Beginner Sewing Series: Getting to know your machine and its stitches.

Hello Sewing friends! Jody here again.  I’ve previously been a guest here on the New Horizon’s blog with a couple pattern hacks…  but I’m back today with some info that every seamstress should start with: the basics!

I’m here to help everyone get to know their machine and go over some basic stitches.  Obviously, everyone out there has a different machine, and even machines of the same make and model can operate differently based on how heavily they are used, etc.  I have a Brother SE400, which is a computerized machine that also can function as a basic embroidery machine as well.  I’ve had this machine for almost 4 years now and it still works great! Some of what I will discuss is specific to my machine, but hopefully you can apply the same concepts to your own machine!

First and foremost, I encourage everyone to read through their machine’s manual and look over the machine itself.  Boring, I know, but crucial to understanding how your specific machine works!  Some machines require oil and some cannot be oiled… this is one of those critical things that only reading your manual will teach you! (My machine cannot be oiled, fyi!) Maybe even watch a couple You-tube videos about your specific machine if those sort of visuals are helpful for you. (They totally are for me! I watched a lot of videos on my serger before beginning to use it and felt really comfortable once I jumped in!)  My machine has awesome diagrams on it for showing how to feed the thread through, and how to put in the drop in bobbin.  I’ve been sewing on it for 4 years and I still double check my bobbin direction against the little diagram every time I put a new one in!

After you’ve taken some time to read about your machine, the next thing I encourage everyone to do is to spend some time doing a bunch of practice stitches on some scrap fabric. My machine has 67 stitches… I use about 6 or 7 of them regularly! I will go over the basic stitches that most machines should have and when you commonly use them. My stitches and tension dial are shown below!

So grab some scraps of different fabric types, and make some practice stitches. Move the tension dial up and down and see how it changes the look of the stitch. Change the stitch length and see how it changes the look of your stitch. For things like the zig zag and lightning bolt stitch, also try out different stitch widths. Once you’ve completed a bunch of practice stitches, label them so you can remember which setting gave you which results, and then you can even staple the scraps to a page in a notebook so you can have a quick reference. I keep a notebook next to my machine with notes on what stitch settings I commonly use for different fabrics.  My machine is computerized and I can save a default setting for each stitch type, which is helpful as well!   Chances are the ideal tension is not exactly the same for each kind of fabric, so taking the time to make sure you test out stitches on a variety of substrates is necessary to understand how different tension and stitch length affect the look of your stitches on various fabrics. I promise this exercise will really pay off once you nail down the perfect settings.

For this exercise, I did stitches on quilting cotton, double brushed poly, rayon challis, French terry and a slippery performance knit.  These are fabrics I frequently use so it made sense to practice on them!  By doing this exercise recently I discovered I prefer my zig zag stitch to be 1mm wider, so I’ve changed my default setting on that stitch so its ready for the next time I use it!  Below are some images of the stitches I did and the notes I took on them.  I put a star by the settings that worked the best for me, and I’ll compile a one page summary of “best settings” for each fabric type to reference quickly!

Now to go over some of the commonly used stitches!

Straight Stitch:

There is not much difference between 1-3, aside from default needle placement.  I can always move the needle side to side by changing the stitch width, but if I know I want my  needle placement further to the left I go with #1 or #2, and if I want my needle in the middle of my sewing foot, I go with #3!

A straight stitch is used for construction on woven fabrics. This includes topstitching and understitching on woven fabrics as well.   It is also used for hems on woven fabrics.

Although not commonly used on knit fabrics for construction because of its lack of stretch, there are times a straight stitch can be used with knits!  I often use a straight stitch for topstitching and hems.  I just make sure to lengthen my stitch, and then I use stretch thread in my bobbin!  Again, this comes with practice and figuring out the ideal settings.  I have learned there are certain instances I can’t use a straight stitch for a hem, but a lot of times I can and I do since it’s simple and neat!

My machine has a separate setting for a basting stitch. (it’s #5) but, keep in mind a basting stitch is really just a straight stitch on the longest stitch length! The basting stitch is not only used to temporarily sew things together, it is also used to make gathers!

Zig Zag stitches:

There are many different uses for a zig zag stitch! One commonly used function is as a stretch stitch on knit fabrics.  If your machine does not have a “lightning bolt” type stitch, you can use a regular zig zag as your stretch stitch for construction on knits!  You can also use this for hems on knits to allow for stretch.

For woven fabrics, a zig zag stitch can be used along the raw edge to finish that edge and therefore minimize fraying.  This would be an option if you do not have a serger to finish the edges or an overcast foot on your regular machine. (Discussed below!)

Another use for a zig zag stitch is for appliqués. If you want to add an accent to a garment, you could do an iron on appliqué and stitch it on with a zig zag stitch to prevent the appliqué from fraying.

Finally, a zig zag stitch is used to attach elastic to knit garments.  Often times, clear elastic or narrow cotton elastic is used in shoulder seams or waist seams to prevent the knit fabrics from stretching out.  Using a zig zag stitch to attach the elastic allows it to stretch with wear but still retain its shape! Note that this is another technique to practice and write down notes about.  I don’t do this often, but when I do I reference my notebook because I’ve learned the proper stitch width to use to make sure my fabric does not get wavy!

Lightning bolt stitch:

This is the ideal stitch for construction on knit garments.  It is still a narrow stitch, but allows for the necessary stretch a knit garment requires.  This can also be used for topstitching and hems on knits.

This stitch is not commonly used for woven fabrics as they don’t require the stretch that this stitch provides!

Other Stretch Stitches:

These are a couple of other stretch stitches that can be used for knit garment construction.  These allow for a lot of stretch in a garment.  The first one, the triple straight stitch is a very strong stitch as well as allowing for a lot of stretch!

Overcast Stitch:

Not all machines will have this stitch, and it does require a special foot (labeled as “G” for Brother sewing machines).  There are several other overcastting stitches on my machine, but this is the one I prefer as it’s quick and simple.  This stitch would be used for finishing the raw edges of a woven garment.  I do now own a serger and use that for finishing the edges, but before I had a serger I used this stitch to finish my edges.  You would first construct the garment using a straight stitch, and then use this stitch to finish the edges… as shown here:

Although there are nearly 60 other stitches on my machine I haven’t gone over yet, I only use about 1-2 more of them (and those are the buttonhole stitches!)  I hope you have found this helpful, and I encourage you to spend a little time getting to know your machine.  Even if you have had your machine for a while, its still a good idea to periodically practice stitches, especially when working with a new fabric type!  Oh, and don’t forget to keep that machine clean and have it serviced periodically! (Again, read your manual on how to do that!)

Best of luck to you all, and Happy Sewing!




You must be logged in to post a comment.