Sewing Machine Stitches: Which Stitch to Use and When

Sewing Machine Stitches - Decorative Stitching

The Spruce / Debbie Colgrove

When you are shopping for a sewing machine, being drawn to a machine with all the bells and whistles you can afford is not unusual. The more elaborate (or expensive) your sewing machine is, the more stitch options the machine will have. Now that you have those stitches, it's time to figure out how and when to use them. 

Regardless of the type of stitches you use, it's always best to test your stitching on scrap fabric. For example, if you're stitching a continuous neckline on a garment, you'll want to make sure the stitches overlap appropriately at the end. Testing the stitching on an equal length of a scrap is the best way to assure that the stitching will have the proper placement. It also helps to take the time to understand the basics of machine embroidery so you can make the best stitching possible.

Here are the five most important types of stitches that you'll need to know about when using your sewing machine.

Decorative Stitches

Most people rarely use all of the decorative stitch options on their machines. They allow you to be as creative as you want to be in your sewing. Experimenting with the many types of thread helps you to expand on your experience with decorative stitching. Using a lighter weight bobbin thread when sewing decorative stitches, for example, helps to eliminate a heavy track of bobbin thread on the top or underside of your fabric.

In many cases, you may need to experiment with stabilizers (a type of backing that supports the fabric so it doesn't pucker or stretch during stitching) that are used in machine embroidery to obtain smooth consistent decorative stitching.

Removing Decorative Stitches

Many decorative stitches are very dense and difficult to remove if you're unhappy with it once it's sewn. It's a good idea to always test your fabric, thread, and stitch combination on a sample before you sew it on your item.

Straight Stitch

A straight stitch is a most commonly used stitch for almost all construction sewing. A straight stitch is a strong stitch that's straight with a thread on top (the upper thread) and a thread on the bottom (the bobbin thread), with the threads interlocking at regular intervals.

You can adjust a straight stitch by adjusting its length. A very small, short stitch is tight and difficult to remove while the longer the stitch, the easier it is to remove. The longest possible straight stitch is considered a basting stitch, which is meant to be removed. When a straight stitch is puckering your fabric, it can usually be resolved by lengthening the stitch length. Tension adjustments are available for the upper thread on the sewing machine and by way of a screw on the bobbin case. Always refer to your sewing machine manual before making adjustments.

Needle position can be changed on your sewing machine when you are sewing a straight stitch. By changing the needle position, you can change the guide you are using to maintain sewing straight lines exactly where you want them. The amount you can change the needle position is ​dependent on your sewing machine's options. Machines that have a zigzag option have at least three needle positions. The minimal needle positions would be right, left, and center.

Straight Sewing Machine Stitches
The Spruce / Debbie Colgrove

Zigzag Stitch

A zigzag stitch looks like a continuous row of the letter W. The most common use of a zigzag stitch is to enclose raw edges as a seam finish. As a seam finish, one edge of the stitch is sewn off the edge of the fabric so that the threads of the fabric are enclosed within the threads of the zigzag stitch making the fabric unable to fray.

The length and width of a zigzag stitch can be adjusted. Shorter stitch lengths create a narrower W formation. The stitch width adjusts how wide the W formation will be.

A zigzag stitch is also used as a stretch stitch when other options are not available. By sewing a seam with a narrow zigzag stitch rather than a wide zigzag stitch, the stitching will stretch with a stretchy or knit fabric.

Manually made buttonholes use a zigzag stitch in various stitch widths and stitch lengths. The bar tacks on each end are sewn with a shortened stitch length and a wide stitch. The sides of the buttonholes are created with a narrow stitch width and a short stitch length.

Zigzag Sewing Machine Stitch Examples with Adjustments
The Spruce / Debbie Colgrove

Blind Stitch

A blind stitch is not on all sewing machines but it's a common stitch. A blind stitch is used to sew hems in place with the minimal amount of visible stitching. This stitch can save you many hours of hand sewing.

A straight blind stitch and a stretch blind stitch may be available on your sewing machine. The kind of fabric you're using will be the deciding factor for which type of blind stitch you should use. A stretchy fabric would use a stretch blind stitch and a woven or non-stretch fabric would use the straight blind stitch. The manual for your sewing machine is the best source of information on how to sew a blind stitch. 

Blind Hem Sewing Machine Stitches
The Spruce / Debbie Colgrove

Stretch Stitch

Many sewing machines do not have a stretch stitch built-in while others have an assortment of stretch stitches. A stretch stitch is what you will commonly use if you plan to sew stretch fabric. This stretch stitch is perfectly straight but it allows for stretching without the thread popping or breaking, which is what would happen if stretching a regular straight stitch. Sewing a bias seam is another reason to use a stretch stitch (bias cut garments tend to stretch over time).

A basic sewing machine with nothing more than a straight and a zigzag stitch can sew a stretch stitch by using a narrow zigzag stitch. That narrow zigzag will allow the seam to stretch. Your machine may have a triple stretch setting (shown on your machine as three drawn horizontal lines), which allows the thread and fabric to stretch further.

When in doubt or unsure of how something will work out, use fabric scraps to practice so you can see the finished stitch before sewing directly on the garment or item.

Stretch Stitch
The Spruce / Debbie Colgrove