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Choosing an appropriate machine embroidery stabilizer is one of the most confusing aspects of machine embroidery.
When I started embroidering, I thought I could just put tearaway stabilizer on the back of all projects and have things turn out perfectly. While this admittedly worked for more than it probably should have, I soon learned picking the best embroidery stabilizer made a massive difference in my finished project.
And there are SO many embroidery stabilizers to choose from that it can be confusing to a beginner. Thus, I want to demystify the process of choosing a machine embroidery stabilizer in this guide!
I’ll start by describing the different types of stabilizers and their uses, and at the end of this post, I have a free machine embroidery chart printable for you to laminate as a cheat sheet.
What Embroidery Stabilizer Is
Embroidery stabilizer, which is different from interfacing, is the paper-like material that goes in your embroidery machine hoop underneath the item you intend to embroider. It stabilizes your embroidery blank to ensure your machine stitches accurately and efficiently.
Without stabilizer, your project may pucker, stretch, get holes, or even get stuck in the needle plate.
Types Of Machine Embroidery Stabilizers
There are four main types of embroidery stabilizers that I’ll discuss in detail. First, I’ll cover the qualities of each stabilizer and then which fabrics they pair well with.
The types of stabilizers are divided loosely into 4 different categories based on how they are removed from projects after stitching: tearaway, cut-away, wash-away, and heat-away. There are also toppers, which go on top of fabrics.
1. Tearaway Stabilizer
Tearaway stabilizer is the cheapest stabilizer and is formed from low-density short fibers. It comes in a variety of weights, most commonly light or mediumweight. High-quality tearaway stabilizer will tear equally in all directions.
Once you’ve stitched over this temporary stabilizer, as its name suggests, it tears off from the back of the fabric. When removing tearaway stabilizer, hold the embroidery design with one hand, and tear with the other hand so you don’t pull the stitches or distort the fabric.
Tearaway stabilizer is best for stable, woven (non-stretchy) fabrics such as cotton (including quilting fabric), linen, canvas, poplin, terry cloth, and broadcloth. This type of stabilizer does not provide much support, which is why the fabric needs to be strong to support the embroidery stitches.
Even on stable fabrics, it’s important to consider your design properties before grabbing your roll of tearaway, though.
Designs with empty spaces, running stitches instead of fill stitches, and generally less detail are perfect. However, detailed, dense designs with a high stitch count are better suited to cut-away instead of tearaway. (Learn more about cut-away vs. tearaway stabilizer!)
Tearaway is also not a great choice for knits or t-shirt fabrics. In addition to providing poor support for these fabrics, when you tear away the stabilizer, you risk stretching your fabric.
2. Cut-Away Stabilizer
Cut-away stabilizer is formed from longer, denser fibers and is stronger and more stable than tearaway stabilizer.
When finished embroidering, cut the stabilizer from around the design. The residual cut-away stabilizer material then permanently supports the item through continued washings and wearings.
Cut-away embroidery stabilizer does not stretch in any direction and is best for embroidering knit fabrics and other unstable, stretchy blanks like fleece, t-shirts, sweatshirts, Minky, and more. When in doubt, choose a cut-away stabilizer for your project.
Because it provides so much support, cut-away stabilizer also works great with densely stitched designs on all fabric types.
When trimming, make sure to leave a small margin of cut-away around the design. If you don’t trim closely enough, there may be a visible impression of the stabilizer on the front of the design. Trimming too closely, though, can result in an odd appearance around the design edge or accidentally clipping the stitches or fabric.
Cut-away stabilizer comes in a large range of weights and also black to help camouflage excess stabilizer on the back of dark fabrics.
No-Show Mesh Stabilizer
A special type of cut-away stabilizer, no-show mesh stabilizer (also called PolyMesh) is a soft and strong stabilizer with a signature waffle imprint. When you’re done with your project, you cut it away also.
What makes no-show mesh stabilizer so great is it is more translucent than cut-away and as such is great for minimizing show-through on light-colored fabrics. When I embroider white t-shirts or baby onesies, PolyMesh is what I use.
It doesn’t stretch, it doesn’t shrink, and it’s also permanent. To provide even more support, you can use two layers placed perpendicularly to each other or add an extra layer of tearaway stabilizer underneath the hoop.
3. Wash-Away Stabilizers
There are two types of wash-away stabilizers: the type that goes in your hoop underneath the fabric and a topping that goes on top of the fabric.
Wash-away stabilizer is a paper-like or heavy film-like stabilizer that is removed by water after stitching.
Hooped completely underneath fabric, it’s great for fine, sheer fabrics such as lawn, organza, and batiste and for embroidering freestanding lace. I recently used it when embroidering on tulle and creating embroidered FSL jewelry! It’s also my go-to stabilizer for machine embroidering patches.
Overall, it works better as a disappearing stabilizer on fabrics that could be potentially damaged by the act of tearing. It’s also handy as a substitute for tearaway stabilizer if your embroidery design has multiple small areas where you’d spend a long time picking off each individual stabilizer piece.
Wash-away stabilizer is more expensive than tearaway and can only be used on fabrics that aren’t damaged by water. It’s also not as good for complex, intricate embroidered designs as cut-away stabilizer is.
In contrast, water-soluble topping like Sulky Solvy refers to a lightweight, transparent film that can be used on top of blanks.
Water-soluble topping is necessary when embroidering fabric with nap, grooves, pile, high loft, or even high stretch. It supports and prevents embroidery stitches from sinking into the fabric.
As such, use it as a topper when embroidering towels, fleece, sweatshirt knits, velvet, corduroy, and even certain knits like t-shirts. You can choose to hoop or float water-soluble topping.
When you’re done, simply dip your design in warm water, and the topping dissolves.
(Learn all the details in how to use and remove water-soluble stabilizer!)
4. Heat-away Stabilizer
Heat-away stabilizer is uncommon and more difficult to find.
It’s basically a substitute for wash-away topping on fabrics that can’t be washed like velvet and satin or if you’re in a hurry and don’t have time to wash.
With heat-dissolving stabilizer, ironing crumbles the topping after stitching.
Understanding Stabilizer Weight
Stabilizers come in different weights (from around 1.5 to 3.0 oz) and are generally described as very lightweight, lightweight, mediumweight, or heavyweight.
For lightweight designs on lightweight fabrics, use a lighter-weight stabilizer.
The denser your design, though, the heavier the weight of stabilizer you will need to provide support for the stitches. (Heavyweight stabilizers can affect fabric drape, though, so test on a sample before stitching on a garment.)
When in doubt, start with a mediumweight stabilizer and troubleshoot if needed.
You can use multiple sheets of stabilizer if your design is dense and your fabric is not sturdy. However, choosing the right stabilizer type and weight can often eliminate the need for extra stabilizer pieces.
Factors Influencing Embroidery Stabilizer Selection
Before beginning your next embroidery project, consider these parameters to choose the best stabilizer.
- Embroidery Fabric Type: Stretchy knit fabrics stretch and move more during stitching and need more support, or stabilization. As such, they work best with a stable, cut-away stabilizer. Tearaway stabilizers tear under pressure so do not provide as much support. This is why they are useful for woven fabrics that are already fairly stable.
- Embroidery Stitch Density and Number of Stitches: As a general rule, a more densely stitched design requires a heavier stabilizer. Tearaway stabilizers do not give the best results with dense designs. Large designs also work better with cut-away stabilizer.
- Fabric Back Considerations: Cut-away is a permanent stabilizer, so it will always be visible on your project’s back. If you’re not okay with the stabilizer showing afterward, you need a tearaway, wash-away, or heat-soluble stabilizer.
- Fabric Surface Texture: Fabrics with loft, pile, or nap need a topper to keep stitches from sinking in while stitching. This is in addition to a stabilizer backing.
- Fabric Care Instructions: If your fabric is not machine washable, do not choose a wash-away stabilizer or water-soluble topping. Be careful also with spray adhesive, as sometimes this doesn’t work well on delicate fabrics.
Stabilizer That Adheres to Fabric
It can be helpful to adhere the embroidery stabilizer directly to the fabric. For example, when trying to minimize fabric distortion during embroidery hooping or when floating fabric and blanks outside the embroidery hoop.
While you can use temporary fabric adhesive spray, here are two types of specialized embroidery stabilizers that help hold embroidery blanks in place.
1. Self-Adhesive Stabilizer
Sticky stabilizer has a paper backing on top that, once removed, reveals a sticky surface that you press your fabric onto, thus eliminating the need for fabric adhesive spray. It’s great when floating hard-to-hoop items, items too small to hoop, and blanks that may move in the hoop.
I’ve most recently used it when embroidering socks, cloth napkins, necklines, collars, and embroidering on baseball caps.
You can purchase sticky tearaway, sticky cut-away stabilizer, and even sticky wash-away stabilizer (which gets sticky when wet or has a sticker covering). After your project is completed you treat the residual stabilizer like its non-adhesive version.
As for cons to this type of embroidery stabilizer, there aren’t as many weight options, so you may need to float an additional layer of stabilizer underneath your hoop for dense designs. It’s also more expensive and can be difficult to remove from the back of some fabrics.
2. Fusible Stabilizer
You can also choose fusible stabilizer, which you adhere to the back of your fabric with heat from an iron. (Make sure your fabric can tolerate heat!)
I like using fusible stabilizer to make stretchy embroidery blanks more stable–for example, when embroidering t-shirts, onesies, and even knit burp cloths.
Other Stabilizers Worth Mentioning
Aside from the big 4 stabilizer types, there are a few other embroidery stabilizers worth mentioning.
Embroidery Batting Stabilizer
Made popular by Floriani, embroidery batting is a stabilizer and batting combination! It’s great for quilting with an embroider machine as well as lining purses or other small in-the-hoop projects.
To be honest, I typically just use regular 80/20 cotton polyester batting (and skip the stabilizer) with my machine embroidered quilts, and it works fine.
Consider fusing this protective backing on baby clothes or other outfits where rough embroidery designs may rub sensitive skin.
While also not technically a stabilizer, iron-on adhesives like Heatnbond Lite (and its equivalents) are fused with an iron to the back of applique fabric to provide support.
After fusing to applique fabric, remove the paper backing of the exposed side to reveal another fusible side that you’ll place on the base fabric for your applique.
Once you’re done embroidering, permanently adhere the applique with an iron. (Read more on how to applique with an embroidery machine.)
Stabilizer vs. Interfacing
Sewing interfacing and embroidery stabilizer aren’t interchangeable. Can you use interfacing as an embroidery stabilizer? In some cases, yes, but I don’t recommend it. I also don’t recommend using coffee filters, paper towels, or other household goods as stabilizers for that matter.
You can use interfacing AND stabilizer, though. Pellon SF101, for example, is one of my favorite interfacings to iron onto the back of quilting cotton before embroidering using a tear-away stabilizer on the back. Interfacing can also decrease stretch on certain fabrics and increase
The Embroiderer’s Compass
One helpful tool to help you choose the correct stabilizer and needle for your next embroidery project is the Embroiderer’s Compass. I didn’t even realize this was a thing until recently, but it’s handy to have next to your embroidery machine for those tricky fabrics.
My Embroidery Machine Stabilizer Chart – FREE Printable
If you want to grab a copy, here’s my machine embroidery stabilizer chart free printable. If the margins are outside the printable area for your printer, shrink it before printing.
This free printable chart explains the selection process and gives suggestions for stabilizer selection for select fabrics and embroidery blanks.
The chart is not exhaustive, and picking the right stabilizer is not an exact science. It takes trial and error, and some of these choices will always be up for debate–even stabilizer manufacturers have differing opinions.
Because choosing the best embroidery stabilizer depends on so many factors, try embroidering on a small sample of your fabric, and experiment with different stabilizers! Testing out a similar piece of fabric before stitching your expensive project saves much heartache.
I hope this embroidery stabilizer guide has cleared up the process of choosing embroidery stabilizers, as selecting the best embroidery stabilizer for your next project exponentially increases your chance of success!