Embroidery can be as simple as picking up a piece of fabric, threading a needle with embroidery floss, and stitching. And that works! But sometimes taking a few extra steps can make the experience more pleasant while improving the results.
Adding stabilizer to your work is one of those steps.
There are very few times when you absolutely must use stabilizer because in most situations it's possible to do without. But on the flip side, there are many times when using stabilizer will make a big difference!
Types of Stabilizers
There are a few basic types of stabilizers, and many of them come in different weights. Each kind will typically list the most appropriate usage, but you can try a few and see what you like best for what you are working on.
Fusible - This stabilizer is most commonly used with sewing (and is referred to as interfacing), but it's great for standard embroidery. It is ironed to the wrong side of the fabric before stitching and remains on the back of your work after you're finished.
Cut-Away - Most commonly used with machine embroidery, cut-away stabilizer is also good for hand embroidery on stretchy fabrics. Baste or hoop it in place on the wrong side of the fabric before stitching. The stabilizer under your embroidery remains, but any excess is cut away after you're done.
Tear-Away - Similar to cut-away stabilizer, this is great for when your fabric needs some support as you stitch. Some tear-away stabilizer is fusible and often it is applied to the front of the fabric. Unlike standard fusible and cut-away, the stabilizer is removed when you're finished.
Water-Soluble - This stabilizer is temporary like tear-away, but instead of tearing it away, the stabilizer dissolves in water. It's useful for marking a pattern, but it can be used on the back of your work as well.
When and Why You Should Use Stabilizer
Stretchy Fabrics - This is the most common reason people reach for a stabilizer. Having this material in place on knits or other fabrics that stretch prevents your embroidery from becoming distorted as you stitch. It's almost always needed when stitching on t-shirts. For these uses, you can use temporary stabilizer. However, if your embroidery will be washed frequently, you may want to consider leaving it in place for more support.
Thin or Light-Colored Fabrics - If you have ever embroidered on a semi-sheer or light fabric and could see the back of your work, using stabilizer can fix that. The extra layer, even if it's a lightweight stabilizer, prevents your work from showing through. Redwork is a perfect example, as the dark-colored floss will show through the white fabric. A permanent stabilizer is a good choice for this.
Lightweight Fabrics - When embroidering on lightweight fabrics the stitches will sometimes pull at the material, resulting in fabric that puckers a bit when it comes out of the hoop. Adding stabilizer makes the fabric more, well, stable. The stitches are less likely to pull at the fabric. As long as it won't interfere with what you're using your embroidery for, use permanent stabilizer in this situation.
Loose-Weave Fabrics - Some fabrics such as linen or osnaburg can have a bit of space between the fibers. This can make it trickier to stitch smooth lines of embroidery because you have limited places to bring the needle and thread through. Stabilizer creates a hidden structure that acts like a tight weave on the back of your work. Use permanent stabilizer so the stitches don't shift when you're done.
The Bottom Line
Stabilizer is rarely essential, but it's often worth using just to make your stitching go a little easier.
For most basic embroidery, keeping some mid-weight fusible stabilizer or interfacing on hand will ensure that you're ready to tackle any project that needs a bit of support from this helpful supply!