Cutaway Stabilizer Comparison

Cutaway Stabilizer Comparison

Embroiderers know there are several secrets to getting excellent results: choosing a good-quality fabric or garment, hooping firmly, and selecting the right stabilizer for the job. Usually I concentrate on the different types of stabilizer, whether it be cutaway, tear-away, or water-soluble, and I pick the stabilizer that is best suited to the fabric and the design.

But occasionally I'm asked, "What brand of stabilizer do you use?" This week I'll share with you what works best for me, and also share the results of a cutaway comparison experiment.

Keep in mind that the production crew at the Embroidery Library sews thousands and thousands of designs every year. We buy stabilizer on enormous, long, wide, heavy rolls (and interestingly enough, Deb always manages to "have a meeting" whenever she sees the delivery truck pull up to the door, leaving me to struggle with the boxes and dollies. Send her an email at and tell her not to leave all the heavy lifting to me!).

The stabilizer that we use is from Brother, and it's 2.5 ounce Soft-n-Stable cutaway. Click here to go to their stabilizer page. They do have smaller packages than the rolls that we buy, and their customer service is excellent.

As you find new brands of stabilizers, you'll see a lot of labeling and information: heavy-weight, medium-weight, light-weight, 3 ounce, 2.5 ounce, etc.  As I was navigating through some of the labeling a few weeks ago, I began to think about choosing weights and types. My curiosity was piqued. What is the difference between the weights and brands, and what's the most important factor when embroidering?

Last week I tested seven different kinds of cutaway stabilizer. I embroidered the same design onto the same type of shirt with each brand of stabilizer. Then I washed and dried the shirts together five times. Take a look at the results and findings below:

To begin, I selected a design with a medium stitch count and a combination of negative and filled space, and a variety of stitches.

The Sew Many Quilts design has 24,600 stitches, negative space in the squares, and also a combination of pattern fills and satin stitches. It's a great candidate for this test.

The shirt is a good-quality cotton T-shirt.

For each test, I hooped the fabric and stabilizer together, firmly. The technique that I use for embroidering on T-shirts is demonstrated in a free video tutorial that you can find by clicking here.

After embroidering each shirt I turned it inside out and cut the stabilizer away. I left about 1/2 inch excess around the design.

I didn't cut between the squares in the design, as leaving stabilizer in the negative space of the design will work best for draping.

Now let's take a look at the test results. Please ignore the slight wrinkling in the photos -- that's a laundering issue that I'll discuss later, but it has nothing to do with the stabilizer.

The first stabilizer that I tested was HTCW heavy weight cutaway. I should disclose that I'm a big fan of HTCW and Floriani products, so I was expecting good results from this particular test.

And the stabilizer worked great. The sections of the design are perfectly aligned, there's no shifting or poor registration. The stitches are crisp and clear.

The second stabilizer that I tested was a Sulky product. It's called Cut-Away Plus, and it's labeled as a medium- weight stabilizer.

Again, great results. The stitches are crisp, clean, and perfectly aligned.

The third stabilizer is also a Sulky product, a light-weight called Soft-n-Sheer.

Great results. Virtually identical to the top two! So far I'd tested a light-weight, medium-weight, and heavy-weight cutaway stabilizer, and so far everything was working great.

Next, Floriani No-Show Fusible Mesh, a light-weight stabilizer.

Perfect. The stabilizer did a great job supporting the fabric during the embroidery, and during laundering, too.

Next, another Floriani product, this time a medium-weight stabilizer called Cutaway Medium. Great results. Stitches are crisp, clear, and clean.

The sixth test was with a heavy-weight product of Floriani called Cutaway Heavy. Great results -- no puckering, the stitches are crisp and clean, and the registration is perfect.

And finally, my old favorite, the Stitch Backers from MIM. The results of the seven tests all look great.

Not all stabilizers are created equal, but I think that getting the best results depends on the type of stabilizer, and not necessarily the brand of stabilizer.

For example, embroidering a design with solid fills (like the Sew Many Quilts design) on a cotton T-shirt means that I should use a cutaway stabilizer. If I was embroidering a light design, like redwork or toile, on a T-shirt, then tear-away stabilizer would have been a good choice.

Was I surprised that all of the test results turned out the same? Maybe a little...truthfully I didn't know what to expect when I started the experiment. That's what makes testing fun  -- beginning an experiment with an open mind and seeing what the results give. But I was able to draw conclusions and recommendations based on the results, which are offered below.

First, consider the type of stabilizer that you should use. Generally the rule is this: the lighter the fabric, the heavier the stabilizer you should use. The heavier the fabric, the lighter the stabilizer. If you are embroidering and see design sections shifting (also known as "poor registration") or some gapping in fills, that's a pretty good indication that you'll need a heavier weight or type of stabilizer for the fabric.

Second, resist the temptation to over-stabilize, as that can cause similar problems as under-stabilizing. Last week I worked with an embroiderer who had some gapping in her sewout. She was ironing a tear-away stabilizer onto a T-shirt, hooping the shirt and iron-on stabilizer with a piece of heavy-weight cutaway, and sliding a piece of tear-away under the hoop as she embroidered. Because she saw gapping she thought she should keep adding's a logical conclusion to reach, I think we've all done that a time or two before. But just as under-stabilizing can cause gapping and registration problems, over-stabilizing can, too. She switched to one piece of medium-weight cutaway and everything worked out great.

Third, use good-quality fabric and blanks. Embroidery is expensive, and we all tend to economize when and where we can. But trying to save money by accepting less-than-top-quality blanks and fabric is, as my mom would say, penny wise and pound foolish. It's no fun to embroider a 20,000+ stitch design on a T-shirt and have it last for two wearings and washings. Get the good stuff.

Occasionally I hear from folks, "I have to use tear-away -- I hate how cutaway feels next to my skin!" I understand, truly I do! And if you want to use tear-away on T-shirts, that's great, just choose a really light and breezy design.

But if you want to use a more complex design with solid fills on a T-shirt, then cutaway stabilizer will get the best results. And the cutaway stabilizer will soften over time -- honestly, it does!

When I launder an embroidered garment, I turn it inside out. That limits the wear and tear on the embroidery, and it also helps to soften the stabilizer so that it's comfortable against the skin. After just a few washings the stabilizer should be as pliable and relaxed as the fabric.

Now, about that wrinkling that you saw in the photos above:  All T-shirts come out of the dryer a little bit rumpled, and when weight is added to a shirt in the form of stitches (the embroidery design) that means that the embroidered area is going to be a little more rumpled.

Flip the shirt inside-out and press the backside of the embroidery with a warm iron, and it'll take that rumpling right out!

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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.

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