Basic Sewing Stitches

With this guide to basic sewing stitches and when they should be used you can tackle your next sewing task with confidence.

Learning to sew is a daunting project, often riddled with ripped fabric, broken threads and four letter words. The age-old craft of fashioning your own fashions is a skill that will impress your friends, and even sometimes yourself. But before you tackle the kids' back-to-school wardrobe and new toss pillows this practical stitch glossary will guide you through the basics.

There are five main stitches you will need to know before you start whipping up accents for your home. Each stitch has a particular function and once you know the rules you can learn to break them.

The Straight Stitch

This stitch is as basic as it sounds. Used for sewing woven fabrics together, it is the most basic and most important. It is also the foundation of all sewing, whether by hand or machine. In the case of hand-sewing, a single thread is drawn in a straight line through the front side of the fabric and then back through, thereby bonding two pieces of fabric together. A sewing machine achieves the same result by, drawing a top thread through the fabric then looping it with the bobbin (or bottom) thread.

The stitch length is graded by stitches-per-inch and fabric always determines this""the heavier and stronger the weave, the smaller the stitch length. The idea is that a shorter stitch will create a stronger bond and the seam should never be stronger than the fabric.

The Basting Stitch

Based on the straight stitch, this particular stitch is exactly the same except it is sewn in exceedingly long lengths. On your sewing machine it will be your longest stitch length. The stitch is used to temporarily bond two pieces together or to manipulate the fabric into gathers.

A section of fabric can be ruffled by first sewing a basting stitch. For more security, two basting stitches can be sewn about ¼ of an inch apart. Tie off one end of the seam using the loose threads (or tails), then from the other end pull firmly on the top thread to gather the fabric. The gathers can be distributed evenly by hand and anchored by a single straight stitch.

The Zig Zag Stitch

Just as self-explanatory as the first stitch, this one draws the thread back and forth in a "Z" direction. The stitch is primarily used for sewing knits because of its ability to stretch with stretchy fabric. Again, the fabric itself determines the stitch length, and in this case width as well. An easy guide is the stretchier the fabric, the wider the stitch.

This stitch is also used for appliqués. This embellishment is the process of applying a cutout shape to a piece of fabric by encasing its edge in stitching. Short, wide stitches should be used for this technique.

The Blind Stitch

Although many machines are capable of sewing this stitch, it is always best presented when done by hand. The stitch is sewn from the backside of the fabric, in a straight or "whip" fashion and never puncturing through the front side of the project. The blind stitch is just that. From the front you can't see any stitch at all. It's perfect for hems and that's why it's also called the hem stitch.

The Topstitch

This one is essentially the straight stitch. What differentiates it is its application. Instead of being used to bind fabric together, it's mostly used as a decoration. Topstitching is added for detail and interest and is rarely used for practical purposes.

Just about the only time the stitch is used for function is on collars, cuffs or facings. In this case, it is used to anchor seam-allowances and to force the fabric to lay in a certain direction.

The Back Tack

Last, but not least is the back tack. Although technically this machine-sewing technique isn't a stitch, it is as important as the straight stitch and definitely more used than any of the other stitches. Every time a seam is started and every time a seam is ended, the back tack should be implemented. The back tack provides punctuation to the seams.

By sewing forward, backward, and then forward again this stitch is created. The back tack should be used as knots would be when hand-sewing. It prevents seams from unraveling and ensures professional quality.

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