Essential Guide to Sewing Machine Stitches

Have you ever wondered what all those different stitches on your sewing machine are for?

My friend, if you’ve never ventured outside the realm of the straight stitch, your world is about to burst wide open!

There are so many fun and different stitches that provide a variety of looks and functions. You’re about to discover tips that will forever change the way you sew.

Today, we’re going to decode all those different stitches and find out what they do and how to use them. You’re on your way to sewing like a pro!

Basic Stitches

Straight Stitch

We all know it, we all love it. This is your basic, most common stitch that produces small, straight equidistant stitches. If you’re just starting out, this tutorial from Crazy Little Projects is a great beginner’s guide to get you on your way!

Use for: All general sewing and topstitching.

Basting Stitch

Much like the straight stitch, the basting stitch gives you straight stitches only they’re longer in length so they’re easier to remove. It takes the place of hand-basting to make sewing go much quicker.

Typically, you’ll use a basting stitch for one of two reasons:

  1. Gathering fabric.
  2. As a preliminary step to hold fabric in place, serve as a sewing guide before stitching your seam, or when you need a stitch that’s easily removable, like when you’re fitting a garment.

Some machines have a specific basting stitch setting. Otherwise, you can just set your stitch length to the highest setting.

Use for: An alternative to hand-basting, creating a sewing guide, keep things in place before you sew, garment fitting, gathering.

Tacking Stitch

If you see a little stitch icon that looks like a line with a lightning bolt at the end, this stitch will automatically tack itself at the end. This means you won’t have to back stitch, and it keeps your stitch from coming undone.

If you see an icon that looks like a line with a lightning bolt at both ends, this stitch will tack itself at the beginning and end of your stitching.

Use for: Securely fastened stitches.

Double Needle Stitch

If you look at the hem of a stretch knit garment, like a t shirt, you’ll notice it contains two rows of stitching. The double needle stitch replicates that by using two side-by-side needles in a single shank to produce two parallel rows of stitching. It’s easier than it sounds, and Craftsy will show you how to do it!

Use for: Hemming and topstitching, specifically on knits.

Triple Stretch Stitch

This one gives you groups of three little parallel stitches that will allow to your fabric to stretch while still give it some reinforcement and sturdiness. The three stitches go forward, backward, forward to give you stretch while providing strength.

Use for: Stretch with strength.

Stretch Stitch

This fun little lightning bolt-shaped stitch is perfect for sewing a seam that needs some stretch. Often, if you sew stretchy fabric with a straight stitch, your seam will either come out wavy, or your stitches will pop and break the first time your fabric stretches. This stitch gives your seam flexibility without making it bulky.

Use for: Sewing stretchy seams.

Zig Zag Stitch

This is probably the second most common stitch which produces a (spoiler) zig zag pattern. It’s an easy way to finish edges and a great stitch to use when you’re sewing something stretchy where you need your seam to have some give.

Since this the thread pattern of this stitch goes side-to-side, you can use a zig zag stitch when you need to cover a larger area than just straight stitching (for instance, when sewing on trim) or for creating closely packed stitches, as in satin stitching or bar tacking for reinforcement.

Use for: Stretch seam, sewing trims or elastic, finishing edges, appliqueing, satin stitching.

Multi-Stitch Zig Zag

The multi-stitch zig zag, AKA the serpentine or triple zig zag, looks like the regular zig zag except each stitch (each zig and zag, if you will) is made up of little tiny stitches instead of one long one, allowing for even more stretching with more reinforcement.

Use for: Installing elastic, finishing seam edges, patching or reinforcing.

Overcasting/Knit Stitch

Both of these stitches are great for finishing the edges of fabrics, especially when it comes to knit fabrics. If you try to finish the edge of a stretchy fabric with a basic zig zag stitch, it can be hard to keep it flat and uniform, and your seam can end up all wavy.

To finish an edge with overcast stitches, you simply stitch next to your seam on your seam allowance (the fabric between your seam stitching and the edge of the fabric) then cut off any excess by cutting close – but not through! – your line of overcast stitching.

Visit this post from Sewabaloo that shows you how to use overcast stitches in a few different ways so you can avoid those lettuce edges and get nice, neat seams.

Use for: Finishing edges of non-stretch and knit fabrics.

Honeycomb Stitch

You may have seen this crazy-looking stitch on your machine and wondered what the heck it does. It has a few uses, actually!

It can be utilized as a decorative stitch or as an edging to keep fabrics from fraying. It’s also great for installing elastic since it provides stretch and can be used to create smocking.

Use for: Installing elastic, overcasting, smocking, decorative stitch.

Blind Hem Stitch

If you’re making garments, don’t settle for an average topstitched hem. Bump up your game by learning how to use a blind hem! Your hems will be neater and cleaner and your garments will look professional-level.

This stitch works by only grabbing the outside layer of fabric with tiny stitches to anchor the hem while hiding the other stitches on the inside. Make It & Love It will give you step-by-step and show you how to use a blind hem.

Use for: Hidden, cleaner hems.

Blind Stretch Hem Stitch

Much like its blind hem brother, this stitch gives you a clean hidden hem except it’s for stretchy hems which can be especially tricky to get neat and flat. The shape of this stitch includes more varied peaks and valleys to allow for good stretchability while keep things nice and hemmed.

Hop on over to this wonderful tutorial that will show you how to execute a variety of nice-looking hems on stretchy knit fabric.

Use for: Blind hems on stretchy fabrics.

Overlock Stitch

This is the ultimate stitch for finishing edges of fabric. It mimics the stitch of a 4 thread serger but uses your single needle sewing machine to create a stitch that will keep your fabric from raveling.

This guide from Sew 4 Home will show you a few helpful ways to use stitches to finish the edges of your fabric seams.

Use for: Finishing edges without serger.

Applique or Blanket Stitch

Chances are, if you took a home ec class, you learned to do this stitch by hand to create an edge on fabrics and appliques. Well, now there’s a stitch on your machine that does it for you!

Projects by Jane gives you the lowdown on how to use this stitch to get perfect, decorative edges.

Use for: Finished edges, decorative edges, appliqueing.

Ladder/Rampart Stitch

This stitch looks similar to the zig zag, except each peak is flat instead of pointed. You want to use this stitch any time you’re joining two pieces of fabric by butting them up against each other. You would also use a bridge stitch for the same purpose.

Another great use for the rampart stitch is creating couching or a channel to run elastic or ribbon through (like a train through a tunnel).

Pro tip: To make this process easy, use a tiny safety pin through the end of your elastic or ribbon and thread it through your stitch.

Use for: Joining two edges of fabric, creating a channel for ribbon or elastic.

Tracking/Bartack Stitch

This is the stitch you go to when you want some hardcore reinforcement. Take a look at a pair of jeans. That little stitch you see on the belt loops and the corners of the pockets is a bartack stitch, and it’s some extra insurance to keep those parts from tearing or coming apart.

There are specific bartack machines that are used for heavier fabrics, but you can use your stitch to make sure your projects stay on one piece.

Use for: Stronger reinforcement.

Buttonhole Stitch

Ah, the buttonhole stitch. I’m sure you’ve seen a buttonhole, but creating one is different story. It’s essentially a series of small, tight zig zag stitches that are sewn in an elongated rectangle or oval with a small slit of space in the middle.

You would then carefully slice the fabric in the center to create an opening. I say carefully because nothing is more frustrating than slicing through the end of your buttonhole and into your fabric. Find out how to avoid that mess, plus other helpful sewing hacks.

Back to buttonhole stitches, there are a few different kinds:

  • Basic Buttonhole – has square ends for your average button.
  • Rounded Buttonhole – rounded ends, good for delicate fabrics.
  • Keyhole Buttonhole – one square end and one circular end, good for larger buttons as the shape allows it to open a little wider.
  • Stretch Buttonhole – stitches are more open, good for stretch fabrics.
  • Knit Buttonhole – best for knit fabrics.

Jump over to Sew 4 Home to get a rundown on each type of buttonhole.

Use for: Creating buttonholes.

Button Stitch

If you have a stitch setting on your machine called a button stitch, or you see a little picture of a button, that means your sewing machine does a stitch that goes back and forth through the holes of a button to securely sew it on.

This is helpful if you’re making projects that include a lot of buttons, or don’t want to have to replace/hand sew loose buttons.

Note: This process usually requires a special button sewing foot. This tutorial will tell you how to use both the button foot and stitch to get some well-fastened buttons.

Use for: Securely attaching buttons.

Shell Tuck Stitch

This stitch produces a decorative scallop pattern called a picot shell edge. It sort of creates little regularly-spaced tucks or gathers to make a rounded scallop edge which adds a cute touch to a project or garment.

These instructions will show you how to use this stitch to make some fun creations of your own.

Use for: Creating a decorative scallop edge.

Decorative and Satin Stitches

Decorative Stitches

If you’ve got a sewing machine that includes digital or manual stitch settings, changes are it comes with a bunch of decorative stitches.

These stitches can produce patterns that look like leaves, vines, scrolls, feathers, hearts, geometric borders, etc.

Decorative stitches are used to add fun design elements to project or produce a decorative edge to your fabric.

The best thing to do with these stitches is grab a piece of scrap fabric and go to town experimenting! Change up your thread colors, try different combinations of stitches side by side or even layered one on top of another!

The sky’s the limit with decorative stitches, so start discovering which ones your machine has to offer, and start creating stitched masterpieces!

Satin Stitches

Satin stitch designs are another way to add a decorative element to a project. The difference is that, unlike regular decorative stitches which include more open stitch patterns, the threads in satin stitches are grouped closer together to resemble embroidery.

Satin stitches usually include shapes that look like triangles, circles, ovals, diamonds or scallops.

This example from Leafy Treetop shows you how to use a scallop satin stitch to create a super cute decorative edge.

So, there we have it! A breakdown of the most popular sewing machine stitches to help you get out of your straight stitch rut!

Did we miss any? Which are your favorite non-straight stitches to use when you’re sewing? Share them with us in the comments section!

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