The Main Stabilizers in Every Stitchers’ Stash
First, let’s review the various types of stabilizers you might want to have on hand for your machine embroidery projects. There are so many types of stabilizers that categorizing them is difficult. Within each category of stabilizer, there will be subcategories too. So I’m going to start at the end of the process and categorize my list of stabilizers based on how they are removed.
Cut Away Stays Put
As the name implies, to remove cut away stabilizer you have to use scissors. The stabilizer will remain sewn to your project by the design’s stitches and you will only remove that portion of the stabilizer that does not have any stitching. Unless you plan to incorporate the entire stabilizer sheet into your project, you will need to carefully cut away the excess stabilizer once your embroidery work is complete. Often this is a two-step process. First you will cut away most of the stabilizer leaving a small edge around your project. Then you will need to use small snips to remove the remaining stabilizer being careful not to cut any of your embroidery threads. On a piece of clothing or a bag where the back of your embroidery will be fully concealed, you will not need to trim the stabilizer quite so close to the edges of your work. But for a patch or applique, you will need to carefully remove all traces.
Cut away stabilizer is available in light, medium, or heavy weight woven fabric. For most projects, a medium weight cut away stabilizer is a safe choice. Because of its woven design, this stabilizer performs very consistently and supports your fabric firmly. The woven structure of cut away stabilizer also means that it can withstand multiple needle pokes. Thus, cut away stabilizer is a good choice for your embroidery designs that have a dense stitch pattern.
Cut away stabilizers are a versatile choice that will work for most embroidery projects. However, because of its weight and permanence, it might not be the best choice for use with delicate patterns or sheer fabrics.
- Labor Intensive Removal
- May Show on Right Side
Tear Away Offers Easy Removal
Tear away stabilizers are made using a felting method. Instead of woven fiber, the tear away stabilizer is made of many short fibers stuck together. Because they aren’t tightly woven, these fibers pull apart easily. Hence the name, “tear away.” Because of their felted construction, tear away stabilizers are lightweight and less dense than cut away stabilizers. Tear away stabilizers can work well with a woven fabric that doesn’t need a high level of support. It may require some experimentation to find out exactly which fabrics will work with this stabilizer. If you are getting poor registration on your embroidery using a tear away stabilizer, that may be a sign that it is not up to the job.
The primary benefit of a tear away stabilizer is its easy removal. The fiber of this stabilizer can be gently pulled away from your project once you’ve completed the embroidery. Like cut away stabilizer, the fibers will stay in place beneath your embroidery stitches. Because tear away fiber is designed to rip apart easily, it is not well suited for embroidery designs with a dense stitch count. Each poke of the needle will make another hole in this stabilizer and can cause it to pull apart before the embroidering is finished.
When removing tear away stabilizer, pull gently on the stabilizer sheet while keeping one finger on your embroidered design. Otherwise, the fabric or design may stretch as you tug.
- Fast Removal
- Less Stable
- Less Durable
- May Stretch Fabric During Removal
Soluble Stabilizers Wash Away
Soluble stabilizers may sometimes be in the form of a spray or liquid that you brush onto your fabric, but are more commonly found in the form of either a paper sheet or a clear film. For now, I will discuss just the sheet and film form of this stabilizer. I will tell you more about spray and liquid stabilizers later.
Soluble stabilizers are also called “wash away” or “water soluble” stabilizers. Sometimes you will see this stabilizer abbreviated as “WSS” in embroiderers’ blogs. You may also see the abbreviation “FSL” nearby. This is an acronym for “Free Standing Lace” which is one of the really neat things you can make by using water soluble stabilizer.
This type of stabilizer is made to dissolve completely after you are finished creating your embroidery. It can be used as the primary or bottom stabilizer with some fabrics, but is more often used as a top cover. A sheet of WSS can be placed on top of a plush fabric, such as a towel, to hold the nap in place during stitching. Water soluble stabilizer is also handy for use with spongy fabrics, such as felt, where it is important to keep the needle from sinking into the fabric.
When used to make free standing lace, the water soluble stabilizer serves as your “fabric.” To make free standing lace, you embroider your design directly onto the stabilizer. Then, when the design is complete, you wash away the stabilizer leaving only your thread creation behind. This may seem like a complicated endeavor, but if you can get the hooping just right the rest of the project will go very smoothly.
Since water soluble stabilizer isn’t permanent, you can use it as a template or guide for your embroidery. Mark your stabilizer with your design outline or guidelines and stitch. Once your embroidered project is complete, your stabilizer and your marks will dissolve away with water.
If you use a film-style soluble stabilizer, you will need to make sure you rinse your project until all of the stabilizer residue is removed. If not rinsed out completely, the residue will cause your fabric to stiffen. With water soluble paper stabilizer, this problem does not occur. I will discuss storing your stabilizers in more detail later, but it is important to note that water soluble stabilizers should be stored in an airtight container such as a zippered bag. These materials are very sensitive to moisture.
- Totally Removable
- Provides a Clear Top Guide for Projects
- Allows Free Standing Lace Creation
- Very Little Support for Fabric
- Must Be Stored Carefully
- May Leave Residue if Not Properly Removed
The Extra Materials For Special Projects
Total Removal With Heat
Heat away and melt away stabilizers are lightweight and can be used as a backing for light projects, or as a topping stabilizer. Heat away stabilizers are either woven or film. Some of the film heat away stabilizers are not water soluble. That means that the part of the stabilizer that is not melted away using heat will remain under the embroidered stitches. Woven heat away stabilizers may be water soluble and must be completely removed before washing your project. Otherwise, the residue will cause the fabric to stiffen just as water soluble stabilizer reside will. Also, it is important to use a dry iron when removing heat away stabilizer as some of the products are water soluble.
When using heat away stabilizer, you will remove any excess film from your project after the embroidery work is completed. The loose portions of the stabilizer can be gently torn away by hand. Then the remaining portions can be removed using an iron. Some stabilizers will melt and roll into small balls of plastic as they are ironed, while others will dissolve into a fine powder that can be brushed away.
Because each stabilizer has different characteristics, you will need to read the manufacturer’s instructions for the specifics on how to remove the stabilizer you have chosen to use. Some stabilizers will melt at a lower temperature than others. The manufacturer may also advise that you use craft paper, or some other barrier between your iron and the stabilizer, to prevent sticking.
Heat away stabilizer is useful for projects that require total removal of the stabilizer without any residue remaining. Heat away stabilizers that are not water soluble are a good choice for projects that you want to avoid exposing to water, but still require a totally removable stabilizer sheet. For delicate projects that might be damaged by the process of removing tear away stabilizer, heat away materials might serve as a good replacement as well.
- Totally Removable
- Water-Free Removal
- Allows Free Standing Lace Creation
- Very Little Support for Fabric
- Varying Removal Instructions
- May Leave Residue On Iron
Added Options With Sprays and Liquids
While not a common stabilizer, there are some sprays and even paint-on liquids that can be used to stabilize fabric for embroidery work. Not to be confused with spray adhesives, these stabilizers serve to stiffen the fabric. A spray stabilizer works similar to sizing or starch. A spray- or brush-on liquid stabilizer will usually be something that you use in addition to another stabilizer. You might use it to stiffen fabric before attaching your sheet stabilizer, or as a top stabilizer for a project. The aerosol sprays can have a strong odor, so I would not recommend them unless your project specifically calls for their use.
Spray adhesives are used with your fabric and stabilizer to bind the two together. Quicker and more versatile than basting, spray adhesives can be used to temporarily hold a template in place or affix an applique to your fabric. A spray adhesive can be used to make your regular stabilizer sheet stick to your fabric for a slip-proof hold. Using a spray adhesive, you can first hoop your stabilizer and then adhere your fabric to the stabilizer without having to hoop the fabric.
If you recall, some fabrics can’t be hooped because of the risk of hoop burn. Spray adhesives can also be used to attach a delicate fabric to the stabilizer. Finally, when you are making an item with multiple layers, such an applique or coaster, spray adhesive can actually be used to hold all the layers in place while you use a satin stitch around the edge to fix them altogether.
A Variety of Shapes, Sizes, and Styles
Many of the sheet styles of stabilizers come in different weights and applications. Each variety of stabilizer is available in light, medium, or heavy weight. Sometimes you can even find super weight stabilizer. Mesh weight stabilizers are designed to not show through delicate fabrics. Some stabilizers are self-adhesive and have a removable paper backing. Other stabilizers are printable so that you can print your design template directly onto your stabilizer fabric. You may purchase your stabilizer in rolls, sheets, or precut squares.
Now, here are a few final tips to make your embroidery life easier:
- Keep your stabilizer supplies dry. If you have high humidity in your home, use a moisture absorbing product (such as silica gel packs) to remove excess moisture from your storage containers.
- Label all your stabilizers and keep the original instructions for use. Many stabilizers look similar but perform very differently. You don’t want to accidentally use a wash away stabilizer when a cut away is what is needed.
- Keep your extra scraps of stabilizer. You can use small pieces of stabilizer to patch tears or for smaller projects. Just make sure that you keep the scraps in individually labeled bags or envelopes sorted by type.
- Make sure to clean your hoops regularly. Adhesives and coatings from your stabilizers can build up over time. When using a spray, try to avoid getting it on your hoop.
I hope that I have given you a better understanding of why there are so many different stabilizer options for machine embroidery. I look forward to hearing about what you have created with this new knowledge at your fingertips.