Mind the Gap!
Mind the Gap!
Common Causes and Solutions for Gapping
One of the
most troubling and disheartening things
about embroidery is when a piece fails.
We've all experienced it -- we spend
money on fabric, designs, and materials;
time setting up and embroidering the
design; and at the end of all that,
we're left with an embroidered piece
that has gapping, shifting, or spaces in
Don't give up and throw your machine out
the window. There are four main causes
to gapping (also called "poor
registration"), and they're all easily
fixed with a little time, materials, and
Here are the main causes of poor
registration that I'll discuss in
greater detail below:
Stabilizer and fabric mismatch;
2. Fabric slipping in the hoop (or
fabric not hooped);
3. Too-tight bobbin tension;
4. Hoop obstruction.
stabilizer and fabric mismatch. If
there is too much or too little
stabilizer, or the wrong kind, then
chances are, you'll have problems.
When manufacturers make fabric, they
don't know that we'll be using it as
a canvas for our embroidery. That's
why we need stabilizer -- to support
and "stabilize" the fabric for the
extra stitches that we add to it.
Here's an example from Jackie, an
embroiderer who stitched a patriotic
panel scene onto felt, with no
stabilizer. The image on the left is
Jackie's, and you can see how
there's significant gapping in the
area where the bush on the left is
to meet the house. Also, notice how
the shading on the roof is looking a
bit straggly, and not very crisp.
Finally, see how the bottom right
section is 1/4 inch out of alignment
with the design.
Compare that with the design on the
right, that was stitched on felt
with cutaway stabilizer. The
differences are amazing!
idea of not using stabilizer with
her fabric choice didn't work
because of the physics of
embroidery. As each stitch is made,
the fibers of the fabric are pulled
every which way -- up, down, left,
and right. The fabric didn't have
any stabilizer to hold it in place,
so it stretched under the weight and
tension of the stitches, resulting
in gapping and shifting.
The example on the right shows the
the results on the same fabric
(felt) with cutaway. The cutaway
stabilizer does a great job holding
the fabric nice and even during the
embroidery, and the results are
an example of how a piece can fail
if no stabilizer is used. Now let's
take a look at how a piece fails
when the wrong kind of stabilizer is
used. Embroiderer Agnes was having
problems with her Sheltie design.
She was using a fabric that was a
little heavier than linen, with
Note the gapping in the back foot
area, how it's separating from the
leg. Also, stitches appear to be
missing in the dog's left ear.
Compare that to the stitchout on the
right, which was on fabric backed
with cutaway stabilizer.
piece on the left failed because the
wrong kind of stabilizer was used.
When working with wildlife or animal
designs, designs that are complex
with solid fills, cutaway stabilizer
is going to do the best job. Because
wildlife designs have a lot of
stitches for the layering and
shading, the needle is perforating
the fabric and stabilizer
over-and-over-and-over again in the
same spots as you embroider the
With each needle perforation, the
tear-away stabilizer gets weaker and
weaker until nothing is left to
support the fabric. That leaves the
fabric fibers free to shift and move
around -- thus the rear leg
separated from the body. It also
means that stitches are going to
land on top of each other rather
than next to each other. See the gap
in the upper ear? The stitches are
actually there -- but they look like
they're missing because they landed
in the wrong place! You'll note
puckering in Agnes's piece, which is
also caused by tear-away stabilizer.
More about that can be found in the
All Puckered Out, which you can find
by clicking here.
are many, many different brands of
stabilizer on the market today -- so
much that it can be a little
overwhelming when trying to find the
right one. Please feel free to use
my stabilizer and matching guide,
which you can find by
It's also worth mentioning that
using too much stabilizer can also
cause gapping. Some folks use two
pieces of cutaway, or two pieces of
tear-away, or one of each to make
sure they have all their bases
covered. That will also cause
gapping -- the needle working
through so many layers gets dull
pretty fast, which means that it
moves the fibers around more and
more with each perforation. The
layers of fabric and stabilizer
shift, and you'll see gaps in the
Second, hooping. Not hooping, or not hooping tightly enough, can result
in gapping. I mentioned before about
how stitches add weight to a piece
of fabric, and how stabilizer helps
to support the fabric. The hoop
serves a similar purpose.
As each stitch is made on the
fabric, the fabric's physical
reaction is to contract under the
weight and tension of the thread.
The hoop's purpose is to counteract
that natural, physical reaction, and
keep the fabric nice and even. If
you're hooping the stabilizer, but
not the fabric, then you may see
gapping and shifting.
Take a look at this example:
We embroidered two sweatshirts with the same design -- one
sweatshirt was hooped with stabilizer, and one was stitched
with the stabilizer hooped and the sweatshirt adhered to the
stabilizer with temporary adhesive.
Sections of the sweatshirt are side by side to the left.
Note how the unhooped sweatshirt has less coverage (the blue
sweatshirt is peeking through) and how there's a gap in the
hat. Now, this is a minor problem, and if someone is
standing 4 feet away they won't be able to tell, but if
you're like me, you want your embroidery to look great!
Here's another section of the sweatshirt showing similar
gapping, and fuzzy stitches. Remember that the fabric wants
to contract and pull together under the stitches, and hoop's
job is to counteract that, and hold the fabric nice and
know a lot of embroiderers don't
want to hoop the fabric, for a
variety of reasons. Maybe the
fabric is hard to hoop (like
thick and thirsty bath towels),
or they don't want to wash the
item to remove the mark left by
the hoop. I understand -- really
I do! I struggle with hooping
towels too, it usually takes me
2 - 3 tries to get it in the
hoop with the stabilizer. But to
get the best results, hoop as
much as possible.
Also, keep in mind that even if
you hoop everything, your hoop
has weak spots. If you have a
rectangular hoop, the weak spot
is the lower left corner. If the
fabric is hooped loosely, or
slipping in the hoop, you're
most likely to find the problem
in that area.
Embroiderer Anne Campbell wrote
an excellent article about
reinforcing the weak areas of
the hoop --
click here to find it. And,
many embroiderers have submitted
tips that help with hooping,
from using foam pencil grips on
the screw to using rubberized
shelf liner to using rubber
bands and double-sided tape to
make sure that fabric is hooped
Click here to find those tips.
The ideas that have been sent in
Third, bobbin tension troubles. This
is most common when working with
designs that have outlines, but I've
also seen examples with complex
designs that have solid fills.
If you're stitching designs that
have a thin outline, and your
outline is separating from the main
part of the design; and if you are
100% sure that you're using the
right fabric and stabilizer
combination, then try loosing your
bobbin tension just a bit. If your
bobbin tension is a little too
tight, that's going to pull the
stitches down, and the fabric fibers
out, and that'll cause your outline
to be off.
If you're working with a design that
has solid fills adjacent to each
other, and you're finding that
there's a slight separation between
the fills, that's an indication that
your bobbin tension is a little too
Please note that in order for a
bobbin to cause gapping in an
embroidered piece, the tension would
need to be dramatically off, and
you'd probably notice that problem
in other areas, too. It may be time
to take the machine in for service,
and ask the tech to check the bobbin
One good way to see if your bobbin
tension is right is to stitch a
design that has a satin column --
small letters are good choices. Flip
the piece over and look at the
backside. If you see that 1/3 to 1/2
of the stitches in the satin column
are bobbin stitches, then that
bobbin tension is right.
Fourth, hoop obstruction. This is
unusual, but worth mentioning. A few
months ago an embroiderer contacted
us -- she was having problems with
sections of the design being out of
place. She was using a sturdy fabric
with cutaway stabilizer, and we
worked with her for several days
trying to find the problem.
She finally found the problem -- a
tissue box had fallen behind the
machine, and the hoop was hitting it
as it was moving around! That caused
the stitches to be out of alignment.
It's worth noting that before
beginning a project, check to make
sure that your work space is free of
anything that could restrict the
And, if you have little critters in
your home, keep a close eye on them
when you're working! We've received
some adorable photos that gave us
"paws." We know that we wouldn't be
inspired without our little kitties
Rocco, Trixie, and Natasha helping
us in our sewing room, but do make
sure that your felines are well out
of the way in order to avoid a
the kitty, spends a lot of hours
with embroiderer Kathy, stitching
takes charge of hooping method
and stabilizer choice.
is caught sleeping on the job
in Susan's sewing room.
is dedicated to thread
care in Rebecca's sewing room.
makes sure that all fabric is
pre-washed and folded, so that
Jo can get a jump start on projects.
responsible for timing and
calibration in Janice's sewing room.
is the king of trims in Priscilla's
make sure that your embroidery
is free of gaps and holes,
remember these four points of
1. Choose the right
stabilizer for the fabric;
2. Hoop the fabric with
the stabilizer as often as
possible, and if necessary,
reinforce those weak areas of your hoop;
3. Make sure that thread
tension (especially bobbin
tension) is balanced;
4. Keep your work area
free of any obstruction.
Kenny is a
master digitizer and Vice President of
Production at Embroidery Library, Inc.
Ask Kenny! Send email to