Sewing Machine Stitches

Print Friendly

retrochick.JPGMichele says:

I had intended for this post to teach you how to actually sew using your sewing machine, but when my fingers hit the keyboard I was struck with a huge realization. In writing these posts about machine sewing, I had glossed over one of the most important features of your machine: the stitches. There are zigzags and dashed lines and, uh, is that a triangle?? I know that it’s tempting to use the straight stitch for everything—ask me how long it took me to use the zig-zag stitch for anything but applique—but each stitch has a specific, sometimes necessary, purpose.


  • 1 & 2  Straight Stitch – The machine version of the straight stitch. You use this stitch for almost everything. Your machine may have two options for the position of the needle for this stitch: center or left. Truthfully, you probably won’t ever need to use the left one unless you have a very specific project, like installing a zipper.
  • Zig-Zag Stitch – It’s exactly what it sounds like. This stitch can be used to reinforce the edges of your seams, and can be used in place of the straight stitch when working with stretchy fabrics like jersey. Additionally, this is the stitch you will see around the edges of appliques. I often use this stitch when I need to attach elastic to itself, because it allows the elastic to stretch without pulling on the thread.
  • Three Step Zig-Zag Stitch – This is like the zig-zag stitch, just dashed. You use this stitch for attaching elastic or anything else that needs to stretch a lot. This stitch can also be used for darning, though it can be tricky for beginners to figure out on their own. (I can do a future post if there’s any interest.) I don’t often use this stitch, because the zig-zag stitch usually works just fine.
  • Blind Hem Stitch – You know what a blind hem stitch is for, right? …Riiiiiight? This stitch works well for curtains and skirt hems and is, for obvious reasons, a million times quicker than a hand blind hem stitch. Just make sure that you’re sewing on the wrong side of the fabric unless you want a really fancy looking visible hem.
  • 6 & 7  Overcast Stitches – These are used to bind the edges of unfinished fabric to prevent or control fraying. These stitches are a favorite for sheer curtains and frayed denim skirts, jeans, or shorts. You’ve probably seen these stitches used decoratively on the edges of fleece blankets. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I can guarantee that you’ll notice it the next time you see a fleece blanket!)
  • BH  Buttonhole Stitch – When used in conjunction with the buttonhole foot, this function creates a buttonhole based on the size of your button. This will be covered in its own post, as it can be tricky to figure out how to attach the buttonhole foot, let alone work out how to use the thing.


But wait! What about those weird looking stitches underneath the basic stitches? The ones that look pretty and overly complicated? Chances are, you won’t ever use them outside of garment construction or quilting. A majority of them exist for purely decorative stitching which makes them kind of pointless in my book. They all require a special double needle and, outside of the double straight stitch (kind of like you would see on the sleeves of some t-shirts), they’re not worth the hassle for a novice sewist.

Some machines have dozens of stitches, others only have straight and zig-zag stitches, but the seven (well, technically eight) described above are the backbones of machine sewing. Once you understand these, you can do pretty much anything. Come on, Home Eccers! Let’s get out of that straight stitch rut and live a little!

Michele Newell is a housewife turned blogger turned Home Ec 101 contributor.  You can read her near daily ramblings at Dreams Unreal.

Your First Sewing Machine: What’s That Thing Called?

Print Friendly

retrochick.JPGMichele says:

Now that you have your shiny new sewing machine all picked out and ordered, it’s time to learn how to use that crazy looking thing.  Unfortunately, learning is the least fun part of using a sewing machine.  I’ll do my best to make it painless, but we need to take a second before we start stitchin’ to learn what everything is called.  Next time, we’ll learn how to thread the machine, change the footplates, and wind a bobbin.  If you can hang on a little longer, then we’ll learn how (and when) to use the various stitches and settings—and finally make our first project.

labelled parts of a sewing machine

1. Pedal – It’s just like the accelerator pedal in the car.  Pressing harder makes the machine go faster, while a gentle touch allows for slower, more controlled stitches.

Parts of a sewing sewing machine 2

2.  Thread cutter – Like scissors but easier.  Just insert your thread and give a little tug to cleanly cut the thread.

3.  Throat Plate – Pre-marked with 1/8 of an inch measurements, this covers the bobbin and serves as a seam gauge when sewing.  In the middle of the throat plate are little ridges called…

4.  Feed Dogs – These help regulate the speed at which fabric passes through the machine.  They pull the fabric for you, so very little effort is required on your part!  Make sure you let the machine do the work, pulling the fabric over the throat plate, otherwise you’ll have a bunchy mess of a project!

5.  Presser Foot – Clamps the fabric down onto the feed dogs to prevent it from slipping while you work.  These are interchangeable and available in plastic or metal.  Personally, a plastic general purpose one works just fine for everything but buttonholing (I don’t mind the metal ones, though).

6.  Needle Clamp – The thing that holds your needle in place.  To insert a needle, loosen the knob, insert a needle, and tighten the knob until the needle is held in place by the machine.

7.  Reverse Switch– This may be a button on your machine.  Press this little lever when you want to sew in reverse.  This is my most rarely used function; I find it easier to stop the machine with the needle still in the fabric and turn the fabric around (though this is not always possible).

8.  Power Switch – The thing you use to turn on the sewing machine, usually placed next to the power cord (usually attached to the pedal).  If you can’t operate this, please return your machine for a refund and take up a safer craft, like making sheep out of paper plates and cotton balls.

Labelled parts of as ewing machine

9.  Flywheel – Raises and lowers your needle manually.  This is used most often at the beginning or end of a project when you need to remove the needle from the fabric.

10.  Bobbin Tension Disc – A little metal disc that keeps your thread consistently taut while working.  The thread goes around the front when sewing and around the back when winding the bobbin with the…

11.  Bobbin Winder – Place your empty bobbin on the winder, then slide it to the right to lock it into place.  Wrap the thread around the tension disc and manually wrap it around the bobbin a few times.  Pull out the flywheel to set your machine to bobbin winding mode (to prevent the needle from needlessly moving), gently press the pedal and your machine will do the winding for you.

12.  Spool Pin – The thing your spool of thread rests on while you sew.  If you only have a little stump (like the one to the right on my machine), pull on it to make it extend to the proper height.

13.  Tension Regulator – Controls the tension of the bobbin thread and the top thread.  If your machine is causing your fabric to pucker with tight stitching–or creating loose stitches—your tension needs to be adjusted.  The lower the number, the lower the tension.

14.  Take Up Lever – Another nifty thing that keeps the thread consistently taut when sewing.  This is essentially the machine’s wrist and raises the thread up and down to create the stitches.  Make sure the lever is visible when you place the fabric on the throat plate so that your needle doesn’t snag the fabric.

15.  Stitch Length Selector – Allows you to choose the length of your stitches, usually sorted from longest to shortest.  There is also a selection for buttonholing and for stretchy/knit fabrics (so that your stitches don’t tear when the fabric stretches).

16.  Stitch Width Selector – Moves the needle so that you can choose where your needle hits the fabric.  The wider the stitch, the further from the edge of the fabric it will be.

Parts of a sewing machine 4

17.  Stitch Selector – Lets you choose the stitch you want to use for your fabric.  Most newer machines let you choose electronically, but my machine has a knob.

18.  Thread Guides – Show you where to put the thread on your machine.  My machine has raised, permanent step by step directions built right into its top, and yours probably does, too.

BONUS!!  19.  Buttonhole Foot – A nifty little contraption automatically chooses the size of your buttonholes based on the size of your button.  (We’ll discuss how to use this later, so don’t let its intimidating appearance scare you.)

Parts of a sewing machine 5

Now that everything has a name and a use, we’re ready to dive into the exciting world of machine sewing (have I mentioned that my life is fairly uneventful?).  Check back later to learn how to use your new best friend.  Until then, any questions?

Michele Newell is a housewife turned blogger turned Home Ec 101 contributor. You can read her near daily ramblings at Dreams Unreal.

Hand Sewing Essentials: What’s That Thing Called?

Print Friendly

retrochick.JPGMichele says:

Have you ever tried to Google something, only to quickly realize that you don’t know which words to enter in the search box?  Now, how many of you have taken it a step further and went ahead and searched for, say, “strawberry thing attached to a pincushion”?  No judgment.  I and many others, I’m sure, have been there at one point or another, especially when learning (or relearning) something new.  That doesn’t make it any less frustrating, especially when you’re unable to find an answer because your search includes the words “thingy”, “thing-a-ma-jig”, “doo-dad”, or “gizmo”.  (Fortunately, I’m only guilty of two of those affronts to the English language.)

While I can’t solve this problem for everyone, I can help prevent some of those search fails—assuming you’re searching for something along the lines of “that sewing thing that looks like a coin with a wire on it”.  (It’s called a needle threader.)  Since I’m a fan of multitasking, I’m also going to take this chance to show you what I consider to be the essential supplies for a hand sewer in handy list form. (I apologize in advance for the grainy pictures. Rain has been messing with my lighting!)

1.  The seam ripper‘s use is self explanatory once you know its name.  To rip a seam, insert the tip of the seam ripper and voila!  The threads have been cut just like the picture below.  (Note that the seam ripper is shown uncovered, but you should always store it with its cover on!  The innocuous looking tip is very, very sharp.)

2.  Needles!  Lots of them in lots of sizes. Here are lots of sewing needles to choose from, how convenient.

3.  The thimble, aside from being essential for those who wear denim, is one of those things that most people use improperly.  It is supposed to fit on your middle finger.  It can be used to either poke a needle through thick fabric or to pull the needle through the fabric when it gets stuck.


4.  The needle threader is a nifty little tool that threads your needle like magic in three simple steps!

A) Poke the wire through the eye of the needle.

B) Insert your thread through the opening in the wire.

C) Pull the needle off the wire, taking the thread with it.  Pull the tip of the thread out of the eye of the needle so that a single thread is running through the eye of the needle.


5.  Thread, either denim and all-purpose, is naturally a must for any project.

6.  Spare buttons.  (I always store the buttons that come attached to new shirts in my sewing kit so that I know just where to find them when I need them most.)

7.  Pins.  Lots and lots of very fine, sharp pins.  Do yourself a favor and store them in a box rather than in your pin cushion.

8.  The seam gauge is like the shoe measurer (AKA Brannock Device) of the sewing world.  Slide the moving piece into place to “store” your measurement in order to save time when hemming trousers, skirts, and most anything else.


9.  The tape measure is used for… measuring.  Beside sewing-related uses, it’s great for taking your body’s measurements which, as an added bonus, makes shopping online for clothes less scary.

10.  The white pencil (or piece of chalk) is used for marking fabric.  It washes out, so you can use it liberally without worry.

11.  The giant safety pin is helpful when fixing drawstrings that have gotten lost in the waistband.  Remove the drawstring from the waistband, attach the safety pin to the end, and insert the drawstring (safety pin and all) into one of the waistband’s holes.  For wider channels (the thing that encases the drawstring), the pin will act as a weight that will pull the drawstring through the waistband, but smaller channels will require you use the safety pin as a guide that helps you manually push the drawstring back into its’ place.

12.  The pin cushion is obviously used for pins.  The little strawberry on the end, however, is not so obvious and is a mystery to many folks.  It’s filled with emery sand, so when you poke your needle in there several times over (as you would do when filing your nails) you can remove any dirt or rust from your needles–and sharpen them in the process!  Some people say it ruins the newer, nickle plated needles, but I’m still a fan of my little strawberry.

Am I missing anything?  Do you have a favorite hand sewing tool or trick?  Let me know; I’m always looking to add to my repertoire!

Michele Newell is a housewife turned blogger turned Home Ec 101 contributor.  You can read her near daily ramblings at Dreams Unreal.

Choosing Your First Sewing Machine

Print Friendly

retrochick.JPGMichele says:

Now that our hand sewing skills are more or less on the same page, it’s time for you to make a very important choice.  You can be content with hand sewing and call it a day, or you can take the plunge into the world of sewing machines.  For the many who have hand-me-down or years old sewing machines gathering dust on the shelves the answer is probably obvious, but what about the novice sewer who would have to plunk down a hefty chunk of change for a machine—perhaps only to give it up after a few weeks of frustration?

To decide if buying a sewing machine is worth it, you need to ask yourself a couple of questions, starting with “what do I want to sew?”  If you’re a mender, historical reenactor, or only interested in sewing enough for simple crafts, I’d say to stick to your trusty hand stitchery.  On the other hand, if you’re interested in hemming skirts or curtains, sewing your own clothes, or quilting, I would highly recommend you dip your toe into the mechanical waters and buy your very first sewing machine.
Before you skedaddle on out to your local sewing store (or national craft store if no local store is available), you need to arm yourself with a bit of knowledge so that you don’t end up dropping $1,000 on the top of the line machine that the salesclerk recommends for “anyone serious about sewing”.  We’re not being serious right now; we’re learning.  We’re looking for “hobbyist” machines, so we don’t necessarily need the top of the line Husqvarna, Pfaff, or Bernina brands.  Brother is great and offers some inexpensive entry-level machines, and I have been happy with my good old Kenmore for a decade.

Whatever brand you choose, here’s what to look for in your first machine:

  • Priced under $200.  Anything over $200 will likely have features you don’t need, overwhelming you and making learning more difficult than it needs to be.  (What good is a $200+ paper weight?)
  • Multiple stitches.  You don’t want to scrimp so much that you end up with a bargain basement machine that can only do a straight stitch.  I recommend you look for a machine that can at least straight stitch, zig zag stitch, buttonhole, and blind hem stitch.  As an added bonus, the zig zag stitch can double as a serger for homemade clothes!
  • A lockable reverse function.  My reverse setting requires that I hold an inconvenient lever whenever I want to sew in reverse, which means I’m more likely to physically turn my work than to sew in reverse.
  • A free arm.  If you don’t have a free arm (pictured), you will not be able to finish cuffs or other small hems, and there’s no point in dropping a couple of hundred dollars on a machine that only works for large projects.

Sewing Machine

  • Bonus: A machine that offers a “drop in” bobbin feature.  A machine with a traditional side-loading bobbin case (pictured) works just fine—and can be easier to clean—but drop in bobbins save you the headache of dealing with the traditional side loading bobbin case.

Choosing a Sewing Machine

  • Bonus 2: Lessons.  Try to buy your sewing machine from a shop that offers free instruction on your machine’s operation.  If you can’t find a local shop that offers free lessons, many big box craft stores offer inexpensive classes.

Hopefully the above tips will help you select a sewing machine that’s right for you, but don’t be afraid to ask further questions if you have any.  Once you get your machine home from the store and set up at your work station (in my case: the coffee table), we’ll get up close and personal with its parts and inner workings—but that’s a post for another day.

Michele Newell is a housewife turned blogger turned Home Ec 101 contributor.  You can read her near daily ramblings at Dreams Unreal.

How to Reattach a Button

Print Friendly

retrochick.JPGMichele says:

Now that we’ve completed our first sewing project, it’s almost time to move on to the next big step in sewing: the sewing machine.  Before we do, though, we’re going to get back to the most basic of basics and learn how to reattach a button in under five minutes.  But what do you do if you can’t find the buttons that came in the little plastic baggie attached to the cuff or collar of your shirt?  Throw the shirt out, of course.  (Just kidding!)

How to fix a button

Before you cry over lost buttons, look inside the shirt’s body to find the care tag.  Fortunately, many clothing manufacturers have wised up and have started sewing their extra buttons to the tag which helps you find them when you need them, instead of when you’re cleaning out the random buttons that accumulate in your junk drawer and/or your sewing basket.

How to sew on a button

Still no spare button to be found?  If you don’t plan to use the shirt as a hand-me-down, check the sleeves’ cuffs.  Many shirts have two buttons that allow you to adjust the size of the cuffs, but those spare buttons are pointless to keep around once you’ve adjusted the cuffs for your wrist size.  As an added bonus, your shirt looks more tailored without an adjustable button cuff, so that’s a win-win situation in my book!

If neither of the above options works for you, head on over to your local fabric- or craft store (if it’s a craft store, make sure it’s one that sells sewing notions) with your shirt in hand.  Locate the section of sewing notions (needles, Velcro, and buttons, oh my!) and find the buttons that best match your shirt’s original buttons.  To be honest, the button don’t have to match perfectly, they just have to match well enough to pass at a glance.  If the button is missing from your shirt’s placket rather than the sleeve, simply swap the mismatched placket button for one from the shirt’s cuff.  (The not-quite-matching button will be much less noticeable on your sleeves.)

Whew!  Now that those pesky button-related details are out of the way, let’s get to the easy part and mend our presently buttonless shirts, shall we?

How to Reattach a Lost Button


What You’ll Need:

  • Matching button
  • Matching all purpose thread
  • Thin, sharp needle
  • Seam ripper (optional)

Notes: Whatever you do, don’t wash your shirt after the button falls off!  The old thread will leave guide holes that show you where to position the button.  If you accidentally washed the shirt and can’t find preexisting holes, simply line up shirt as though you intend to button it.  Use a pencil or colored chalk to mark a little dot inside the buttonhole.  The little dot will show you where to place your button so that it, well, buttons.

Step 1: If the button is attached to the tag (or if you’re using an “extra” button from the cuff), use your seam ripper to cut the button loose.  Thread your needle.

Step 2: Insert your needle from back to front through one of the “guide holes”.  Alternatively, center your button on the mark you made (see “Notes” above) and hold it tight as you insert the needle from back to front, guiding the needle through one of the holes in the button.

Step 3: Place the button on the needle and pull the needle and thread through one of the button’s holes.

Step 4: Insert the needle in the hole diagonal from the hole you started with.  (If using a two-holed button, just insert the needle into the second hole.)

Step 5: On the wrong side, insert the needle into the nearest unused/empty button hole.

Step 6: Insert the needle through the final remaining empty hole to make an “x” out of your thread.  (At this point, you can do a quick test: carefully button your shirt to make sure the button and the buttonhole still line up.)

Step 7: Repeat steps 2-6 two more times to reinforce the button.  Tie off and trim the remaining thread.

Congratulations, your shirt is now as good as new!  While your sewing basket is out, may I suggest you take a few minutes to reinforce the other buttons?

Michele Newell is a housewife turned blogger turned Home Ec 101 contributor.  You can read her near daily ramblings at Dreams Unreal.