Stabilizers and Fabric. What to use with what and why.

19th Sep 2022

We use stabilizers to give our fabric a supportive foundation. Every time the needle penetrates the thread there is a pushing downward of the fabric. And remember every stitch requires two needle penetrations and a thread span (the amount of thread used from one needle penetration to the next. So knowing this, if your design has 10,000 the fabric is pushed 20,000 times.

To see this in action hoop a piece of fabric without a stabilizer. Now take a machine needle in hand and manually start poking it through the top of the fabric through to the bottom. Hold the hoop up at eye level so you can see what’s going on with the fabric on the underside.

So let’s talk about Stabilizers and Stabilizing

Stabilizer types, there are two basic. Permanent and temporary, and just like the name implies one type is permanent and will hold up in multiple washings and the other is temporary designed to be removed. Within each of these types there are many different sub-types.

Cut Away Stabilizer. As the name states it must be cut away, it does not tear. It’s good for projects that will need the ongoing support of stabilizer even after the project if finished. Clothing items for example that are used, handled and washed often. It is also necessary for designs with heavy stitch counts.

Note: When adding a design to a garment keep in mind what the back of the garment is like after the embroidery. All those thread tails, knots and stabilizer edges can be itchy against the skin. Look for and use a product designed to iron on and cover this area. One such product is called Cloud Cover Stitch. You don’t have to purchase or use this brand but find something you like and use that.

Note 2: If you wear it don’t tear it. Just a reminder that all garment items should use a permanent cut away stabilizer.

Tear Away Stabilizer. Most commonly used by quilters, for tote bags and on anything that will not have a lot of heavy use. And just like the name says, you tear it off the project when you are done stitching.

Both types have weight. A lightweight stabilizer would be used on lightweight fabrics: knits and woven. Medium weight stabilizers for medium weight fabrics and heavy weight stabilizers.

Note: As important as your fabric weight you need to consider the stitch count of your design. Using a 4x4 hoop design as an example, a stitch count under 5,000 would be considered light, over 5,000 up to 9,000 is medium and everything over 9,000 is heavy weight. Select your stabilizer to accommodate the -more- heavy factor: fabric or stitch count.

2nd Note: All designs should be test stitched using the fabric and stabilizer choice. This is even more important when designs will heavy stitch counts. You want to make sure the design isn’t too dense which will cause issues with thread breaks, shreds and needle breaks.

Specialty Stabilizers. Whether permanent or temporary, these specialty stabilizers serve a purpose. Some I recommend more over others.

No Show Mesh. This is a thin but stable cut away permeant stabilizer the is named No Show because it is not noticeable on the front of a garment.

Fusible Stabilizers. Fusible stabilizers use a temperature appropriate iron to temporarily fuse the stabilizer to the back of the item to be stitched (fabric?). I prefer fusible because it minimizes shifting and does not leave a residue on the machine, needle or hoops.

Note: A fusible version of your stabilizer choice is always a recommendation.

Sticky Stabilizers. There are two paper layers to sticky stabilizer. One layer is used to protect the adhesive side of the stabilizer layer until it is needed. When it is needed you will hoop your sticky stabilizer with the peel away paper side up. Use a needle or pin to score around the inside edge of the paper and carefully remove it from the inside of the hoop.

This stabilizer is used for hard to hoop items like extra small fabric pieces, velvet because you don’t want hoop markings in the velvet, leather and other fabrics that would normally wrinkle badly.

Note: Not all Sticky Stabilizers are made the same. Some are sticker then others. Sticky Stabilizers have their place within the embroidery world. You need to find a sticky brand that gives you what you want without being overly sticky which can cause issues for your equipment.

2nd Note: When you use Sticky Stabilizer be prepared to use rubbing alcohol and a cotton swab to clean your needles and inside the bobbin race area. I would suggest doing this approximately every 5000 stitches. The longer you leave sticky residue on your machine the harder it is to clean away.

3rd Note: You can use a fabric approved temporary spray adhesive to make your own sticky stabilizer. Use a light spray application, and you will still need to clean your machine of residue and your hoops too.

Water Soluble Stabilizer. There are two types of water soluble stabilizers. One type looks like a clear plastic, Solvy brand is a good example of this, and the other looks like a woven interfacing or fabric. Reference Vilene brand for this type of stabilizer.

I use the clear plastic type as a topper when I need to have a smooth surface for the machine foot to glide over the fabric surface. Terry cloth, fleece, knits – these are all fabric types that have a nap or loft to them. You’ll know it’s a nap or loft fabric when you can pinch both the top and the back between two fingers and squish it flatter.

The most popular use for the fabric type water soluble is for Free Standing Lace designs. In FSL the stitches interlock as they are stitched and when they are done they can be used independently of a fabric attachment.

Liquid Stabilizer: Yes liquid stabilizer. Again, there are two methods. The first. Cut a length of the water soluble stabilizer, which ever you have. And following the product instructions, “melt” it in a washable bowl using enough water to soak your fabric. After the stabilizer is melted in the water, dip the fabric and thoroughly soak it. Ring out but do not rinse the fabric. Lay it out as flat as possible and let dry completely. When it is dry use a temperature appropriate iron to press the fabric smooth. Avoid using a water mist or steam as this will re-wet the stabilizer and you’ll have to wait till it is dry again to continue.

The second method is actually a spray starch, a very concentrated spray starch - Terial Magic Spray. It has many uses in the craft room and you might already have some. Follow the product instructions and when you are done, your fabric will be as stiff as cardboard.

And my last specialty stabilizer:

Heat Removable Stabilizer. This stabilizer is more like a topper in my opinion. It is a clear plastic looking stabilizer like the Sovy brand but it does not wash away. There are fabrics that change when they get wet. Velvets, Faux Suede, Leather Suede just to name a few. They really need to have a topper to help the machine move smoothly but they really should not get wet. When heat is applied the “film” melts into little “plastic” balls. You can brush or vacuum them away.