Fabrics 101: Embroidering on Towels


Fabrics 101: Embroidering on
Tea Towels & Flour Sack Towels

They're staples of craft fairs everywhere, and make a delightfully simple way to gift the perfect embroidery designs to friends and family. Tea towels and flour sack towels are the terrycloth towel's simpler cousin, with a plain woven that has graced kitchens for centuries.

The big question with tea towels and flour sack towels is how to stabilize the fabric. You want to find a solution that will support the stitches well and look attractive ... and if you're selling your towels at your church craft fair, you have customers' preferences to think about as well. We've stitched out towels in different ways to examine the options.



Choosing Your Materials


FABRIC: Fabric thicknesses vary greatly. Sturdy towels that are not extremely thin have several advantages: they'll last longer, they'll absorb more water when in use, they'll support the embroidery better, and they'll be less likely to let the stabilizer show through.

As you can see in this photo, the towels used in this example are on the thinner side. The weave is light and loose, and the fabric is partially transparent.

Can't find towels you like? Make your own! Find some woven cotton or linen fabric, then fold under the edges and stitch, as in this napkin project, to finish it off.

Choose light, open designs such as redwork, toile, and light-stitching vintage embroidery. They 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. If you want to use a solid-stitched design, your best bet will be to stitch it on a heavy tea towel or a terrycloth towel.

NEEDLE: A 75/11 sharp sewing needle, which we use for most projects, will produce crisp and neat-looking stitches.

STABILIZER: The fabric of the towel and the embroidery design will both influence the choice of stabilizer. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.

Complex designs will need a cutaway stabilizer to keep the fabric supported through the frequent washings and heavy use that a towel will receive. A complex design is one that has shading, highlighting, or a lot of satin stitches. A sheer mesh stabilizer such as Sulky Soft 'n Sheer, trimmed close to the design after the embroidery is finished, will be fairly unobtrusive.
If you're using cutaway stabilizer, make sure the towel is substantial enough that you won't be able to see the stabilizer through the towel.

For lighter and simpler designs, tearaway stabilizer will often be sufficient. And for the really simple designs, like Redwork or quilting designs, you can even get by with a water-soluble stabilizer as backing.

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



Embroidering on Tea Towels or Flour Sack Towels


STABILIZER: Spray cutaway or tear-away stabilizer (see above to determine which to use) with temporary spray adhesive and smooth it together with the area of the towel to be embroidered.

HOOPING: Hoop both layers tightly together. Firm hooping, along with the stabilizer, will help keep the loosely woven fabric from puckering as stitches are added to it.

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

FINISHING: If you're using tearaway stabilizer, as in this example, 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 tearaway 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.

This is the back of the towel stitched with sheer mesh cutaway stabilizer.

Through repeated washing and use, this cutaway stabilizer won't break down and peel off in bits over time the way tearaway might. It will continue to support the stitches. Because the sheer mesh stabilizer is soft and light, this design 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.

Tea towels are a wonderful way to showcase favorite embroidery designs and share them with friends and family. And everybody can use them!

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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