Embrodiery Backing

Expand Your Capabilities: Specialty Backings

Kristine Shreve EnMart

Kristine Shreve is the Director of Marketing for EnMart and parent company Ensign Emblem. She developed and writes two blogs—the EnMart Threaducuate blog and the SubliStuff blog. Shreve also maintains the EnMart Twitter account and Facebook page. She can be reached via email at

When decorators learn about stabilizers for machine embroidery, they're often taught tearaway and cutaway first. For some embroiderers, this is as far as it goes. Tearaway and cutaway backing are the backbones of stabilizing machine embroidery, and to this group, nothing else is necessary. However, these decorators miss the opportunities that specialty backings can provide.

Whether it's adhesive backing or material for waterproofing embroidery, polymesh, or water-soluble topping, specialty backings open a range of additional embroidery options. If you're not familiar with all of the available specialty backing options, here are some products to consider adding to your stock of stabilizers.


A soft, sheer, textured backing, polymesh goes by many names but primarily comes from one mill. This backing was developed for use with sheer fabrics, such as tulle and chiffon, and lightweight garments, such as T-shirts and polos. The texture allows polymesh stabilizer to hold a large number of stitches, despite its light weight, which reduces the number of pieces needed to stabilize the garment.

Because polymesh is sheer and light, show-through is minimized on garments. Polymesh can also help eliminate the unsightly wad of cutaway or tearaway backing that is often employed to hold a large number of stitches on flimsier materials.

A fusible version is also available with all the qualities of regular polymesh, but it can be fused by heat to the decorated material. Fusible polymesh has two main uses. One use is as a skin protector. Using a fusible polymesh is common for those who embroider baby and children's clothes. The fusible polymesh is sealed over the back of the embroidery to protect delicate skin from irritation. The second use is to stabilize stretchy or flimsy fabrics. Because fusible polymesh literally fuses to the material, it provides an extra layer of stability and helps minimize stretching when embroidering performance garments or flimsy fabrics.  


Water-soluble topping keeps stitches from sinking into the pile of the fabric, and there are two types of water-soluble topping. One type is for fabrics that have a pile, such as fleece and terrycloth. Once the embroidery is complete, the design is misted and the excess topping dissolves, or it can be weeded from the embroidery. Without this topping, stitches can sink into the pile, but with it, they stay on top of the fabric where they belong.

The second type of water-soluble topping isn't a topping so much as it is a material that can be stitched into directly. These water-soluble options have a variety of names and can make free-standing lace, embroidered ornaments, and other decorative items. To use this type of stabilizer, the design is embroidered directly into the garment and any excess is dissolved in water. The dissolving generally requires submerging the embroidered item in water and agitating it. Once the excess dissolves, the finished design is visible. Some water-soluble options in this category also double as a backing.

Like water-soluble topping, heat-away backing dissolves; the difference is what dissolves it. In this case, it’s heat. If you embroider delicate fabrics and want no trace of stabilizer, a heat-away backing may be a good choice. This type of stabilizer disintegrates with a household iron and is a good option for fabrics that don't react well to water. Designs stabilized with heat-away stabilizers may require a higher stitch count to ensure the design holds once the backing dissolves.  

Embroiderers often want to waterproof their embroidery. Sure, boots can be monogrammed, windbreakers can be stitched, and umbrellas can sport embroidered designs, but until recently, there hasn't been a way to keep the embroidery from interfering with waterproofing.

ThermoSeal, however, is an embroidery backing designed to waterproof stitched designs. It allows embroidery in waterproof or water-repellent fabrics without compromising the waterproofing. When heated, ThermoSeal flows into needle holes to seal any gaps and prevent moisture from penetrating through the embroidered design. ThermoSeal has a relatively low melt temperature, 265 to 300 degrees F, and requires medium pressure to seal. It’s possible to seal your embroidery with an ordinary iron.  

Flame-resistant or fire-retardant backing is a must for anyone who embroiders for fire departments, electrical workers, or racing teams. This type of backing may be required by companies ordering uniforms for certain types of workers or industries. One type of stabilizer in this category is Proban, which is rated as fire retardant and is the preferred stabilizer for uniforms that could encounter flame. Flame-resistant backings are also rated for children's clothing.


Hard-to-hoop items may be the bane of any machine embroiderer's existence, but they don't have to be. Adhesive backing was developed precisely for this situation. An adhesive backing is what the name implies—a stabilizer with adhesive. This backing generally has release paper that can be scored to provide access to the adhesive.

For a small embroidered item that can’t be hooped, hoop the backing with the adhesive side showing and stick the embroidered item to the backing. Adhesive backing is also a vital component in some hooping systems because it stabilizes stretchy fabrics and prevents stretching.

Puffy foam is a type of topping used for 3-D embroidery. Most hats with raised 3-D embroidered logos are made with puffy foam. While puffy foam isn’t a stabilizer or topping in the traditional sense, it creates its own unique effect. When used with a specially digitized design, puffy foam creates a 3-D decoration by raising parts of the embroidery while leaving other areas one dimensional. Excess puffy foam is either torn away or melted with a heat gun, leaving a 3-D embroidered design.

Another option for 3-D embroidery is Q-104, which creates a more distressed look with looser stitches. A felt-like topping, Q-104 requires little specialized digitizing because the best effects are mostly created with wide satin stitches. Q-104 is water soluble, so submerge your design in water once it’s complete. For best results, wash your finished project in a machine. Q-104 can create a variety of effects. The length and tightness of the stitches determine whether the designs are small, puffed letters or larger designs with a loose, 3-D effect.

While cap backing is usually tearaway, it merits mention in the specialty category because it’s uniquely suited to embroider a particular type of garment. Cap backing is generally heavy tearaway, stiff and almost like paper. It’s often sold in smaller sheets or narrower rolls, which are suitable for embroidery on hats. The smaller size and heavy weight of this stabilizer make it the perfect choice for standard hat embroidery. 


If you only use tearaway and cutaway backing, it’s time to branch out and try something new.   The right type of backing can make a huge difference in the quality and wearability of your embroidery while increasing the types of embroidery you can offer. Most companies that sell machine embroidery supplies have a specialty backing and topping section and will provide information and instructions on the availability of specialty products and how to use them. Start with one type of specialty backing and see what you can create. Most specialty backings do not require a huge financial investment, and any time invested could lead to another profit center for your shop.