Fabrics 101: Embroidering on Sweatshirts

Fabrics 101: Embroidering on Sweatshirts

Sweatshirts are an excellent canvas for designs. Make yours unique and stylish by picking the designs that suit your personal preference and taste.

Sweatshirts are usually made of cotton, or a cotton and polyester blend. Some are a bit thicker than others, with a fleece-like lining. Some have Lycra, and are stretchy.

No matter the sweatshirt that you're working with, the techniques shown below will give you picture-perfect results, each and every time.

Read on for details about placement, templates, stabilizer, needles, hooping, and more!

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Begin by pre-washing the sweatshirt according to the label instructions. If you don't pre-wash, you risk the fabric color bleeding onto the design, as well as shrinking / puckering around
the embroidery stitches, when the shirt is laundered later.

Then, determine where you want to place the design. Placement is largely up to personal preference, so put the design where you want it. Traditionally a design is positioned so that
the top of the design is 3 1/2 - 4 1/2 inches down from the garment neck, centered between
the left and right sleeve seams. If you're working with a child's shirt, traditional placement is
1 1/2 - 3 inches down from the neck.

There's a handy-dandy chart that shows traditional placement on a variety of garments, and you'll find that right here.


I find that a template is helpful when positioning a design. A template is a printout of a design that shows the actual size, as well as the center point and horizontal and vertical axis lines.

Templates are made from embroidery software programs. If you don't have a software program that prints templates, then try Wilcom's TrueSizer (free) or Embird.

(Design featured is Snowmen and Snowflake Trio.)

Place the template on the shirt. When it's positioned where you want the design to stitch, mark the axis lines, and the center point. These markings will help you to hoop the shirt later.

I use an air-erase pen to mark, but I've also used chalk, soap, and masking tape.

Spray a piece of cutaway stabilizer with temporary adhesive. I use KK100. Just a quick shot will be enough - no need to overdo it.

Turn the sweatshirt inside-out and smooth the stabilizer onto the area that will be embroidered.

Turn the sweatshirt right side out, and slide the inner hoop inside the shirt.

Place the top hoop on top of the sweatshirt. Line the horizontal and vertical axis lines on the shirt with the marks on the hoop, and press the top hoop into place.

Make sure there are no ripples in the fabric, and that the grain isn't skewed.

Attach the hoop to the machine, and roll the excess sweatshirt up and out of the way. Use chip clips or hair clips to keep the excess shirt material free and clear of the hoop.

Load the design into the machine, and move the hoop so that the needle is right over that marked center point.

Once the needle is right over the center point, embroider the design.

After the design has finished, remove the shirt from the hoop and turn it inside out. Trim the excess stabilizer away. I leave about 1/2 inch of stabilizer around the design.

Stabilizer choices:

We're fortunate that there are many types of stabilizer available to us. The three main types are cutaway, tear-away, and water-soluble. Some have adhesive, often called "sticky" or "sticky back." In the photos above you saw that I use cutaway stabilizer with temporary adhesive. Using cutaway stabilizer with adhesive is essentially the same thing, so that's fine to use.

However, if you use an adhesive stabilizer, be sure that it is a cutaway stabilizer. Tear-away stabilizer is insufficient, and will be problematic. It can cause misalignment, gapping in the stitches, and thread tension problems.

When manufacturers make a sweatshirt, they don't anticipate that anything will be added to it. When we embroider on it, we add weight and tension with stitches. Stabilizer provides a good foundation for the sweatshirt so that designs can be added to it.

If you use tear-away stabilizer, the needle perforations will weaken and degrade the stabilizer, essentially tearing it away during embroidery. That leaves little behind to support the fabric. The fibers of the fabric can stretch and skew, resulting in misalignment. You might experience thread nesting or knotting, or bobbin thread floating to the top. And the stabilizer will continue to degrade during wear and wash, so over time the fabric will become stretched, cupped, and misshapen.

Cutaway stabilizer is a consistent and stable foundation for sweatshirts, which is why we use it, and recommend it to our customers as well. It supports the fabric beautifully during embroidery, and during wear and wash also. It's the best choice for top-quality results.

We've tested cutaway and tear-away in our sewing studio many times. Here's a peek at a recent test:

We embroidered a simple Santa design onto a sweatshirt backed with one piece of tear-away stabilizer.

The needle perforations degraded the stabilizer within the first two thousand stitches. With little left to support the fabric, the fibers stretched and skewed and the stitches started to land in the wrong spot.

The end result is a mess. Not only is the fill not meeting the edges of the oval, but the oval itself is skewed.
The fill is outside of the borders in the letters and the numbers - and the fabric is puckering as well.

Here's the same design, on the same sweatshirt, with the same needle. But instead of using tear-away stabilizer, we used one piece of cutaway stabilizer. The results are picture-perfect.

For best results, use cutaway stabilizer. One piece is sufficient, and a 2 or 2.5 ounce is just fine. Using multiple pieces or layers of stabilizer is not recommended. That can dull the needle, cause thread breaks, larger holes in the fabric, and puckering.

Hooping the sweatshirt is also recommended. I've heard from embroiderers who prefer to hoop the stabilizer only. Then, they use a basting stitch or adhesive to adhere the garment to the stabilizer.

I've tried that method and I've gotten  "ok" results, but there is always shifting that occurs. Sometimes the shifting is noticeable, and sometimes it isn't. Here's a demonstration:

We embroidered two sweatshirts - one was hooped, and one wasn't. The two sweatshirts are side by side.

If you look at the unhooped shirt you'll see a gap in the brim, and also a thinner fill on the hat. The satin stitches are a bit more ragged as well.

The hooped shirt doesn't have any gapping. The results are "ok," but I like the hooped result better.

There's also gapping and separation between the stripes of the snowman's hat.

Why does this happen? If fabric isn't hooped with the stabilizer, then it's going to wiggle a bit as the hoop moves around and about. That means that stitches aren't landing where they should be, and there are gaps and separations.

I also see a little bit of puckering around the stitches in the unhooped version. I think this occurred because the stitches drew the fabric in. The hoop keeps the fabric from pulling in, or contracting, which eliminates any fabric puckering.

Sometimes there is concern about marks made in the fabric when hooped. For a sweatshirt, a ring will come out when moisture is returned to the fabric. There's a nice "hoop burn" tutorial right here for you.


Nearly any design can be stitched onto a sweatshirt, but consider how the fabric is going to drape when it's worn. Avoid big and blocky designs for the front, as those won't drape very well.

I tend to use a sharp (sewing) needle on most of my projects, because I get crisp and neat-looking stitches. I used a size 11 sewing needle on the samples above. An embroidery needle can also be used (75/11).

Stitching tips for sweatshirts:

Needle 75/11 sharp needle; an embroidery needle may also be used
Stabilizer Cutaway (2.5 ounce)
Design Choice Designs of any complexity will work well, but consider draping

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Size: 11.00 x 6.72 (279.4 x 170.7 mm)
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Size: 9.41 x 5.74 (238.9 x 145.9 mm)
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Size: 7.81 x 4.77 (198.3 x 121.1 mm)
Stitch count: 44251 Price: $5.99

Size: 6.81 x 4.16 (172.9 x 105.6 mm)
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Size: 5.27 x 3.22 (133.9 x 81.7 mm)
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Size: 11.00 x 5.24 (279.5 x 133.2 mm)
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Size: 9.40 x 4.48 (238.8 x 113.9 mm)
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Size: 7.80 x 3.72 (198.2 x 94.5 mm)
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Size: 6.80 x 3.24 (172.7 x 82.4 mm)
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Size: 5.25 x 2.51 (133.4 x 63.7 mm)
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Size: 3.87 x 1.85 (98.3 x 47.0 mm)
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Size: 11.00 x 4.94 (279.4 x 125.5 mm)
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Size: 7.80 x 3.52 (198.1 x 89.4 mm)
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Size: 6.86 x 3.09 (174.3 x 78.5 mm)
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Size: 5.25 x 2.36 (133.4 x 59.9 mm)
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Size: 9.41 x 4.39 (239.0 x 111.5 mm)
Stitch count: 28182 Price: $5.99

Size: 6.85 x 3.21 (174.0 x 81.5 mm)
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Size: 3.86 x 1.80 (98.0 x 45.7 mm)
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Size: 9.41 x 3.55 (239.1 x 90.2 mm)
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Size: 6.89 x 2.60 (174.9 x 66.0 mm)
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Size: 9.40 x 3.23 (238.8 x 81.9 mm)
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Size: 6.86 x 4.64 (174.2 x 117.9 mm)
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Size: 6.85 x 3.50 (174.0 x 88.9 mm)
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