As promised in my applique blogs, this post is about stabilizers.  Broadly, a stabilizer is a material which supports the fabric while maintaining weave and grain. It also provides body, gives a firmer hand to the fabric, and prevents fraying. Interfacing only provides body, shape, and weight to a specific area. And although stabilizers are used in nearly all types of sewing, quilters are familiar with them for use in two areas:  Applique and Machine Embroidery.  I have an embroidery machine but am a novice when it comes to machine embroidery.  I use my Baby Lock Spirit for making quilt labels and that’s about it.  I am much more familiar with the stabilizers quilters use for machine applique, and it’s those types of stabilizers which are featured in this blog. 

First, stabilizers have been used for centuries.  They’re not remotely recent quilting notions.  Some textile historians believe ancient Egyptians used stabilizers way back in BC.  The stabilizers used then and up until twentieth century were not the familiar rolls or sheets of the material we recognize as stabilizer.  No, back then stabilizers were made from everyday common food items such as sugar, honey, flour, eggs, gelatin, and water.  These were used in varying combinations to make fabric stiff or water resistant.  They were used on rugs and carpets to extend their life.  Fashion trends owe their life to stabilizers.  Items such as the bustle, parasol, panniers, crinolines, masks, circus costumes, bow ties, spats, poodle skirts, and ruffled collars would have never held up (literally) to the passing of time without them.  Even if a dress incorporated hoops, it was a stabilizer which gave the skirt a smooth look.

Dress with Panniers

Before we jump headlong into all the stabilizers, let me give you some general information about them.  And remember this blog is about those incorporated in quilting.  Quite a few of these stabilizers can be used for both machine embroidery and quilting, but always…always…always read the labels to make sure it’s a two-track notion.

  • Stabilizers and interfacing are similar  but are not the same thing.  Both are used in quilting but generally are not interchangeable (more on this at the end of the blog).
  • Stabilizer is a notion, not a tool.
  • Stabilizer supports the fabric while maintaining the weave and grain.  If you know how much “needle abuse” both machine embroidery and machine applique dish out, you understand why it’s important to use a stabilizer.  It also provides body, gives a firmer hand to the fabric, and prevents fraying.  Interfacing only provides body, shape, and weight to a specific area. 
  • Typically, stabilizer is applied to the wrong side of the fabric.
  • Stabilizers prevent warping or twisting of the fabric weave
  • Not all stabilizers come on a roll or in sheets.  Some are liquids.
  • Even within one category, there can be several types of stabilizers.
  • Fabrics with an open weave – such as burlap, netting, or tulle – require special stabilizers. 
  • Fabrics which are delicate or slippery (like chiffon, silk, and taffeta) are easier to cut and stitch when a wash away stabilizer is applied first.
  • Stabilized fabric is ideal for creating shaped fabric objects and design elements.

There are four broad categories of stabilizers:  Tear away, cut away, wash away, and heat away.  Even a liquid stabilizer will fall into one of these four groups.  The group name also tells you how the stabilizer is removed once the project is complete.  And within these four categories are myriads of weights and forms (fusible, self-adhesive, non-fusible, spray on, tapes, etc.).  It also must be remembered not all projects require the stabilizer to be removed as well as some stabilizers can’t be taken out. 

A subgroup from these categories also exists – toppings.  I have never used a topping stabilizer in applique.  There may come a time (such as if I were constructing an art quilt) when I may need to employ a topping.  Toppings are used on the right side of the fabric and come in all kinds of weights, forms, and types.  Some stabilizers can be used as both a topping and the “regular” kind which goes on the wrong side of the fabric.  Some toppings are also permanent.  Let’s take each of the four categories and break them down.  Hopefully this will help you understand how each stabilizer is used and when to use each kind.

Tear Away

This stabilizer is removed exactly as it’s named – it tears away from the stitching.  It is suitable for stable fabrics without any stretch, such as quilting cottons, batiks, canvas, poly/cotton fabrics, and duck cloth.  Some can be used on vinyl and leather.

  • This is a cloth or paper-like substance available in rolls or sheets
  • It’s available both in fusible and non-fusible types
  • The weights can vary from sheer to heavy
  • It’s meant to be temporary
  • Some brands tear away more easily than others
  • May be used as a topping
  • It’s usually a non-woven
  • Nine times out of ten, this is the kind I use

Cut Away

This stabilizer can be used with fabrics which stretch, including knit, loosely woven fabrics, and denim.  It can handle denser stitching than tear away. 

  • This is a cloth or paper-like stabilizer available in rolls or sheets
  • The weights can vary from light to heavy
  • It’s typically a sew-in stabilizer
  • Adds strength to the fabric
  • Those used as toppings are usually cut away
  • Thickness and weight vary between brands
  • Available in both woven and non-woven
  • Heavier is better for denser stitching (such as satin stitch machine applique)
  • Prevents you from seeing through the fabric
  • Should be soft in areas next to the skin

Wash Away

Wash away stabilizer should be used when all of the stabilizer must be removed from the project.  It is used in cutwork, freestanding lace, and reverse applique.  When used as a topping, it prevents stitches from sinking into the fabric.

  • This group dissolves when wet
  • Available in film, liquid, cloth-like, or paper-like forms
  • Found on rolls more often than sheets
  • The thicker wash away resembles vinyl
  • The thinner wash away looks like plastic kitchen wrap
  • Available in weights from super sheer to medium
  • Good choice for a topping
  • Liquid wash away is applied via spray, brushes, or soaking
  • Great for specialty fabrics or fabrics with a high nap (such as velvets)
  • Best choice for working with lace

Heat Away

This stabilizer is usually removed with a hot, dry iron.  It’s the fiddliest to remove, and the heat reduces the stabilizer to flakes, which must be brushed away or removed with a lint roller. 

  • This stabilizer is available in film, cloth-like, or paper-like form
  • It’s offered in sheets or rolls
  • Film is the most common form
  • Extra care should be taken when removing a heat away stabilizer
  • Great for dry-clean only fabrics
  • Seldom used as a topping
  • Typically removed with a dry iron
  • More difficult to remove than the other types of stabilizers
  • It is not liquid friendly – avoid having any water at all in your iron when removing it.

With machine applique – either raw edge or finished edge – the choice of stabilizer will depend on the types of fabric used.  If batiks and quilting cottons are your choice for applique, a light to medium weight stabilizer can be successfully used.  The type – tear away, heat away, or cut away – becomes personal preference.  I tend to reach for the tear away simply because I really like it.  Stabilizers aren’t super-expensive, so I suggest trying a couple of different types and brands to see what works best for you.

All of this changes if specialty fabrics are used (such as in an art or landscape quilt).  The type of fabric dictates which  type of stabilizer and fusible webbing should be used.  If chiffons, lace, or taffetas are incorporated in the quilt, the stabilizer choice should be one which works specifically with these fabrics.   Read the stabilizer labels carefully and be sure to choose the one which will work best for the material involved.  In some quilts, you may find yourself using several different types of stabilizers.

One kind of quilt which needs careful stabilizer consideration is the T-shirt quilt.  These quilts have their own special category and need some additional planning.  Like some art and landscape quilts, T-shirt quilts employ a fabric which is not a “traditional” cotton fabric.  T-shirts are made from interlocking fibers – this is what makes T-shirts so comfortable to wear.  Even if you’re using cotton t-shirts, the weaving process used is not the traditional warp and weft.  As a result, t-shirts don’t play nice with quilting cottons.  Once the shirt is “de-boned” (the crew neck and sleeves are removed, the shirt is cut apart from the front and back, and the front has been cut down into the desired size rectangle), the edges of the shirt fabric want to curl. This makes piecing them with cotton fabric quite a challenge.  For the long armer or machine quilter, even when the t-shirt quilt is sandwiched, the t-shirt fabric doesn’t want to play nice in the quilting procedure.  In order to make the t-shirt blocks cooperate in the piecing and quilting process, the backs of those blocks need a stabilizer.  The issue which should be kept in mind is the stabilizer will remain in the quilt.  It needs to be firm enough to give the t-shirt material some body, but soft enough so the quilt doesn’t feel stiff or impede the quilting process.

I have always used this interfacing as a stabilizer in my t-shirt quilts:

This is soft enough the quilt doesn’t feel stiff.  It’s light enough it doesn’t interfere in the quilting process, yet still helps the t-shirt blocks lie flat.  There are also these:

The stabilizer sheets are pre-cut with both of these products, saving you a little time and the hassle of working with a bolt of interfacing.  I have not tried either of them, but the Stabil-Tee received 4.5 stars on Amazon and the June Tailor project received five out of five stars. 

And for those of you who may have a t-shirt quilt in your future, I’ve found applying the interfacing to the front of the de-boned t-shirt before I cut it down to the desired size really helps to make your cutting accurate – the shirt won’t curl up around your rotary cutter. 

If you have an embroidery machine, you probably already have several different types of stabilizers on hand.  And while they work differently in applique than in embroidery (in applique they prevent tunneling and keep the fabric from getting off grain), you may find some of what you have can work for both applications.  Just check the labels or do a little Googling on the brand and type.  It’s also interesting to note that stabilizers also come in black, which comes in handy if the fabric involved is dark.  If some of the stabilizer must stay in, it won’t show through the dark material.

While stabilizers are definitely used far more with machine embroidery, they do have a place in the applique toolbox.  When used, they make the stitching process go smoother, as well as make the stitches themselves look better.  They also help keep your fabric on-grain and prevent tunneling and tucks.  Stabilizers don’t cost a lot, so keep a couple of types in your studio for machine applique or t-shirt quilts.

Until Next Week, Make Your Quilt, Yours!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

PS I finished the Rose of Sharon block I used as an example in my machine applique blogs.  Now I just have to trim it and decide what to do with it!

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