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Choosing an appropriate machine embroidery stabilizer is one of the most confusing aspects of machine embroidery.
When I first got started embroidering, I thought I could just put tear-away 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 huge difference in my finished project.
And there are SO many types of embroidery stabilizers to choose from that it can be so 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.
And just as a disclaimer, there are many good combinations of stabilizers, and even stabilizer manufacturers have differing opinions. The process takes some trial and error. This is just a general embroidery stabilizer guide for beginners that doesn’t account for every single situation, so please be kind.
What is embroidery stabilizer?
Embroidery stabilizer is the paper-like material that goes in your embroidery machine hoop underneath the item you intend to embroider. It “stabilizes” your fabric to ensure your machine stitches both accurately and efficiently.
Without stabilizer, your project might pucker, stretch, get holes, or even be drawn into the needle plate.
Factors Influencing Embroidery Stabilizer Selection
Before we go into the types of stabilizers, it’s important to ask yourself several questions before you begin embroidering your project.
- What fabric are you embroidering on? This is one of the most important factors when selecting your stabilizer. In general, stretchy fabrics stretch and slip more during stitching and thus need more support, or stabilization. As such, they work best with a stable, cut-away stabilizer. Tear-away 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.
- How dense is your embroidery design? The stitch density and number of stitches in your chosen design play another very important role in stabilizer selection. As a general rule, a more densely stitched design requires a heavier stabilizer. Tear-away stabilizers generally do not perform at their best with dense designs.
- What does the back of the fabric need to look like after embroidering? If you’re not okay with stabilizer showing afterward, you’ll either need a tear-away, wash-away, or heat-soluble stabilizer. Cut-away is permanent, so you will not be able to remove it all.
- Hooping vs floating your fabric? If your fabric is too thick or too small to be hooped, you will need to find a way to adhere your embroidery blank to your hooped stabilizer. There are several different ways to do this, which I’ll discuss shortly.
- Do I need a topper? Fabrics with loft, pile, or nap need a topper to keep stitches from sinking in while stitching. This will be in addition to a stabilizer backing.
- Can my fabric be washed? 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.
Understanding Stabilizer Weight
Stabilizers all come in different weights, generally denoted as very lightweight, lightweight, mediumweight, or heavyweight. When in doubt, start with a mediumweight stabilizer.
For lightweight designs on lightweight fabrics, use a lighter weight stabilizer. The denser your design, though, the heavier weight of stabilizer you’ll need to provide support for the stitches. Heavyweight stabilizers can affect fabric drape, though, so test on a sample before stitching on a garment.
You can also use multiple sheets of stabilizer if your design is dense and your fabric is not sturdy. When in doubt, always choose to over-stabilize!
Methods for Adhering 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 hoop.
There are three main types of stabilizers and methods that help hold fabric in place.
1. Self-Adhesive Stabilizer
Sticky self-adhesive stabilizer has a paper backing on top that, once removed, reveals a sticky surface that you press your fabric onto.
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!)
3. Non-Fusible Stabilizer + Floating
Non-fusible stabilizer is just a regular piece of stabilizer.
Fabric can be adhered to non-fusible stabilizer by using temporary adhesive spray (like Odif 505), a basting box, or even pins.
Rolls vs Sheets of Stabilizer
Another thing to consider is whether you want to use a roll of stabilizer vs precut sheets.
Generally, rolls are less expensive, but they are less convenient. One good thing about rolls is you can conserve more stabilizer since you can cut smaller pieces for smaller hoop sizes.
Types Of Machine Embroidery Stabilizers
There are several types of stabilizers that I’ll now explain. You’ll learn 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 the project after stitching: tear-away, cut-away, wash-away, and heat-away. There are also toppers, which go on top of fabrics.
Tear-away 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 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 tear-away stabilizer, hold the embroidery design with one hand, and tear with the other hand so you don’t pull the fabric while removing the stitches.
Tear-away stabilizer is best for stable, woven (non-stretchy) fabrics such as cotton (including quilting fabric), linen, canvas, poplin, 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 tear-away.
Designs with empty spaces and less detail will work great. However, detailed designs with high density, high stitch count, or with clear outlines like on patches, might be better-suited to cut-away instead of tear-away. For an example of a torn, punched-out design from using tear-away and a dense design, take a look at my embroidering on paper post!
Tear-away 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 pulling out your stitches or stretching your fabric.
Cut-away stabilizer is formed from longer, denser fibers and is stronger and more stable than tear-away 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 knits and other unstable, stretchy fabrics. Cut-away works well on fleece, sweatshirts, minky, and densely-woven burlap. When in doubt, choose a cut-away stabilizer for your project.
Because it provides so much support, cut-away stabilizer works great on densely stitched designs with high thread fill on all fabric types.
As a note, when trimming, try 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 can result in a sunken appearance around the design or accidentally clipping the stitches or fabric.
Cut-away stabilizer comes in a large range of weights and also black to help camouflage residual 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 characteristic waffle imprint. When you’re done with your project, you cut it away also.
What makes it 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 light-colored t-shirts or 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.
There are two main types of wash-away stabilizers: stabilizer that goes into your hoop underneath the fabric and a topping that goes on top of your fabric.
1. Wash-Away Stabilizer – On the Back
Wash-away stabilizer is a paper-like or heavy film-like stabilizer that is removed by water after stitching.
Hooped completely underneath the fabric, it’s great for sheer, fine fabrics such as lawn, organza, and batiste and for embroidering free-standing lace. I recently used it when embroidering on tulle, too!
Overall, it works better as a disappearing stabilizer on fabrics that could be potentially damaged by tearing away stabilizer. It’s also handy as a substitute for tear-away stabilizer if your design has lots of small areas where you’ll spend a long time picking off each individual stabilizer piece.
To note, wash-away stabilizer is more expensive than tear-away and can only be used on fabrics that aren’t damaged by water. It’s also not as good for complex designs as cut-away stabilizer.
2. Water-Soluble Topping
In contrast, water-soluble topping refers to a lightweight, transparent film that can be used on top of fabrics (and in some cases underneath.) When you’re done, simply dip your design in water, and the topping dissolves. I like to use Sulky Solvy Water Soluble Stabilizer.
Water-soluble topping is necessary when embroidering fabric with nap, grooves, pile, high loft, or even high stretch. It supports and prevents the embroidery stitches from sinking into the fabric. Use it 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.
(Learn all the details in how to use and remove water-soluble stabilizer!)
This last main type of stabilizer is uncommon and thus more difficult to find. It’s basically a substitute for wash-away topping on fabrics that can’t be washed like velvet and satin. If you’re in a hurry with no time to wash your fabric, you can also use heat-dissolving stabilizer.
With heat-away stabilizer, you use an iron to crumble the topping after stitching.
More About Sticky Self-Adhesive Stabilizer
With self-adhesive stabilizer, you easily adhere the stabilizer to your fabric without having to use temporary adhesive. It’s good for adhering lightweight stretchy fabrics that may move in the hoop as well as socks, cloth napkins, and embroidering on baseball caps, for example. It’s also great for hard-to-hoop items or items too small to hoop that you’ll have to float. For example, collars and necklines.
As for cons to this type of embroidery stabilizer, there aren’t as many weight options, so you may need to float an extra 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.
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.
Soft Embroidery Backing – Not A Stabilizer But Worth Noting
Sulky Tender Touch backing and OESD Gentle Touch backing are soft, embroidery backings that you iron on to the back of your finished embroidery design. Especially for baby clothes or other outfits where rough embroidery designs may rub sensitive skin, consider fusing on this protective backing.
Fusible Adhesive – Also Not a Stabilizer Technically
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 in 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, probably.
That being said, interfacing is not a good substitute. Neither are household goods like coffee filters or paper towels. If you’re going to spend the money to buy embroidery blanks and take the time to embroider, try to only use quality embroidery stabilizer.
Testing Your Stabilizer First
Because choosing the best embroidery stabilizer depends on so many factors, try embroidering on a small sample of your fabric, and experiment with different stabilizer options!
Testing out on a similar piece of fabric before stitching your expensive project saves much heartache.
Where to Buy Embroidery Machine Stabilizers
In person, I purchase my stabilizers from local sewing shops or JoAnn. More often, I order online because I can read reviews beforehand. You can purchase on Amazon or Walmart or shop directly through manufacturers like Sulky. (That’s my favorite brand, can’t you tell?)
My Embroidery Machine Stabilizer Chart – FREE Printable
While this is by no means exhaustive, I’ve put together a free printable chart showing the process of picking an embroidery stabilizer. This is not an exact science, so some of these choices will always be up for debate.
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.
How I Store My Stabilizers
I also wanted to include a few ideas for how to store embroidery stabilizers.
While I keep my precut sheets in a drawer, I like to display the rolls proudly on my sewing pegboard. Here’s the basket containing many of my rolls of stabilizer. My cut-away, as you saw above, sits on two prongs just waiting for me to use it.
I also use thread spool nets to keep the rolls from unrolling. This is the niftiest stuff ever and also keeps my Cricut vinyl rolls from unwrapping. Same with wrapping paper and so many other household goods. And, of course, I use it on some of my serger and machine embroidery threads!
Embroidery Stabilizer Guide – Conclusion
I hope this has cleared up the process of choosing embroidery stabilizers.
If you’re completely new to embroidery, check out my tutorial for how to use an embroidery machine as well!