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Choosing the Right Backing Material for Embroidery

Updated on June 10, 2013

Choosing the right material for backing can have a big impact on the quality of your finished embroidered designs. There are variety of options available to choose from, which works best for you is a matter of the fabric you are working with and also personal taste. Here is a look at some of the more popular ways to stabilize your material before embroidering.

What are embroidery backings?

Embroidery requires that fabric have enough strength for the stitches to form correctly and look clean. To this end, backing acts as a stabilizer of a fabric's base, providing enough tensile strength within the hooped area to allow clean passage of the needle through any layers of fabric, topping and/or backing. Some fabrics already have this base strength and don't require the use of backing. To make it simpler to define different levels of strength, we can incorporate a system that measures the strength level of various backings on a scale from 0 to 10 with 10 being the strongest. There is nothing scientific about this number, and it's not an "official" setting, but simply a simple gauge to give you a starting point for your own discoveries

Water-soluble toppings and backings

These are used as a sort of second skin. For example, you've hooped a sandwich of water-soluble topping, fabric and backing. When a needle penetrates the topping, it purifies the registration of the design in accordance with the embroidery tape. It's like taking away most of the weave, texture or high-nap registration problems. Be careful-the topping will not totally discount the weave or texture that is still trapped below the embroidery. That must be addressed during the punching process.

To finish a water-soluble topped embroidery cleanly, follow these instructions: Spray water on the embroidery area. Depending on the freshness of the topping, wait two to three seconds to allow the water to penetrate the topping slightly. Then firmly press a fresh layer of topping over the moistened area. Quickly peel away in a fast motion. Don't try to skimp on the topping by using scraps that are too small. Also, once a scrap has been used to remove the larger one, don't try to use a corner of it to remove more. By wetting the top- ping and not removing it quickly enough, you'll be left with a bigger mess, which will take more time to correct. It's also best to store water-soluble toppings in a plastic bag to retain moisture.

Strength level of water-soluble toppings: 2 out of 10

Tearaway backings

This type of backing is usually a nonwoven fabric, and is easily torn in all directions. A tearaway can be thick or thin, black or white, soft or hard. Tearaway and cutaway backings are the most commonly used in embroidery. There are many different types of tearaways and cutaways, but not all are created equal. Careful selection of the tearaway will yield a great finished look for the embroidery itself, as well as its back side.

People sometimes get frustrated that different types of backings aren't interchangeable, nor do they have the same properties. Therefore, some folks don't feel comfortable using tearaways. Many times tearaways are used when there isn't a cutaway to be found. Tearaway will give support to the embroidery while it is being stitched, however, you must make sure that the stitches are suitable for the laundering the finished product will receive. If the embroidery has a high stitch count and is going to be subject to harsh laundering, organza may be your best option instead.

Here's a hint when working with tearaway backings: To help the grain line hold with the backing, I lightly spray adhesive on the backing before hooping and/or program a base walking tacking stitch to hold the grain line before doing any major stitch work.

When finishing, always remember that tearaway backing should be torn away from the design, not into the design.

Strength level: 2 to 5 out of 10

(Strength on a one-directional tearaway will change according to the angle. To double your strength, use two sheets of tearaway instead of one.)

Cutaway backing

This type of backing can be woven or nonwoven. It ranges in thickness and is available in black, white and even colored varieties, as well as those that are soft or hard to the touch.

Just like a tearaway, cutaways are not always created equal. It is believe that cutaways do, however, share a stronger communion of strength. The inside finished look of the embroidery is dependent on how well your operators cut around this backing. When cutting it away, hold the piece of backing up to the air. Allow the embroidered garment to hang in front of you so the finished embroidery is between you and the backing. Then use the scissors to cut around the embroidery. By removing the excess backing in this manner, you will never cut blindly into the garment and risk cutting a hole in the finished piece.

When using two layers of cutaway - which you shouldn't really need to do anyway--cut the layers at different distances from the embroidery to help eliminate the "patch look" that results when a piece of backing is left behind the embroidery.

It's also a good idea to program your machine to do a base walking tacking stitch to hold the grain line before you do any work with a high stitch count.

Strength level: 4 to 7 out of 10

Wax paper

Wax paper works well as a backing when running fabrics that are either grippy, heavy or loopy because of the paper's naturally lubricated surface. Try hooping the wax paper as the bottom layer of the embroidery sandwich. When the hoop is running on the machine, the wax paper helps slide the hoop along. This improves registration of heavy bath towels and prevents the loops of the terry cloth from entering the throat plate of the embroidery machine.

Wax paper can also be used as the bottom layer on raw leather, as it releases the grip leather tends to have on the sewing field. And as another added bonus, wax paper lubricates your needle while it stitches your design.

Strength level: 2 out of 10

Organza

You can find this fabric in any local fabric store, and it is available in several different varieties. Be sure to double check the fiber content of the organza; you're looking for a synthetic fiber, such as 100% polyester or nylon. Due to fiber construction and fabric weave, however, not all organza fabrics are equal in strength and quality. As a result, I suggest purchasing one-fourth of a yard before buying any large quantities.

Organza is very strong, supple and sheer and therefore perfect for the bottom of the embroidery sandwich when embroidering high-end placket shirts. Unlike cutaway backings, the garment won't be left with a patch of backing behind the embroidery. Rather, organza leaves the embroidery flexible and preserves the natural look of the fabric.

Organza can also be used as the sole fabric to be embroidered-no backing required. A lot of schiffli laces are made this way.

Strength level: 10 out of 10

Heat solvent plastic

It's a clear plastic, with the approximate weight of a plastic kitchen garbage bag, and is special because of the clean-up and finishing process. You should use two layers of this backing, and hoop as usual. After the embroidery is finished, take the garment to an industrial iron. In a tight circular motion, press the iron into the embroidery, plastic side up. The plastic shrinks and balls up. Simply brush away the melted bits that now resemble the residue from a hot glue gun. This process happens very fast-it takes only seconds to clean up intricate backing areas. The back side of the embroidery appears as if no backing was used at all.

Fusible interfacing

There are many different types of fusible interfacing to be found in any fabric store. All garment manufacturers use the fusing in garment construction. This backing is also sometimes used when sewing embroidered patches. For an extremely slippery fabric, the iron-on fusing adheres to the fabric and eliminates some of the puckering and pulling the fabric does while the needle passes up and down during a sewout.

It is recommended you cut a square of fusing and ironing it on to the wrong side of the fabric. Treat it like a normal job set-up, and either hoop it as is, or add one piece of tearaway backing. It takes more time to finish a garment using this method, but it's also a fool-proof way of making perfect-looking embroidery for this type of fabric.

Burn away backings

The fiber content of this backing is natural, and therefore burns instead of melts. There are several types of burn away backings available. The best is manufactured in European-based schiffli houses.

Bum-away does just what is says: after an iron is applied, it literally bums the fibers of this backing. The object is to introduce the heat, break the fiber bonds and weaken the filaments so the weave of the backing falls apart, leaving the embroidery behind. (This is also another way of making lace.)

Careful attention to the heat and exposure of the iron to the burn-away fabric is required. When exposed to the heat for too long, the filaments break up and blacken. The blackened filaments can be difficult to brush away and are noticeable in the finished product.

Testing different materials

When researching your backing options, make a point of asking for swatches. Many backing sales people are willing to give you sample yardage in order to gain your sales. Use this opportunity to sample several companies and run tests. Number your samples with permanent marker and wash and dry them. Also, experiment with dry cleaning. In addition, test several types of fabrics, as well as several operators and embroidery designs.

When it comes to ordering backing, it all comes down to the your personal habits. Try cutting your backing into rectangles instead of squares for circular hoops. Hoop the fabric with the circle encasing the top three-quarter-portion of the rectangle. After you've finished embroidering and the hoop is popped, you're left with a square of fabric that can be used for fresh hooping.

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