Embroidery Library

Avoiding the Embroidery Blues:
Stabilizer Choice


Recently an embroiderer wrote in with a problem. She was embroidering a quilt block to make a set of pillows for her daughter, and was having some trouble with registration. She sent in this picture (right) to help us identify the problem.

The first part of the design sewed well, but then about halfway through, strange things happened. Design segments started shifting; the flowers weren't centered, and sections overlapped with other sections.

She sewed her sample on cotton, and used a heavyweight tear away stabilizer. We asked her to try the design with a different stabilizer: cutaway. A few hours later, she wrote back and said that it was perfect, and she'd never use tear away again.

A fabric and stabilizer mismatch can
lead to poor registration - design sections


I'm not against tear away stabilizer. I love the stuff. When I want the back of something to look neat and tidy, or when I'm in a hurry, I appreciate the speed and ease of removing tear away stabilizer. But tear away has a big weakness that we all should be aware of: Tear away stabilizer doesn't wait until we're finished embroidering to tear away. It actually tears away while we're embroidering.

The picture to the right is an extremely close up view of tear away stabilizer. Note the loosely-enmeshed fibers. They are intended to be loosely enmeshed because the goal is to tear it away quickly after embroidery.

The problem is that when embroidering, the needle perforates the stabilizer, and that weakens tear away stabilizer considerably. That's what happened in the above example. The stabilizer was doing a great job through the first part of the embroidery, but was getting weaker and weaker as the needle perforated it.

Close up of tearaway stabilizer


As the stabilizer become less effective, it stopped stabilizing the fabric. The fabric was
free to slip around in the hoop a little, and that resulted in poor registration. The design segments sewed over each other because the stabilizer was ineffective.

The image to the right is of cut away stabilizer. The fibers are tightly enmeshed. You can pull on it for ages, and it won't stretch or tear. You can perforate it a hundred thousand times and it's not going to get any weaker. It's the workhorse in the embroidery room.


Close up of cutaway stabilizer

When should you use tear away, and when should you use cut away? To make that decision, consider the fabric. If the fabric is lightweight, weak, or a big weave, then use cut away. If the fabric is heavy, like denim or canvas or duck cloth, then you can use tear away.

When fabric is made, manufacturers don't anticipate that anything will be added to it. When we're working with fabric, we need to support the stitch tension and thread weight that we add to it with embroidery. So if you are working with heavier fabric, then you can use a weaker tear away. But when working with lighter fabrics, then cut away is the best choice.

It's tempting to use tear away because it's so convenient. It's fast, it's easy, and you don't have to spend time snipping around the backside of the design. Cut away can feel strange against the skin, and sometimes has a draping problem when it's not trimmed closely enough. But if quality is important to you, then stick to cut away for those light weight, weak, and stretchy fabrics.

It's important to note, too, that tear away and cut away aren't your only options. The shelves are filled with other options, like sticky-back, iron-on, water-soluble, etc. Sometimes it can take some trials and testing to find the best support for the fabric. But once you get the right combination, you'll get great results, every time.


Kenny is a master digitizer and Vice President of Production at Embroidery Library, Inc. He has more than ten years of experience as an artist, digitizer, and embroiderer.

Ask Kenny! Send your questions to stitch@emblibrary.com.

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