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Ambitious Adornment: Machine Embroidery on Difficult Materials

Most of the time, machine embroidery is digitized to a standard, like a medium-weight quilting cotton. So, can you still embroider on sheer fabric, thick towels, stretchy knits, or sweaters without problems? With the right tools and stabilizers, you can!

Here are four things to consider when stitching machine embroidery on difficult materials:

1. Stabilizer

Embroidery stabilizers are very important for several reasons: they support embroidery stitches, they keep the fabric from puckering under tension and they help to secure fabrics that are hard or nearly impossible to hoop. The right stabilizer helps tackle even the most difficult embroidery projects.

app knits

 Photos via Bluprint class Appliqué Your Knits with Machine Embroidery with Lisa Archer

Cut-away stabilizers are recommended for use with fabrics that stretch or embroidery designs with high stitch counts or an abundance of satin stitching, such as appliqués.

green sweater

Photos via Bluprint class The Machine Embroidered Sweater with Patti Otto

Cut-away no-show mesh is an ideal stabilizer for embroidering on T-shirts and sweaters. It has the strength of a cutaway, to support stitching without puckering the fabric, yet is soft enough to not appear bulky or lumpy through the shirt or sweater.

knits jones

Photos via Bluprint class Machine Embroidery with Knits with Deborah Jones

For items that that would be damaged by hooping, like fleece, or are hard to hoop, like socks, adhesive water-soluble mesh stabilizers can help keep the piece secured until stitching is complete. They have a paper side that can be scored and removed after hooping to reveal a tacky surface to which you can finger-press your fabric in place. After stitching, excess stabilizer is trimmed and then washes away. Water-soluble stabilizers also help support sheer fabrics like silk and organza.


Photos via Bluprint class Embroidering Luxury Fabrics by Machine with Pam Damour

Even delicate ribbon can be embroidered when properly secured to hooped stabilizer.


Photos via Bluprint


Water-soluble toppings are necessary when embroidering on sweaters, sweatshirts, socks, and towels. The clear film can be hooped with the base stabilizer and fabric or taped to the hooped piece. It sits on top of the fabric, keeping stitches from sinking out of sight.


 Photos via Bluprint classe Appliqué Your Knits with Machine Embroidery with Lisa Archer

Even light knits benefit from using a wash-away film on top of the design as with this appliqué.

fowell fleece jonesPhotos via Bluprint class Machine Embroidery with Terrycloth and More with Deborah Jones

Embroidering items like towels and plush fleece are fruitless without topping. The deeper the nap, the more that stitches will sink or leave gaps where fibers show through. After stitching is complete, water-soluble toppings tear away easily. Whatever is left in the stitches will disappear with a good soaking or run through a wash cycle according to the garment manufacturer’s recommendation.

roche tshirtImages via Bluprint and Bluprint member 4vosjes961770

Basting stitches

Most embroidery machines have a basting function, which is particularly helpful when stitching on nontraditional fabrics. Run basting stitches right after hooping, and it lightly bastes fabric, stabilizer, and topping together so it does not shift during stitching.

Not sure if your machine has a basting function built in? Look in your owner’s manual or check with your dealer.

silk DPhotos via Bluprint class Embroidering Luxury Fabrics by Machine with Pam Damour


Be sure to use a needle that is right for your fabric. Knits usually require a ballpoint needle to separate fibers as they are stitched since ordinary needles tend to cut and slice right through them.

When embroidering sheer fabrics like silk or organza, use the smallest needle size possible to prevent stitch holes from showing. Often, it is beneficial to use a brand new needle when stitching on delicate fabrics as even the smallest needle burr can tear things up in a hurry.

Using the right combinations of stabilizers, toppings, basting stitches and embroidery needle help you create beautiful embroidery on even the most contrary of fabrics.

What tips do you have for embroidering on difficult materials?


Diane Sinclair Meigs

Beautifully done and so enjoyed this

Debbie Henry

Thank you, Diane. So many beautiful things to make!


What is the best material for a table cloth where I can do some cutwork?

Debbie Henry

Any tightly woven natural fabric should work, Annie. Traditionally, a linen. Others have used cotton. I have even seen poly blends.


What’s the best way to embroider on grosgrain ribbon? I’ve tried many things but the ribbon always puckers. Thanks in advance!

Debbie Henry

Use a sticky water soluble stabilizer. That helps keep it flat. You can even put a water-soluble topper (film type) on top to help keep stitches smooth on the ribbon.

Theresa Burks

I got a new embroidery machine for my birthday in July… Since, spent $15.00+ on different fonts for some projects for my daughter’s bridesmaids gifts…. Nothing fancy, except the font I wanted to use for their names on their beach towels…..
I’ve got a —
Designio™ Series DZ820E — Embroidery Only / (Download designs: PES or DST format)

I extracted the info from the zip files, saved the PES files on my computer, used a trial sample of Embrilliance to use the fonts to make a word ……
[example: BaKer ]
I then copy or drag the file I saved as: BaKer.pes to my flash drive (that has nothing on it) – Now I take the flash drive to my Embroidery Machine plug it in the USB drive, click the icon for that USB drive showing on my machine &
I check the drive prior to ejecting from computer & it shows the file on the drive BUT nothing shows on my machine….
I’ve only had the problem with fonts…..
I ordered a circle with 3 stars & it works every time….
My machine has some nice designs on it but I really wanted to expand & use different fonts, appliqué & designs….
What am I doing wrong….. It’s got to be something so simple but I can’t figure it out….. I can load 1 letter, embroidered it, clear file, add another letter, Embroidry & do it all over again…… I just can’t see anyone doing an embroidery design one letter a time….. Plus I can’t line them up well enough to look neat…..
Help — I’m SO LOST!!!

Thanking you in advance for Any help you can offer…..
“Traumatized in Tennessee”

Debbie Henry

Theresa, Originally, I thought that perhaps your USB drive is too large. Many machines won’t recognize USB drives that are larger than 2 meg. But since you have used the circle/stars design without problems, that is probably not the case. Embrilliance saves two kinds of files – working files and stitch files. Working files have an icon with a needle and geometric shapes on it. Stitch files will actually look like the embroidery looks and should have the extension PES. Working files are so you can go back into the design and edit it. Stitch files are the ones that your embroidery machine recognizes. It could be that either you saved only the working file and your embroidery machine does not recognize it (your computer will recognize it because Embrilliance is loaded on your computer) or you saved both the working file and stitch file but drug the wrong one to your USB drive. Hopefully this helps. If not, we’ll try something else!

Jennifer McBrien

Any suggestions for freehand machine stitching through wool felt and canvas? Needles? Stabilizer? Thread?

Debbie Henry

Jennifer, although I have not tried it, I wouldn’t think you need stabilizer with these heavy items. You will need a somewhat larger needle (90/14 or 100/16 even). Slow down the machine speed. Don’t use anything less than a 40 wt. thread. Trial and error!

Lisa McCluer

I’ve been asked to embroider on the side of a bra. I’m not sure what stabilizer to use.


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