Designs on Towels Add Dessert to the Meat and Potatoes: Gourmet Embroidery!

With over 35 years in the embroidery industry with particular emphasis on writing, education, and digitizing, Helen Hart Momsen is widely published in the trade press. Momsen founded and moderates the Embroidery Line (, the longest continuously running internet forum for apparel decorators. A sought-after speaker for many years for THE NBM SHOW, Momsen has authored two ground-breaking books on professional embroidery, available at

Terrycloth is a looped fabric that can absorb lots of moisture. Most terrycloth is made with cotton fiber that gets much gets stronger when it is wet. Cotton can actually absorb up to 27 times its own weight in water. The loops of terry not only perform as small sponges, but also enable the fabric to tolerate tough handling.

Terrycloth is popular for personal-use products because extremely hot water can be used to sanitize it and bleach and strong detergents can be used without harming the fabric—although the addition of embroidery can call for a more gentle approach.

When you look around the towel department you will find both soft and hard varieties. Towels with loops that are loosely twisted are softer (and more absorbent) than those made from tightly twisted loops, which produce a harder and rougher fabric that is not nearly as thirsty. Looping on both sides (as opposed to velour or sheared terry on one side) creates a more absorbent fabric and long pile is more absorbent than short. Which all adds up to a recipe of long, loopy, loosely twisted toweling for a  better job of drying things off, but offering a more challenging surface for the addition of embroidery.

Toweling can be terry, knitted, Turkish, huckaback (or huck), honeycomb (a pattern of six-sided shapes that resembles the comb of the honeybee) or crash (a plain, coarse cloth that is loosely woven).

Knitted terry products

Knitted terry drapes like garment fabric and is used to construct clothing. The sheared variety produces the velour that we see in jackets and fashion tops—an imitation of velvet. Uncut, knitted terry, known as looped terry, is still a gentle fabric for garment construction, just with a different hand. The stretchy nature of knitted terrycloth calls for the same hooping and backing as any other knit, and a piece of topping can be added for extra measure. Some extra underlay helps hold the design above the fabric loops, but that challenge is never as great as it is with woven terry.

Backing should be used on garments and robes made with stretch terry to stabilize the fabric and prevent slipping in the hoop. Use a light cutaway or heavy tearaway and treat the fabric as a knit with not a lot of density. Topping works well as a backing.

Care should be taken not to stretch the fabric when hooping as this can cause puckering and distortion when the hoop is removed. For this same reason, don’t pull on the fabric after it is hooped. Using two pieces of backing, one in each direction, can secure the stretchiest terry. Use a 70/10 or 75/11 ballpoint needle.


Woven terrycloth is fashioned into robes and baby bibs as well as towels. This most familiar of the terrycloths is absorbent and can be double-sided. When the loops are sheared, the result is the more modern velour look which, although not as thirsty as looped terry, has a softer hand, a more elegant look, and is more friendly to embroidery. Sometimes a towel will have a side of each. It makes sense then to embroider our design on the velour side, so it gets less wear—and save the looped side for the work of toweling off. It is the customer’s choice, but you can shine as the embroidery professional when you offer your educated advice.

Initials and monograms have been a mainstay on towels since the days when trained operators hand-guided the fabric on freehand machines. In order to flatten the loops of the towel, the design was drawn, or applied with chalk through a template onto thin paper, which was then stitched over. This stitching, in effect, became the underlay, as the paper was torn away and a second round of stitching finished the letters. This stitching covered any remaining paper, taming the terry and creating a full, lofty satin design. The challenge of the towel has not changed even though the computerized machine has replaced the freehand machine. We still need to tame the loops.

But besides being a thing of beauty, the towel has a job to do—and one of our duties as a professional is to make sure the decoration stands up to the task. That means it should look good, even after traveling through the laundry—and it means it should last as long as the towel itself.

The nitty-gritty

Thicker towels do well with a sharp needle—an 80/12 is a good choice. Thinner or knitted terry calls for a 75/11 ballpoint. As with all looped or fuzzy fabrics, the needle can get an eye full of lint, and the bobbin housing can accumulate debris. Keep an eye on the needle’s opening so the thread will flow smoothly, and clean that bobbin case with greater care as messy build-up can create tension problems, causing the bobbin thread to show on the top.

Polyester is the thread of choice for towel embroidery. It is durable, bleachable, fade-resistant, weather friendly. Cotton thread can be a happy choice as well, especially if the desired look is old-fashioned and handmade. Most Irish linens are stitched with cotton threads and that heirloom look is a nice alternative to offer your customer.

Check the bobbin for lint buildup more often when stitching terry. Use canned air and be sure to clean between the adjustment spring and the case for buildup. Use bobbins of the same color thread as the top thread for a finished look on both sides.

Unlike its knitted cousin, cotton terry products do not really require backing for stability and, indeed, unless it washes away, backing can be unsightly. However, tearaways are often used to facilitate movement of the fabric on the machine bed, preventing loops from catching on the throat plate, and decreasing the amount of lint that falls into the bobbin housing. A wonderful alternative is backing paper (use regular lightweight bond copy paper) or even wax paper (which also lubricates the needle during sewing).

If the terry is lightweight, hoop a piece of tearaway with the goods, secured on all sides by the hoop. Tearaway backing can keep the loops from being driven into the throat plate, but many high-end towels and terry products are close woven with tighter loops, and backing can be eliminated.

Many embroiderers feel it is better not to use a backing as it gives an untidy and unfinished look, easily spotted on reversible towels. Consider using a heavy water-soluble topping as backing; this results in a clean-finished appearance. It also serves to keep the loops out of the needle hole and can be easily removed. What little residue remains will wash away in the first laundering. Topping-as-backing can be removed by steam, a damp microwaved washcloth, or by the regular washing in the life of the towel.

Topping can hold the loops of the terry flat, preventing them from peeking through the embroidery or monogramming, but you should remember that water-soluble toppings will wash away in the laundry, and those loops may work their way free in time.

I have never considered topping a replacement for careful underlay in well-planned towel embroidery. Think ahead about what will hold the loops at bay when the topping is gone. The answer is underlay. Since terry is easily bruised in the hooping process, I use topping, hooped with the towel, to prevent hoop burns—but I get careful underlay working for me to create a quality product.

Plastic bags such as those that come from the dry cleaner are often recommended as a cost-effective substitute, but you will find that many of them harden in the dryer, ruining the towel as well as the embroidery. Toppings are inexpensive when compared to the replacement of ruined product. If you must use a dry-cleaner bag, pause the machine after the underlay has stitched, remove the plastic, then restart the machine.

Remove the tearaway and topping carefully so as not to pull the loops, as terry can run, leaving a bare line. Washing will remove these water-soluble toppings, as will steam and a hot wet cloth.

Towels, especially bath towels and bath sheets, should be hooped upside-down and sewn on the flat table for good support. Don’t forget to rotate the design on the machine. Terry should be good and taut in the hoop. Make sure that the hem of the towel is straight and, after marking the center of your design, place the towel so that the center point is in the center of the hoop.

Placement of embroidery and monograms is traditionally in the center of the towel, two to three inches above the decorative border. If the towel has no border, place the monogram six to seven inches from the finished edge. Use proportionally smaller monograms or designs for hand towels and face cloths. Consult the customer on how the towel will be displayed. If folded in half, it is better to place the design or initials in the lower-right quadrant.

Do remember to check the orientation of your towels when doing sets—get into the habit of always embroidering the same end and you will avoid headaches. Geometric metamerism can make velour towels appear different colors—it’s a light trick and can wreak havoc with the fabric and thread appearance. I place designs and monograms on the end of the towel away from the sewn-in label, and I make sure I do all the same.

Preparing design for towels

There is nothing more elegant than a heavy, plump, thirsty towel . . . unless it is a heavy, plump, thirsty towel with a lofty, satiny, dense-but-smooth monogram. The path to this quality is the use of underlay, both as a foundation for the stitching and as a decoration that levels loops, while at the same time enhancing the complete presentation. More underlay tames the loops permanently. I also add 20-30 percent pull compensation to my lettering and increase the stitch density.

The most common towel design consists of initials, or a monogram. Because of this, the embroiderer will most often be applying satin or radial stitches. This type of stitch can get lost in the depths of the terry pile if care is not taken to flatten the fabric.

German Edgewalk is a type of underlay that is perfect for towel embroidery. It has lines of stitching that walk down the edges of satins to give the thread a “stitch-hold,” as well as a double dose of zigzag stitches down the center to hold the design segment aloft and keep anything that shouldn’t from peeking through. My Circular Monogram that I use on towels and linens is built on a foundation of German Edgewalk. I was tired of even thinking about topping and double stitching. What I wanted was a satiny monogram that could be stitched with one pass, something that—especially tone-on-tone—would lend the look of old-fashioned hand stitching.

Place the underlay at an opposite direction to the design for optimal coverage, running some stitches with the nap of the towel to really iron those loops down. Taking a page from the old manual-machine operators, you can also choose to stitch twice, the first layer at a lower density than the second, for a loopless design.

If a crisp appearance to lettering is desired, it is important to tame more than the area of the lettering itself in order to set the design off from the neighboring pile. One of the most exciting additions to a towel is a background of loose fill stitches. Create a light fill area larger than the design or letter—the same outline or a complimentary geometric shape—and the same color as the towel. This becomes a part of the design, not only flattening the terry loops but also keeping them away from the edges of the monogram, giving the embroidery a crisp, clean look.

The use of a ground of light fill, such as a cross-stitch pattern, can open the door to possibilities that make the hum-drum towel or the smothered design a thing of the past.

This background fill works well with satin lettering, allowing for narrower columns, but the letters can also be formed with fills, patterns or a split satin to produce a more durable embroidery that will not snag or catch. The background fills can be placed in a cross-hatched pattern or you could use one of the many motif fills that came as bells and whistles on the software package you bought.

The leveling stitches can be in the shape of the final design, or a shape that adds yet another facet to the final presentation. A diamond shape behind a circular monogram, a house shape behind initials on towels for a new home owner, a baseball to enhance the name of a young fan, the possibilities are as endless as the towels in your supplier’s inventory.

Anything that works is fair game, and the winners of that game are your customers and your bottom line—the foundations of your business success.

I tell the folks in my Printwear Show seminars that the first thing we should do when considering a fabric is figure out how to level the playing field, make it as much like the ideal fabric as we can. With terry that means flattening the loops and smoothing out the design area. Once that is done, trapunto designs, filigree patterns and other “airy” applications can work on terry as well as on smooth cotton.


A sure-fire way to tame those loops is to bury them beneath a fabric topping. Appliqué is a creative loop covering, and at the same time produces a clean surface for detail embroidery. Washable fabrics are a must and pre-washing can prevent unsightly puckering during the life of the towel. (Pre-washing the towel, especially with half a cup of white vinegar, can forestall unsightly bleeding from the darker terry products, as well as prevent shrinking which can also cause embroidery distortion.)

Ultrasuede, a washable synthetic brushed leather, can make an elegant statement as an appliqué and, depending on the design, can be masculine, a baby’s dream (teddy bears and kittens) or, in the case of pastels, an elegant feminine touch.

But, although appliqué is attractive, and a great way to produce a smooth ground for details, it is found more often on guest towels—the kind that never get touched—than on towels that get continuous use and laundering. An exception might be a particularly elegant set of towels for the newlywed—where creativity can soar—but even with pre-washing of the appliqué fabric to curtail shrinkage and puckering, the end product is always more fragile than a towel needs to be: more for show than for work.

Some dessert with your towel?

There is nothing more comforting than a thick, thirsty towel after a hot shower. And when that towel is monogrammed or decorated with embroidery in any way, the perception of class and quality skyrockets.

The towel is utilitarian, decorative and warm. It is elegant, personal and comforting. If the bath is dinner, the towel is dessert. The towel that is embellished complements the décor and honors the heritage of the family name in an age-old heraldic tradition. Don’t sell those letters as just a monogram—market them as the finishing touch.