design.

If you're working with really light designs, like Redwork or quilting designs, then wash-away stabilizer can be used - as long as you're using a sharp needle, not a rounded-tip embroidery needle.

In these examples I hooped the towel with Vilene (a fibrous water-soluble stabilizer) and embroidered, using a sharp needle. Then I soaked the stabilizer away, machine-dried the towels on low, and pressed them with an iron. The Bright Butterly Border, Golden Wheat Border, and Fluttering Dragonfly Border look great!

A sharp needle has a finer point than a rounded-tip embroidery needle, so will make smaller perforations in the stabilizer. Using a rounded-tip needle with water-soluble stabilizer or tear-away can cause shifting or gapping in the stitches.

If you use tear-away or water-soluble stabilizer, and you see misaligned stitches, and parts of the design aren't lining up as expected, then that's an indication that the needle perforations are disintegrating the stabilizer. Switch to a needle with a sharper point (e.g. if you're using an embroidery needle, switch to a sharp needle), or use cutaway stabilizer instead of tear-away / water-soluble.

With these tips and techniques, your towels will be picture-perfect, each and every time!

Stitching tips for towels:

Needle 75/11 sharp needle; an embroidery needle can also be used
Stabilizer Cutaway (2.5 ounce); can use tear-away with less complex designs, or water-soluble with simple designs (Redwork, quilting).
Design Choice Choose designs with low to medium complexity.

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