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Whether you invest in a machine or do it by hand, sewing is a great skill to learn. You can mend your own clothes and even make clothing and homewares from scratch. Best yet, you’ll save money and infuse your daily items with individuality and personality. Not all sewing is the same, though. Learning to thread a needle (or a sewing machine) is just the first step when it comes to sewing. You’ll also need to learn which stitch types are better for each type of material and project. Mending a pair of jeans, for example, requires vastly different types of stitches than you’d use when making a silk dress.
But where to begin learning about types of sewing stitches? And the different types of machine stitches and different types of stitches by hand? Right here!
Stitches are intended to hold pieces of fabric together, but not all fabrics are the same. Some are thin and slippery (think: silk, satin, rayon) while others are thick or rough (denim, wool, linen) or stretchy (cotton blends, spandex). The type of stitch you’ll need to use will largely depend on what kind of fabric you’re sewing.
Another consideration when choosing which types of stitches for sewing a project is what the item will be used for. Clothing that will be subject to a lot of wear and tear (jeans, for example) will likely need a different stitch type from a delicate item that will only be hand washed occasionally or that is only a decorative piece, rather than something functional.
Your stitch type will also depend on whether you have access to a sewing machine or whether you’ll be hand sewing. Machine sewing is much faster than hand sewing and is more appropriate for large items or big projects. Anyone seriously interested in sewing as a hobby (or vocation) should invest in a sewing machine. However, if you only sew occasionally or know you’ll only be sewing smaller items, hand sewing is perfectly fine.
For some projects, hand sewing is the best option anyway, even if you generally use a sewing machine. If you learn to do different types of stitches by hand, you’ll be able to tackle a wider range of sewing projects.
In this article, we’ll introduce you to the main types of stitch you need to know about for machine sewing and hand sewing.
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Types of Sewing Machine Stitches
The following are the most commonly used and useful different types of stitches on a sewing machine, but note that some sewing machines have even more options! Once you’re confident with the basics, you might want to experiment with your machine’s other functions on pieces of scrap fabric.
Best for: Beginners, basic sewing
Straight stitches are the most straightforward and versatile stitch you can make on a sewing machine. They’re a straight row of stitches (if you guide the fabric under the foot properly, anyway!) that are close together. You can use this stitch for all sorts of purposes and on many different fabrics, and it’s the first one you’ll want to master as a beginner.
Best for: Stretchy fabric
A zig-zag stitch is just as it sounds: a stitch that runs in a zig-zag pattern. This is an essential stitch when hemming stretchy or loosely woven fabrics or when sewing elastic onto stretchy fabric.
When sewing this stitch on a machine, the foot of the machine jumps left and right as you move the fabric underneath it. You can set your machine so that the zig-zag is narrower or wider. If you’re making wider zig-zags, just remember to keep enough fabric on the outer side of the seam so that the machine doesn’t stitch thin air!
Best for: Hems
If you typically buy your clothes from major retailers, you’ll probably be able to find the overlock stitch on something you’re wearing right now. This stitch finishes the edge of a piece of fabric while hemming it.
Overlocker machines (or serger machines) are a special type of sewing machine that are useful if you do a lot of hemming—they cut the edge of the fabric as they go along so you have a smooth edge that’s close up against the stitching. Otherwise, your regular sewing machine may be able to create this stitch, but usually without the cutting function. Special foot attachments on regular machines prevent the fabric from rolling up and getting untidy.
Best for: Buttonholes
Picture a buttonhole in a shirt: it should be stitched all the way around so the fabric doesn’t fray or tear easily. This could be a tough stitch to execute on a sewing machine, but machines come with special attachments to simplify the process.
You can adjust the buttonhole foot attachment so it’s the right size for your buttons. Rather than sew around a buttonhole that you’ve already cut, however, a better approach is to sew the buttonhole stitches in the place you want them and then snip the fabric open in the middle after, to create a hole for your button to slip into.
Best for: Works in progress
A basting or gathering stitch is a temporary stitch that’s easy to remove just by pulling. It’s looser and more widely spaced than a straight stitch, so you can take it out more easily. You might need this kind of stitch when temporarily sewing pieces of fabric together that you’re going to come back to later and finish off with a different type of machine or hand stitch, or when you’re just testing out the sizing and may need to adjust the placement of the stitches later.
Blind Hem Stitch
Best for: Tidy finishes
Blind hems make for a nice finishing touch on some types of clothing, such as jacket collars and cuffs. The intention is to not let the stitch show on the outside. While they’re bit tricky to do on a sewing machine, if you take care and go slowly you should be able to create this stitch so that it doesn’t show on the outside.
Types of Hand Sewing Stitches
Hand sewing is generally slower than machine stitching, but it can be neater and more precise, especially when you’re just finishing off an item or sewing a small area. Learning different types of stitches by hand enables you to sew all different kinds of projects that aren’t possible on just a machine.
Best for: Beginners, basic projects
The running stitch is hand sewing’s version of the straight stitch in machine sewing. It’s a simple up and down stitch that you form by moving the needle in and out of the fabric to form regularly sized and even stitches. This stitch works for most types of fabric, but if you’re working with a particularly slippery or stretchy piece of fabric, you may need to use something else.
Best for: Neat but simple lines
Backstitch is similar to running stitch but you go back over the stitch you’ve just formed so there are no gaps in the fabric between stitches. It takes longer to do than the running stitch. However, it looks neater if the stitch will be visible on the outside of a garment. It’s also stronger on hems.
Best for: Edging wool or felt, joining knitting or crocheting
To quickly hem a thick piece of fabric or to join two pieces of fabric together, the whip stitch is your best bet. Unlike the running stitch or back stitch, the whip stitch goes right over the edge of the fabric so can seal in loose fibers. It’s not suitable for really stretchy fabrics, though. Whip stitch is a good stitch for attaching together pieces of knitting or crocheting, so you may come across this stitch if you’re also interested in either of these crafts.
Best for: Edging thick fabrics
A neater way of finishing off edges of thick fabric is the blanket stitch. This is a large stitch that’s often sewn with wool or another thick thread. It can be used to finish off the edges of blankets and other items or garments made with thick fabrics like wool or felt. It’s formed by sewing even stitches at a right angle to the edge of the fabric and looping the thread that appears along the outside edge so that it sits tightly and neatly. In addition to edging blankets, blanket stitch is often used in applique.
Blanket stitch will be visible on your final item, so it’s important to do it neatly. Choosing a thread in a contrasting color can be a nice way to incorporate the stitch into the overall design and look of the item.
As with many crafts that involve stitching, you may find it easier to learn how to do this stitch by watching a visual tutorial rather than reading written instructions! The placement of the fingers and the timing of needle actions are important. Seeing someone else make the stitch can be an easier way to learn than having the process described to you.
To learn how to do blanket stitch and other basic hand stitches, check out Skillshare instructor Angi Schneider’s class Basic Hand Stitches Everyone Should Learn.
Best for: Buttonholes
Buttonhole stitches stitched by hand look quite different from those stitched on a sewing machine, but they serve the same purpose: to prevent the fabric around a buttonhole from fraying and opening. Buttonhole stitches stitched by hand are quite similar to blanket stitches, but usually much smaller. The buttonhole stitch is also often used in embroidery, although not usually around an opening as they are when making an actual buttonhole.
Best for: Neat hems on non-stretchy material
The catch stitch is a tidy and secure way of hemming items or joining two pieces of fabric together because while the stitches are visible on the inside, they are barely visible on the outside. The threads form a zig-zag pattern on the inside but just a tiny stitch on the outside. This stitch is sometimes called a herringbone stitch because the criss-crosses look like the bones of this fish, but true herringbone stitches are generally used more in embroidery and don’t “catch” the outside piece of fabric.
Best for: Chunky lines
Commonly used in embroidery, chain stitch is also useful in general sewing. As the name suggests, the stitch is formed in a way that forms a chain of stitches. It creates a thick outline, so it’s a good option if you’re sewing a garment or item that requires a decorative outline, such as a pocket or a cuff. Watching a beginner embroidery tutorial is a good way to learn how to do chain stitch. The technique is the same, whatever the purpose of your sewing.
Best for: Invisible joins
Ladder stitch is another near-invisible stitch when done correctly. Ladder stitch is used to close seams and secure pieces of fabric together on items like handmade teddy bears, as well as some types of clothing. It’s stitched into the crease of two folded (and, ideally, pressed) pieces of fabric. It’s intricate and a bit tricky, but this one can only be done by hand!
Best for: Mending things
Darning stitch is actually many rows of other types of stitches—such as running stitch or back stitch—that are placed close together to form a kind of “patch.” Darning stitch is used to mend clothing. Traditionally, socks were commonly darned. But you can darn pretty much anything, as long as the damaged patch of fabric isn’t too large. Placing the rows of stitches close up together will reinforce the fabric for some time so you can get more wear out of it.
If the damaged area is on a part of the clothing that’s very visible, such as the thigh of jeans, you can make the darned area into a feature by selecting colorful or contrasting threads.
Match Your Stitch Types to Your Project
As you can see from these many examples, there’s no one-size-fits-all stitch when hand sewing or machine sewing (although the running stitch/straight stitch comes pretty close when you’re just starting out). You can’t even just make a choice between machine sewing and hand sewing. There are different types of stitches on a sewing machine, too.
But that’s all part of the fun! Once you’ve learned about various different types of sewing stitches, you can adapt your techniques to suit your project. The result will be neater, stronger finished pieces. Have fun experimenting!
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