When Jas Purba, managing director of ETC Supplies, read an article in Images questioning the use and waste disposal of embroidery backings, he felt he had to respond. Here he explains how to reduce, reuse and recycle these materials

Step one in reducing backing wastage is to look at the sizes being used. Right from the early days, we have always offered our customers the option of having embroidery backing available in bespoke sizes of pre-cut backing. Our aim was to reduce the waste created when backing was torn away from the embroidery.

Traditionally, suppliers of embroidery backing only offered one size of backing – 20 cm x 20 cm. However, this created a lot of waste material when the frame size being used was only 12 cm or 15 cm. When you use a 12 cm frame you only need enough overlap to allow the ring to grip the backing and the fabric. Our recommendation here is to use a cut piece size of 14.25 cm x 14.25 cm. As most embroidery backing fabrics are supplied at 100 cm width this size not only fits the frame, but also utilises the full width of the fabric without any waste.

With the development of the latest types of frames such as magnetic and clamping systems, the waste backing is reduced even more as these frames work like a sandwich and do not require any overlap on the frame for the ring to grip it.

Not all companies will purchase cut pieces of embroidery backing. Many still prefer to buy on the roll and cut it themselves. This is where most of the waste develops. Staff are under pressure not only to run the embroidery machine, but also to unpack, pack the garment and cut the backing all at the same time. Often the cut is not straight and the pieces are about 25 cm x 25 cm in size. This is a standard size that they then use on all sizes of embroidery frames. If this resembles your workshop, take a look at the amount of waste you’re producing and what it is costing you.

What type of backing are you using?

Some companies still have the attitude that they only need to buy one type of backing – an easy-tear one. They will then add several layers to an embroidery design to try and stabilise it. So now they have a situation whereby instead of tearing away one layer of backing, they are removing up to four or five layers of backing. Much of this will have been cut into pieces that are too big for the embroidery frame, (see above), resulting in even more waste.

ETC Supplies stocks more than 65 different types of embroidery backing because every embroiderer has their own preference as to what type of backing they like. There is also the variance in the fabric being sewn, the design, the tensions set up on the machine and the type of frame being used.

I won’t go into detail about the choice of backing required here as that would run into several pages as it is an article on its own. However, in most cases, a simple tear-away cross laid in two pieces will suffice. But more complicated designs, such as badges with borders, will require a cut-away backing. Also, how the machine is set up will impact on the choice of backing. If the thread tensions are set correctly, the underside of the embroidery should be nice and flat. If the thread tensions are set too tight, the top and under threads will keep breaking and rip through the backing.

What type of material are you using?

Embroidery backing, which is correctly referred to as stabiliser, is intended to do exactly that, ‘stabilise’ an embroidery design. Personally, I do not think a stiff backing should be used on fine fabrics as it spoils the drape of the fabric and makes the embroidery look unsightly. However, some embroidery companies like this effect. The backing should always be kept to a minimum and should not be highly visible, even in cut-away applications.

A new generation of embroidery backings made from PVA and PVOH materials is now available. Both of these products can be dissolved in water, which means they don’t produce any waste that requires disposal. Water-soluble PVOH film is made from water soluble polymers, has the appearance of a common plastic film and will completely dissolve in water at room temperature. This type of film is commonly used as embroidery topping in lighter weight fabrics and as an embroidery backing in heavier weights.

By using water-soluble PVA film, waste can be reduced to zero while retaining the benefits of using a non-woven material. It can be dissolved by cold water, so it can be washed away without damaging the clothes. Water-soluble PVA film has advantages over other films: it is non-toxic; can be dissolved totally; doesn’t result in producing wire-drawing, nodal point, wire-break, offset direction etcetera; and is fit for a multi-head embroidery machine.

Why use embroidery backing?

The article I mentioned at the beginning also questioned the use of embroidery backing and if indeed an embroidery machine could be run without it.

Many fabrics such as knitted fabrics have a gap between the yarns. When an embroidery needle goes in and out of this empty space, it will pull the thread loop back out as there is nothing, (no embroidery backing), to prevent the thread from coming out again. This can and does happen on all types of fabrics, even woven fabrics. So the backing acts as a retention material.

Different types and weights of fabric will require a different type of backing. The type of embroidery design will also determine what characteristics are required in the backing, as will the choice of embroidery needle and the thread tensions.

A thin, stretchy, knitted fabric will require a stronger backing, such as a soft cut-away. The reason for this is that the backing is doing all the work of holding the design in place. For a basic sweatshirt or woven material garment you can use a multi-direction or two-way, easy-tear backing. The latter can be cross laid to provide maximum stability during embroidery.

How to dispose of backing

Not all waste backing has to end up in the bin! Nowadays there are several options as to how you dispose of this waste material, such as sending it to be recycled into cloth wipers, greenhouse bedding, cat litter or new fabric yarn. Do some research to find out what’s available in your local area.

For composting, all you need is a standard plastic compost bin. Since rayon fibres are derived from wood pulp, these fibres are the easiest to break down into compost. Polyester will also break down, although the process takes longer and the end degraded matter is not as fine as the rayon fibre, but it is still excellent for use on soil.

The process can take anywhere from six to 12 months to complete, depending on what else is put into the compost bin. All the food waste from your workplace should be diverted to the compost bin as this will assist the fibre breakdown process. It is also possible to buy compost accelerator granules. The waste in the compost bin should be compressed every time a new batch is added. When you are ready just open the bottom sliding door to allow the dry compost granules to pour out.


Non-woven waste breaking down in Jas’s compost bin