Wednesday, February 12, 2014

So, you want to sew...Beginner Lessons Part 3 (Basic Stitches)

Here we go - at long last, part 3 of my beginner sewing lessons!  I can't promise that it will be worth the wait, but I hope it will be helpful!  If you're just joining in, check out Part 1 (Supplies) and Part 2 (Choosing a Project).


I'm going to start with the basic assumption that you have threaded your machine and you're ready to make your first stitches.  I think it might be impossible to write a generic tutorial for how to thread a machine - the process is basically the same, but there are nuances to each make and model.  Follow your manual (carefully!  precisely!), or if it's an old machine that came sans manual, try searching for it online.  Once you're all threaded up and ready to go, come back here :)

OK, so your machine is threaded, and your bobbin is in place (and your bobbin thread is up through the hole in the throat plate - your threading instructions should include this, but if it didn't, the basic gist is that you need to hold your top thread still (so it doesn't pull back up through your needle) then turn the hand wheel (on the right side of the machine) one full turn - this will (magically!) catch your bobbin thread and you can gently tug on the top thread to pull the bobbin loop up completely).

As you're starting, things should look like this:

Both threads are ready - a few inches of a tail on each - and it's a good idea to pull them off to the side so that they don't make a tangle when you start.

For practice, we can just make some stitches in the middle of a fabric scrap (cotton calico is the best!)

BEFORE YOU START SEWING, LOWER THE PRESSER FOOT AND PUT THE NEEDLE IN THE FABRIC.  There is a lever (near the needle shank, to the back or to the right) to lower the presser foot, and you can lower the needle with the hand crank.  Do not EVER start sewing without these two steps.  This is like putting your car in drive and taking off the emergency break.  Do it every time before you start.

One more time for emphasis:  Pre-stitching check: presser foot down?  needle down?  Ok.  We're good to go!

You can begin sewing by pushing on the foot pedal (given that most people reading this tutorial can drive, there's likely to be a smaller learning curve than the SPPPEEEEDY/herky-jerky stops and starts that came when 5-year-old me was learning, but it's still like driving a different car when you're used to - you need to familiarize yourself with the amount of pressure needed).  Especially as you're starting out, don't sew too fast!  (And don't drive too fast; safety first!)

I needed a third hand to take a picture, but your hands should be in position like this (left hand as shown, right hand in a similar position on the right side).  You can gently guide your fabric, but you should not be pushing or pulling it at all.  There are feed dogs (yes, that's the technical term) under the fabric that are moving it along at a nice even pace.  You just want to make sure that it's not getting off course (aka, you're sewing where you want to be sewing).  Also, watch where your fingers are, and do not put them under the needle (it sounds obvious, huh?)

Practice stitching straight lines until you feel comfortable.  For this practice round, just "eye-ball" your straight lines - don't worry about following any specific lines.  (Although you could, if you wanted, buy striped fabric and practice going up and down the lines).


Next, you can move onto curves and points.

The best way to practice this is to draw some curves on another piece of scrap fabric (I just used a Sharpie, since this is practice.  There are obviously more correct ways to mark fabric if you're doing anything besides practicing!)

Then follow your line with machine stitching, carefully guiding the fabric as you stitch (again, remember no pushing or pulling, just gentle corrections - I generally keep both hands palm down as you saw in the pictures above, and apply gentle downward pressure (while moving slightly to the right or left) to the fabric - almost like you're slowly brushing or wiping the table top with the fabric).

If I were a better photographer, you would see that this line now has stitching on it.  But alas, you came here to learn to sew, not to learn to photograph!

It will likely take some practice to be able to keep the stitching right on the line.  Chances are, you'll be tempted to just skip this and move onto a real project - but you'll be less frustrated if you master your basics first!

After curves, you can do pivots.  If you need to pivot for any reason (for example, maybe you're sewing a pillow case and you come to the corner), slow down with your stitches so that you can carefully guide your last few stitches and end with the needle down right at (in?) the point of the pivot.  It's sometimes difficult to have this much control with the foot pedal, so you can make these last few stitches by using the hand crank.

When the needle is in place (DOWN!), then lift the presser foot and adjust the fabric.  It will easily pivot on the needle.  Do not attempt to pivot unless the needle is down, otherwise your fabric can completely move free and you'll end up with (at best) a long stitch, or possibly a loop of thread, or just generally undesirable results.  Once the fabric is situated in the new direction, put the presser foot back down and continue sewing (also, don't forget to put it back down before you start again; I've also done that in some distracted moments).

Approach point slowly, stop with needle down in point.

Lift presser foot, pivot fabric to new direction.

Put presser foot back down and continue sewing.

Practice makes perfect!


Now - to start connecting pieces of fabric!

For this practice exercise, start with two blocks of calico that are the same size.  Line them up so that the right sides of the fabric are touching.  The "right side" is the more brightly printed side, the side that should be shown on your finished project (as opposed to the "wrong side," which will be the back or the inside that won't be seen).  You will almost always make seams with the right sides together - when you stitch, you are looking at the wrong side of the fabric, so the seam (and the raw edges of the fabric) will then be hidden on the back when you turn it around.  Sometimes keeping track of which is the right and wrong side and why it should be that way can be confusing, especially if you're not spatially oriented - but once you practice a bit, it will start to make sense!

Particularly if it's a long or curvy seam, or if your fabric is silky (it should be none of the above for this practice round!), you will want to pin it.  I prefer to place my pins perpendicular to the seam, with the pinhead sticking out to the right.  (This arrangement makes them easy to remove while sewing and minimizes the unfortunate pin-with-needle collisions, although they'll still likely occur from time to time).

OK, now to start a seam, you will start sewing between a quarter of an inch and a half of an inch from the top edge of the seam (the side perpendicular to where your seam will be).  On the right side (right as opposed to left, not right as opposed to wrong sides of the fabric), you will line it up with the measuring guide on the face plate of your machine.  The distance you choose (from the edge of the fabric to the needle) is called the seam allowance.  The standard seam allowance for most patterns (particularly clothing) is 5/8 of an inch.  I've seen a lot of online tutorials and newer patterns use 1/2 inch.  The standard for quilting (and often baby or kids clothes) is 1/4 inch.  The pattern you are using will tell you.  For this practice, I recommend 5/8".

Line up your fabric and put your needle down & presser foot down once the right is aligned with your seam guide.  Remember again - not too close to the top edge.  If you don't leave a little space at the beginning, the feed dogs won't "catch" the fabric, and you will end up with a knot and frustration.  Believe me.

Start sewing slowly, making 3 or 4 stitches.  Then, push your reverse button or lever and sew (now backwards!) until you reach the top edge of the fabric (but again, don't go completely over).  Then, release the reverse button and start sewing normally again for the length of the seam.  Use the same method for guiding the fabric that we talked about above.  Be careful to keep the right edge aligned with the appropriate seam guide on the machine

As you come to them, you can remove the pins with your right hand.

When you reach the end of the seam, again push the reverse button, sew backwards for 5 or 6 stitches, and then sew forwards until you go off the end of the fabric.  This back and forth at the beginning and end of seams is called "back-tacking" and it locks the stitches so that your seam doesn't unravel.

back tack
A finished seam
 After finishing the seam, be sure to trim your loose threads (the photo above is a bad example).  My mom always taught me that loose threads on a project were the mark of carelessness or unprofessional work - so clip them and make her proud!


Although most people won't see the inside of your garment or project, there are still cases where you want the raw edges of the seam to look more finished.  There are also practical reasons for this; for example, if it's a piece of clothing that will be machine-washed, if you don't finish your raw edges, they will get really ratty really fast in the washing machine (although the seam will be in place, the fabric in the seam allowance will start to unravel and those strings will knot, and, in short, look like a big mess).

The fastest/easiest method (provided you have the right equipment) is to serge the edges.  This requires a serger/overlock machine, which is a special kind of sewing machine that simultaneously cuts the raw edge and stitches over it to keep it from unraveling.  If you look inside almost any store-bought garment, those seams will be serged.

A serged seam (see stitching on top edge)
If you don't have a serger (and honestly, I wouldn't recommend it if you're just learning to sew - worry about one machine at a time!!), you can zig zag over the edge to achieve a similar result.

You can follow your machine guide on how to set your zig-zag settings.  You should have two choices - how wide the stitch is (the width of the Z), and how far apart the stitches are (imagine a regular Z versus a Z that was stepped on from the top).  This explanation probably makes more sense if you see the stitches.

Anyway, if you're going to zig-zag the edge, line up your presser foot so that when the needle comes down to the left it hits your fabric, and when it comes down on the right (as it goes back and forth in the zig-zag) it goes off the right edge.  If you have a newer machine, you might even have a little arrow on your zig-zag foot that shows where the edge of the fabric should line up.

Two important notes: make sure you check your machine guide for the proper presser foot needed to zig-zag (I've broken many a needle by switching to zig-zag settings and forgetting to change the foot from a straight stitch foot), and also check whether or not you need to change the little plate under the needle (my older machine has a reversible plate with a small pin-point hole for the needle to go down when you're doing straight stitching (the needle is only going up and down) and a wider space for the needle when it's going both up and down and back and forth.

Zig-Zag edge (see top edge)

If you want a relatively simple way to have your seams completely finished (no raw edges showing) without zig-zap or serging, try a french seam.

French seam
To make a French seam, you will first put your fabrics together wrong sides together, and stitch the seam with a small seam allowance (say, 1/4").  

Then, carefully turn the fabrics so that the right sides are together (the seam you want to sew will already be together, with the raw edges of the seam allowance between the two layers of fabric). Now, stitch the seam again - this time with a larger seam allowance.  Your raw edges will be completely encased in the new seam.  Keep in mind that if you're doing this on a pattern, you have to adjust for the 1/4" you already used in the first seam - so if you're making a French seam on a pattern that calls for 5/8" seam allowances, you'd make the first pass at 1/4" and the second one at 3/8" (5/8" minus 1/4").  If you forget to subtract out the seam width you already used, you'll be eating in to the actual garment or pattern piece instead of just the allotted seam allowance.

Top stitching

Top stitching is honestly my favorite type of machine sewing.  I'm not sure why, since it's also the most visible (and therefore potentially nerve-wracking), but I always get excited when I get to that step on a project.

Top stitching isn't used for a seam construction, but can be used to keep a facing in place, or for a narrow hem.  It's typically stitching done very close to a folded edge, and the stitching is visible on the finished project.

Top stitching

You can see here how close the needle should be to the edge.  My presser foot has a little gap that should line up with the edge of the fabric.  Depending on what your presser feet look like, you may have to experiment for a bit to determine what part of the foot you should use as a guide to get the appropriate distance (approximately 1/8").  Most often, you'll stitch with the right side of the project facing you (the top stitches usually look slightly nicer than the bottom stitches, and it's nice to see exactly what it will look like as you sew).

Like before with your straight seams practice, continue doing some top stitching practice until you're comfortable with guiding the fabric through the machine and you're happy with your results.

Another application of top stitching is for a hem.  From the bottom (raw) edge of a garment, you would first iron up a 1/4", and then fold and iron again to create your desired hem length.  The raw edge of the material is now completely hidden.  On the inside of the garment, you can top stitch along the folded edge, keeping in mind that the bottom threads will be visible on the outside of your garment when it is finished.

Using top-stitching to sew a hem

Finished hem (wrong side / inside of garment)

Decorative Stitches

Finally, you can have fun with some of the decorative stitches on your machine.  What is offered and how to set them is varied by machine, so you'll definitely need to consult your manual.  My only advice is to remember to use a zig-zag presser foot when you're doing these types of stitches.

I honestly don't use decorative stitches very often, but they are fun to play with if you figure out where you'd like to use them!  It can be a fun little addition to a pillow case edge or to the hem of a little girl's skirt!

Straight seam (left) plus two decorative stitches.

WHEW!  Months after I promised it, there's my run-down on basic sewing stitches.  I'm sure there are parts of this that can be better explained, so please leave comments when you need clarification or have questions.  And if you can think of other sewing questions, let me know - I'll collect the answers for a part four of the series :)


  1. Totally needed this forever ago! But I suppose I could have done the research on my own... But then I didn't! So many things I didn't know! And haven't been doing!

    Anyway, I totally can't feed my fabric through my machine without pulling from the top, the presser foot is just too tightly pressed against it, no matter how much space I leave at the top. Is there something I can do to adjust that? It's reeeeeally annoying!

  2. Fabulous post! Love it. I am sending it on to my sister who is just learning to sew. Thanks Emily!!

  3. Thank you so much for this post! You have made thing easy to understand. I can now start sewing with confidence!