Wave goodbye to puckered garments by following Erich Campbell’s expert advice

It seems inevitable that embroidery will cause fabric to pucker and create ripples in your garment. It’s particularly pernicious when stitching performance garments with their stretchy, slippery and gossamer materials that are a challenge to keep stable in the hoop. While no single technique or material addition can entirely mitigate the problem of puckering, a balanced approach to the causes of this problem can help reduce its appearance.

Set up

Set the stage Even though thin, slick, and stretchy materials are popular, learn to know which garments are the least stable and, if possible, pick a similar piece with a little more material resistance to the embroidery process; present your best option that doesn’t distort as easily to your customer.

Similarly, choose designs that are more open and less filled to keep from weighing down or taxing your thin materials, and choose colours, (when you can), that reduce contrast so that you can keep densities low. Set the stage for success as much as you can before the stitching starts.

Digitising and densities Reduce stitch densities as much as you safely can when digitising. Each stitch leaves a thread spreading apart the garment’s yarns like a wedge; the more you add, the more the garment’s fibres have to move out of the way, causing distortion. Use underlays that lift up top stitching with structured scaffolds to allow for less density without losing top coverage. Mesh underlays work well for fills and edge run underlays under satins provide structure for clean edges and increased coverage without excess density.

This sample from another shop was causing extreme rippling and the satins were pinching the fabric. You can see how the designs are causing intense distortion

In this sample, you can see how at the size specified, I opted for a satin-edged fill. Add that to a centre-out sequence and balanced densities, and this sample is much smoother than the one from the other shop

Tablecloth sequencing Use the ‘tablecloth method’ to sequence designs: start in the centre of the decorated area and move away from that secured centre, imagining your presser foot as a hand smoothing wrinkles from a tablecloth. Loose material gathers in front of the apparent direction of the needle; the waves of gathered material become permanently stitched-in wrinkles if you stitch toward existing stitched areas, effectively ‘crashing’ the wrinkle into the unmoving, stable area that’s already attached to the stabiliser.

Mind your stitch angles as well; don’t push or pull in your garments’ weakest dimension if you want to avoid stretching.

Overall underlay If your design has a large area of complete coverage, or enough elements under which you can hide travelling stitches, add a straight-stitch underlay path before the design runs that starts from the centre and stitches out and back in a rough ‘starburst’ pattern, or one that follows the design’s contours, in a similar method. Your fabric will be entirely secured to the stabiliser and have its movement arrested with this tacking stitch-like run, and if it’s well hidden by the design, won’t require removal.

Lessen the length The long stitches in a wide satin column have more tension on them than a satin stitch or fill of equal width; even though you might usually use a satin for an element, consider a split satin when working on thin materials to reduce tension and distortion.

Even on a design like this with open area, you can pre-underlay the entire design in order to secure the fabric to the stabilisers as completely as possible before running

Polymesh, no-show mesh and other performance specific backings are thin enough to be less visible on a finished product, but stable enough to tamp down distortion, often with only one sheet, and without adversely affecting the hand of the garment

Material World

Keep it stable Stabilisers that are thin but have almost no stretch are the best for eliminating puckering on thinner, unstable materials. Consider polymesh: it is stable, light, hard to see through the garment when properly trimmed, and you only need one sheet for most well-created designs.

Stick together On the least stable materials, use a light application of embroidery-specific spray adhesive to temporarily marry the garment firmly to the stabiliser to arrest almost all shifting during the stitching process.

Hooping Firm hooping arrests the movement of materials, but an overly firm hand with stretchy materials will cause over-tensioning, resulting in awful puckering when the stretched material, which has been stitched in an overstretched state, has the surrounding material rebound after unhooping. Hoop firm and tight, but don’t overstretch.

A window of protection Prevent damage such as ‘hoop burn’ on sensitive materials by creating a window of stabiliser on top of the garment when hooping. Cut a hole in a stabiliser sheet large enough for your design to be embroidered through it, then hoop your garment as normal with a full sheet below, using the ‘window’ on the top to allow the hoop to be firmly set without abrading the garment.

This poor piece may have been at the end of its life when the customer brought it in, but it was flawed from the beginning; even on a denim shirt, it was stitched with a huge amount of density and with stitch angles that distorted in the weak dimension of the fabric. This design was all pucker

My recreation of the Duke City logo reduced the density significantly, and since it was going on a performance polo shirt, I elected to lower my densities through the use of a light appliqué material behind the blue circle, and a very loose density fill above it to give it texture. This piece was on a very thin garment and produced minimal distortion

On the machine

Slow your stitch The higher your stitches per minute (spm), the more force you are applying to your garment, and the more it distorts. Give the fabric time to relax after each stitch by slowing the machine down on your difficult garments. This isn’t the prime reason for puckering, but is worth testing, especially if you always run at the maximum speed your machine can handle. It may just need to relax. Speed is always a trade-off with quality.

Feeling tense? Tension can affect puckering; even with a balance that doesn’t show an imbalance of bobbin thread, you may be putting too much tension on your garment. Get gauges and adjust to your thread manufacturer’s recommended tension. Maintaining it at the right level means less pull and distortion, especially in satin stitches. For the lightest hand on garments that won’t be bleached, you can even consider the slightly less tense and stretchy rayon thread, so long as you understand that it will have lower colourfastness and stiffness.

Ultimately, when it comes to avoiding puckering of fabrics, the watchword is ‘balance’. Don’t overstretch, design with a light hand, and balance your stitching with preparation before the design and a smooth, unhurried operation throughout. Do that, and don’t be afraid of a little steam or press when your garment is finished, and you’ll find deformation of your substrates significantly reduced.

Erich Campbell is an award-winning digitiser, embroidery columnist and educator, with 18 years’ experience both in production and the management of e-commerce properties. He is the partner relationship manager for DecoNetwork in the USA.