An example of a well-stitched design compared to one that is puckered.
Embroidery is a delicate process. In order to produce quality stitching on fabric there are many steps that must be followed correctly. Skilled digitizers and machine operators must collaborate in their efforts to achieve the best possible results. A slight error from either party can have disastrous results for the finished product.
Some errors in embroidery production are beyond the control of operators and digitizers—for example, when a needle breaks or thread snaps, or when the top-thread tension on the machine becomes loose and hits the same spot in the fabric over and over, ultimately causing it to tear. One common production problem, however, is almost 100 percent preventable. The pucker effect, where fabric bunches in the embroidered area, causes industry professionals to cringe. Here, we will break down the areas in the process that may cause pucker on a finished piece and discuss what can be done to prevent it.
The main responsibility of the digitizer is to eliminate unnecessary stitches. If a design is too dense, it will not sew correctly, especially on thin or stretchy materials where pucker is most prevalent. Designs with massive stitch counts are best suited for a heavy jacket or sweatshirt, for example, not for the left chest of a woven dress shirt. A skilled digitizer will recognize when a design may not be suitable for the chosen medium.
The hooping process is probably the most important step of all to prevent pucker.
The hooping process is probably the most important step of all in preventing pucker. When clamping the garment in the embroidery hoop, a thumb screw is used to adjust tightness. If it is screwed too tight, the fabric will stretch and ultimately resulting in puckering once the hoop is removed from the embellished item. If the hoop is too loose, the garment may come out of the hoop completely. Finding the right balance is critical when embroidering on materials prone to pucker, including garments prone to stretch. In a real-world example, John Horne, Stitch Designers’ president, embroidered on a four-way stretch material, which he reports was a successful project due to proper hooping techniques.
Wet-laid backing allows a garment to be run through a washing machine without the risk of pucker, whereas dry-laid will not hold. (All images courtesy the author)
The backing used to stabilize stitches on the reverse side of the garment also plays a vital role in preventing pucker. Generally a fibrous material, it comes in many different forms including tear-away, cut-away, cap and fusible, to name a few. With tear-away backing, the excess material is torn off of the back of the embroidered item. This would not be an ideal choice for stabilizing thin or stretchy fabric to prevent pucker. When the backing is torn away, it may pull the stitches and create the unwanted bunching. Cut-away backing is, yes, you guessed it, cut to remove the excess which of course causes no pull.
Most embroidery stabilizer or backing these days is wet-laid. This refers to how the backing is manufactured. The process is not unlike that of making quality paper products in which fibers are put into a solution. Once dry, the finished product is a nonwoven material. There is also dry-laid backing, but it is not best utilized for embroidery. According to Hung Huynh, production manager at Stitch Designers, wet-laid backing allows a garment to be run through a washing machine without the risk of pucker where dry-laid will not hold.
Tension is the most important element to be aware of with top thread. Poor tension (either too tight or too loose) can lend itself to all kinds of production problems, not the least of which is pucker.
Bobbin and top thread
Commercial embroidery equipment runs both a bobbin and a top thread. The top thread is, believe it or not, the thread at the top of the machine. Depending on how many colors are in a design or how many needles are on the sewing head, there could be as many as 15 spools of top thread for each head. As mentioned earlier, tension is the most important element to be aware of with top thread. Poor tension (either too tight or too loose) can lend itself to all kinds of production problems, not the least of which is pucker.
The bobbin, a tiny spool of thread located at the bottom of each sewing needle, is ultimately responsible for locking each individual stitch. A machine will still sew without a bobbin, but one loose thread could pull the entire design out of the fabric. The bobbin is not necessarily a factor in preventing pucker, but it is crucial in the embroidery process.
Testing a design is really the best way to prevent pucker. At Stitch Designers, all new designs are sewn out onto a swatch or sample fabric before they are sewn on the actual garment. This is true for both the designs that are digitized in-house and those provided by customers. It is important to test on a piece of fabric similar to the actual garment in order to have the best indication of what the production run will look like. For example, if the production run is 24 knit polo shirts, it would not make a lot of sense to use a piece of fleece as the swatch.
The adage “practice makes perfect” definitely holds true in embroidery. When Stitch Designers was embroidering Lycra swimsuits for Speedo, Horne spent many nights testing the fabric. “I sewed swatch after swatch until I got the embroidery just right,” he said. Granted this was in preparation for a run of 50,000 swimsuits, but a design should be tested even if there is only one piece in the order. Proper testing will save time and money in the long run.
Prevention is the cure
Pucker can be prevented! Make certain to examine each step in the process to determine which of the factors is causing the pucker. Any one of these steps, if not performed properly, can create unattractive embroidery. By taking the time in the beginning, you can avoid a lot of unnecessarily-damaged product.