As any exerienced embroiderer knows, if you’re looking for beautiful results, stabilizer is a crucial component when creating almost any embroidery project. Taking the time to truly understand stabilizers and the different types available can help make your embroidery look better and “pop.” When it comes to stabilizer, we are frequently asked many questions here at the Embroidery Legacy, these include:

  • What brand of stabilizer should I use?
  • Why did my design pucker (Why is stabilizer is so important)?
  • What are the main types of stabilizers and when should I use them?
Machine Embroidery Stabilizer Guide

This guide will help answer these questions and more to help you get more professional results and become a better embroiderer. Now if you’re more of a visual learner, this embroidery stabilizer and toppers video is a great resource as well:

What Brand Of Stabilizer Should You Use?

In general, we recommend that you order your stabilizer from a reliable embroidery source online based on price point, or support your local dealer and use the brand they sell. 

Now, in most cases, we shop for stabilizers based on price point, rather than who they’re made by because most stabilizers are created by a handful of main manufacturers and then white-labeled by different embroidery brands. Of course, there are some exceptions to this rule. Mainly, avoid purchasing stabilizers from “big box stores” (such as Walmart or Michaels). Sure, you can get stabilizer probably at a cheaper cost, but when you are contemplating buying from the “big box stores” always keep in mind that old adage, “You get what you pay for”. As a general rule of thumb, if you look at a stabilizer and see lighter areas and darker areas, you can be assured you won’t get a consistent stitch.

Why Is Stabilizer So Important?

Stabilizer is the foundation of your embroidery and is a necessity to support your fabric and thread. Without the use of the proper stabilizer the registration of the design may be off, you might have puckering, and your fabric may distort. Your choice of stabilizer can “make or break” your stitch out.

Commercial embroiderers always used a Tear Away or Cut Away backing, and they used a wash away product on top of fabrics that had a nap or raised fibers. Home embroiderers knew they needed something to stabilize their fabric, so they became very creative. They used coffee filters, typing paper, saran wrap, paper towels, wrapping paper, etc. and wondered why their stitches didn’t line up correctly and their fabric puckered. Usually, the first thought is to blame the machine or the way the design was digitized. Although a poorly digitized design is often the culprit, remember that you will always struggle to get quality results if there is a lack of proper stabilization. To this day, we still hear of embroiderers using those products and wonder why they skimp on one of the most important aspects of embroidery.

The Main Types of Embroidery Stabilizers and When to Use Them

Technically, there are only three types of embroidery stabilizers:

  1. Tear Away
  2. Wash Away
  3. Cut Away

Each of these three types of stabilizers may also be available as a fusible and or tacky. When making your decision on which type of stabilizer to use a good rule of thumb is to:

  • Use Cut Away stabilizer if the fabric has any stretch – t-shirts, sweatshirts, knits, etc.
  • Use a Tear Away Stabilizer if the fabric is stable woven.
  • Use a Wash Away if using a sheer fabric or freestanding lace design such as our Vintage Lace, 3D Flowers, 3D Butterflies, or 3D Leaves, etc.
  • And whenever possible, fuse your stabilizer to the fabric.

In addition to the three types of stabilizers, most brands also have specialty products to use in your embroidery. This includes fabric preps that help stabilize fabrics that unravel, distort, or pucker. However, it adds stitch counts to your fabric, so it’s ideal to use with a heavy stitch count design. There are also products that add varying textures. They add a firm shape or a soft foam shape, which help with applique without adding any bulk, and cover the stitches so they won’t irritate your skin. These products do not replace stabilizer by any means, but can all be used with tear away or cut away stabilizers.

1. Tear Away Embroidery Stabilizer

Tear Away stabilizers are used for any stable woven fabric that doesn’t stretch. It is what you want to use for towels, leather, vinyl, etc.

Tear Away Embroidery Stabilizer

Most Tear Away, tears away very clean (hence the name). Just make sure when you start tearing it away, you place your finger on the stitches and tear it away from the stitch instead of toward the stitch. Like Cut Away stabilizers, Tear Away comes in different weights. Use a heavier stabilizer with a thicker fabric and higher stitch count design. Use a lighter stabilizer with a lightweight fabric and lower stitch count design.

Most brands have water activated and tacky tear away for holding hard-to-hoop items in place, such as towels, the corner of napkins, collars, cuffs, or any fabric that might be damaged in the hooping process. It’s great to use when making bags and In-the-Hoop projects.

2. Wash Away Embroidery Stabilizers

Wash Away stabilizers are used for any sheer fabrics, like organza, that you wouldn’t want stabilizer to shadow through. It’s the perfect choice for freestanding lace, 3D, and cutwork designs. Click here to see some of our designs.

Wash Away Embroidery Stabilizer

When you have finished embroidering, trim away the excess stabilizer and rinse the design in warm water. There are different types of water, some are harder than others, and that could have a bearing on removing the stabilizer. To test yours, put the stabilizer under running water. If the stabilizer doesn’t start disappearing immediately, you can add a bit of hair conditioner, Calgon bath powder, or fabric softener to your warm water to aid in removing the stabilizer.

For freestanding lace designs you would want to remove the entire stabilizer so the lace is nice and soft. Click here for a complete tutorial on how to properly embroidery freestanding lace designs. For a 3D project embroidery designs, you may want to remove just enough of the stabilizer so you don’t see it.

3. Cut Away Embroidery Stabilizers

Cut Away Stabilizers are the most stable of all of the stabilizers and are permanent. They will continue to support your stitches for the life of the project. Cut Away is always a good choice for any project that will be worn and washed regularly.

Most brands have different weights of Cut Away – Heavy, Medium, or Mesh. The heavier the stabilizer, the more stitches it will support. Different brands base the type of stabilizer you should use and the number of layers of stabilizer with the stitch count of the design. In our opinion, you should never have more than three layers of product under your fabric. If you check out our Large Legacy Designs, which can be found by clicking here, you will see some of our designs have upwards of 300,000 stitches (given the incredible amount of detail digitized into them). The last thing you would want is to add a heavy stabilizer to an already heavy design, but you need the support more than ever, so what do you do? One of our fan-favorite designs is the Dolphin Scene, which can be found by clicking here. It has 280,954 stitches in the 13”x15” design… no, that’s not a typo, it really has 280,954 stitches. We wanted to stitch the design on a Quilter’s Cotton, so the first thing we did was fuse a fabric prep to the back of the fabric to help prevent puckering. We also fused a Mesh Cut Away to the fabric.

dolphins beach bag

Fusing the stabilizer not only prevents puckering but helps with keeping the registration or alignment of your stitches aligned

Remember, fuse your stabilizer whenever possible. After we hooped the fabric, we decided to float another layer of Mesh Cut Away under the hoop by gently lifting the hoop’s corner and sliding the mesh under the hoop at a 45° angle. We then secured the topper in place. When the design finished stitching, beautifully I might add, we trimmed away the mesh that was floated close to the stitching line. We then gently released the fusible mesh and trimmed it close to the stitching and left the fabric prep in place. If you have issues releasing a fusible stabilizer, you can lightly press it to release it.

Mesh Cut Away Stabilizer

With most apparel, our go-to stabilizer is a Mesh Cut Away. When embroidering on any fabric with stretch, you always want to use a fusible mesh to prevent the fabric from stretching and puckering. You have two options for hooping a stretchy fabric (like t-shirts, sweatshirts, onesies, etc.) 

  • You can cut your fusible stabilizer the size needed for your hoop. For instance, if you are using a 5″ x 7″ hoop, you would cut your stabilizer 10″ x 12″ and fuse it to the back of your garment and place it in your hoop.
  • Another great method is to cut our mesh stabilizer a few inches larger than the design. Turn your t-shirt, for instance, inside out and fuse the stabilizer to the back of the t-shirt where the design will stitch. Hoop a Tacky Tear Away Stabilizer drum-tight, score the protective paper, and remove it from the hoop. You now have a tacky surface to hold your t-shirt in place. With the t-shirt still inside out, line it up with the markings in your hoop and smooth it out. You can then tape or pin the fabric out of the stitching area without worrying about stitching the front to the back. Place your topper of choice over the area to be stitched, secure it in place, and stitch your design. This is a great solution if you’re worried about hoop burn, pinholes from hooping too tightly, or damaging the garment somehow. For more tips on how to embroider a tshirt, click here.

Embroidery Toppings

The most important specialty product is Toppings. Toppings can be Water Soluble or Heat Away and are both used to place a barrier between your stitches and the fabric, so your stitches don’t disappear. You shouldn’t hoop your topping, but you do have to secure it. We suggest cutting a piece a bit larger than the embroidery design, and then securing it to the area to you’ll be stitching. You can do this by moistening the water soluble topper, pin it, or, as we prefer, tape it in the corners to hold it in place. A water soluble topping tears away very easily and disappears completely once it has been wet. A heat away topping also tears away very easily but requires direct heat from an iron or a press to disappear. For that reason, heat away is our topping of choice.

Get in the habit of using a topping on everything you embroider, and you’ll see a huge difference in your finished product.

We know that with washing and drying, our design is still supported, so the nap of the fabric can’t work its way through the design. If you have small areas of a design, such as the letters; o, b, or d, it can be hard for you to heat press the topping. We suggest to use the tip of your iron set on a silk setting and touch those areas. Then the topping will disappear.

Guide Conclusion: You Need All 3 Types of Embroidery Stabilizer

Stabilizers come in different sizes and colors, and are used for different fabrics and design types. Depending on what you embroider, you do need the 3 main types of stabilizer:

  1. Tear Away: used for any stable woven fabric that doesn’t stretch, such as leather, towels, vinyl
  2. Wash Away: used for any sheer fabrics, such as organza, freestanding lace, 3D and cutwork designs
  3. Cut Away: used for products that are worn and washed regularly. The most stable and good to use for heavy designs with large stitch counts.

As you’ve now learned, using the proper stabilizer is a crucial step towards achieving a perfect sew out and by applying the knowledge found in this guide, you too can get great results! If you’d like to test what you’ve learned, we offer close to 30,000 quality embroidery designs for you to choose from. Or, you can try us free with our Free Embroidery Legacy Design Kit. Happy stitching!

P.S. Want to learn more about embroidery basics? Check out our Machine Embroidery for Beginner’s Guide.