Embroidery:


Selecting the Correct Embroidery Backing

There are two key elements to consider when choosing a backing, or stabilizer, for your next embroidery job

By Nancy Mini, Contributing Writer


Employing the correct backing can make all the difference in the world in terms of the final product.

Photo by Adam Cort



August 10, 2023

Choosing the correct backing is a vital part of the embroidery process. Unfortunately, it can also create a fair amount of anxiety and confusion for embroiderers.

Even a casual glance at the wide range of backing selections in any embroidery supply catalog with the sheer number of thicknesses, sizes and categories available can send beginners into full-on analysis paralysis. However, it doesn’t have to be this way.

In this article, I’ll guide you through two key elements that will help you determine exactly what you need to look for to match the right backing with every project. I’ll also break down the wide landscape of stabilizers into a few easy-to-understand categories to sharpen your backing knowledge.

Why Embroidery Backing is Important

The first thing you need to know is that backings should always be used with machine embroidery. Embroidery backings, also called stabilizers, perform two essential functions that can mean the difference between beautiful, professionally finished embroidery and a ruined design on an unsavable garment.


First, the right embroidery backing serves as the stabilizing substrate behind the embroidered design. When you strike the correct combination of backing and material, you’ll prevent the design from warping, rolling and puckering. You’ll also ensure the embroidered design keeps its shape through innumerable wash-and-wear cycles over the life of the garment.

Second, the stabilizer creates a smooth and level barrier between the machine and any seams, textured fabric or other parts of the item being stitched, preventing needle deflection or design registration problems.

Two Key Elements to Embroidery Backing

Again, there are two key elements for pairing your material with the correct stabilizer.  These include fabric construction and design type.

1) Fabric Construction and Backing Type

What do I mean by fabric construction? Hint: it’s not the fiber content the fabric is made from. The fact that your material includes cotton, polyester, rayon, wool, or any blend of two or more fibers, doesn’t matter when it comes to choosing backing. Instead, fabric construction refers to the manner in which the material is made. Most fabrics fall into one of two types: Knits and Wovens.

Illustration of knit fabric construction

Image courtesy of Madeira USA

Knit fabrics are made from a continuous thread, or sets of threads, and are identified by the knit-and-purl, or looped, construction pattern of the material, similar to how a knitted or crocheted Afghan is made, but much smaller. The chain-link construction of knits is what makes them stretch in every direction. But while this makes them comfortable to wear, it also means they are very unstable fabrics. T-shirts, polo shirts, sweatshirts and performance wear are all examples of common knits.

By contrast, woven fabrics are constructed by the crisscrossing of horizontal and vertical threads in an over-and-under basket weave pattern. Generally, this makes for a more stable fabric. However, because lightweight wovens are thinner and less dense, they are still considered unstable fabrics. Sometimes a blend of fibers, including elastic fibers,  will be employed as part of the weave,  allowing a light woven material to flex even more. Dress shirts, chiffon, percale, silk, rayon and some linens are all examples of common lightweight wovens.

Image of loosely woven fabric construction

Image courtesy of Madeira USA

As for heavyweight wovens, they are exactly what they sound like: dense, tightly woven cloth made for thickness, warmth and durability.  Although they may sometimes be woven with a small percentage of elastic in them (think stretch denim) they generally have little flexibility and are very stable.  Broadcloth, wool tweed, denim, twill, duck cloth, and canvas duffle bags are all examples of heavyweight wovens.

As you might expect, because knits are very stretchy and lightweight wovens are flexible, they require a stabilizing foundational layer that will support the design throughout the life of the garment. Therefore, when embroidering on knits and light wovens, you must use a sturdier cut-away backing to keep the design flat and well-supported as the material stretches and flexes around the stitches over the course of repeated wearings.

Tightly woven fabric construction

Image courtesy of Madeira USA

Stable heavyweight woven fabrics, on the other hand, have enough integrity to support the design after it has been stitched without requiring the additional stabilization of a cut-away backing.  Therefore, when embroidering on heavyweight wovens, a tear-away backing is all you need to provide the temporary stability necessary during the actual embroidering process.

2) Design Type and Backing Weight

What do I mean by design type? As you probably know, embroidery designs come in all manner of sizes, densities, stitch types and total stitch counts. With this in mind, design type refers to not just one of those factors, but all those factors put together. Don’t just think in terms of high or low total stitch counts.  The overall size of the design in light of the total number of stitches matters, too. Is the design tightly packed in one area? Or is it a large, airy design without a lot of fill stitches? Consider the design elements, stitch type and the amount of fabric “real estate” it’s going to take up.

Lion embroidery design

Photo courtesy of Madeira USA/design available at Embroidery Library

In the lion design shown here, for example, we have a 6-inch-by-7-inch design with over 42,000 stitches, including a large number of fill stitches.  We would call a design like that very “dense.” All those stitches layered on top of each other in one central area will require a heavier weight backing, i.e., one that is thicker and is itself denser with higher stabilization power.

At the other end of the density spectrum, we have the owl design, also shown here, with a medium to lower stitch count—a 6-inch-by-12-inch design that includes a lot of unstitched areas and decorative running stitches with around 22,000 stitches across a full jacket back. We would call a design like this very “open.” While 22,000 stitches is not a small design, it is spread out across a wide area.

Owl embroidery design

Photo courtesy of Madeira USA/design available at Urban Threads

Once you learn how to approach your backing decisions by thinking in terms of fabric construction and design type, you will be better able to analyze which backing you’ll need for every project you want to embroider. Will you need a cut-away? A tear-away? Something more specialized? What follows is a quick and simple guide grouping backings by type.

Four Basic Backing Types

Despite the dozens of different backing types available, at the end of the day the wide variety of embroidery backings can be broadly divided into four basic types.  These four types, in turn, are categorized according to how they are removed. Let’s have a look.

Cut-Away Backings:

Cut-away backings are specially manufactured to provide a permanent foundation for the embroidery, not only during the stitching process but throughout the life of the garment. A portion of the backing is meant to remain embedded in the embroidery on the back side of the stitching to provide long-lasting stability on fabrics that require it.

selection of backings for embroidery

A wide variety of backings are available for working with an even wider array of projects. Photo courtesy of Madeira USA

After embroidering, the excess backing is cut away from around the design with scissors or shears, leaving a modest margin around the stitched area.  These backings are soft to the touch and feel smooth when worn next to the skin. Different weights, or densities, of cut-away are available to match each of your project needs. Cut-away backings are used with non-stable and stretchy fabrics, such as knits and light wovens.

Tear-Away Backings:

Tear-away backings are just what they sound like–they’re torn away from the back of the embroidered design once the garment is removed from the hoop.  Tear-away backings provide temporary stability during the hooping and stitching process. In most cases the remaining areas of tear-away backing left behind are made to soften over time and eventually degrade and wash away. It is therefore important that the kind of material you’re stitching on be able to support the embroidered design on its own during normal wear and tear and through multiple laundry cycles. Tear-away backing is used with tightly woven materials, like heavy twill, denim, home decor, canvas and duck cloth.

Wash-Away Backings:

Wash-away backings, like tear-away backings, provide temporary stability during the hooping and embroidery process.  They are the backing you’ll want to use for material where you need to avoid leaving residual stabilizer on the back side of the embroidered item.  After embroidering, the excess is removed by rinsing with warm water or laundering.  The most common applications employing wash-away backing are in the creation of stand-alone lace, heirloom and cutwork embroidery. Other uses include super-stretchy and slippery fabrics, such as Lycra and Spandex, or items like nylon flags, sashes and stoles, where the back of the item can be seen.

Heat-Away Backings (Films):

Heat-away backings are a little different from the other three in that they are first hooped all on their own,  after which the design is embroidered directly onto the film to create a stand-alone patch,  badge or emblem.  After being perforated during the stitching process most of the film can be removed by hand, after which any excess residual material you might still have can be removed with a heat gun or heat press.  Heat-away backings are typically used for stand-alone applications.  Lighter-weight films can also be used as a backing or topping with delicate specialty fabrics, like satin or velvet, when using a water-soluble backing or topping is not an option.

Real-world Examples

To help better understand the factors at play when selecting a backing, what follows are a few common, everyday questions where we apply the two key elements to practical embroidery situations:

Q: I recently embroidered a somewhat low-stitch-count design on a lightweight T-shirt with a tear-away stabilizer. During stitching, the material started puckering so badly I had to stop running the machine. The fabric was lightweight, and I wanted to avoid any bulk showing behind the design, so I didn’t want a cut-away stabilizer. What did I do wrong?

A: Based on the elements discussed above, because the T-shirt is a knit fabric, a cut-away backing should be used to provide the necessary stabilizing. Fortunately, there are a number of specialty cut-away stabilizers on the market that are sheer/low-profile, but also strong. A thin, embossed nylon “no-show” backing, for example, works great with T-shirts, performancewear polo shirts, dress shirts and other unstable, lightweight and stretchy material.

Note that adding a medium-weight tear-away along with a no-show cut-away backing when you hoop a garment provides an even stronger, more stable foundation for embroidering.  Be sure to hoop with the cut-away closest to the garment and place the tear away on the very bottom. That way you can tear it away first after removing your project from the machine. You can then trim the no-show backing to finish.

Q: I used a cut- away stabilizer on my lightly woven napkins. The embroidery stitch out looks great, but now I have a hunk of backing behind the embroidery that is very noticeable. Are there any other options?

A: The “rule” says to use cut-away on lightly woven fabrics, but…you’re embroidering on high-end napkins and don’t want any backing showing on the back side of the end result.

There are some situations where you will need to modify the rules, and this is one of them. Keep in mind, though, that this does not mean you can simply swap out a cut-away for a tear-away and expect the end result to be great. You’ll need to take a few things into consideration.

First, take a close look at the design. It may need to be digitized in a way that makes up for the lack of a nice stable cut-away backing.  For instance, reducing the stitch count may be necessary. The mark of a great digitizer is the ability to rework a design to accommodate different fabrics. For example, simply adding certain stitched underlay elements can allow you to reduce the number of top stitches. Similarly, if the color of the top thread is similar to that of the fabric,  lightening the density of the satin stitches can also help reduce total stitch count. This not only reduces the overall density of the design that is going on a lightweight woven fabric, but will also produce a design that is more stable on its own. This in turn can allow you to use a stabilizer that is meant to be removed completely.

Second, consider your options in terms of a backing that can be completely removed.  These include:

  • A lightweight tear-away: This may be the easiest to use for designs with well-defined edges with a good amount of fill or satin stitches. However, this may not work well with running stitches, as the act of pulling off the tear-away may distort the design and stress the fabric.
  • A water-soluble stabilizer:  This kind of backing can work very well if water is able to be applied to the final product prior to presenting it to the customer.
  • A heat-away film: If the finished product can withstand heat application, this kind of backing can be a good choice for complete backing removal.

Q: I have been told that you do not need to use a stabilizer when embroidering on baseball caps. Is this true?

A: It’s true that the lining and buckram embedded in the front of a structured baseball cap can easily support an embroidered design all on its own. However, the need for a stabilizer when embroidering on structured caps isn’t primarily about supporting the design itself. Because embroidering on caps is a bit more complex than hooping a flat garment, the need for a stabilizer comes into play in a number of vital areas:

  1. The actual hooping process: When hooping structured caps, the part being embroidered must be seated very close to the needle plate to avoid needle deflection and/or breaks.  A layer of cap backing covering the seams and rougher texture of the inner cap front helps the cap slide more easily into the correct position on the cap frame.
  2. Adding two pieces of cap backing can help fill the gap between the cap fabric and the needle plate, ensuring that the needle passes straight down into the small hole in the needle plate, minimizing the chance of needle deflection.
  3. The tack-down stitches at the beginning of the stitching process will hold the fabric and stabilizer together, creating a more stable foundation than just the cap fabric alone and will help to reduce any design registration issues.

With this in mind, cap backing is available in the form of a heavy-duty tear-away stabilizer made specifically for embroidering on caps and cut in a narrow width to fit cap frames. The weight for cap backing is usually in the 2.5- to 3.0-ounce range.

Topping

Finally, topping consists of a water-soluble film laid on top of the fabric being embroidered in order to prevent delicate or intricate parts of a design from sinking into the nap or pile of high-profile fabrics.  A layer of topping can also enhance the crispness of a design, especially when using thinner 60- or 70-weight thread.

Topping will dissolve when water or steam is applied. Smaller residual areas of topping embedded in stitched areas can also be removed by dabbing them with some excess dampened topping pieces (the bubble gum technique) in which case the topping will stick to itself, pull away and/or dissolve. Topping is especially useful on fleece, sweaters, corduroy, terry or other soft, fuzzy or looped fabric.

Again, navigating your embroidery backing options becomes a much simpler affair if you focus on these two key elements for each project. Once you determine the fabric construction and the type of design you’re using,  you will be well on your way to hooping and stitching a professional-looking, well-stabilized design that will meet your customers’ demands for beautiful and long-lasting embroidery.

Nancy Mini is the product marketing manager for Madeira USA. With 23 years of expertise in product research and testing, and more than 10 years’ experience as the company’s in-house embroiderer, Nancy brings a wealth of solution-driven knowledge to both internal staff and Madeira customers across the country.  Her well-known videos have helped embroiderers of all skill levels excel in machine embroidery and compete in the decorated apparel market. For comments and questions, go to nmini@madeirausa.com.

This article was updated May 10, 2024