Sewing Machine Stitches – Best Stitches to Use

If you are new to sewing, you might be wondering “What are the basic sewing machine stitches I will need to use to get going on my first project?” Well, there are 2 sewing machine stitches you will definitely need and many more that are nice to have. sewing.

Sewing Machine Stitches

Sewing Machine Stitches

Different brands and models of sewing machines can vary enormously in what they offer.

When you go to purchase your first machine, your instinct will be to try and get the model that offers the most sewing machine stitches. But in reality, you won’t need or use many of them.

The 5 most common sewing machine stitches you will use are:

  1. Straight Stitch
  2. Zig-zag Stitch
  3. Overcast Stitch (overlock stitch)
  4. Blind Hem Stitch
  5. Decorative Stitches
  6. Buttonhole Stitches

For the majority of your sewing projects, you will just use 2 of these – the straight stitch and zig-zag stitch.

Did you know? You can sew 99% of all sewing projects with a straight or zig-zag stitch. All the rest of the sewing machine stitches are just a bonus and not strictly necessary as there are always alternatives.

If you don’t own a serger (also called an overlocker), the overcast stitch is also useful for finishing raw edges and making your items long-lasting and durable.

Most modern machines have a dizzying array of decorative machine stitches as well, but if you are like me, you will probably rarely use these.

How to Change Sewing Machine Stitches

Mechanical machines will have a pattern selector dial either at the front or side of the machine to select the different sewing machine stitches.

Computerized sewing machines will have a digital panel, usually at the front, where you can select your chosen stitch.

Types of Sewing Machine Stitches Guide

STITCH #1 – Straight Sewing Machine Stitches

The straight stitch is definitely number one on the list of sewing machine stitches since it is the most used stitch on your sewing machine.

Cheaper machines generally have several pre-set lengths, while more expensive machines have adjustable stitch lengths.

If you have a really old machine and all it does is straight stitch, then you are ready to tackle most sewing projects. You can even finish raw edges with a straight stitch!

Further reading: Seam finishes without a serger, and French seams

You can see in my photo how varying the stitch length looks.

Here is the sewing machine stitch guide for straight stitch:

  • Length 2.0-3.0 is used for sewing seams and the majority of your sewing.
  • Length 4.0 is used for gathering fabric and machine basting fabric. Gathering, of course, is used for ruffles. Long, basting stitches are used in places where you want to temporarily hold pieces together before the final stitches. A long length is used so it can be easily removed if necessary.
Straight Sewing Machine Stitches
Straight Sewing Machine Stitches

When sewing a straight stitch, it is important to remember that your needle position should be set to the center of the presser foot.

If you are ready to start to sew a seam with a straight stitch, these articles will get you started.

Some sewing machines will also have a triple straight stitch.

This is where the machines take 2 steps forward and one step back. This is an extra-strong stitch that is great for crotches in pants where the seam is under extra stress. I also quite like it for topstitching as it produces a thicker line.

STITCH #2 – Zig-Zag Sewing Machine Stitches

Zig zag stitch sewing machine stitches are commonly used to stop raw edges from fraying.

It is also a great stitch for sewing knits without a serger as it has a built-in elasticity, meaning your stitches won’t break when pulled.

I also use a very narrow zig-zag for sewing the seams of tulle.

Further reading: Sewing Knits and Sewing Tulle

Zig-zag can be used to applique fun motifs on your projects and for decoration.

When determining the correct width and length of a zig-zag stitch, it can take a little experimenting, but here are some settings to get you started.

  • Sewing knits on the seas – When sewing knits, you want the zig-zag to be so small that it almost looks straight. Try a width of 1.0 and a length of 2.5. Test a scrap and pull the seam. If the stitches don’t break under gentle pressure, you are ready to go!
  • Sewing knit hems – A zig-zag can be used to hem knits. Turn up the hem and zig-zag over the raw edge. The size of the zig-zag should be much wider than the seams. Test a width of 4.0 and a length of 3.0
  • Finishing raw edges – If you use zig-zag as a seam finish over raw edges, it can stop them from fraying and increase the longevity of your items. Use a wide zig-zag of width 4.0 and length 3.0 right on the edge of the fabric.
  • Applique – Applique is done with a very close zig-zag stitch so that very little fabric is showing between the stitches. A common setting is length 0.5 and width 4.0. Some machines will have applique stitches as a separate setting, but really, all you need is the basic zig-zag.
  • Gathering with zig-zag: Did you know you can gather with a zig-zag stitch? By zig-zagging over a slippery cord such as dental floss or crotchet yarn, you can then pull the cord to produce gathers in tricky fabrics such as tulle and canvas. Read how in my blog articles on how to gather tulle and gathering with cord.
  • Sewing elastic: Zig-zag can be used to sew elastic in leotards and for fold over elastic in underwear.
Zig-Zag Sewing Machine Stitch
Zig-Zag Sewing Machine Stitch

Many machines will also have a 3-step zig-zag stitch which is used for sewing picot (lingerie) elastic and occasionally raw edges. I don’t use this stitch much, but you may find that on some fabrics, the 3 step zig-zag can produce flatter edges that don’t curl up.

STITCH #3 – Overlock (or over-edge) stitch

Most modern machines will have overlock, over-edge or overcast stitch, which can be used to stop edges from fraying, similar to a serger.

The main difference between a serger and using your regular machine to do an overlock stitch is that the raw edges are not cut off as you sew.

Most machines will come with a specialty sewing machine foot to do this stitch.

The trick to getting neat edges is to trim the fabric immediately before sewing. If you overlock stitch over a ragged edge, it still won’t look good.

Personally, I find a simple zig-zag is quicker than changing feet to do an overlock stitch but give it a test and see which one you like best for a seam finish.

If you are going to be sewing regularly or would like to make some money from sewing, you would instead need a serger (also called an overlocker in some countries.)

Have a read of my article on sewing machine vs serger vs cover stitch machine to see which machine will suit your purpose the best.

over edge stitch
Over-edge Stitch

STITCH #4 – Blind Hem Stitch

Blind stitch hem sewing machine stitches are used to create invisible hems on dresses, skirts, and pants.

The stitch looks like an uneven zig-zag, and generally, even basic machines will have this stitch. Once finished, you can hardly see the stitches on the right side of the garment. These stitches are best used for wider straight-edged hems.

Read my blog article on how to sew a blind stitch hem.

Blind Stitch Hem
Blind Stitch Hem Sewing Machine Stitches

STITCH #5 – Decorative Sewing Machine Stitches

Different machines have different decorative stitches, so take a look to see which yours has. If it only has a few or even none, don’t worry too much. Most people don’t use these stitches a lot, and in fact, I can’t remember the last time I used them.

These stitches can be used for a decorative effect on your projects.

Use a contrasting thread for a pop of color and mix and match patterns on the same project. They are best used on smaller items such as home decor and baby clothing since the intricacies of the stitches can’t really be seen from a distance.

So grab a piece of scrap fabric and test some of the decorative stitches on your machine. Here are some of the decorative sewing machine stitches that my Janome can sew.

My favorite is the scallops at the bottom. I think these look nice if you do several rows in different colors,

decorative stitches
Decorative Stitches

STITCH #6 – Buttonhole Sewing Machine Stitches

Even the most basic of machines these days come with a buttonhole stitch. If you have a fancier model, you may even have numerous buttonhole shapes to choose from.

Buttonhole stitches may be automatic, meaning it sews all sides of the buttonhole at the press of a button, or they may have a couple of steps where you need to change the stitch setting.

For really basic machines where there is no specialty buttonhole stitch, you can sew buttonholes with a zig-zag instead.

Read all about how to sew buttonholes by machine.

Sewing Machine Stitches – In Conclusion

So there are my top 6 most used sewing machine stitches. If all your machine does is straight stitch and zig-zag, you can pretty much do every sewing project you wish. Everything else is a bonus.

What are your favorite sewing machine stitches, and what do you use them for? Share your thoughts below.

More Sewing Machine Stitches

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