Embroidery Toppers Part 2: When They Should be Used

In part one, I discussed what embroidery toppers are and why they are useful. In this part, I will show you examples of  why you should use them in specific projects.

Embroidering on Fleece and Felt

Fleece and felt have a nap, so toppers help keep thread from sinking out of sight.

Vintage Heirloom Monograms 2  by Hatched in Africa

This monogrammed blanket project was stitched on fleece. Embroidery designs like this one, with solid fill stitching and satin stitching, can use either heat-away or water-soluble toppers. Both tear away easily, so you don’t need to use heat or water to remove the films.

Valentine Roses 2 by Sweet Heirloom Embroidery

Embroidered on felted wool, the valentine project needed a topper. Lots of detail areas in the florals, pearl edging, and text would make it difficult to tear away either type of topper. Water-soluble would work since the wool was felted and should not shrink any more.

Heat-away toppers will work too, so long as the thread is not nylon. Wool can take the heat. If acrylic felt is used, it could melt when touched with a hot iron.

Embroidering on Knits

You might not think that t-shirts and sweatshirts would need a topper, but using one makes a big difference in stitch quality.

Easter Applique by SewAZ Embroidery

The reason for using a topper on the bunny pull toy shirt project was two fold. One was because of embroidering on a knit. The other reason was because the topper held down the fibers of the fleece applique. That makes for cleaner satin-stitched edges.

Here, either type of topper would work. Each would tear away easily. Water-soluble left under the applique would eventually wash away. After heat-away was used, what wasn’t torn away would not be seen under the applique and would not change the softness of the shirt.




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Using Embroidery Toppers – Part 1

Embroidery toppers might not look like much, but they can make a tremendous difference in how your designs stitch out.

Toppers help to support embroidery stitches, keeping them from getting lost in the nap or texture of the fabric. Even a basic t-shirt stitches out better when adding a topper before embroidery.

Types of Embroidery Toppers

L-R: Wash-away, heat-away, textured heat-away

There are two basic types of toppers used in machine embroidery. One is water-soluble and the other needs heat to remove it. Both types look very similar, like a clear food wrap. Some heat-away or melt-away stabilizers have a textured side that helps to grip the fabric it is covering.

Water-soluble toppers dissolve away when exposed to water. Just trim the excess close to stitching and soak or rinse the rest away.

When heat-away stabilizers are exposed to a hot iron, they disappear or disintegrate into tiny flecks that can be brushed away.

Before embroidery, toppers should be basted in place or secured with a temporary adhesive. Both types can be torn away from stitching without using heat or water and work particularly well with applique designs.

Which Kind of Topper Should You Use?

The kind of topper you use depends on several criteria:

Can you wash the item you are embroidering? 
If not, a heat-away may be best. Fabrics like velvet, felt, or those that need dry-cleaned won’t turn out the best with a wash-away topper.

Will the fabric be damaged by using a hot iron?
If so, use a wash-away.

Can the embroidery thread used withstand heat?
Nylon and polyester will not hold up well to a hot iron.

Does the fabric have a textured nap?
Heat-away film works best on smooth fabrics. Towels will benefit from using wash-away toppers which will be completely removed from the fibers.

Are you stitching an applique using a fuzzy fabric?
Either type of topper should work. The film holds down the fibers so that the satin stitching has a smooth surface to cover. You can easily tear away the remaining topper from the edges.

Stay tuned for part two, I’ll show you some examples using both types of toppers!

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Dry Cover-up

Monogrammed towels look lovely right after you stitch them. Do they look as nice after washing a few times? Denim shirts are such fun items to embroider, but have you tried to embroider light colors (especially white) over dark denim and gotten muddy or strange shades of color in your embroideries? Love the look of embroidery on printed, striped and dotted fabric…and hate the show-through that can happen?

These problems can be solved with a wonderful product created by Hoop-It-All, Inc. — dryCoverUp. This embroidery stabilizer is actually thin vinyl sheeting, sold in 17 different colors including clear. Most embroidery enthusiasts know that when stitching on textured fabrics, such as terry cloth, a water-soluble topping will keep the fabric nap from poking through the stitching. It also helps prevent the stitching from getting lost in pile fabrics. Yet this topping is water-soluble…it goes away when you wash it, just like it’s supposed to. Then what?

Less than satisfied with my beautiful monogrammed towels after the second time through the wash, I decided to try out the new roll of clear vinyl topping from Hoop-It-All. Placed directly on the fabric, held in place with a very light spray of temporary spray adhesive, it worked just like a water-soluble topping. The excess tore easily away, and my embroidery looked great with no loopy show-through. Many washings later my towels still look good!

Using dryCoverUp under light or white colored embroideries when stitching on dark cloth will keep your thread colors true, and even lend a little 3-D effect to the embroidery. It will also prevent unwanted show-through of fabric patterns in your designs. This vinyl can also be used as a permanent stabilizer on the back of embroidery when the stitching needs a very firm, permanent foundation.

The manufacturer recommends that you match the dryCoverUp with your thread color. I have found that the colors I need help with the most are white and yellow, both of which tend to turn blue and green when stitched on dark denim. White dryCoverUp works well with a variety of pale colors. Although the cover-up is intended for use only with fill stitching, I’ve discovered that it also works wonderfully with large monograms that have a good layer of understitching beneath the satin stitches.

On the down side, dryCoverUp is a little hard on thread. Using a slightly larger needle helps with both the stitching and the tearing away of the excess plastic. Don’t use a ballpoint needle, and stay close to your machine while stitching. If not pulled quickly and cleanly off, tiny pieces of the vinyl can show around the edges of the embroidery. If the area has an outline stitch, remove the excess dryCoverUp before stitching the outline, and this will help cover up those pesky little edges. As always, preshrink your fabric or garment before embroidering.

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To Hoop or not to Hoop

When at all possible, hoop your fabric. It is the most secure method for embroidery. A few exceptions are Velvet, Corduroy, Satin Faced Silk, Velour and very thick terrycloth. There are other fabrics that benefit from not being hooped as well, mostly expensive silks and fine linens. Many natural fibers crush or mark easily so it is always smart to test a little corner of your finer fabrics before you hoop your project. Some people have success in preventing hoop burn by wrapping their inner hoops with soft fabric. (I use this method as a last resort.)

Fabrics that have loops (such as terry cloth); have a cut pile (such as corduroy and velvet) or have a very loose weave may be damaged by sticking to a stabilizer if that stabilizer will be pulled away after stitching. These fabrics are usually either hard to hoop or tend to mark with hooping, so they really need to be stuck. I like to use Vilene stabilizer and temporary spray adhesive for these projects. Vilene stays well in the hoop and is sturdy enough to support most fabrics. Because it dissolves with water, you do not have to worry about disturbing the pile of the fabric by pulling it away.

Sometimes however, I find myself using a fabric that shouldn’t be hooped or washed, and would be damaged by ripping away a sticky stabilizer. In these cases I use a regular piece of lightweight woven interfacing for my stabilizer and just trim away as much of the interfacing as I can after stitching. Usually these projects end up with a lining, and as interfacing is soft and pliable, you cannot tell that it remains.

Knits are one of the fabrics that benefit from using woven interfacing as a stabilizer. The most commonly used stabilizer for knits is the non-woven cut-away. However, as a knit is already thick and spongy this just adds to the depth, which can cause design distortion. If you have ever embroidered a design on a sweatshirt using a cut-away stabilizer and ended up with a not-so-happy result, the stabilizer was most likely the problem. I like to use iron-on woven interfacing for all my knit projects. Apply it to the back of the fabric, ironing just enough to hold the layers together, and then add another layer of iron-on tear-away stabilizer over that. (The iron-on woven interfacing needs to be slightly bigger than the area of the embroidery design, and the iron-on tear-away needs to be slightly bigger than the hoop.) After stitching and removing the tear-away, gently pull up the interfacing and trim the excess from around the design. Some people like to use iron-on knit interfacing, which stretches in both directions. They usually use two or three layers placed at different angles. I find that woven interfacing works best and only one layer is needed. Remember, when embroidering on knits, the thinner the better!

There are several stabilizers that can be removed with heat. These stabilizers also work well for projects that cannot be washed, you just need to be sure the fabric can withstand the heat necessary to remove the stabilizer later.

Peel and stick stabilizer is popular, but use with extreme caution, as the sticky is very sticky! Any stabilizer can be made into a “stick to” stabilizer by spraying one side of it with temporary spray adhesive.

Fabrics that cannot be hooped also benefit from being basted in place on top of the stabilizer as an extra precaution. Most embroidery machines have a function that will sew a basting stitch outline around the perimeter of the design area. If your machine does not have this function, you can carefully baste the layers together by hand while they are in the hoop.
Follow these steps to avoid puckers:

Iron on or “sticky” stabilizer

Hoop the fabric and attach the hoop.

Insert a layer of cut-away stabilizer under the hoop if necessary

When embroidering on sweat-shirting or any other fabric which is puffy on the right side there’s the danger of losing your work. In other words it can sink into the pile of the fabric. One solution is to use a piece of wash-away solvy, dry cover up or melt-aways on top and remove it when you have finished.

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Cut-away Stabilizers

Cut-away stabilizer is available in many different weights from light to medium to heavy weight stabilizer. Poly-mesh and Hydro-stick are also very popular forms of cut-aways. are used for permanent stabilization, eliminating pulled or sagging stitches, providing excellent stretch resistance, remaining with the fabric for continued stabilization through laundering and wearing, not tearing when stitching dense designs and embroidering on any unstable fabrics or knits as they won’t stretch when embroidering.

Light and Medium Weight Cut-Aways – Light weight cut-away is for lighter knits and medium weight is for medium knits – two layers can be combined for heavier knits or stitch counts.

Heavy-Weight Cut-Away Stabilizer – is the top selling weight for commercial embroiderers. Cut-away will stabilize thousands of stitches and still maintain a soft drapable finish. Heavy weight cut-away is the perfect stabilzier for sewing dense embroidery designs, or using for embroidered projects made in the hoop that you want to keep well stabilized.

Poly-Mesh Cut-Away and Fusible – is a soft, sheer no-show cut-away mesh backing. It is very strong and can be used as a single layer. It is the perfect stabilizer for knits or any project where softness is a consideration. It is available in a plain, non fusible backing, or as a fusible which has all the benefits of Poly-mesh with the added benefit of an iron-on for even greater stability. Poly-mesh is available in three perforated sizes, making it a quick and easy stabilizer to use, as you don’t need to cut it off the roll. Choose the perforated size to best suit your hoop. Ideal for light-weight knits, Poly-mesh helps keeps your outlines on track by providing a soft yet extremely stable backing. It is a must for any embroidery where the stabilizer touches the skin, like polo shirts, baby garments etc. as it will remain soft. Use this mesh stabilizer when embroidering on light-colored or see-through fabrics as the mesh wont show through. It is the perfect stabilizer for sheer fabrics as it is translucent and will remain soft after embroidery. If added support is necessary for your embroidery, use a layer of tear-away along with the poly-mesh to provide better stitch definition. Try using two layers, with the grain running perpendicular to each other for even greater stability. Use like a cut-away stabilizer, cutting away excess after embroidery. The translucent property of this stabilizer will prevent shadows showing through the fabric after trimming. Made of embossed nylon, which is soft, sheer, and translucent, no-show mesh provides the stability you need with a single layer, but will not be visible from the front of the shirt as will other stabilizers. Ideal for all lightweight knits or wovens where softness is a consideration.

Hydro-Stick Cut-Away – a stabilizer with a water activated adhesive that sticks when you wet it, and then the adhesive can be released when you wet it again. It leaves no gummy residue on needles, hoops or machine parts. This is a great stabilizer to use when you need to position your fabric exactly in the hoop, as you can re-moisten a few times to reposition your fabric if necessary. It is the ideal stabilizer to use when embroidering on knits, as the adhesive keeps your fabric totally stable and it won’t allow it to stretch during embroidery. Hydro-stick is available as a cut-away or tear-away stabilizer.

On Unstable Fabrics or Knits – Cut-aways provide the best stability for stretch fabrics or knits. As there is a lot of stretch in the fabric, you need a stabilizer that wont stretch in any direction. Choose a good quality cut-away stabilizer for this. Use an adhesive cut-away stabilizer like poly-mesh fusible to keep knits totally stable when embroidering. It is very difficult to hoop knit fabrics without stretching them or distorting them. Hydrostick is a perfect solution for this as you can hoop the Hydrostick, and then wet the stabilizer inside your embroidery hoop, and carefully place your knit fabric on top, without needing to hoop it. Cut-aways are a good choice for knit fabrics, because they prevent the designs from stretching out with frequent wearing and washing. Spray the stabilizer lightly with a temporary spray adhesive to help keep your fabric firmly in place.

For Dense Designs – Cut-away stabilizer is designed for dense embroidery designs as it won’t tear during the stitchout. Choose the correct weight stabilizer for your stitchout, depending on the density of your design. Use cut-away when embroidering fabrics that stretch or distort with tear-away stabilizers. Multiple layers may be used for heavy duty applications, or dense embroidery designs. Be careful to not over stabilize. If you use too much stabilizer, your design may not sew correctly and you could end up with a design that is very stiff. When sewing designs that are very dense and have many layers of threads sewn on top of each other try using a lighter weight thread for the embroidery.

When you want a Permanent Embroidery Stabilizer – Cut-aways are permanent stabilizers that remain on the fabric and keep it stable during and after embroidery. Cut-aways are a good choice for knit fabrics, because they prevent the designs from stretching out with frequent wearing and washing. Use cut-away stabilizer on projects to be framed, where visibility of the stabilizer is not an issue, but you want a good result. Use cut-away when sewing appliscapes, as the stabilizer will keep the appliscape square firm after stitching. Use a heavy cut-away stabilizer when sewing applique dsigns that you are going to cut out after embroidery and that you want to remain firm and intact.

Hints for Using Cut-Away – Cut-aways are generally available in black or white. Choose the best color for your project. To remove a cut-away stabilizer, first rough-cut the excess stabilizer from the fabric. Then, using sharp embroidery scissors, trim close to the stitching. Cut-aways are available in a variety of weights. Get samples of the different weights and play around with them to find out which one works best for your projects. When using more than one layer of cut-away, only hoop one layer with your fabric, and then place another layer underneath your embroidery hoop for greater stability.You can use a spray adhesive to help keep it in place. When stitching on a fabric that will be marked or ruined by hooping it, hoop your stabilizer only, then spray lightly with a temporary spray adhesive. Place the fabric on top of the hoop. To ensure your embroidery won’t shift during stitching, pin the fabric to the stabilizer, carefully keeping the pins outside the embroidery sewing area. Alternatively, use basting stitches. Only do this on fabric that won’t be marked by the pins or stitches. To help avoid the “show through” look, use two layers of a lighter cut-away and trim them away at different levels. Use it when machine embroidering and appliqueing on knits like t-shirts, golf shirts, sweaters and sweatshirts, lycra swimwear, work-out and bike pants.

Cut-Away vs Tear-away

The standard rule is if the fabric stretches, use cut-away. If it doesn’t then you can use tear-away.

You will usually get better definition with a cut-away than a tear-away. Cut-aways are usually more dense with a slightly longer fiber – therefore able to grasp the thread easier. The type of fabric determines the kind of backing.

When you want the continued support of a stabilizer for the thread area through wearing and laundering use a cut-away stabilizer.

Tear-away stabilizers are faster and easier to use, but only give temporary support during the embroidery process.

Tear-aways have limited usefulness on unstable fabrics like knits or when sewing dense embroidery designs because each needle penetration weakens the tear-away and perforates it.

Cut-aways are a better choice for designs with a high stitch count, open weave fabrics or light weight fabrics with a complex design.

Sometimes if your stitch count isn’t too heavy you may be able to get by with a quality tear-away on knits. However do test sew the design and stabilizer on similar fabric first to ensure the combination works before sewing it on your finished garment.

Tear-aways are the preferred stabilizer for in-the-hoop embroidery projects.

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