Solving the Stabilizer Mystery
Aside from deciding which embroidery machine and software to buy, this is perhaps one of the most perplexing questions of our craft. When I started doing commercial embroidery, there was no such thing as dedicated embroidery stabilizer. We used industrial paper towels for tear away and dressmaker’s interfacing or broadcloth for cut away stabilizer.
In contrast, today there are so many options available that it’s hard to keep them all straight. We have different types and weights, pre-cuts, slit rolls and full rolls. How do you make the best buying decision to have the proper stabilizer on hand when you need it without filling your entire shop with white stuff?
Basics versus Specialty Stabilizers
There are some basic stabilizers that every embroiderer should have on hand, and there are fantastic specialty stabilizers that help with specific jobs types. For example, some help with holding items that are hard to hoop and others are designed to help work with fabrics that are challenging to embroider.
It isn’t necessary to have a stock of every stabilizer made, but you need a selection that will have you covered with the most popular fabrics requested by your customers. If you haven’t looked at new stabilizers in a few years, you may be surprised by some of the latest options available to you. There’s a newcomer to the staple selections that should probably be in every embroiderer’s arsenal.
I always smile when I remember a humorous exchange between myself and former President of Gunold USA, Jim Geary, many years ago. Jim had a great deal of expertise in the stabilizer field, and I mentioned that there were two broad categories of stabilizer. I was referring to cut away and tear away. I had to laugh when he said, “Oh yes – wet-laid and dry-laid.”
He was thinking in technical terms about how the stabilizers are manufactured but I was thinking about how they are used. It’s true that wet-laid stabilizers are superior to those manufactured using the dry-laid method. Wet-laid stabilizers have even distribution of the fibers, but fiber distribution can be uneven in low-quality stabilizers. Wet laid stabilizers are made in a process similar to that of making paper. Fibers are floated in a vat that contains various liquids, then placed on a screen. When the fluid is removed, the fibers are spread and formed using a latex binder, then dried on rollers that make the stabilizer uniform.
Image courtesy of QST Industries
Inexpensive stabilizers with prices that are much lower than those sold by reputable suppliers are often made by the less expensive dry-laid method. These inferior stabilizers have an uneven distribution of fiber and a high degree of stretch making them unsuitable for producing high-quality machine embroidery
One popular cut away stabilizer, the no show, embossed mesh type, is made using a different method called the spun bond method, which is basically an air entanglement method. This process also produces high-quality and consistent stabilizers.
So, now that we know a bit about how our stabilizers are made, let’s explore further to discover the applications for tear away and cut away.
Tear away is made up of short cellulose fibers and that’s the reason that it’s easy to tear. It is made in various weights so that in an ideal situation, only one layer of stabilizer in the proper weight is needed. Tear away stabilizers are typically used for low-stitch count jobs or embroidery on stable materials. Tear away is named for its removal by simply tearing it away from the edges of embroidery.
Cut away is made of a combination of longer polyester and cellulose fibers, making it difficult to tear. It has more stability and is typically used for higher-stitch count designs, detailed designs and embroidery on unstable fabrics such as knits. Cut away must be removed by cutting it away from the edges of embroidery. I recommend leaving about 1/8” to ¼” margin outside the embroidery edge, and using straight short-blade scissors, from 4 to 6 inches in overall length.
Soft tear away is an interesting hybrid, made of both short and long polyester and cellulose fibers.
It’s designed to provide more support because it tears away, just not as easily as firm or crisp tear away products. The liquid slurry used to create it also contains ingredients to give it a softer hand.
Here I have stitched a fill-stitched circle with regular crisp tear away.
As you can see, the standard tear away has already punched out and become detached from the embroidery and fabric. Imagine stitching an outline on this circle with no remaining support from the stabilizer – chances are good that the outline wouldn’t match up with the fill stitched circle.
Now check out, where I used soft tear away on the same design. The stabilizer remains intact following the stitching of the circle, thanks to the polyester fibers mixed with the cellulose fibers. In Fig. 4, you can see the completed embroidery with the outline, which was well-supported. As you can see, the stabilizer tears away thanks perforation by the needle.
So, how should you choose between crisp and soft tear away varieties? I use light crisp tear away with light stitch count and lightly detailed designs on woven or other stable fabrics. I use heavy crisp tear away on finished caps and with heavy stitch counts on lightweight woven fabrics like those used to make drawstring cinch bags or windbreakers. It creates the cleanest edges on satin stitched lines and lettering. I sometimes cheat a bit and use crisp tear away on unstable fabrics for light stitch count and lightly detailed designs.
I use soft tear away on high-stitch count and highly detailed designs on stable fabrics. Years ago, I bought a beautiful turquoise shirt, lightly embroidered on a t-shirt weight rayon blend. The manufacturer had used a crisp tear away to support the embroidery and it made this dry-clean only shirt unwearable. Normally, the laundering process softens the harsh properties of crisp tear away, so my experience made me aware that I should use soft tear away when selecting tear away for items that will be worn next to the skin and that will not be laundered.
Of course soft cut away is also a good choice for ladies’ and children’s wear. In smaller hoop sizes, I like to use a no show nylon mesh type of stabilizer, 1.5 to 1.8 ounces in weight. This type of stabilizer is able to support up to 15,000 stitches in a 3” to 4” hoop size. When hoop sizes get larger, such as for full chest embroidery, I select a traditional non-woven cut away stabilizer.
To protect the delicate skin of ladies and children and make embroidery very comfortable to wear, high-end manufacturers use a fusible product in the finishing process. Sold under brand names like Fuse So Soft and Tender Touch®, this product is like fusible tricot except that it has a more aggressive fusible adhesive. This soft covering material can be cut slightly larger than the size of the embroidery and fused to the reverse side of the fabric.
When cutting, round the corners to prevent lifting over the life of the garment. It may also be applied before embroidery to help with raveling on fabrics like silk dupioni and to add body to certain lightweight materials.
New Staple Stabilizer
In the last few years, we’ve seen a trend for knits becoming more lightweight and stretchy. Some of these fabrics have moisture-wicking properties and other technical features. Manufacturers of high-end apparel were thrilled with the response of consumers to the new fabrications, but confounded by their efforts to embroider them successfully. When presented with this challenge, some stabilizer providers went old-school to provide a solution. They developed a woven stabilizer be used instead of traditional nonwoven stabilizer. Rather than offering the cotton broadcloth type used to stabilize lightweight knits in the 70s, they provided woven polyester and polyester blend fabrics that resist shrinkage. This stabilizer turned out to be the magic bullet for these super-stretchy technical knits.
Sold under brand names such as StabilSport and Stretchy Knit Stabilizer, this super-stable woven stabilizer gained quick acceptance. You only have to use it once to understand its qualities. It’s the perfect example of one of the sayings I use to illustrate the need to hoop stabilizer completely in the hoop: Pretend that you’re embroidering the stabilizer and the fabric is just getting in the way. This woven synthetic stabilizer embroiders beautifully and the stretchy knit comes along for the ride!
Staple Stabilizer Summary
There are many specialty stabilizers and topping that serve a purpose for the embroiderer, and I keep several on hand. As a basic selection, I recommend that every embroidery shop or studio keep these stabilizers in their staple collections to cover a wide range of fabrics and design types. Specialty stabilizers and colored stabilizers may be added as needed, but I believe I can handle almost any job with one of the stabilizers in this list.
Medium weight Cut away – (traditional nonwoven) – stable and reliable even in large hoop sizes
Woven Cut away – stable and reliable for lightweight stretchy technical knits, such a moisture wicking fabrics
No Show Nylon Mesh – Sheer, soft and stable in small hoop sizes
Crisp Tear away – lightweight – light stitch count designs on lightweight fabrics
Crisp Tear away – medium weight – medium to heavy stitch count on stable woven fabrics
Soft Tear away – medium weight – light to medium stitch count on unstable fabrics and heavy stitch count or detailed designs on stable materials
Whether you know what you want or you’re just starting to determine which stabilizer will be best for your products, we’re ready to help you get the perfect fit! Click here to browse our embroidery stabilizers.
~credit: Deborah Jones