Cutwork borders – a tutorial and a freebie!

One of the features in my first few designs is the option to make a cutwork edge as part of the embroidery process, creating a neatly finished edge like you find in hand sewn and manufactured goods. Since this may not be familiar to many of you, I wanted to post a quick tutorial as well as a freebie so you can try it out at home.

Whenever possible, I use natural fiber fabrics as my base for embroidery. Fine fabrics such as lightweight lawn and batiste are suitable for cutwork, but anything extremely sheer and delicate may not have enough body to support the cut edge once the stabilizer is rinsed away. If you wish to use a very sheer fabric, I recommend that you experiment with a combination of stabilizers, possibly using a tear away under the cutwork edge for additional support even if you use wash away stabilizer for the rest of the design.

For cutwork designs I use matching thread on top and in the bobbin, rather than a different bobbin thread. This creates a smooth finished edge for the fabric.  I typically use DMC 50 weight cotton machine embroidery thread, and sometimes an 80 weight thread like Madeira Cotona for delicate fabrics.

1. Lightly starch and iron your fabric before beginning.

2. If making a continuous border, mark a line for your finished edge with a pencil, wash away pen, or by drawing a single thread. This will be where the deepest part of the scallop touches the edge. You may also wish to mark a second line marking the highest point of the scallops, where the design repeats match up.

3. Layer the fabric on top of 1-2 layers of wash-away stabilizer. If desired, use a temporary spray adhesive to hold the layers together while hooping.  Hoop with the fabric layer on top.

4. Stitch Color 1, which forms a cutting line in running stitch, just inside the finished edge of the design.

Color 1 stitches out the cutting line.

Color 1 stitches out the cutting line.

5. Remove hoop from the machine, but DO NOT remove the fabric from the hoop.

6. Carefully trim away the fabric below the stitched line, cutting as close as possible to the stitching without cutting any threads. Be careful not to stretch or shift the fabric while trimming. I also trim away the loose fabric so it can’t get caught in the stitching later. Do not cut into the layer of stabilizer.

Trim away excess fabric below cutting line.

Trim away excess fabric below cutting line.

7. Replace the hoop in the machine, and continue stitching the remaining colors of the design. Color 2 will zigzag over the cut edge of the fabric, then cover it in satin stitches. When the stabilizer is washed away, this will be the finished edge of the fabric. If you notice you have a lot of whiskers showing after the zigzag stitches, you can stop the machine and trim them away before you stitch the satin stitches. Most of the time they won’t be noticeable in the finished project.

Halfway through color 1, showing the zigzag stitches being covered by satin stitches.

Halfway through color 1, showing the zigzag stitches being covered by satin stitches.

Cutwork 4

Satin stitches completed. Ready to repeat into a border, or to wash away the stabilizer. 

Here are the front and back views of the finished stitching. The back stitches don’t look as smooth as the top stitches, but when stitched in matching thread they won’t be noticeably different looking if the edge gets flipped up during use.


Front of work.


Back of work. 

Just think of all the things you can do with a pretty scalloped border. Here is my Pinterest board with a few ideas to get you started.

Want to try it out? Download the freebie here.


Stabilizers for Historic Garments

One of the topics that confused me most when I started machine embroidery was what kind of stabilizer to use and when. There are so many choices to pick from, and many can be downright expensive. The sewing machine shops were quick to recommend cut away and tear away stabilizers for almost everything. They are generally only thinking in terms of knits and sturdy wovens, not the cottons, linens, and silks often used for historic costuming.

I quickly discovered that for historic garments, I really didn’t want any trace of the stabilizer left behind. The thread alone adds a fair amount of stiffness that you don’t see in hand embroidery, and stabilizer can add even more bulk. Cut away can show through after pressing, and tear away can be a pain to pick out of detailed designs. In the end, I discovered I prefer to use wash away stabilizers on almost every project, because you’re left with just fabric and thread. Obviously, that doesn’t work well with silks or other fabrics that shouldn’t get wet. For those I generally use a tear away, though I’m intrigued by the heat away options that disintegrate when heated by an iron, and then can be brushed away.

Unfortunately, not all wash away stabilizers are made equal, and some fabrics can be wriggly in the hoop, making lining up borders or designs difficult. Here are a few of the things I’ve figured out over the past few years. It’s by no means the only way to do things, but if you’re just starting out, I hope it saves you some of the trial and error I went through.

  • There are two types of wash away stabilizers: sheer, plastic-like ones and white, fabric-like ones. I like the second type, because they seem to hold up better as the needle goes through them repeatedly and therefore give more support to the design.
  • Some stabilizers wash away better than others, so it’s a good idea to try it out before you commit to a big roll. Right now I like the H2O Gone wash away stabilizer, but there are many other options out there.
  • You may need two layers of stabilizer, especially since the wash away types aren’t as firm as the tear away and cut away stabilizers. Sometimes you may need even more ways to firm up your fabric. (I’ll cover some ideas later in this post.)
  • You may need one layer under and another on top of the fabric, especially if your stitches are sinking into the fabric, or the machine is catching on the fabric, like when you’re stitching on velvet or tucked fabric. The clear wash away stabilizers can be useful for that top layer.
  • It may help to baste the fabric to the stabilizer, either with stitching or with temporary spray adhesives, so there is less slipping as you embroider a design.
  • If your fabric is thin or slipping, it may help to add another layer of fabric into the hoop to increase the grip. You can wrap fabric strips or twill tape around the hoop, just like you might for hand embroidery.
  • If you’re going to use a wash away stabilizer, pre-wash your fabric before stitching. You don’t want it to shrink after you’ve done all that work!
  • There are more and more stabilizers on the market all the time. Some iron on, some are sticky, some melt away, heat away, or wash away. Don’t be afraid to experiment to find the right combination for the design you’re stitching on your fabric on your machine. Ruining a few swatches is vastly preferable to ruining a whole project.
  • Don’t be cheap when it comes to stabilizer, especially if you’re using good fabrics and good thread. It can seem like a big expense, but it makes such a difference in the final product.

For some projects, stabilizer alone may never be enough. Delicate cotton batiste or wriggly linen can be difficult no matter what you use with them. In these cases, it can help to stiffen up the fabric itself before hooping with your stabilizer of choice.

One option is starch. Several coats of spray starch can really help a wiggly or sheer fabric become manageable. This goes for sewing it, as well! If you want to go even stiffer, any old-fashioned liquid starch that would make a petticoat stand up by itself will also do the same with your fabric before embroidering.

Another option is a liquid stabilizer. There are ready-made versions out there, but I prefer a DIY version made from wash away stabilizer dissolved in warm water.  If you trim away the excess stabilizer from your projects before you wash them and save the scraps, it’s free. This makes my frugal little heart happy, because I hate wasting anything, especially 3/4 of the width of the stabilizer when stitching borders!

I use roughly two parts water to one part scraps, aiming for a nice balance between too runny and too sticky. I used about a fistful of scraps for a jar this size.

The ingredients for a DIY liquid stabilizer: wash away scraps, warm water, and a brush.

You can brush it on or use a spray bottle. I prefer a brush, because I don’t want to worry about sticky overspray to clean up later, or needing to unclog the nozzle if it dries out. No matter what, it’s a bit sticky and messy, so take that into consideration before you start!

The messy task of brushing on liquid stabilizer.

This is a sheer cotton fabric before and after the liquid stabilizer. The stiffened fabric has a lot of body, like organza, and is much easier to hoop without pulling it off grain.

Sheer cotton fabric before and after being stiffened with liquid stabilizer.

So how much difference does it really make?

Sample 1: Linen straight off the bolt, and hooped with wash away stabilizer. The faint blue line to the left was a straight line on grain when hooped. You can see how the stitching has pulled the fabric off grain in places, and there are some puckers in the embroidery.

Fabric 1

Sample 2: Linen ironed with several coats of spray starch, then hooped with wash away stabilizer. This has a pulled thread at the left of the image to show the grain of the fabric.  This is better, with more of the fabric still on grain and fewer puckers. More starch or a heavier starch would have helped even more.

Fabric 2

Sample 3: Linen brushed with liquid stabilizer and left to dry, then hooped with wash away stabilizer. This also has a pulled thread at the left of the image to show the grain of the fabric. Most of the fabric is still on grain, and there was almost no puckering at all this time. This is a great option for a larger design or border that you need to piece together accurately.

Fabric 3

So please, take the time to experiment and find the stabilizer option that gives you the best results with the least headaches. Most of what they will tell you in the sewing shops applies to someone embroidering t-shirts and kids’ clothing, not historic garments and delicate fabrics, but there are options that work beautifully if you hunt for them.