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Embroidery Stabilizers - What you should know

Stabilizer is the foundation of quality machine embroidery. But with so many available products, choosing the right stabilizer is often confusing and overwhelming! Below is a comprehensive guide for everything you need to know about backing and topping, including tearaway, cutaway, specialty stabilizers, and more!


What Stabilizer Is, and Why We Need It

Stabilizers are a smooth, woven or non-woven material, often resembling paper, which does not stretch when pulled. The purpose of both backing and topping is to support and stabilize the fabric and designs being embroidered. 

You see, without stabilizer, fabric doesn’t handle embroidery very well. When thread is repeatedly forced into fabric, the fibers are distorted to allow room for the stitches. “Embroidery pull” or “fabric pull” results from the thread tightening each time the needle exits; the more stretchy the fabric, the more susceptible it is to being pulled by embroidery. This often results in uneven stitches, gaps between filled areas and outlines, and/or fabric puckering. When the right backing is used, however, the fabric is reinforced and stabilized, preventing stretching during embroidery and greatly reducing fabric pull.

Another reason for stabilizer is that some fabrics simply do not have enough support to hold stitches properly.  Fabrics that are too thin need the extra thickness and stability that backing provides. Having said that, however, thicker doesn’t always mean better, and greater stability may not be achieved with multiple layers of backing! A single layer of a good stabilizer should be sufficient for most projects, and when your fabric and stabilizer are hooped together, they should feel taut, like a tambourine. The non-directional makeup of a good stabilizer will provide equal tension in all directions!


Types of Stabilizer

Stabilizer includes a wide variety of backing and topping. Backing works by stabilizing the fabric from behind, preventing shifting during the embroidery process and creating a secure foundation for the stitches. Topping works by stabilizing your design on top of the fabric, keeping the stitches from sinking into the fibers. 

Now, there are many kinds of backing available.  But each kind of backing is a tearaway, a cutaway, a soluble, or a combination of these! Here’s a helpful overview of the different types of backing:


As its name suggests, tearaway is made from material that is easily torn. This means that after embroidery, the excess backing is ripped right off! Tearaway is meant for use with non-stretch, woven fabrics such as quilting cotton, denim, terry cloth, and other fabrics that hold stitches well. When choosing a tearaway, make sure that it can be ripped in multiple directions! If it only tears in one direction, you may distort the embroidery stitches with your attempts to pull it off. 

Below is a chart showing what types* of tearaway are suggested for various projects:

Type of Tearaway 

Stitch Densities

Fabric Type


Light weight 

Light density

Stable fabrics

Firm, crisp, tears easily and neatly around stitched area

Medium weight (1.8 oz.)

Light to medium

stitch densities

Stable to semi-stable fabrics

Firm, crisp, tears easily and neatly around stitched area

Heavy weight 

(1.8 oz.)

Medium to heavy stitch densities

Stable to semi-stable fabrics.

Firm, crisp, tears easily and neatly around stitched area

Heavy weight

Soft Tearaway

(1.8 oz.)

Light to medium stitch densities

Stable fabrics.

Has additional polyester fibers to strengthen and soften

Medium weight soft tearaway (1.5 oz.)

Medium to high density stitch counts

Stable fabrics (e.g. stain, canvas, denim)

Contains additional polyester fibers to strengthen and soften

*Examples based on the Exquisite stabilizer line by DIME.

Sometimes tearaway stabilizer is combined with a water-soluble material for a handy tearaway/washaway blend. This type of stabilizer is ideal for a variety of projects, including designs with tiny, intricate spots. Simply tear away what you can, then let the remaining stabilizer dissolve in the wash! 

Water-soluble backings are either clear films, available in light or heavy weights, or they are made from fibrous material. Washaway stabilizers are wonderful for any project where the design needs to stand alone, such as freestanding embroidered lace. Simply hoop the soluble backing, embroider your design, and then dissolve the excess stabilizer to leave the embroidered stitches behind!

Please note that water-soluble backings are not for use with all fabrics. For example, you don’t want to use a water-soluble on a dry-clean-only fabric!

Below is a chart showing what types* of water-soluble are suggested for various projects:

Type of Water-Soluble

Stitch Densities

Fabric Type


Sew and wash

Light density

Lace or other open weave material

Dissolves easily in water and provides additional stabilization when embroidering freestanding embroidery.

Sew and wash with adhesive

Light density

Lace or other open weave material

Soft, stable fabric designed to dissolve in water, with an adhesive on one side. Provides additional stabilization when embroidering freestanding embroidery.

*Examples based on the Exquisite stabilizer line by DIME.


Every machine embroiderer should have a good supply of cut-away on hand, as many fabrics are quite stretchy and not stable, such as t-shirts and sweatshirts! A cutaway backing is a good choice for knit fabrics; not only does cut-away stabilize the stretch during the embroidery process, but it also helps to keep your design’s shape intact after repeated use.

Cut-away comes in different weights and styles.  When choosing a cutaway, look at the stitch count of the design you want to embroider.  The higher the design’s stitch count, the heavier your backing needs to be. For dense designs between 18,000 and 50,000 stitches, use a heavy cutaway. For designs less than 18,000 stitches, use a standard or medium-weight cutaway. Mesh cutaways can be used for designs less than 8000 stitches. 

Below is a chart showing what types* of cutaway are suggested for various projects:

Type of Cutaway

Stitch Densities

Fabric Type


Light weight cutaway stabilizer (2.0 oz.)

Light density

low stitch count

Ideal for use on light weight knits such as t-shirts and golf shirts

Must be cut

Medium weight cutaway stabilizer (2.5 oz.)

Medium density

average stitch count

Medium weight fabrics (e.g. fleece, pique knits, and other stretchy fabrics)

Must be cut 

Heavy weight cutaway stabilizer (3.0 oz.)

Large density

high stitch count

Heavy weight fabrics, such as heavy fleece and jackets

Provides maximum stability; must be cut from garments

No Show stabilizer (1.5 oz.)

Light density

small stitch count

Lightweight, light-colored fabrics

Soft, sheer, stable, translucent. Won’t show through garment.

*Examples based on the Exquisite stabilizer line by DIME.

Specialty Stabilizers
In addition to the more general stabilizers described above, there are also many specialty backings and toppings available, each with its own specific purpose. Some of these include adhesive tearaway, fusible tearaway, soft meshes and more! Each product will have its own perks and purpose, so be sure to carefully read all product descriptions thoroughly to decide which stabilizer fits your needs!

Topping is placed on top of the product being sewn, and is often a thin piece of plastic-looking material. Although often used on thick, nappy fabrics like terrycloth, many embroiderers also use topping on other fabrics such as velour, loosely knit pique, sweaters, corduroy, fleece, and velvet. Topping improves embroidery quality by preventing stitches from sinking into the pile of the fabric. After embroidery, just tear away the excess topping and then use a light mist of water to dissolve any remaining residue.


Choosing a Stabilizer

Look for a stabilizer made with non-directional materials, with no grain. You may also want to hold the stabilizer up to the light to make sure of a consistent thickness, with no thin or bald-looking spots! Below are some helpful tips for choosing the right stabilizer for your project:

  1. Determine Fabric Type: Think about the type of fabric you’re embroidering. Is the fabric stable or stretchy? As a general rule, tearaway is used on non-stretch fabrics, while cutaway is best for stretchy fabrics like t-shirts and sweatshirts. 
  1. Evaluate the Design: Next, consider the embroidery design you’re going to use. How many stitches does it have? Remember that the more stitches a design has, the heavier the stabilizer needs to be. Also think about the components of the design. For example, are there intricate spots within the design where removing bits of stabilizer might be difficult?
  1. Consider the Purpose: It’s also important to consider the purpose of the embroidered item. Will you be seeing it from both sides, like with freestanding lace? Will the embroidery be lying against the skin (and, if so, will the backing be soft)? Which backing will be the least visible and the most comfortable?
  1. Experiment: The best way to really become educated about stabilizer is to experiment.  Everyone has an opinion on which stabilizers are best, and you need to discover your own preferences.  Ask your embroidery friends what they like to use and exchange ideas. 



Machine embroidery should be beautifully consistent and consistently beautiful, and this is achieved through using the right stabilizer. Create the ideal conditions for every project by ensuring that your backing is really backing you up!





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