Embroidery Machine Stabilisers

Stabiliser is the unsung hero of machine embroidery. It hides on the back of our fabric, and sometimes we take great pains to minimize its appearance in finished projects — but without it, the chances that our embroidery would turn out looking great are pretty slim indeed. The fabrics hanging in your closet and wrapped around bolts at the fabric store weren’t designed with supporting embroidery in mind; it’s up to the stabiliser to provide a bit of help. Hey, we could all use some support every now and then!

The main types of stabiliser available are cutaway, tearaway, and water-soluble (and water-soluble’s cousin heat-away). Many different brands and weights of each type are available. The suitability of the match between embroidery designs, fabric, and stabiliser can make or break a project. Below we’ll take a look at each type and when you might want to use it.

But first, a couple notes:

The recommendations you see here might differ from what you’ve seen elsewhere — opinions seem to vary on matters of stabiliser. This is what I have found creates the best results. If you’re doing something different and you like the results you’re getting, rock on! But if you’re running into trouble, give them a try — perhaps they’ll help.

These are very general tips; they don’t specifically address every fabric/design/stabiliser in existence. Think of them as guidelines to help you make good matches between designs, fabric, and stabiliser. There are always going to be judgment calls involved. As always, embroidery is both art and science.

Relatedly: experiment, experiment, experiment! If you’re working with a fabric/design/stabiliser combo you’re unsure about, give it a test run before using it on your actual project.

Things to Consider

Design choice will be a major factor in selecting a stabiliser for your fabric.

Stitching a solid stitch-filled design? One with running stitch details that require precise registration? A medium weight cutaway is going to give you the best results.

Stitching a very light, running stitch design? Depending on your fabric, you might prefer to switch to a sheer mesh cutaway, or under certain circumstances, a tearaway.

Fabric choice will affect your choice of stabiliser, too. For starters, make sure you’re working with a fabric that suits your design…

Knit or otherwise stretchy fabrics such as those in T-shirts, sweatshirts, and sweaters will fare better with a cutaway stabiliser than a tearaway. Since these fabrics are stretchy, they can shift around easily, so they rely heavily on the stabiliser to keep everything exactly in place.

Thinner fabrics such as quilters cotton and T-shirt knits will do better with lighter, more open designs — and this combination may lend itself well to a sheer mesh cutaway.

For a design with significant solid stitch-filled areas, choose a somewhat sturdier fabric such as duckcloth, canvas, or denim, and pair it with a medium weight cutaway stabiliser.

Combining a light-stitching design with a sturdy fabric? We rarely recommend tearaway, but you might do fine with it here.

Types of Stabiliser

Cutaway stabilisers, as the name advertises, are meant to be cut away around the edges of the embroidery after it’s done stitching. In general, a cutaway will provide stronger support than a tearaway of a similar weight.

Most of the time, we recommend using a medium weight cutaway stabiliser for best embroidery results. 

This stronger support will help prevent all those stitches from “hugging” the fabric together too much — an effect that can lead to unwanted puckering, shifting, and gapping.

Here’s why a cutaway will provide stronger support than a tearaway:

Cutaway and tearaway stabilisers, like felt, are emmeshed fabrics. A non-woven fabric means it is not woven or knitted, but instead created with a web of fibres, similar to felt.. This means that instead of being woven or knit, the fibers are all meshed together — hold your stabiliser up to the light to see. This allows them to be strong in all directions.

Since tearaway stabilisers are made to be torn away after stitching, these fibers come apart more easily. As a design is stitching, the tens of thousands of needle perforations can cause this more loosely constructed stabiliser to break down a bit.

The fibers in a cutaway stabiliser hold on to each other much more tightly — try tearing one and you will feel the difference. The increased strength of cutaway stabiliser means that you’ll see less shifting and gapping while stitching, and that it’ll hold up better through washing and wearing, too.

Quality does vary, so shop around — a nice cutaway stabiliser will be strong as well as soft.

There are also different weights of cutaway stabiliser available. As discussed above, a medium weight cutaway is our go-to choice for many projects. Sheer mesh cutaways, such as Sulky Soft ‘n’ Sheer and Floriani No Show Mesh, are also available — these are wonderful matched with lighter designs and thinner fabrics such as quilters cotton or T-shirt knits, where one might worry about the edges of the cutaway stabiliser showing through.

Tearaway stabilisers are, of course, meant to tear away after the design is done stitching. They leave a neater looking back of the embroidery, but as discussed above, their support isn’t as strong as that of cutaway stabilizer.

Mostly we recommend tearaway stabilizer for stitchingin-the-hoop designs, or perhaps for light, open designs on a sturdy fabric such as denim. It’s frequently what makes sense for a running stitch design on a tea towel, too.

 The cleaner finish of tearaway stabiliser can be pretty nice. You might want to use it more than I recommend here. In that case, the key is to experiment and make sure you like the results before using that combination on your actual project. If you’re seeing shifting and gapping or other wonkiness, try switching to a cutaway and see if that fixes the problem.

Water-soluble stabilisers have two main uses: as a foundation for freestanding lace, and as a topping for highly textured fabrics.

For freestanding lace designs we recommend a heavy duty water-soluble stabiliser, such as Sulky Ultra Solvy or Badgemaster (which feel like a thick sheet plastic) or Vilene (which is more like a white fabric). If you’re seeing gaps in your lace, try switching to one of these stabilisers. 

If you’re stitching fabrics with a texture or pile, such as terrycloth or sweater knits, using a water-soluble stabilizer on top of the fabric can help keep it from showing through the stitches. A lighter water-soluble stabiliser such as Sulky Solvy works well for this. Hoop it together with the fabric and backing stabiliser.

Another use for water-soluble stabilisers is stitching a light, open design on a sheer (but sturdy) fabric such as organza. As with freestanding lace, choose a heavy duty water-soluble stabiliser such as Sulky Ultra Solvy, Badgemaster, or Vilene. Use a bit of temporary spray adhesive to stick the two smoothly together, then hoop them together.

A Few More Tips

We like to use a bit of temporary spray adhesive (Gunold KK100 is our pick) to attach stabiliser to the back of the fabric, for a bit of added stability. There are also adhesive-backed stabilisers available which will achieve the same effect.

One layer of a good quality, appropriate stabiliser will give better results than multiple layers of a lesser stabiliser. If you find yourself using two layers of a stabiliser, try switching to something heavier.

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