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Backings / Stabilizers
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EMBROIDERY BACKINGS/STABILIZERS
A GUIDE TO SELECTING THE RIGHT PRODUCT

 An important element in producing good embroidery is choosing the correct backing* or stabilizer for your application.  You must first understand the job at hand prior to selecting the right product. It requires an understanding of the various types of stabilizers offered on the market.

 This article is intended to help you make the right decision. This information is designed to inform you of the many types and varieties of embroidery stabilizers available to you and how they are used.

 WHAT IS BACKING?

Backing is a woven or non-woven material used underneath the item or fabric being embroidered to provide structure and support. Normally it is to be hoped with the article being embroidered and is available in various thickness and types (styles). The two major classifications for backings fall under the headings tear away and cutaway.  We will expound on these two classifications further on in this article.

 WHY DO WE NEED BACKING?

The use of backing is required because articles being embroidered often require support to handle the stitches being introduced to the fabric or article being sewn. When a manufacturer of an item is making good(s), they do not take into consideration that the article(s) may later be embroidered. Furthermore, embroidery machines are not equipped with the ability to determine the type of materials being embroidered, therefore, make compensations in the design to adjust for the article being sewn. Hence, we use backing to provide the article with the additional support it may require in order to prevent distortion of the design being sewn.

 We hear the word “Push” and “Pull” being used in embroidery, but what exactly do these words mean in embroidery.

 “Push” is the force a thread being introduced into the fibers, threads or skin of the article being sewn in relation to the design. Imagine yourself trying to enter into a crowd a people. The moment you begin “pushing” your way through the crowd, you are exerting force on the bodies of those around you forcing the other people to move or be squashed.  This is an exaggeration of the point, but there is only so much space is a given room and ever time another person starts passing through the crowd there is less and less room and more and more force. 

 Now, “Pull” is the force that a formed stitch is exerting on the fibers, threads or skin of the article being sewn in relation to the design. Using the same analogy, imagine that every other person in the crowd embraces with a one person in between them. Each pair of persons embracing is exerting another force one the person trying to pass though the crowd. 

 So, like the analogy of the crowd, a thread being introduced into an article being sewn is exerting a force known as “Push” on the surrounding fibers, threads or skin and once the a complete stitch is formed a force known as “Pull” is created on the fibers, threads or skin between the embrace of each stitch.

 Understanding the forces at play in embroidery, the needs additional support from a backing should be apparent. Without, backing we are not offering enough support to the item being sewn to deal with the “Push” of the thread being introduced or enough support to deal with the “Pull” of the formed stitches. You need backing to produce good embroidery and you need to know what backing to use for each project.

 FINDING THE RIGHT SUPPORT

 Good embroidery requires a good backing. With an understanding of what is available and some experimentation, you will be able to find a suitable backing or combination of backings for almost any embroidery design. It can be confusing. There are many choices. The growth of embroidery has made it possible for the various manufacturers to create as many as 20 different types of backings for all sorts of applications.  Backings have improved over the past few years.  A review of backing basics is helpful.

 Despite the number of products available, all of them can be classified as tear a-ways, cutaways or specialty backing.  This makes the task of picking one appear at least easier.  Your vendors should have various samples to review for your decision making process.  Any frustration you might encounter in finding the right support for your embroidery designs should not cause you to leave this important decision to chance.

 BACKING SELECTION

 When it comes to selecting your own backings, knowing what backings other embroiderers use with a particular garment is a good start. Unfortunately, this information may not provide all of the answers or, for that matter, any of the answers for your particular machine or design. Stability of the garment fabric, stitch density, color, stitch length, stitch speed, size of the embroidery and stability of the design are just some of the variables that can influence backing selection.

 Besides consulting other embroiderers, attending one of the many embroidery trade shows is a good source of current product, pricing information and application ideas. At least one of the exhibiting backing suppliers will have sample packs of products. Most of the shows have embroidery seminars that run concurrent to the show. These seminars can be helpful.

 Fabric stretch is probably the most important factor in selecting backings. Backing, no matter what its type, has to be stable enough to prevent movement during the stitching process. There are many different types of fabrics and many qualities within those types. Experimentation is often needed even when changing blank suppliers of what appears to be an identical garment. A fabric’s structure (weave of knit pattern) is apt to be a better indicator of stability than weight alone.

 How well you hoop your fabric has an impact on the finished product. It is important to know the difference between a hooping problem and whether the backing being used is the right one for the job. Often poor registration and puckering around the sewn design can occur from loosely hooped or insecurely hooped garments. This is not a backing problem. Good hooping technique is a precursor for choosing the right backing. Hooping technique is a variable and one you need to become proficient at prior to gaining the experience and knowledge required to make a good decision on what backings to use.

  Be cautious in using materials not specifically designed as embroidery stabilizer. Many of these products are available because they are seconds. This means a mistake of some sort was made. Some products have wild variations in weight. Extreme shrinkage, particularly dryer shrinkage, and bleeding colors are just two of the problems that can arise. Puckering can occur when using an inappropriate material with too much stretch. The use of such poorly performing products is often a testimony to an embroider's stamina. The cost per garment for stabilizer of any type is very small. However, using the wrong stabilizer can be expensive.

 TEAR AWAYS

 A tear away is the backing of choice for most new embroiderers because it is easy to use and remove. They save us time and time is money.  If you cut one expensive garment, the advantages of tear-a-ways will be with you for life. Most tear-a-ways range in weight from 1 to 3 oz/yd. A good performing tear-a-way should be stable and able to withstand repeated perforations without loosing its ability to provide the garment with adequate support and the backing should tear easily in multiple directions.

This seems obvious, but some embroiderers are still using backings that tear only in one direction (unidirectional). Unidirectional tear-a-ways are less expensive to purchase, however they are tricky when using multiple pieces because each piece must be pulled off one at a time making this procedure relatively expensive and time consuming.  Even when using one piece we must keep in mind to tear a unidirectional tear-a-way in the right direction to prevent pulling on the design to avoid creating any distortion or even tearing the fabric of the garment.

Another type of tear-a-way is a wash-a-way product. These tear-a-ways offer us the easy of tear and possess the stiffness desire to tear the baking away easily, but the have the added feature washing out the stiffness of the binder when they are laundered leaving the stitched out design with the support it requires, but also creating a more comfortable garment for the buyer to wear.  The downside of a tear/wash-a-way is that it leaves residual fibers around the tear of the design, but these fibers do have a functional purpose in that they assist in providing on going support to the garment to prevent distortion even after laundering.

Finally, in choosing a tear-a-way, most embroiderers consider ease of tear, cleanness of tear (not having to pick out small pieces of paper), and hoop stability and perforation resistance as important factors in their selection process. Tear-a-ways can be used on most items but, in general, should be used with woven garments because woven have less stretch and require less structure and support than stretchy fabrics such as loosely knit sweaters. Swimsuits and socks can be an exception to this rule, and here a wash-a-way/tear-a-way is a good choice as well as a peel and stick.

No matter what type of tear-a-way is used, the accepted wisdom is that you should tear the backing as close to the stitches as possible. To leave as little backing around the design as is possible.

CUTAWAYS

cut-a-ways are needed to provide a stable base for delicate and stretchy fabrics both during the stitching process and afterward. Some fabrics are so stretchy that they can actually force themselves down the throat plate. A cutaway not only helps maintain the crispness of a design’s details during the embroidery process, but it also helps retain the design’s shape after repeated washings. The experience of having an angry customer return a sagging or stretched design will help remind you of the advantages of cutaways. A quality embroiderer should insist that their cutaways are both washable and dry cleanable.

The accepted wisdom of cutaways is that you should not cut very close to the embroidery with your scissors and that a gliding scissor motion rather than a cutting one should be used. A cutaway that has some rigidity will enable a gliding scissor motion rather than a cutting one should be used. A cutaway that has some rigidity will enable a gliding scissor motion. When cutting, both the stabilizer and the fabric should be kept in view. Do not allow the garment to fold over. Some consultants to the industry recommend the use of blunt end scissors to prevent snagging fabric.

Most cutaways range in weight from 1.5 to 3 oz/yd. Cutaways, in general, are more resistant to needling perforations than tear-a-ways. In choosing a cutaway, most embroiderers consider ease of cutting, wash stability, hoop stability and perforation resistance. Cutaways tend to have more bulk than tear-a-ways. Softness, ease of cutting and stability can often be mutually exclusive properties for cutaways. In some cases, the embroiderer needs to determine which property is most important for a particular design. The softer backings tend to have more hoop stretch and, accordingly, will not allow as crisp of a design as the stiff ones. Stiffer backings offer less comfort for the garment user and give tend to project lesser quality to the buyer.

In general a cutaways are used on knits and stretchy fabrics such as golf shirts, sweaters and sweatshirts.

SPECIALTY STABILIZERS

There are many different items that may be classified under this heading. Some of the major ones are described next.

PEEL AND STICK

This product is a tear-a-way backing with a pressure sensitive coating and a release liner. Peel and stick has three general uses. It is used in hard-to-hoop applications such as shirt collars, cuffs, etc. It is used to stabilize high stretch fabrics such as bicycle shorts, lycra, promotional sweatshirts, etc. And finally, it is used to eliminate hoop marks that can occur with certain problem materials such as brushed denim, or suede. A good Peel and Stick product should not have a gummy adhesive. Hooping the backing with the release paper facing upward generally uses the product. An X pattern is lightly cut in the hooped center such that the release paper is sliced through but not the backing. Enough of the release paper is peeled back so the portion of the garment to be embroidered can be stuck to the backing. Many custom shops have a small roll of this product in case it is needed for a particular job.

CAPS & Bags (Specialty tear-a-way)

Most cap and bag backings range from 2 to 3 oz/yd in weight and are tear-a-ways. A clean tearing product is generally preferred. Cap and bag backings are used to improve the crispness of lettering and columns. This is particularly so with low profile and unconstructed caps. There are several other less obvious production benefits in using these backings. Backing keeps up the tension on the bobbin thread. This allows the embroiderer to switch from flats to hats and back again without touching the machine settings, but this dependant upon the design and materials being sewn. The use of this backing can prevent cap fabric and fiber from being forced down the throat of the machine. An extra fold of backing can be used to get a firm seating on a rotating cap frame to prevent registration slips.

FUSIBLES

There are several medium weight fusible stabilizing products available that can be permanently fixed to garments with a hand iron or industrial press. The primary application for these products is as a stabilization aid for very stretchy and hard-to-hoop materials. Spray adhesives can also be used to fix backing to fabric. The over spray problem can make fusibles or peel and stick preferred.

 CHILDREN’S WEAR

All components on children’s wear should be fire retardant. These binder-free stabilizers meet this requirement due to their fiber composition. This product is a lightweight cutaway that can also be used in combination with a tear-a-way on white shirts to avoid the show through look of heavier cutaways.

 BLACK BACKING

Black backings are used for dark garments such as leather jackets and black sweaters, or sweatshirts, etc. The use of these products prevents the generation of a distracting blaze in the interior of the garment that occurs when white is used.

 POLY MESH & ORGANZA

These backings are usually woven products that offer a great deal of stability to lighter weight fabrics and/or stretchy fabrics. Plus, they are thinner than most cutaways, therefore, offering a great deal of stability without adding to bulk. Their shear nature make these products a terrific solution for reducing visibility of the backing used on lighter weight garments that have a tendency to show the backing behind the fabric, for example a white, light weight golf shirt.

These backings tend to cost much more than standard cutaways. The reward for the additional investment is the drastic improvement in stitch quality. These backings are typically woven; therefore, offer more stability than a standard paper cutaway. This additional structure becomes particularly useful when sewing smaller letters. The additional structure given greater hold when sewing smaller letters for those hard to satisfy customers, but an embroiderer should maintain a rule of sewing capital letters in block when sewing smaller letters because even these more structured, woven cutaways have their limitations.

Pre-cut vs. Rolls

 The least expensive way to acquire backing is to purchase it in full or half width rolls when you are talking about direct cash outlay. This option allows the small embroiderer to have a sensible inventory of only two or three rolls. One roll of mid-weight cutaway and one roll of mid-weight tear-a-way will cover the majority of your needs. Specialty stabilizers like peel and stick or mesh can be purchased in smaller rolls, these are not usually used as frequently as cutaway and tear-a-way.

 Although rolls are less costly upfront the downside is the time and space required to cut rolls into the desired widths and lengths. An embroiderer must keep in mind that his or her time and/or the time of the employee are costly as well. It may very well be to their advantage to purchase pre-cut backing because the cost in time to convert a roll into the desired lengths and widths may very well be costing you production time. As an embroiderer, you are not making money if you are not producing. You are not in the business to produce pre-cut pieces of backing. You are in the business of embroidering.

Second, consider the space required to cut ups a roll of backing versus pulling a piece of precut backing from a short stack off the shelf.  You may think that storing a box of backing is more wasteful than cutting up a roll as needed, but then you must consider the amount of workspace required to cut a roll properly.  Some embroiderers have found they have been able to eliminate the cost of paying for additional workspace by purchasing pre-cut pieces.  For those embroiderers whom work from their homes, you may find that your business will not take over your living space if you do opt to invest in pre-cut pieces.

The decision to purchase precut pieces versus rolls should be based on your shops investment in workspace and labor not just on price.