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Making Machine Stitches Work for You

Chances are that your sewing machine has a few tricks up its sleeve — stitches that you almost never think to use. Whether you're getting to know your machine for the first time or you're starting to take your trusty machine for granted, it's time to take a closer look at everything that sewing gizmo can do.

The basic machine stitches

Figure 1 shows the very basic machine stitches. Of course, your machine may offer more, or fewer, of these stitches. Compare them with what's available on your sewing machine. You may find that you have more options than you realized!

  • Straight: You use the straight stitchfor basting, seaming, and topstitching.
  • Zigzag: The machine adds width to the straight stitch to make the zigzag stitch. You use the zigzag stitch for stitching around appliqués, making buttonholes, sewing on buttons, and embroidering. The zigzag stitch is as practical as it is fun.
  • Three-step zigzag: When used on the widest width, the ordinary zigzag stitch pulls the fabric into a tunnel and the fabric rolls under the stitch — not very desirable. To eliminate this problem, the sewing gods handed down the three-step zigzag stitch. The needle takes three stitches to one side and then three stitches to the other side, keeping the fabric flat and tunnel-free. Use the three-step zigzag for finishing raw edges, sewing on elastic, mending tears, and making decorative effects.
  • Blind hem and stretch blind hem: The blind hem stitch is designed to hem woven fabrics so that the stitches are almost invisible when looked at from the right side of the garment. The stretch blind hem stitch has an extra zigzag or two that stretches to invisibly hem knit fabrics. Both stitches have decorative applications, too.
  • Overlock: Many of the overlock-type stitches on today's sewing machines are designed to stitch and finish seams in one step, simulating the serger stitches that you see on ready-to-wear garments. Some of these stitches work well on woven fabrics; some work better on knits.
  • Decorative: Decorative stitches fall into two basic categories: closed, satin-type stitches (such as the ball and diamond) and open, tracery-type stitches (such as the daisy and honeycomb). Many newer machines can be programmed to combine these stitches with other stitches, elongate the designs for a bolder decorative effect, and even stitch someone's name.
    The newest high-end sewing machines can also create intricate embroidery designs (like those you see on ready-to-wear garments) by using embroidery cards. Embroidery cards are small computer discs that can store several large, intricate motifs. Some machines also offer scanners, which allow you to add additional patterns to the machine's stitch library.

Figure 1: Basic machine stitches.

Before taking your machine through its paces, you need to know how to select a stitch, set the stitch length, and set the stitch width.

Selecting a stitch type

If your sewing machine does more than straight stitch and zigzag, the machine must give you some way to select the stitch you want to use.

Older machines have dials, levers, buttons, or drop-in cams as stitch selectors.Newer, computerized models have keys or touch pads that not only select the stitch but also can automatically set the stitch length and width. You must consult the Operating Manual that comes with your sewing machine to get the specifics on how to select a stitch type.

Selecting the length of the stitch

The length of the stitch determines the stitch's durability. Short stitches (1 to 3 mm, 13 to 60 spi) are very strong and are meant to be permanent. Longer stitches are usually temporary or are used as a decorative topstitch.

Stitch length isdetermined by the distance the feed dogs move the fabric under the needle. When the feed dogs move with shorter strokes, stitches are short. When they move with longer strokes, stitches are longer.

Feed dogs, sometimes referred to as "feed teeth," are teeth or pads that move the fabric through the machine. The fabric is sandwiched between the presser foot and the feed dogs, and as the needle stitches up and down, the feed dogs grab the fabric and move it under the foot. Feed dogs are not built-in alarms that remind you to stop sewing long enough to feed your pets and family. But, please, don't get so wrapped up in providing clothing that you forget about food and shelter!

Stitch length is measured two different ways — in millimeters (mm) and in stitches per inch (spi). The setting used depends on the brand and model of your machine. Check out Table 1 if you want to compare stitch length in millimeters to stitch length in inches.

Table 1 Converting Stitch Lengths

Stitch Length in Millimeters

Stitch Length in Stitches per Inch

0.5

60 (fine setting)

1

24

2

13

3

9

4

6

5

5

6

4

Use the following as a general rule for stitch lengths:

  • The average stitch length for mid-weight fabrics is 2.5 to 3 mm/10 to 12 spi.
  • The average stitch length for fine fabrics is 2 mm/13 to 20 spi.
  • For heavier fabrics, basting, or topstitching, use 4 to 5 mm/5 to 6 spi.

Setting the stitch width

The stitch-width control sets the distance the needle moves from side to side while creating a stitch. You don't need to worry about the stitch width when sewing straight stitches — just set it to 0 (zero).

All machines measure the stitch width in millimeters (mm). Some makes and models have a maximum stitch width of 4 to 6 mm. Others create stitches as wide as 9 mm.

Is wider better? When it comes to decorative stitches, it usually is. A 5- to 6-mm width is sufficient for most stitches where you're overcasting the raw edge, blind hemming, or making buttonholes.

Stitching-in-the-ditch

You use this simple technique to tack down facings and to tack up a quick cuff or hem. All you do is follow these steps:

1. Place the crack of the seam right side up and perpendicular to the presser foot so that the needle is poised over the seamline.

2. Using a straight stitch, sew so that the stitches bury themselves in the crack of the seam.

Instead of backstitching, pull threads to the wrong side of the project and tie them off.

Topstitching

Topstitching is an extra line of stitching sewn on the right side of the fabric that parallels a seamline or is used to sew a hem. Topstitching is usually visible on a project, so it needs to look good.

Your pattern instructions tell you exactly where on the project to topstitch. To topstitch, simply place the project under the needle, right side up, and stitch at the specified location. Because topstitching is usually an important part of the overall garment design, you usually want to tie off the threads rather than backstitch.

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