How to Hand Embroider on T-Shirts

Add Embroidery to Tees and Baby Clothes

How to Hand Embroider on T-Shirts
Mollie Johanson

Adding embroidery to a T-shirt, baby onesie, or another item with stretchy fabric is easy to do with the right preparation. The biggest challenge when embroidering on knit T-shirt fabric is that the design can become distorted when the fabric stretches or if stitches pull too tight. Stabilizer solves that problem.

The embroidered​ embellishment on a T-shirt can be as tiny as a heart on a sleeve, as huge as a design filling the front, or as simple as a single motif near the neckline. Any of these are great ways to personalize clothing or make gifts. 

To embroider on T-shirts you will need:

  • Stabilizer
  • Embroidery hoop
  • Embroidery floss
  • Needle (round end preferred)
  • Iron

Types of Stabilizer

While stabilizer can be used in most embroidery, with clothing it's best to use removable stabilizer instead of the type that's designed to stay in place (also called "leave-in"). This keeps the back of the stitching feeling soft and not scratchy on the skin.

There are several types of stabilizer designed for embroidering on stretchy fabrics. Some are temporary, while others are permanent. Some tear away, and some dissolve in water. Here you'll also see stabilizer that attaches to the T-shirt with large basting stitches and one that adheres directly to the fabric. Generally, any of these will work, so you can use what is easy to find and what works best for you.

With any of the stabilizers, the goal is to prevent the fabric from stretching, which would distort the embroidery once it's removed from the hoop. To accomplish this, the piece of stabilizer should always be larger than the embroidery design and hoop you are using.

Depending on the type of stabilizer material you are using, it's often a good idea to trace or transfer your pattern on the T-shirt before you add the stabilizer.

Follow this guide and you'll be stitching tees in no time.

Stabilize Fabric With Baste-On Material

Baste-on Removable Stabilizer
Mollie Johanson

Most stabilizers are designed to be on the back of the embroidery, so start by turning the T-shirt inside out. Sliding a piece of paper between the layers of fabric makes it easier to baste without catching the second layer of the tee.

Place the stabilizer in the area you will be stitching. Take large basting stitches with a needle and thread to secure the stabilizer to the T-shirt. It's important to keep the fabric and stabilizer as smooth as possible.

It's okay if the stitches go through the area you will embroider. These basting stitches remove easily at the end, even if you've stitched over them.

Turn the shirt right side out.

Stabilize Fabric With Press and Stick Material

Sticky-Backed Removable Stabilizer
Mollie Johanson

Press and stick stabilizer adheres to the surface of the fabric and can be used on either the front or the back of the T-shirt.

One type has water-soluble stabilizer with a peel-off backing, allowing you to place it on the fabric like a sticker. Another type can be ironed-on to the shirt and then removed later by tearing it away.​

Removable stabilizer that is adhered to the fabric is useful because you can often print, trace or transfer your pattern directly onto the stabilizer. This pig pattern is from the Funky Farm Friends pattern.

Hoop the Fabric Without Stretching

Hooping a Stabilized T-Shirt
Mollie Johanson

Unlike hooping woven fabrics, stretchy materials (even those with stabilizer) should start with a slightly looser outer hoop.

Place the inner hoop inside the shirt under the area you are stitching. Press the outer hoop over the fabric and inner hoop with even pressure, avoiding stretching the fabric. 

You'll be able to tell if the fabric has stretched or is misshapen at all by comparing it to the rest of the T-shirt. If it is stretched, try re-hooping it.

How to Stitch on a T-Shirt

Embroider the T-Shirt With a Ball-Point Needle
Mollie Johanson

Use a ball-point or round-end needle to avoid pulling and snagging the knit material of a T-shirt. Tapestry or counted-cross stitch needles work well. These needles are more likely to find their way through the knit structure of the fabric, without piercing the threads.

As with any embroidery, it's important to start and end your T-shirt embroidery well, especially because you don't want any stitching coming undone when it's washed. Tying knots can result in pulling the stretchy fabric and distorting the design. Securely weaving in the ends will keep your embroidery looking beautiful.

Embroider as you usually would, but be careful to not pull the stitches too tight. The stabilizer will help prevent this, but you shouldn't rely on it solely.

Remove the Stabilizer

Cut Away the Excess Stabilizer Before Soaking
Mollie Johanson

If you're using a stabilizer that you basted to the tee, remove the basting stitches by snipping the thread and pulling out the stitches. 

For tear-away stabilizers, tear the material along around the edges, right up to the embroidery. Then, tear and remove the pieces from inside the embroidered design, being careful not to disrupt the stitches.

When using water-soluble stabilizer, cut away the excess stabilizer from the edges before soaking the embroidery in warm water. Press the tee between two towels to remove excess water and hang to dry.

Give the T-Shirt a Great Finish

How to Hand Embroider on T-Shirts
Mollie Johanson

Gently iron your finished embroidery from the backside to smooth out any wrinkles and remove hoop markings. 

Your embroidered T-shirt is ready to wear.