Just imagine, you are out to lunch wearing your favorite new shirt embroidered with an awesome design you embroidered and/or digitized! Oh, the compliments! You’re just sitting and taking it all in when…. splat! That delicious chili you ordered is now on your shirt as a part of your design.  Tragedy. What now?

Ironing Fabric
stain on embroidery

Laundry can be frustrating at best, but it invites a longer harder look at how you proceed when it’s all over embroidery.  So, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to the laundry!

What Makes Washing Embroidered Garments Different

There are many reasons why embroidered garments require better, more careful care. Not considering this can lessen the life or ruin a garment that was lovingly created.  

You are not only dealing with the unique properties of the embroidery, which we will cover, you are also dealing with the fiber content of the garment, the backing, how dense the stitching is, etc. You might use polyester thread that can be bleached, but do not use bleach on a silk blouse. Raised stitching, beads and sequins, and more can be dislodged and lost in the drain.  

Modern washing machines are much more forceful than their older cousins; some regions have production guidelines that require the washer to spin longer and harder than the washer you grew up with. Washers can also be problematic as newer washers and front-loading washers will lock, preventing you from accessing your garment the moment you see your new red shirt stain the water pink. But fear not! You have alternatives from hand laundering to dry cleaning.

With all that said, there are many things you will be able to embroider and toss in the laundry with no fear. Polyester garments and threads are pretty tough, as is cotton material, and they can withstand heavy cleaning. Garments that are not particularly valuable are good tests for you to find what works.

Embroidered Garment Stains

Stains are generally organic (coming from nature or animal (think grass, blood, etc.) or inorganic (petroleum, paint, ink, anything artificial), and you must know what the stain is first.  

Organic stains can use soaps and water; inorganic stains generally require solvents and stronger cleaning products. They come from everywhere in all forms, but here are some of the issues you will find:

  • Food: Food particles have dual problems, removing the actual food and removing the residual stain. They can be oily, gritty, and colored (which for any of you who have used tea/coffee/beets etc. to dye fabric know are permanent)
  • Oil: Commercial operators know that regularly oiling the bobbin casing can cause staining if you are too aggressive when you oil. Oils can be organic like olive or animal fats or inorganics like motor oil or sewing machine oil.
  • Cosmetics: These are problematic because they are meant to color. These need to be dealt with quickly, so they do not set.
  • Perspiration: If washed right away, it is manageable, but if ironed can set the stain in.
  • Inks/dyes/paint: Are all inorganic, and these cannot be dealt with in the same way as you handle organic stains.
  • Blood: Blood, though organic, is unique as it acts differently than perspiration, and surprisingly the best way to clean it is your saliva! Saliva breaks down the proteins in food to prepare for digestion, so these enzymes work well to break down blood. So licking your garment theoretically does work, but you might not like it.

Considerations When Laundering Machine Embroidery

There are two methods of laundering; machine washing and hand washing, each with pros and cons. Machine washing is handy, and it works well if you follow simple rules. Handwashing is always best as you control what is happening with the garment and see right away if your solution works. There is also dry cleaning which we will discuss later. So that said, here are some key issues to consider.

  • Thread: Thread content is very important to creating a plan of attack. Silk can not be bleached. You will end up with a beige mess. Unless you test a portion of the thread in an inconspicuous place, do not attempt even with “nonbleach alternatives”. Also, anyone who has dyed their hair with peroxide knows how strong it is and how much it can remove color.  Rayon also can be damaged by bleach and peroxide (bleach alternatives). Know what is in your thread before you start.

Want to understand the different machine embroidery thread types and how to use them? Learn how to apply them in your work by clicking here to read our Types of Machine Embroidery Threads article

Polyester embroidery thread
  • Snagging: Satin stitch in long runs over 7mm can catch hidden hazards in the machine, such as clothing with zippers. They can also become abraded by rubbing on other rough materials in the washer or surfaces in a sink.
  • Curling: Depending on the backing, the density of the design, how you clean it, and how you dry, your wonderful little design can curl up or ripple if not treated right.
  • Drying: In addition to the curling issue above, properly drying can lengthen the life of your garment.
  • Ironing: This is a hot button issue! You can steam backings and make them wave or melt, melt adhesives, melt stitching, and more.
  • Color Bleed: Though color bleeds can happen in hand laundering and when using washing machines, it is too easy to toss another new red shirt you bought into the laundry and find you have pink ghosts on your embroidered sweater.

What Embroidery Can Be Washed & Should You Prewash Clothing?

Polyester embroidery is durable and stands up to the washer, dryer, etc. (though natural drying is best).  Rayon embroidery can be washed by hand but needs special care, as does silk and wool.

Washing Machine

Most embroidery on polyester, cotton, or nylon garments (ripstop) is tough, but it is important to prewash these garments (especially cotton) before embroidering.  Cotton, unless pre-shrunk, can shrink, distorting your stitching.  Even if a garment advises it is prewashed, you may choose to wash it anyway.  Even a polyester garment may have threads, linings, etc, which are cotton and can shrink.

Many embroidered bags, tote bags, backpacks, etc. are designed to be durable and washed.  Unless there is a question of color bleed, you can launder (keeping in mind the cautions for different embroidery) successfully.  Specialty bags such as raffia, leather, and others are a no-no in the washer, so always consult the care label.

How To Avoid Shrinking When Washing Embroidered Garments

As mentioned above, rayon thread can (and usually will) shrink when wet. Rayon is made of wood cellulose, and it is quite porous, making it soft and shiny, but when submerged, you may panic when it curls and becomes hard. As rayon dries, the cells release water, and the overall stitching will relax. 

If you need to iron rayon thread, always use a medium iron with no steam, a pressing cloth and iron from the backside.

Whether washing by hand or by machine, hotter is not better.  If you have to make a choice not knowing anything else choose cool or cold water. 

Different types of shrinkage:

  • Felting occurs with clothing constructed of animal hair fibers, like wool or mohair.  
    • The strands of hair have microscopic scales along their surface that, exposed to heat, water, and abrasion, can cause them to felt together. Human hair is the same, by the way, and the locking of these scales together is how people dread their hair into locks.
  • Consolidation shrinkage occurs when moisture, heat, and agitation during washing and drying are combined. 
    • These factors cause the fibers to release any pulling or tension created during sewing or embroidering the garment, which in turn relaxes the fibers, allowing them to return to their natural state (this is especially evident when the fabric is starched and ironed during construction and then washed). So you sew a nice blouse and then embroider. Once you wash, there will be shrinkage from the released tension, which you put there when you ironed your seams etc., during the construction process.

What Embroidery Cannot Be Washed?

There are two types of fabrics; natural such as wool and silk, which have proteins in them and come from animals or insects, and man-made such as polyester or nylon, which are created chemically.  

  • Silk, as mentioned above, cannot be laundered with harsh chemicals, never with bleach or bleach alternatives.  
  • Some rayons act strangely in washers; they are technically man-made from wood cellulose, but the wood, being natural, has many absorbing properties. Man-made fabrics are extremely durable but remember, even if they are, your embroidery may not be. 

Want to learn more about the main fabrics used in machine embroidery? Click here to read our 3 Main Fabrics Used In Machine Embroidery to better understand how to create something visually beautiful and functional.

So as an example of the difference between natural and man-made fabrics, you could put a packet of colored drink mix in your washer and end up with a strawberry-colored silk or wool shirt and a perfectly clean polyester one. Likewise, you can put synthetic dye into a washer with the same silk or wool shirt and poly shirt and end up with a perfectly clean silk shirt and a dyed polyester one. 

Always, always, check your garment label for laundry instructions before you attempt anything.

Should I Dry Clean My Embroidered Garments?

Dry cleaning still involves liquid, but clothes are instead soaked in a water-free liquid solvent which dissolves the bonds of oil, etc., and aids in washing it away. Many people avoid dry cleaning due to residual chemicals and expense, and it is not recommended to attempt to dry clean at home or use solvents as they can be hazardous to your body, and if you mix the wrong things together, it is disastrous. 

There are home use products on the market, but it is better to take your garment to a reputable dry cleaner and allow them to professionally clean it than risk ruining your garment if you are not sure of the chemical being used. Yes, there is a cost involved, but it is worth it if the garment is unique or sentimental.

When going to your dry cleaner, you will want to ask them to spot clean specific stains and then turn the garment inside out. Make sure that you tell them the fiber content of the thread and request that they dry clean inside out and only use a medium iron with no steam from the backside of the stitching.

How To Dry and Iron Machine Embroidery

Naturally drying is always best. Yes, it takes longer, but in the end, it is worth it. You will find instructions for this below. Drying using a dryer has very high heat and agitation, which can wear out your embroidery and cause shrinkage. If you must dry in the dryer, use the lowest heat setting (or no heat at all, just air) and only tumble till lightly damp.

Ironing can make your garment look wonderful and also ruin it. Fifty years ago, irons were only a few settings and could be very hot. More modern irons have numerous settings and more capabilities but with that comes 1800 watt irons that can burn.  

Ironing fabric desktop

Please make sure not to use the steam setting, and the goal is to flatten and not brutally scrub the embroidery until it is shiny and flat. Embroidery has a natural loft, and it is this puffed-up quality making it three-dimensional and lustrous.  

Another reason why hot is not best… Polyester, nylon, and other fibers melt under high temperatures, so your embroidery can become a solid melted mess. By the way, this includes stabilizers. Most stabilizers are man-made and capable of being melted. Many embroiderers have also found that using iron-on stabilizers, backings, etc. can be problematic because ironing these too hot causes them to ripple.

Interested in learning more about what stabilizer to use for your embroidery projects to achieve more professional results? Click here to read our Machine Embroidery Stabilizer Guide to help you become a better embroiderer.

Pro Tip: Use a pressing cloth.  When finishing your cleaning, do not directly iron. Other than squashing your loft on your stitching, you can overheat the stitching if you use steam or it is wet. An ironing cloth provides a nice buffer between the heat and the garment. Additionally, if you have accidentally set your iron on a plastic wrapper or anything dirty, it can be transferred to your stitching. Using a plain cotton pressing cloth can save many shirts, or even an old portion of a pillowcase or sheet. Avoid using colored or textured cloths.

How To Wash Machine Embroidery

Okay, so how do we go about this? Well, here is a minimally invasive method for laundering your embroidery.

  • Check the garment and see if there is debris that can be brushed off with a soft brush.
  • Check the label on your garment; make sure that you follow manufacturer directions.
hand washing clothes

As a general rule, start with this:

  1. Gently wash in tepid soapy water. Handwashing is best. Dish detergents work well but require more rinsing than laundry products. If in doubt, keep this in mind, “Less is More.” Using more detergent does not make it clean better; detergents are a surfactant that reduces the surface tension of a liquid in which it is dissolved. It aids in breaking bonds on soils and makes them more easily rinse away.
  2. Rinse in cool or tepid water until there are no suds.  You can hold the embroidery under gently running water but no high-power sprays (less is best).
  3. Do not wring. Wringing causes creases; it pulls embroidery stitching and backing out of shape and, in some cases, can break threads.
  4. Place the garment on a clean, dry terry towel and lay flat.  When you do this, let it lay naturally and do not pull or tug. Smooth out with your hand. After the garment is flat, roll the terry towel with the garment up into a “jelly roll.”
  5. Gently squeeze the towel roll. This allows the terry cloth to absorb extra water.
  6. Let air dry until slightly damp.
  7. Check for stains or marks (If you find any repeat steps 1-6)
  8. Iron from the backside with a medium iron, no steam.
  9. Iron with the garment laid on a clean, dry towel. The toweling absorbs more water and supports the stitching.
  10. Allow to finish air-drying.  

If necessary to machine wash:

  1. Turn inside out.
  2. Do not wash with studs, snaps, metal zippers, or other objects that would snag.
  3. Wash on cold or cool.
  4. Do not wash with new colored clothing, especially cotton or silk, as these can bleed.
  5. Dry same as above.

Laundering Machine Embroidery with Beads, Sequins, Bangles

Though we won’t go into detail, the main points you need to keep in mind are: 

  • Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions on your garment.
  • Hand wash inside out.
  • Do not dry in the dryer.
  • Dry flat.
  • Do not iron (spangles, beads, and sequins can be plastic which can melt).

Removing Bad Stains On Embroidered Items

You will inevitably come across a stain that simply will not release. Unless you can live with it, here are some inventive ways of making treasure out of trash.

  • Cover the stain with an adornment, applique, or other feature. Attempting to over-embroider can create dense stitching with its own problems.
  • Buttons are a fun way to cover a small spot.
  • Cut out the embroidery and applique a new object over it (remember not to cut out knits).
  • Fabric and other paints can also be a creative way to cover up an unmanageable stain.

Do you have leftover embroidery scraps you aren’t sure what to do with? Recycle these leftover pieces and recreate them into usable items. Click here to read 7 Easy Ways To Recycle Your Leftover Embroidery Stash & Fabric Scraps to learn new ideas to form your own “use up plan.”

Conclusion: Follow These Best Tips For Washing Embroidered Items

Wow. We have covered a lot here. Let’s do a quick recap of some of the essential things we covered.

  • Always read the garment laundry instructions.
  • Keep in mind that your thread content and your fabric content may not be the same.
  • Turn your garment inside out.
  • Iron with a medium iron, no steam.
  • Use a clean pressing cloth and make sure your iron is clean.
  • Do not wash in hot water.
  • Wash only your garment to avoid color bleed.
  • Use no bleach unless you have tested the garment and the stitching for colorfastness.
  • Clean the stain as quickly as possible.

If you change your mindset from laundry being a chore to an adventure, you will retain more clothes that might have been headed to the trash bin and instead will look great displaying your embroidered treasure.

However, if you choose to clean your garment, thoroughly think about the stain and what it may require. Remember that the stains may not come out, and plan to either live with it or be creative and cover it up. 

As always, we’d love to hear your ideas for blog topics below to continue to provide you with the best education on your embroidery journey. 

P.S. Try our Free Embroidery Legacy Design Kit, where you get five fan-favorite designs for free by clicking here or check out our giant database of close to 30,000 quality machine embroidery designs. Happy stitching!