I was recently asked this curious question and so I thought this would be a good place to answer it. Technically, embroidery itself won’t “shrink” fabric. However, sewing distortions occur during the embroidery process that can pull the fabric and thus result in the appearance of “shrinkage.”
Distortions occur as a result of push and pull (see Embroidery Basics: Understanding Compensation). Stitches push out on their open ends and pull in along the sides where stitch direction reverses.
Causes of Fabric Distortion
Factors that impact distortion include:
- The design. The more stitch intensive the design, the more distortion it contributes. Appropriate underlay and digitizing techniques can reduce excessive push and pull.
- The fabric. The less stable the fabric the more it will distort—which is why we use stabilizers.
- The stabilizer. An appropriate stabilizer can support the design on the selected fabric without negatively affecting the hand or drape of the fabric.
- Machine speed. The faster a machine sews the more distortion it imparts.
- Machine tensions. The tighter the needle and/or bobbin thread, the more the stitching will be distorted.
- Hoop tensions. Most fabrics should be at a neutral tension, not stretched, when hooped. Exceptions include fabrics that are worn stretched on the body.
Embroider Before or After Cutting Fabric?
If you are embroidering on fabric that will be made into a garment or quilt, I recommend embroidering first and then cutting out the fabric pattern or piece. Not only will you be able to combat any shrinkage, you will also be able to fine-tune your placement.
Other Notes on Shrinkage
There are a other things to keep in mind about fabric shrinkage. Actual fabric shrinkage can occur during laundering. Ever buy a knit with a large or dense design on it? It looked great until you washed and dried it—then it resembled a roller coaster with dips and hills. Stabilizers will not prevent this kind of shrinkage. The best prevention in this case is pre-washing and drying.
While not that big a deal for home embroiderers, washing and drying garments can turn into a major effort for production work. If you think it will provide the best result, let your customer know why you think so (samples help!) and let them know what the extra charge will be.