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Basic and Utility Stitches

Not every sewing machine has the same amount or type of stitches available that it can do; some might be able to do hundreds of different stitch types, while others might only have a limited range of stitches. That being said, there are several basic and utility stitch types which every sewing machine should have and these are the standard stitch types you’re most likely to use for projects. This is another post using the wisdom contained in my vintage sewing machine’s instruction manual as inspiration; previously I’ve posted about setting up a sewing machine and choosing the right needle and thread for your projects.

Typically on a sewing machine, your pattern selector and your stitch length are organised into two different dials or buttons. This is important simply because your stitch lengths affect how your stitches look, plus some machines have a selector on the stitch length dial which are specifically for stretch stitches. When you’re changing stitch type or length, remember to raise your needle before making any changes, as otherwise you can put pressure on the needle and run the risk of breaking it.

Seam allowance guides are marked on your footplate, though you may want to mark your fabric too or use a magnetic guide

For a good, straight stitch (regardless of the type of stitch you use), you should always be aware of your seam allowance guides – the footplate of your sewing machine should have several different seam allowances marked on it. If you aren’t confident that you’ll be able to stay straight with just these guides, you can mark your seam allowances onto your fabrics or get a magnetic seam guide. I found that when I started sewing (or occasionally if I’m sewing something complicated for the first time), I wasn’t confident in just using the guides on the footplate and I marked my fabric with tailor’s chalk. As I’ve sewn more, I find I don’t need to do this all that often, but it’s a helpful way of boosting confidence when you’re nervous about making mistakes!

Basic Stitches

Basic stitches with the straight stitch
Changing your stitch length can be useful for different reasons

Basic Straight Stitch

The stitch type you’ll most commonly use is your basic straight stitch. This is actually a surprisingly versatile stitch type – you’ll find yourself using it for all sorts of stitching depending upon the stitch lengths. You’ll want to use longer stitch lengths for ease stitching and gathers, as you can carefully tease the fabric along the thread – plus if you want to baste with sewing machines, a longer stitch length is great for this as it can be easily unpicked.

Shorter stitch lengths are great for creating strong seams, as they tend to be harder to unpick, while setting your stitch length to zero means the stitch stays in exactly the same place – this isn’t something you’ll need to do often, but it can be useful for things such as sewing buttons in place (we’ll tackle them in another post).

Basic stitches with zigzag stiching
Zigzag stitching can be done in various stitch widths - on the left the machine is stitching at its widest while on the right it's stitching almost at its narrowest

Zigzag Stitching

Zigzag stitching is perhaps the second most used stitch type. Zigzag stitching can be used to secure buttons in place, manually sewing large buttonholes, decorative stitching and is perhaps most commonly used for overcasting. Overcasting is the method of “finishing” the raw edges of a seam to prevent the fabric from fraying. To effectively overcast, you’ll need the widest zigzag setting, spin your control wheel until the needle starts to lower at the farthest point to the right and line the edge of your fabric or seam up to this.

Basic stitches include tricot stitches
Tricot stitch is useful for tricot fabrics, also known as knits

Tricot Stitching

Tricot stitching looks a little similar to zigzag, though it is comprised of multiple stitches in each zigzag. It’s used mostly for knitted fabrics which are also referred to as tricot fabrics; these are typically fabrics which are warp-knitted as opposed to woven (you can tell the difference as a knit won’t fray when cut, whereas a woven one will). Tricot fabrics are typically used for comfortable clothing, such as underwear and t-shirts, so these garments are where you would expect to find the tricot stitch used. If you have no idea what tricot is, don’t worry – I had to look it up too! You may not even use this stitch (or knit fabrics), but it’s worth knowing what it is and what it’s for.

Triple strength stitch is a useful one for seams
Due to the two forward, one back motion of stitching triple strength, it won't win you any awards for neatest stitch, but it's perfect for creating strong seams

Triple Strength Stitch

Triple strength stitching is another basic stitch type which can come in particularly useful if you’re sewing garments or household items which need very strong seams – backpacks, jeans, etc – or it can even just be used for reinforcing seams which might get used and abused more than others in a piece of clothing, such as the crotch or the armholes. It’s effectively a straight stitch, though the machine stitches two forwards and one back, making it very strong and difficult to rip. It’s not a stitch I’ve used often, however since my seams have come apart a couple of times on my jeans I’ll certainly be using it more often to ensure my seams stay strong!

Blind stitching hems with a hem guide
Here you can see my hem guide attached around my presser foot - this is used for blind stitching hems

Blind Stitching

Blind stitching is a useful one for clothing, as it finishes a hem on both sides. You’ll likely see it on clothes you own from shops – it looks like a straight stitch from the right side of the hem, while it also zigzags the wrong side of the hem to keep it in place and prevent fraying. To blind stitch on my machine, I have an extra fitting for my regular presser foot called a hem guide – it fits to my presser foot via the foot holder screw and it keeps the edge of the hem nice and straight. This is a stitch you’ll want to take slowly for better control.

Buttonhole Stitching

I’ll cover buttons and buttonholes in more detail in another post, but every machine should be able to do at least one style of buttonhole stitch. Some of them, like mine, separate it out into three different stitches for what’s known as a four-step buttonhole (you repeat one stitch type twice at the top and bottom of the buttonhole, hence four steps). Others do an all-in-one buttonhole. While they look a little scary, there’s no need to be afraid of making buttonholes with your machine – and it’s no more difficult to make them using four-step methods than it is to use an all-in-one setting.

Basic stitches are often arranged and selected using a selector
Here you can see my vintage machine has a limited selection of stitches, but the basics are all you really need

Hopefully this guide will help if you want to branch out from regular straight stitching, or perhaps if you are new to sewing and want to understand how to use some of the stitches on your machine. One key thing to remember is not every sewing machine will be able to sew the same number of stitch types – but they should all have at least these few listed here, as they’re the standard set you’ll need for sewing clothes and accessories. And be sure to have your sustainable threadclips and buttonhole scissors to hand!