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Tips for Embroidering on Terrycloth

Erich has more than 18 years experience as an award-winning digitizer, e-commerce manager, and industry educator. He empowers decorators to do their best work and achieve a greater success. A current educator and long-time columnist, Erich takes every opportunity to provide value to the industry. Find more information on Erich and his publications here.

Ubiquitously found in almost every home, terrycloth is a most useful fabric, if somewhat vexing to embroiderers. In its most usual forms of bath towels, robes, washcloths, and the like—or the somewhat rarer French terrycloth used in sweaters and some sportswear—it's almost certain you've touched the soft, absorbent, warmth of terrycloth, although you may have been avoiding embroidering it.

All of the luxury and utility of terrycloth makes it difficult to decorate. Terrycloth is woven in such a way that it creates pile of elongated loops. In standard toweling, the pile is often on both sides of the fabric while the loops of French terrycloth generally protrude only from one side. No matter what type of terrycloth you stitch, your chief concern is how to handle that thick, unruly forest of loops. Luckily, with a set of texture-tackling techniques and stylistic choices, you can make terrycloth an asset to your business and learn to love those loops.


Not all terrycloth accessories are alike. Even if we take the most familiar terrycloth, you'll find a wide range of pile lengths, textures, and woven patterns. When decorating towels, you may find that the specific piece has a flat, woven band that takes more easily to embroidery than the loopy surface ever could. When possible, there's nothing wrong with constraining decoration to such a well-suited area.

Even so, your most likely scenario requires stitching directly into the pile of the terrycloth. The difficulties you’ll face with that loopy surface are evident. If you make no adjustments to a standard design, loose loops will push through your embroidery, the pile will swallow and fall back over edges or thinner elements of the design, and your satin stitch columns will become thin with ragged edges. Given these outcomes, there are two directions to take: You can fight the pile with embroidery to create a better surface for stitching, or work with the pile to create decorations that use the terrycloth’s texture and thickness.


Fighting the loops is probably the simplest method when using existing, standard embroidery designs. Some embroiderers look to toppings to hold down the pile. Though toppings such as the ever-present water-soluble film help keep the loops from poking through the top stitching, the standard soluble toppings dissolve after the first customer wash. If the embroidery wasn't created to stop it, the loops can still work their way through the design for a shoddy look.

Still, other embroiderers use this as an excuse to employ everything from wax paper to cling film and plastic grocery bags as a topping. While it's possible that these may last longer, they still degrade with wash and wear. Personally, I’d be aghast if some fragment of plastic worked its way from under one of my designs, even if the loops stayed tucked in place. For the best long-term look, use structural embroidery so that the thread manages the pile and lives as long as the rest of the design.

As with other thick, textured substrates, one of the easiest, most effective methods to knocking down a pile is the light cross-hatch fill. Select a thread that closely matches the color of the toweling to make a flat surface. This is done by simply filling a shape under the design that’s slightly larger than the design's overall area.

By running two fills at less than full density with the first at a 45-degree angle and the second at a 135-degree angle before stitching the design, it creates a net of embroidery that tightly holds down the loopy surface without leaving it as smooth and impenetrably heavy as a full-density fill. This allows you to run a standard design over the top of the mesh fill without adding unnecessary density. Done well and with a thread that doesn't provide too much contrast, the mesh fill will look like a debossed area more than an embroidery of its own.

Appliqué is another method for fighting loops. To avoid working with pile, apply a fabric insert or strip in the beginning of the design and attach a material with a smoother, more even surface that can better uphold small detail in finished designs. Even without detailed upper-design work, the textural differences you can explore with smooth or shiny appliqué on the fluffy and rough surfaces of a towel can make for impressive contrast.

If you work with the loops, it’s necessary to digitize specifically for the fabric at hand. One way to work with the pile is to create designs that don't overly suffer from the problems loops create. If properly underlayed with structural stitching, large, bold lines and natural motifs will tolerate some of the variation that the terrycloth’s surface creates.

In a large satin-stitched monogram, add extra thickness and pull compensation to the satin columns with a combination of edge-walk and double zig-zag underlay. This knocks down some of the offending pile and keeps the natural thinning and contraction of the strokes from not overpowering the design. With enough compensation, a fine look is created, and the pile remains intact.

Better yet, if the design is executed in a tone that doesn't contrast heavily with the ground, the overall effect is that more forgiving. With less contrast, an occasional stray loop isn’t as noticeable.


Embossing is the second method to make stunning terrycloth decorations. Though technically a misnomer, this style of design creates negative spaces through which the looped pile erupts, using the height and texture of these revealed areas of the pile for the primary design elements. Often using light mesh fills, this technique consists of knocking down the background areas and allowing shapes made of the pile to stand up above the surface. This gives a wealth of light and shadow as well as textural contrast.

The design elements need to be large and open for this to work well, but a thick-stroked monogram or simple shape standing tall in a flattened field of fill and surrounded by a satin border might make the textured pile the star of the show. Though tone-on-tone renditions are the most usual method, some contrast still works wonders. As long as you provide a negative space large enough for the pile to stand out, your imagination is the only limit to embossing possibilities.

No matter how you decorate terrycloth, the basics are simple to remember. Manage the surface, compensate for what you can't manage, and use contrasts in texture and sheen to your advantage. Terrycloth is like an old friend. Once you've learned to love it for its merits, smoothing over the rough patches seems easier and more worthwhile. Whether a daily-use towel or a fine robe, you'll find your customers are ready to make friends with finely decorated terry cloth, too.