FAQ Series: All about Vinyl and ITH projects
What kind of vinyl do I need for ITH projects?
You need vinyl that is manufactured for being sewn. It will have a woven or knit backing designed to support stitching. We use the term “vinyl” to mean a variety of things from faux leather to glitter vinyl. Some of it is technically made with polyurethane rather than vinyl, but the important part is the backing—is it meant to be sewn?
Can I use vinyl with Parker on the Porch's top zip bags?
This question is often asked but not easily answered. The answer is that it depends. It depends on your machine, the vinyl you are using, and your skill level.
During the design testing process, Jen and her merry team of testers could not get reliably excellent results using a variety of different vinyls on different machines. If you have made any POP top zip bags, you know that the embroidery machine foot needs to come close to the top part of the zipper. Machines with larger embroidery feet and some less powerful home machines struggled to get close enough to the zipper through thick vinyl. Some machines also struggled to sew through multiple layers of vinyl.
Additionally, the "flipper method" used to get a clean front edge on this style of bag did not work smoothly with thick vinyl. Some customers avoid this obstacle by "hacking" the design and using the traditional front-zip method of butting a straight edge of vinyl up against the lower zipper teeth. The top zip bags work best when the zipper tape is enclosed (see the FAQ blog post Enclosed vs Exposed Seams? for more information on those!), so even if you "hack" the top zips in this manner, we recommend including a front and back lining to your bag. This bag hack will result in a different finish on the "front" side than the back because you will have the visible tack down stitching across the front of the bag/lower zipper area but no similar line across the top of the vinyl where it joins the zipper on the back of the bag.
Varieties of vinyl
There are SO MANY varieties of vinyl. My Punkbroidery (POP's favorite online vinyl shop) stocks 4 kinds of glitter vinyl, over 20 kinds of specialty vinyl, marine vinyl, promo vinyl (similar to marine)... And each of those types is a different thickness, different stiffness, different backing--which means they behave very differently when sewn. I can't possibly do all of the vinyl options they have available justice in one short blog post, so I will direct you to their website and Facebook group for you to dive deeper.
Today, we are going to shop at two local big-box fabric stores and browse their options. Here are a few things to think about when you're shopping for vinyl:
1. Choose a very pliable vinyl. If you can easily fold the vinyl along an edge similar to how you can fold fabric, that's a good sign.
2. Inspect the backing. The vinyl needs to have a backing that is suitable for being sewn. Usually that means a knit or woven backing.
3. Consider the thickness. A plain, unlined vinyl FRONT ZIP style bag will have at most 2 layers of vinyl, 1 layer of stabilizer, and a zipper to sew through. If your design has lining, applique, or other features that will add layers to the design, consider whether your machine will be able to stitch through that bulk.
4. Check out the color layer. Sometimes the vinyl at the big box stores has a very thin, very easily torn layer of color on top of the backing. This type of color overlay tends to pull away from stitching and tear weirdly when you trim, even when you use sharp scissors. You may be able to rub a corner with your fingernail and see, or you may need to buy a small amount before investing in a big piece. This has happened to me more with the smooth, marine vinyl style than their textured options. (And it has never happened to me with My Punkbroidery's marine!)
First stop: JoAnn, where we will head to the upholstery area. Their marine and upholstery vinyl is on large bolts.
We found the marine vinyl selection, so let's pick a color and check it out more closely. Here we have a plain cream. It's fairly pliable, but the fold doesn't want to lay flat (which means it might not cooperate with a top zip style bag). The backing looks nice, but the color layer is thin and seems like it would tear easily.
You'll notice a difference in these factors even among the colors of the same type of vinyl if you go down the aisle!
There are a few colors of what's called Signature Series Vinyl. It is very pliable, but the backing is a fuzzy material that will not help the thin topping support satin stitching or hold up to being zipped and unzipped.
They also have some tablecloth vinyl in a few colors and patterns. It's cute, but it's also a NO for ITH projects for the same reasons I passed on the Signature Series.
Around the corner from the upholstery rolls, there's an aisle with clearance fabrics, and I have found some great vinyl or faux leather on bolts here.
This navy "value vinyl" felt like a soft leather and was only $9.00/yd and has a woven backing. It's extremely pliable, the topper does not tear, and it worked beautifully for me on a top zip. (Keep in mind that I have a 6 needle machine and 15 plus years experience, but I would definitely recommend this style to try because of how fabric-like it is.) I have found this style in a few colors over the years including a silver and a pearl/gold. I couldn't find this online at all, and I loved the color, so I bought what was left on the bolt. Do not count on being able to find any of the value vinyls ever again!
They had two or three pretty nice vinyl options shoved in the rest of the junk on this aisle. You need a little patience to dig, and invariably, there's another person in the aisle who has no concept of personal space or how to move their shopping cart.
There's also a "utility fabric" aisle which can have some fun options for ITH projects. It's where the Blackboard Fabric lives, and I love this stuff for backing charms and snaptabs.
It is not pliable enough for bags. (And is very different from the blackboard fabric I have seen at Walmart or quilt shops, so go feel it if you haven't before.)
Also on the Utility Fabrics aisle is their cork. This store had two styles. Both had a woven backing. (At Hobby Lobby, their cork is on rolls in the upholstery area.) I would use this for the applique on a clutch, but I would not attempt to use cork on a flipper style bag. You may choose to ignore me and try anyway--that's cool! In my experience, this style cork does not like being folded in half and tends to split. There are various levels of quality. I have not tried the more expensive kind found online or in quilt shops.
One last place to check in JoAnn is over in their costume fabrics area. They have a new-ish line of faux suede and faux leather apparel fabrics.
They feel great and come in some fun colors and textures. The backing is fairly thin, and they seem to be made more for sewing (longer stitch length, less dense stitching) than embroidery. Also, they are on the pricey end at $29.99/yd. I haven't tried them yet, so if you do, please report back!
I had to run pick up a kid and didn't make it over to the remnant bins at JoAnn, but don't skip those! They are great for finding inexpensive cuts of clear vinyl, marine vinyl scraps, and fur.
Our next outing takes us to Hobby Lobby. They have a smaller variety of marine vinyl options, but theirs are on long, hanging bolts similar to JoAnn's. On a short side tangent, here is also where you find clear vinyl. The color papers tell you what gauge it is, and they are not universal. (Get it together, clear vinyl companies!) You want 12 or 16 gauge for POP projects. Before you haul the giant bolt to the cutting counter, don't forget to check the remnant bin first. Smooth out bumps and bends with indirect heat--a hair dryer, rubbing on a warmed up ironing board cover, etc. You do not want to iron this stuff directly!
Hobby Lobby's vinyl options include this faux leather "ribbon" that is $4.99 for 8" by 24" long piece. The ribbon is very pliable but on the puffy end of things, so it will be bulkier when you're sewing multiple layers. The backing on it is fuzzy, which makes it a bear to trim neatly for snaptabs and charms. (Personal opinion there--you may love it, so don't come at me with pitchforks.)
Here is a closeup of the pebbly texture faux leather ribbon (this brown makes nice football things!) which has the thicker, slightly fuzzy backing. This backing is what hangs out the sides of snaptabs and charms for me. And the newer metallic faux leather, which is very lightweight. I don’t know if this would stand up to satin stitching in an ITH project. I have only used it on appliqués.
They have some newer options such as mermaid scales (YMMV as to whether the iridescent topper on this will stand up to satin stitching) and chunky glitter (too chunky in my opinion for use in most ITH applications). It usually goes on sale every other week at 50% off. You'll find the faux leather ribbon on an end cap in the fabric area where the sewing trims are (not in the craft ribbon area with the wreath making supplies).
And/or on the bottom rack of the sewing ribbons.
At Hobby Lobby, sometimes the remnant area is a couple rows down from the fabrics. It really adds to the treasure hunt aspect.
And this glorious gold beauty absolutely hurled itself into my cart to come home with me.
On the far side of the store is the vinyl used in cutting machines. This is not what you want for most ITH projects.
If you are confident in your abilities and that your machine will handle the material, here are some suggestions:
1. Don't skimp on the stabilizer. Vinyl may seem sturdy, but it still needs stabilizing. White vinyl is especially soft. Add another layer of tear away or use a medium-heavy cut away, and consider WSS on white marine vinyl.
2. Use regular embroidery point needles even on vinyl projects. Most everything can be stitched with 75/11 embroidery point needles. Leather needles puncture fabrics and really aren't recommended for ITH projects.
3. Slow down your machine.
4. Don't walk away from the machine. If something goes sideways, you'll be right there to stop it.
5. Be patient and willing to seam rip.
6. Use good scissors for cutting vinyl, and move the project, not the scissors when you trim. These are my favorite scissors for trimming snap tabs and charms because they're not too tiny and not too big: Kai Sewing Scissors. For trimming bags, I use Jen's favorite Vinyl Scissors by Fiskars.
7. If you used tape ITH, remove it immediately! The adhesive will adhere and rip off the top layer of vinyl if you leave it too long.
8. Don't be afraid to experiment and have fun!
As always, please join us in the POP Facebook group to ask questions, share projects, and chat!