Mailbag Mayhem: A Stitch Is Like a Hug

Welcome to a brand new, no-promises-as-to-regularity blog series: Mailbag Mayhem! Sometimes a note comes in that I really want to share with all of you … a question that gets asked over and over again, or a particularly charming comment, or what-have-you. This space will hold the greatest hits of the Urban Threads inbox. Education! Outrage! Hilarity! You’ll find it all here. Well, mostly education in this post. One thing at a time.

Today’s topic is shifting and gapping of machine embroidery designs. It’s by far the most common “help it’s stitching funny” question I get, so it seemed an apt inaugural post. Let’s say you just bought an embroidery design, and you’re about to stitch it on something. This shark looks nifty on the site…

But when you go to stitch it out, everything goes awry. Slightly condensed from a recent email:

The last two designs I have tried to use have not lined up properly. The first one is the Ace of Spades w/flames. The bottom right corner of the card (where it sort of flips up) was off. I did it on a shirt for my 10 year old grandson, and he really doesn’t care about it. Then today I tried to do another shirt for him with the Shark. It is a complete mess!! The eye and teeth are too high and get covered by the blue/green of the shark’s body. From there it goes downhill. I kept working on it, thinking it may “fix” itself, but no luck. I finally just gave up. Can you give me any ideas as to how to fix these problems? I love love love the stuff on your site, and hope you can give some suggestions so I can keep using your designs. … My grandson loved the ace of spades (he didn’t notice the flaw), and he keeps asking me when I’ll have his shark shirt done.

And indeed it was a complete mess. Some of the stitching landed where it shouldn’t, leaving all kinds of gaps and general chaos in the design.

I asked a couple follow-up questions:

What kind of fabric? (T-shirt knit.)

What kind of stabilizer? (Water-soluble on top and bottom.)

Culprit found.

Thing is, a stitch is like a hug. It squeezes the fabric together a little bit. When you’re working with tens of thousands stitches … well, that’s a lot of hugs, and they can make the embroidered fabric shrink up a bit. This can, in turn, make the fabric within the embroidery hoop shift around a little bit, causing parts of the design to line up oddly. Stabilizer is meant to prevent this. But different kinds of stabilizer work in different ways:

Cutaway stabilizer is the stablest stabilizer, and it’s what I recommend almost all of the time. The fibers do not come apart or break down easily — try tearing some and you’ll see what I mean. Stick it to the back of your fabric with a bit of temporary spray adhesive for even more stability. Don’t like the stabilizer edges on the inside of your shirt? For small or lightweight designs, sheer cutaway stabilizers like Sulky Soft ‘n Sheer or Floriani No Show Mesh are a softer option.

Tearaway stabilizer looks a lot like cutaway, maybe even more paperlike. It’s meant to tear away after the design is done, so the fibers come apart easily. Tens of thousands of needle perforations tend to help that process along. Yes, there are some instances where it’s a perfectly decent choice … a very light-stitching design on a tea towel comes to mind. But for a solid stitch-filled design, or anything on a knit, I’d stick with cutaway.

Water-soluble stabilizer can look either like a clear plastic sheet, or a white mesh similar to a tearaway. Like the name says, when you get it wet, it dissolves. I use it for freestanding lace and as a topping on fabrics with a pile, like terrycloth.

Different people will give you different advice on what stabilizer to use when, and passions seem to run high on the matter. This is what we’ve found tends to work. Take it for what you will.

After a second try with cutaway stabilizer, the embroidery looked much better:

And the shirt made a sharkalicious gift.

How have you solved shifting and gapping problems? Leave a note in the comments!

And remember … if you’ve got a question, just drop us a note!

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19 Responses to “Mailbag Mayhem: A Stitch Is Like a Hug”

  1. 1
    polly says:

    I’ve done two layers of tearaway to get designs to stitch out properly (I couldn’t find my cutaway in the mess that is my workroom). My problem is usually with outlines being slightly off.

  2. 2

    Thanks for this! I am about to try stitching out a stitch-dense design on a t-shirt for the first time ever, and this will save me a lot of trial and error 🙂

  3. 3
    Pam Newhart says:

    Anytime I stitch on knits, I use a layer of Totally Stable iron on stabilizer, and a layer of mid weight cutaway. If I am doing pique or sweatshirt fleece, I add a top layer of water soluble so the stitches do not sink into the nap of the fabric. I never use tear away on knits, it distorts when torn away, and if cutaway is left on the fabric, provides support for the design for the life of the shirt. I use an iron on soft knit interfacing to cover the back if the backing gets too scratchy, such as on kids stuff.

  4. 4
    Geri Ericson says:

    I’d also recommend washing the t-shirt BEFORE stitching. This will “pre-shrink” the garment, helping to prevent the ever-dreaded “puckering.”

    Love your designs and site!


  5. 5
    Charity McAllister says:

    The last time I used cut-away after I washed item the stabilizer shrunk and ruined the item. I’ve not used it since. Any ideas as to why?

    • Cathy says:

      Did the stabilizer have washing instructions on the package? Some have very specific instructions.

      I always recommend my customers wash their embroidery items on cold and dry on cool. This will prevent any shrinking and therefore no distortion of fabric or embroidery.

      I hope this helps. If you are still worried, try a sample on a scrap piece of fabric and run that through your normal wash and dry cycle to see what happens.

  6. 6

    If I have something that really wants to shift around I’ll resort to a self-adhesive stablizer (or using a temporary spray adhesive on regular cutaway or tearaway). There are even some relatively “stout” versions that are washaway. There are also tearaway stablizers that are fusible – you iron the fabric onto them prior to embroidery. The self-adhesive washaway “woven” types are expensive but for certain items they are the way to go.

    As stated in the article the usual culprit is insufficiently “stable” stabilizer. Sometimes more is more! You can always add a “floater” layer under the hoop (not caught in the hoop but between the hoop and the machine)as well for extra support if needed, too.

  7. 7
    Pam Newhart says:

    Puckering is usually caused by hooping too tight. At least for me it is. I hoop a little loose, so the fabric is not stretched at all in the hoop, then tighten the screw after. If you have to use a lot of pressure to hoop, its too tight. The goal is smooth, straight fabric with no stretch in any direction.

  8. 8
    Cathy Cattle says:

    I am going with door number 3 here, (Pam) I always use a iron on the back of the T, after it has been washed, then you could get away with a tear-away, and solvy on top. Pucker, Pam has it again, you will not only get puckers but strip that screw eventually.

  9. 9
    Giliell says:

    Sometimes, the solution is to admit that the design just isn’t for the fabric. Very dense designs and t-shirts don’t go together well.
    The solution I found was to use thick embroidery-felt (or sturdy cotton), cut around the design with a narrow marging and sew it onto the shirt. It even adds some colour and 3-D effects.

  10. 10
    Melissa S. says:

    I have pretty much always been a fan of stiff tear-aways, but with the recent appliqué holiday towels I’ve been working on, a super-strong cotton-soft cut away is my preference and it works like a charm to ensure things line up as they should. 🙂

  11. 11
    la says:

    i am fairly new to embroidery and am about to try my first t-shirt PERFECT timing… love the iron on stabilizer idea, and the embroidery felt for texture….

    umm… what is embroidery felt and where do i get it?

  12. 12
    Alyssa says:

    I’ve found that starching knits also helps keep stretching to a minimum.

  13. 13
    Anna says:

    Hi! My problem was with towels, no matter how hard I tried I could not get the design to line up. I use one sheet of cut away and one of tear away with the water soluable on top. All of them ( four hand and four bath) had to be touched up with my sewing machine’s satin stitch and I also had to remove extra stitches. Not fun! Very frustrating. I spent alot of time on them and in the end after all the water stabilizer was removed the towels were so fluffy that the embroidery sank into it.

  14. 14
    Cat Spalding says:

    For Tees I like fusible no-show mesh. If you can’t find fusible, use spray adhesive; the machine will push the fabric around and cause all sorts of puckering and registration problems otherwise. If the fabric is stretchy, you’ve gotta use cutaway! For tees and other soft fabrics, I also prefer to limit the design to around 10,000 stitches. More, and you have something that’s too stiff to flow with the fabric.

  15. 15
    Elfie B. says:

    I’m a patch-applique fan, myself, for the stitch-dense designs on stretchies. The fewer perforations into that knit fabric, the better. The people who sold me my first embroidery machine were all about the layers of stabilizer; I’ve found that sort of thinking helpful mostly when I’m stitching late at night to meet a deadline, and I’ve run out of the RIGHT stabilizer for the job. It also helps tremendously that I’ve found a temporary spray adhesive that doesn’t trigger migraines and asthma attacks. I credit Urban Threads tutorials for the push to pursue that quest. It gets tedious when you have to “lick and stick” scraps of WSS to adhere your fabric to its stabilizer and WAIT FOREVER AS IT DRIES – totally stymies the creative process and thwarts the urge. (Damp sponge in saucer of water, like you used to see in the post office – do not actually LICK the project materials.)

    I have fused interfacing onto the backs of stitch-outs, as I do clothes for babies, but the interfacing lifts off after maybe 3 rounds in the washing machine, so I don’t do it anymore – and it’s the reason I keep discouraging the choice of stitch-dense designs on next-to-the-skin-wear.

  16. 16
    Tammy says:

    I always use fusible cutaway on knits with good results. But also you can’t stitch dense designs to t-shirt weight knits or you will end up with holes from the needle even with a ballpoint needle. It can only take so many ins and outs, lol

  17. 17
    Pat says:

    I’ve been doing machine embroidery for more than 25 years, both on commercial and home machines. I’ve made every mistake known to mankind and learned from a few of them.

    Most problems with designs not lining up properly can be laid to the stabilizer and no, more layers aren’t usually better.

    You can’t go wrong with a good cut-away for knits. Remember, I said GOOD. If your stabilizer is shrinking, either pre-wash the whole package or throw it out. Yes, that’s a costly mistake, but good quality lasts longer.

    The most important rule I use is to sample designs on a piece of material and with the stabilizer I plan to use. (That’s what a “ruined” T or sweatshirt is good for).

    Even the best digitized design will have one combination that works best and a few that don’t work at all. Yes, it takes time and thread, but you don’t ruin the final sew-out on a good garment.

    P.S. Using the patch method is a great idea, especially for kids’ things. That way they can always move their favorite designs from their out-grown clothes to new ones.

  18. 18
    Pam M says:

    If you don’t fancy the “on-felt embroidery patch” idea, you can embroider onto nylon organza to make the patch. Even though organza is a thin fabric, it is closely woven and quite sturdy. You still need to stabilise, though. Once the embroidery is done, tear or cut away the excess stabiliser, then you remove the excess organza from around the design. This only works if your design has a solid outline i.e. no swirly whirly bits around the outside. Any “empty” swirly whirly bits within the perimeter of the design can either be cut out or left – depends on how it looks on your project. I have to confess that I have never actually done this technique, only sat in on a workshop demonstration of it. The tutor used a stencil burner to remove the organza – magic! The embroidery was then sewn to the garment using invisible thread and a small zig zag stitch.

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