One of first terms you learn as a new embroider is the word backing or stabilizer. Embroidery backings are the foundation of machine embroidery and create the stability you need to machine embroider on anything, especially stretchy knits and polyester performance shirts. For those with new embroidery machines, choosing the correct stabilizer for the job is one of the more important decisions you make when starting an embroidery job. Proper stabilization is the base for excellent embroidery. Don't skimp on backings, but also do not over stabilize. Do not get in to the habit of solving stabilization problems by adding in additional layers of backing - choose the correct stabilizer for the job from the start.
What is Embroidery Stabilizer?
You may be new to machine embroidery, but you have probably seen embroidery backings before on embroidered shirts you have worn. It's the piece of fabric behind the stitches that provides support during the embroidery process. Backings are typically wet-laid nonwovens, meaning they are made up of random fibers held together by a binder. The non-directional nature of nonwoven backings make them strong and stable for use as embroidery stabilizers. It's important to use nonwovens designed for machine embroidery - you will read on the internet people advocating the use of strange things like coffee filters, newspaper and, paper towels etc as a backing. These products can break up during embroidery causing excessive lint in your bobbin cases and machine parts.
What are the Different Types of Embroidery Backing?
There are 3 major types of embroidery stabilizers: Cut Away, Tear Away, and Water Soluble. Most backings are available in different weights, usually advertised as ounces per square yd. The heavier the backing, the more stability it usually provides. A good backing supplier will sell many different weights, types and sizes of stabilizer in both pre-cut sheets and on rolls.
- Cutaway Stabilizers provide the most stability and stay on the garment helping to keep it stable after being embroidered. With a cut away backing, after you are finished embroidering, you cut away excess backing close to the design and the rest stays on the fabric. For beginner embroiderers, we always recommend using a cutaway with most unstable fabrics and anything you are going to wear. Cut aways are inherently more stable and will be more forgiving with some of the mistakes you make when new and staring out with machine embroidery. They are a great choice for stretchy knits and polyester performance shirts because they prevent the embroidered designs from stretching with repeat wearing and washing.
- Tear Away Stabilizers are removed, or torn away, from the fabric after embroidery. They are generally less stable than cut aways and are used for light support, on less stretchy fabrics and items where the back may be visible - like towels and linens. With tear away stabilizers, you just tear away the backing when you are finished with embroidery. For large commercial shops, this can speed up the entire embroidery process when encountering large jobs. Tear away can also be used in conjunction with a cut away to provide additional support during embroidery without adding additional bulk to the finished garment.
- Water Soluble Stabilizers dissolve when immersed in water. There are two types of water soluble stabilizers (WSS) a film type called Badgemaster and a nonwoven fabric type called Vilene. Both work the same way and it's personal preference which one you use. WSS should be mostly used for free standing lace (FSL) type applications, where you need the backing to 100% disappear. Remember, this backing dissolves in water, so if you use it as a regular stabilizer you will lose stabilization under the stitches once it rinses away.
Where do I Start?
As a beginner, it's best to stock up on small rolls of several different backings until you figure out what works best for you. Many suppliers, such as Continental Sewing Center offer backing swatch cards you can purchase that give you the chance to see and feel the different types of embroidery backings offered. Pull some old clothes out of your closet and experiment with the different types of backing on different fabrics until are comfortable with what combinations produce the best designs.