It can be challenging to avoid puckering on performance wear. It tends to be thin, stretchy, and slippery-all qualities that can make it difficult to keep in place while embroidering. The truth is that there’s no single solution to all the problems that it can cause, but taking a holistic approach to keeping the garment secure and taking a bit of a lighter hand with our application can lead to better results. Some distortion is inevitable. It’s not surprising that the threads that make up the fabric are moved out of the way or shifted by these ‘wedges’ when we drive thousands of threads into the fabric, each taking up little space. Even so, there are several variables we can address to help maintain the best possible reduction of puckering.
As performance wear is easily distorted, it pays to keep the design as light as possible. Use structured underlays, like a mesh underlay, below fills, or an ‘edge run,’ or contour underlay below satins to lift the topstitching up away from the surface. Decrease the density of your topstitching wherever possible.
On the most easily deformed materials, it can help to use the ‘tablecloth method’ of sequencing, in which, much like one does in stitching caps, one starts at the center of the design and sequences the elements to move toward the outer edges of the design. As loose material tends to travel in waves in front of the motion of the presser feet, this sequence will tend to smooth ripples in the embroidery area the way one smooths wrinkles out of a tablecloth when setting a table. This sequencing method also prevents you from ‘crashing’ that wave of material onto a previously stitched element. As the previous element ties the fabric down to the stabilizer, it will be solid, and you can end up affixing a ripple permanently by stitching toward elements that have already stitched.
Another thing that one can do when digitizing specifically for performance wear, particularly with a design featuring complete coverage or connected elements across the entire span, is to add an underlay run below the whole area before you start stitching. This sews the top fabric securely to the stabilizer before the design runs. This effectively creates a hidden basting stitch that stabilizes the design area, but won’t require removal.
A last tip in the digitizing realm has to do with stitch types. Long satin stitches tend to attempt to gather material in the center of the satin stitch, causing puckers. Split satins, or fill stitches will generally have less directional tension pulling toward their centers and cause less distortion.
Using a performance-wear specific stabilizer that resists stretching or changing shape, while being thin enough not to weigh down the garment or overly increase its stiffness, is essential. One layer of this performance stabilizer can do wonders, particularly when paired with a light application of the embroidery-specific adhesive spray. Firmly attaching the fabric smoothly and without stretching to the performance, stabilizer will give the material more body and prevent it from shifting out of place as you begin stitching.
Performance materials must be hooped tight, but not stretched beyond the amount it would typically stretch on a body. It’s tempting to over-tension the span, but the resulting rebound can make for worse puckering. That said, the hooping does need to be firm and tight. To avoid ‘hoop burn’ and scarring of the material, you can use the ‘window method,’ in which you place a piece of stabilizer atop the garment with a pre-cut window removed from it, larger than the design but smaller than the inner hoop ring. This allows you to use a firm tension on the hoop while avoiding abrasion of the material. Some embroiderers will wrap the hoop with a cloth tape, but I tend to use the window method to avoid any accidental transfer of adhesives from the tape to the garment.
There is some truth to the observation that the faster you run your machine, the more distortion you see in your embroidery. The material doesn’t have time to rebound, and satin stitches tend to be thinner and tighter when a machine is run at high speeds. Though this is less critical than the other variables, it may be worth testing in your setup; mainly if you tend to run at your machine’s top speed. You may have to decide on a balance between speed and quality.
Another variable to check is the tension of your thread. You can have a balance that doesn’t show bobbin and still be a little too tense. Reset your tension to the recommended amounts as specified by your thread manufacturer; particularly with the aforementioned long satin stitches. This thread tension element is why some embroiderers selectively run rayon threads that are recommended for a lighter tension. Just remember that they are less resistant to abrasion and breaking as well as less UV tolerant and are not able to be bleached or commercially laundered.
All in all, the attitude to take when dealing with performance wear is measured and firm. Balance the forces playing on your garment by having light stitching and solid, but not excessive hooping tension. Also make sure everything is secured, even adhered when need be, and that you have an eye toward using your stitching to enhance that firm marriage between material and stabilizer as you go. Do that and run steadily at a measured pace and you’ll prevail over even the most pernicious performance wear.