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The Basics of Stabilizers

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Machine embroidery designs require proper stabilization in order to produce the best results. Each design and fabric type has particular needs, and it would be a simple problem to solve if there was but one type of design and one type of fabric. However, there are multiple fabric weights and textures, as well as design types, making it difficult to decide exactly what materials to use. Let's see if we can narrow the choices down by determining a few facts to use for starting points.

Consider the Design

When a design is custom digitized for a specific fabric, the digitizer takes the fabric into consideration with each stitch that is punched, building an appropriate foundation with layers of underlay stitches, so when the design is sewn, the least amounts of fabric stabilization is necessary. Designs created for stock, such as those available at, are created in a general manner that may or may not contain a foundation of stitches that will work properly on each and every type of fabric. You must decide what type of stabilizer should be used to best support the stitches of the design on the fabric that you are sewing.
In general, if the design has ample stitch coverage of all elements, including the background, it requires a stronger foundation than if the design consists of only outlined elements. Every time the needle pierces the fabric, the surface is weakened, which then causes a distortion of the fabric, sometimes resulting in unsightly puckers around the sewn elements. Proper stabilization will help eliminate, much of that possible distortion. Designs that contain less coverage, such as outlines of the elements in satin stitches or bean stitches require a lighter weight of foundation in most situations, however, this is determined by considering the degree of strength or vulnerability of the type of fabric sewn.

Consider the Fabric

If the fabric is dense, such as nylon, it usually requires lighter stabilization than one that is loosely knitted or woven, such as wool. Determining the density of the fabric can sometimes be tricky at first, but I personally begin with a "finger test": stretch the fabric over your index finger and if you can't see any flesh through the fibers, it's dense; if you see a lot of flesh, it's loosely knitted or woven; and if there's just a bit of flesh showing through, it's somewhere in between.
You must also consider the vulnerability and stretch of the fabric. A silk or stretchy lycra may be of about the same density, yet a silk is delicate and vulnerable to distortion for different reasons than stretch as found in a lycra. Get to know the fabrics and the different needs of each by testing your work on similar fabric with various stabilizers prior to stitching on the final item.

Types of Stabilizers
There are a variety of stabilizers, but the choices available will fit within four basic categories: cut-away, tear-away, adhesive, and heat or water soluble. Most often, one sheet of the appropriate stabilizer will be sufficient, but keep in mind, sometimes you will need to use multiple layers or a combination of more than one type below the fabric and sometimes above.

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Tear-Away Stabilizer
Tear-away stabilizer offers a sturdy, but flexible, backing for most situations. It’s used with fabrics of a light to medium weight and in situations where you would not wish to leave an excess of stabilizer in view after the sewing. It is torn away up to the stitches easily after the sewing has been completed. You can use two sheets of tear-away for situations when you want to create a more sturdy foundation such as under stitch-intensive designs sewn on fabrics of an average weight. It is available in both black and white so it can also be used as an appliqué-type topping to help coverage of fill stitches when the stitch density is not thick enough for the fabric.

Cut-away is a sturdy, permanent stabilizer that must be cut away up to the stitches at the exterior of the design after the sewing and is not very flexible. It’s used most often for vulnerable fabrics that distort easily during the sewing process such as knits. To keep flexibility in the garment, a poly-mesh cut-away is the perfect solution. But when used on a project that requires no flexibility, such as a framed embroidery, a lower-cost cut-away is most suitable. 

Adhesive such as an iron-on or a peel-and-stick stabilizer is first applied with an iron and is used most often on knits and fleece. It creates a lightweight and flexible sewing area and the excess can be peeled away after the sewing. Some very vulnerable situations, such as sewing on loose knits, benefit when an adhesive stabilizer is applied and combined with one sheet of either a tear-away or poly-mesh.

Heat or Water Soluble Stabilizer
Heat or water soluble stabilizer disappears after the sewing when exposed to heat or water. Heat soluble stabilizer is used for rare, special situations such as when creating a lace edging along a hem or when un-washable fabric is too delicate for a tear-away. In the same situations, if the fabric is washable, a water soluble stabilizer is the best solution because remnants of the stabilizer disappear when laundered. Most often water soluble stabilizer is used in addition to a backing as a topping to keep the stitching above the fibers of the fabric, as when sewing terry cloth. It also will help retain the integrity of the stitches on knits and fleece, assuring that satin columns don’t become too narrow or gaps don’t occur between stitched elements.
A heavy-weight, water soluble stabilizer is used for sewing designs that are created specifically for freestanding lace, or as a backing on towels, linens or other items that you don’t want remnants of a backing to be seen in the final results.

Test the Materials

You should always test-sew a new design, as well as when you are sewing on a new-to-you fabric. Before you embroider the final garment, do a test-sew of the design with the stabilizer you’ve chosen on a fabric similar to the garment or item you’ll be embroidering to be sure that the materials are the best for the project. At first you may not want to do test sew-outs, because it seems a waste of materials, but the samples – both good and bad results – can be kept in a binder or box for future reference. Once you have a collection of samples, you’ll have a better idea of which stabilizers to use on various fabrics, making future projects easier.

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Meet The Author: Bonnie Landsberger
Bonnie Landsberger has been a crafter and hand embroiderer since childhood and a machine embroiderer and digitizer since 1986. She was the in-house head digitizer for a 50-head embroidery shop for 11 years and later offered custom digitizing services and stock design sales through her web site for Moonlight Design since 1993. She currently also holds a position as a customer service representative at Bonnie has won several awards for digitizing, including a gold medal in the 2002 Digitizing Olympics and grand prize in all categories & first place for Winter Holidays category in the Stitches Magazine Great Greeting Card Contest 2003. Her embroidery and digitizing technical articles can be found in various trade magazines and she is currently a contributing writer and Editorial Advisory Board Member for Stitches Magazine. You can also find more of her articles online at and will continue to contribute articles to our Learning Center.

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AMY C Mar 23, 2014
Another great tutorial, thank you for sharing your expertise.

Ann S Apr 04, 2014
I am new to embroidery and applique. This article was very helpful to me because the hardest part is choosing stabilizer and hooping. Thank you!

sara p Apr 05, 2014
Very useful information. I would appreciate more tutorials on this subject, especially about situations requiring double layers of stabilizer.

Anonymous Apr 05, 2014
Many thanks for sharing this. It is a clear, concise and information rich article. Much appreciated.

Charlotte R Apr 05, 2014
Thank you so much. It has been so confusing and your article is the first one I can understand. Again thank you much!

Arlene B Apr 05, 2014
being new to machine embroidery, I did not realize that there was differences in stabilizers. Thanks

Anonymous Apr 05, 2014
Thank you Bonnie for the information on the different types of stabilizers available, and the tips on what materials to use. i have owned an embroidery machine for quite a few years and i have always used it to sew the names of my husbands workers on the workshirts and have only used the tear away stabilizer. with this information that you have shared with me, i will do some test sewing on different materials as well as different stabilizers to learn what stabilizers go with what materials. thanks

Anonymous Apr 05, 2014
Thank you for the review. It solved a lot of questions.

lucien c Apr 06, 2014
Un grand merci Bonnie Landsberger a toi pour tout ses évolution que tu a put crée et mis en place pour nous tous j aurais temps aimer avoir plus de tes savoirs et les prix de ses stérilisateur

sahara b Apr 06, 2014
Thank you for the information. It has help me a lot. I do have a question Is it ok to use the tear away stabilizer on top of the design. Can u tell me were I can get the black tear away.

sahara b Apr 06, 2014
Very Good information keep up the good work we need that.

B L M Apr 06, 2014
GREAT! I've been around a long time, and have done lots of hand embroidery & the old "free-hand!" I'm new to this new machine embroidery, but have already figured out that I have alot to learn, even at my age. Thanks! B. L.

janet m Apr 08, 2014
It's nice great article which explains the difference in stabilizers. I have all 4 kinds but it's nice to know that I've been doing it right for all these years, I was just guessing but this article confirms many of my questions. Congratulations on all the awards the author has won for her digitizing and embroidering design work over the years! Awesome!

Kathy L Apr 08, 2014
Great !! I am new to embroidery and appliqué . I needed this article. Thank you!

Bonnie L Apr 09, 2014
You're all very welcome and thank you all for the nice comments! I'm happy to hear the article was helpful. Stabilizers aren't currently available at, but you'll find a variety of different stabilizers at sites that carry embroidery supplies. Black stabilizer is sometimes hard to find, but it is available at

Colleen G May 04, 2014
This has been so helpful. Thanks!

Anonymous Aug 18, 2015
Thank you I learned a lot from this article.

Billie B Mar 27, 2018
Which is the best types of Stabilizer for embroidering on T shirts?
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