Successful embroidery begins with a proper foundation and control of the fabric being adorned. Backing or stabilizer provides this control. There are multiple products that you can use for toppings and backing. Which one you should use depends on what you are stitching (complexity, stitch density, and size of the design) and the fabric upon which you are embroidering. Here is a quick overview of the four basic types of stabilizer, and their primary uses.
Cutaway stabilizer is a non-woven permanent backing designed to keep fabric from stretching while you are stitching, and then it maintains the shape of the design with repeated laundering. Once a design has finished stitching, excess stabilizer is cut close to the outline of the design and the stabilizer inside the outline remains. Cutaway stabilizer comes in light, medium, and heavyweights. The weight you choose should match the fabric being decorated. The heavier the fabric, the thicker (or heavier) the stabilizer you use. You can stack multiple pieces of stabilizer together to achieve a heavier backing. Cutaway stabilizer is the best choice for maintaining quality designs for the lifetime of the item being decorated. Recommended for use with Knits, Tee Shirt Material, and Loose Wovens.
Tear away stabilizer provides the same type of stabilized foundation for stitching as cutaway, however it is removed from the final product. It is typically used when the wrong side of the product is visible and a patch of stabilizer is not desired. Like cutaway, tear away comes in multiple weights to provide the stability needed based on the fabric and design details. Tear away also comes with adhesive backings for use when hooping is not possible or not desired. Additionally, tear away can be added to cutaway to create a heavier stabilizer during stitching, then removed (one layer at a time) leaving only the lighter weight cutaway for post-production stability. Recommended for use with Woven fabrics and articles that you do not want to see stabilizer in the final product.
Wash away stabilizers are used when you do not want to see the residue of stabilizer after the design is stitched. It is an excellent choice for controlling nap when embroidering terry cloth, fleece, and other thick and fuzzy fabrics. This is stabilizer necessary when producing free standing lace. Recommended for use with any fabric with a nap as a top coat.
Heat away stabilizers provide the same characteristics as wash away, however they are removed using heat instead of water. When dealing with a fabric that you can't get wet, but that can handle heat associated with the cotton setting on most irons (260°-300°), and you need a stabilizer that you can remove without leaving any trace, heat away is the option for you. It works as both a top and bottom stabilizer. Recommended for use with fabrics that you cannot get wet.
Luke Hunter is Co-Owner of Belliboos, LLC and a contributing author for The Applique Circle.