Top quality embroidery rarely happens by accident. Rather, it’s the result of careful planning and preparation, which includes machine setup, design creation and garment preparation. All three elements are essential for perfection, but sometimes we place more emphasis on the digitizing and overlook the other details, such as backing selection. In fact, many embroiderers don’t fully understand the impact that backing has on the sewing process. So let’s start by reviewing the purpose of backing, then we can discuss the types and how they should be used.
Many fabrics you embroider are unstable, meaning they can stretch or move during the sewing process. Such movement results in uneven stitches, outlines that don’t line up, fabric puckering, missed stitches, improper thread coverage, thread breaks and even holes in the garment. Thus, it’s imperative you find a way to eliminate or minimize fabric shifting while sewing.
The first step is to choose the smallest hoop possible for the job, as this will add support to the fabric. The second step is to apply a stabilizing element to the hooped item. Backing or stabilizer is a fabric that’s placed behind the garment being sewn. Backing material is very stable and does not shift or stretch during hooping or sewing. Backings are also used to improve detail stitching on some items. Fabrics with coarse weaves –and knits – do not offer enough material to hold the stitching in place, especially when the embroiderer tries to produce high-quality detail work.
Embroidery backings come in two basic styles: cutaway and tearaway. As the names imply, one can be easily removed at the end of sewing, by simply tearing off the excess, while the other has to have the excess removed by cutting it with scissors.
Cutaway backing: This tends to be quite stable and is the most common choice among embroiderers. It comes in various weights (thicknesses) and can be purchased in rolls or precut pieces. When hooping a garment, the backing material must always be larger in area than the hoop. As a result, when the sewing is completed, there is a fair amount of excess that must be trimmed away from the edges of the design. Fabric applications for cutaway include:
- Loose-knit fabrics
- Fine-knit fabrics
- Golf jerseys
- Knit golf shirts
- Lightweight woven silks
- Wool/acrylic sweaters
- Bathing suits/lycra/spandex
Always trim the excess by holding the backing and letting the weight of the item hang down. The item being trimmed should always be facing you. By following this rule, you are never trimming blindly. You can see where you’re cutting in relation to the fabric at all times. Don’t try to trim too close to the embroidery. Leave a quarter- to half-inch border of backing around your stitches. Trimming any closer may create a damaging hole in the garment. Also, slide the scissors, rather than snip. This will prevent you from accidentally cutting a hole in the garment.
Tearaway backing: This type of backing is not as stable as cutaway. However, the simplicity of being able to tear rather than cut the excess backing makes it popular for many. Unfortunately, the very nature of the material reduces its stabilizing characteristics.
Tearaway backings can be used on a variety of garments, but are perhaps best relegated to situations where the backside of the embroidery will be seen, such as on towels. Tearaway backing leaves a sharp, clean edge to the embroidery. Fabric applications for tearaway include:
- Nylon satin jackets
- Leather or vinyl
There are some specialty backings available for special situations. Two of those are adhesive backing and no-show backing.
Adhesive backing: This is a special version of tearaway backing. One side is coated with an adhesive. There are peel-and-stick versions and wet versions available. Peel-and-stick has a protective paper covering that is removed to expose the adhesive. The wet version requires the adhesive coating to be moistened for activation. Either way, adhesive backing is perfect for special applications where normal hooping techniques are not possible.
No-show backing: One of the negative attributes of cutaway backing is that excess backing leftover after trimming can sometimes be seen through a white or light-colored shirt. Most backing is solid white, whereas no-show is semi-transparent. The end result is that the finished appearance of the embroidery looks neater.
Proper backing use is directly linked to consistent, high-quality embroidery production. However, there is no single correct option because each situation is different, resulting in production tradeoffs that can affect the end product. The solution is to experiment with different weights and combinations of backings, until you become comfortable with their use.
Keep in mind that backing manufacturers offer a wide variety of options, so do some research about the benefits of each.
Jimmy Lamb is an award-winning author and international speaker with more than 25 years of experience in the apparel decoration business. Currently, he is the manager of communication at Sawgrass Technologies.