All Puckered Out
Choose the right design, fabric, and
stabilizer to avoid puckering!
It's happened to all of us. We spend hours
searching for the perfect design, planning the
placement, hooping, embroidering, changing
thread, trimming jump stitches...only to find
that when the fabric comes out of the hoop, it
starts to pucker. It puckers just a little bit
around the edges of the design at first, but
then after the fabric is washed, the puckers get
Seeing puckering in an embroidered piece is
frustrating -- but the good news is, puckering
is preventable. When working on a project,
choose the design according to the fabric
that you want to use, or choose your fabric
according to the design that you want to use.
Although most designs can be embroidered on any
type of fabric, there are some exceptions based
on the complexity of the design, and the
strength of the fabric.
In preparation for this article I've spent many
hours embroidering designs on different fabrics,
using different stabilizers and hooping methods.
The results of these tests show what
causes puckering, and also how to prevent it.
To understand why
puckering happens, and learn how to prevent it,
we need to take a quick look at the "physics" of
embroidery. Now if you're like me and didn't do
very well in science class, don't be intimidated
by the word "physics" -- keep reading! It will
make sense, I promise.
When manufacturers make fabric, they don't
expect anything to be added to it. But, when we
add stitches with embroidery, those stitches add
weight and tension to the fabric. The weight and
tension pulls the fabric inward, making it
There are two things that prevent us from
getting an absolute mess when we add a design to
fabric: stabilizer, and the embroidery hoop.
Both work to keep the fabric flat and evenly
laid when we're adding stitches to it. Both the
hoop and the stabilizer work to counteract that
"physical" contraction of the fabric when we're
embroidering a design.
For the tests I wanted to use an intense design
that had layering, shading, and satin stitches.
I chose a realistic Dachshund design, which has
35,000+ stitches in it. Let's take a look
at the first test:
Because this design has a lot of stitches,
layering, shading, and satins, I began with a
sturdy fabric: medium-weight denim. Even though
the denim is pretty sturdy, I thought I should
start with my favorite backing, a medium-weight
I chose this fabric/stabilizer combination
because I thought it would be the best to
support the stitches in the design. I hooped
both fabric and stabilizer together, and added a
bit of spray adhesive between the two so that
they stayed together nice and tight.
After the embroidery finished I removed the
fabric from the hoop and watched carefully for
any puckers around the edges of the design.
There were none. The embroidery laid flat, the
fabric was even.
Next I wanted to see what would happen if I used
a lighter stabilizer. For the second test I
embroidered the same design on the denim, but
used a tear-away stabilizer for the backing.
I removed the fabric from the hoop, I saw some
puckering in the fabric -- not a lot, but enough
to convince me that cutaway stabilizer is
important when working with more complex
Lighter designs -- designs with less layering,
shading, and satin stitches -- will do great on
denim with tear-away stabilizer, but heavier and
more complex designs will need a cutaway
stabilizer to avoid puckering.
wanted to use quilter's cotton, as it's such a
popular fabric to work with. To begin, I
embroidered the design on quilter's cotton with
a tear-away stabilizer.
Quilter's cotton --
even a good-quality quilter's cotton -- is still
a lightweight fabric, and just isn't strong
enough for the layering and shading in the dog
design. The tear-away stabilizer began to
disintegrate during the embroidery (the needle
perforations cause tear-away stabilizer to "tear
away" during the embroidery, leaving nothing
behind to support the fabric). That meant that
the fabric contracted under the weight of the
stitches, and when it was released from the
hoop, began to pucker.
A lighter design did work beautifully with
quilter's cotton and tear-away stabilizer,
but more complex designs need a sturdier fabric,
and a sturdier stabilizer.
Next I embroidered the design with quilter's
cotton and cutaway stabilizer.
After the design had
finished and I unhooped the fabric, there were
puckers. When working with complex designs,
choose a sturdy fabric. And, when
embroidering on a lighter-weight fabric, like
quilter's cotton, choose lighter, less complex
this particular design, the best results are
with medium-weight fabric, and cutaway
What I found with these tests is this:
When the fabric is too light, the stabilizer too
weak, or the two not hooped tightly enough, the
fabric underneath the design contracts under the
weight of the stitches. And that's when we see
Does this mean that we're doomed to always
embroidering on denim, canvas, and duck cloth?
Nope, absolutely not.
When you're working with complex designs, those
that have layering and shading and satin
stitches, using a medium-weight fabric and a
cutaway stabilizer will give pucker-free
results. But, when you're working with
lighter designs, designs that have less layering
and shading, then your choice of fabric is wide
There's one more thing that can cause puckering,
although this is not very common. Sometimes if
the bobbin tension is too tight, you'll see
puckering. This happens because the bobbin
thread actually pulls the fabric down. If you've
tried every fabric and stabilizer combination
that you can think of and you're still seeing
puckering, loosen your bobbin tension just a
tiny bit, and that should solve the problem.
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Kenny is a
master digitizer and Vice President of
Production at Embroidery Library, Inc. He has
more than twelve years of experience as an artist,
digitizer, and embroiderer.
Ask Kenny! Send your questions to