One of the most important aspects about machine embroidery is something that is seemingly invisible to everyone except the person who does the stitching: the stabilizer. Using the correct stabilizer makes the difference between a beautiful piece of work and something that looks poorly made.
When we create machine embroidery for quilts, home accessories and clothing, our goal is to not only have beautiful embroidery, but also to have something that is soft, durable and can be easily laundered. The stabilizer used in every machine embroidery project is the foundation that determines success or failure.
The photo above of a beautiful embroidery design by Loralie Designs illustrates how important stabilizer can be in your project. Look at the image on the left and you will see stitches and outlines that match perfectly. In the image on the right, you will see that the stitches do not meet in many areas and the outlines are off. The mismatching stitches on the right have nothing to do with the design itself and everything to do with the stabilizer that was used.
Key principles for stabilizer selection:
The key principle in selecting a stabilizer for machine embroidery is to be sure that you are choosing a material that creates a base to support the type of stitches that are included in the design. The type of embroidery design and the density and number of stitches are the primary factors to be considered. Other important factor to consider are the background fabric and the type type of thread being used.
The types of embroidery are:
- Redwork designs represent a black and white drawing and are made by using outline stitches that are stitched over themselves multiple times. Good stabilization is required to prevent pulling and puckering of the stitches. These designs are often used on kitchen towels and linens. A lightweight stabilizer or tearaway stabilizer generally work well with this type of design.
- Sketches and toile-type embroidery represent a drawing similar to a charcoal or pastel. These designs generally require a light stabilization, and a lightweight cutaway stabilizer often works well here.
- Fills are solid areas of stitching that create a complete picture, as in a painting or print. These designs have the most stitches and density and require the most stabilization. This is the type of design that may use two layers and/or types of stabilizer rather than a single heavy stabilizer.
- Appliqué stitches are used to hold fabric patches in place. Depending upon whether the appliqué stitch is a blanket stitch, a motif stitch or a satin stitch will determine the type of stabilization needed.
- Combination designs may include any of the above.
A sample pack of Sulky stabilizers
Finding the right stabilizer:
One of the most important ways to find the right stabilizer is to know your options. And that's easier than you think!
Almost every manufacturer of stabilizers offers a sample pack that can be purchased at a reasonable cost. These sample packs include a single sheet of each stabilizer as well as complete descriptions and recommendations for their use. Ask your local shop to order a sample pack if they do not have one available. If you cannot find the sample pack you want locally, they are also widely available online.
There are basic categories of stabilizers and each come in multiple weights. There are also specialty stabilizers.
- Tearaway stabilizer is a paper-like stabilizer that comes in many different weights, from very soft to very crisp.
- Cutaway stabilizer is typically a non-woven stabilizer, but there are also nylon mesh and other types of woven stabilizers that are used as cutaway stabilizers.
- Wash-away stabilizers come in both mesh and a plastic form. These wash away completely with water.
- And in all three categories, you will find sticky, fusible and non-fusible types.
Using Stabilizer in your projects:
Because I like to do a lot of different types of machine embroidery, it's important for me to have a variety of stabilizers on hand so that I can decide what I want to stitch at a moment's notice. After testing and trying many different stabilizers, I now have a "stash" of my favorites for each type of embroidery and both in-the-hoop and hooped projects.
You may find that two or more different stabilizers used together work best for a project. For example, when creating a filled machine embroidery design for a quilt block like the one seen above, I use a woven underlining, such as Armo Weft, fused to the back of a lightweight cotton quilt fabric, a soft and sheer stabilizer on top of a medium-weight tearaway stabilizer in the embroidery hoop. This seems like a lot of stabilizer, but with a filled machine embroidery design I want to be sure the design doesn't pucker after being laundered. And while that is my own personal combination, you may find that you have a different favorite combination or stabilizer that works for the very same purpose.
Selecting a background fabric:
Whether you are using a woven fabric or a specialty fabric Craftsy offers classes that will teach you all of the nuances of which stabilizer to use with which embroidery design and background fabric. Check Machine Embroidery With Terrycloth and More with Deborah Jones to learn the ins and outs of working with terrycloth, or if you want to learn everything you need to know about using knits, sign up for Machine Embroidery With Knits with Deborah Jones. Both are a great way to delve further into machine embroidery.