Regardless of cost, modern day machines have basic sewing machine stitches built-in. It’s a standard feature. These stitches give you the tools for any sewing project. With more expensive machines you’ll get a whole range of extra, decorative stitches. While cheaper, entry-level models tend to stick with the bare minimum.
With so many options available, how do you know you’re getting the stitches you need? What are the basic sewing machine stitches you should have?
Let’s start with the two absolute essential stitches. No machine worth its weight in cotton reels should be without either of these two. They form the basis of all other machine stitches.
Historically, the straight stitch was the very first stitch ever performed by a domestic sewing machine. In fact, the first home machines were only capable of doing this stitch. A large number of sewists still use vintage, straight stitch only machines. Especially quilters. The machines are robust and the stitch can complete any project.
Straight stitch is normally the default setting on sewing machines. As soon as you turn the machine on, the straight stitch is ready to go. All you need to do is decide the length of stitch and whether you want the needle on the left, right or in the center of your sewing machine’s foot. All those decisions revolve around the task you are doing. A basting stitch for instance normally uses the longest length setting on your machine.
Manual machines have a dial to select the different length options for your straight stitch. Computer models have a display showing you the different selections available. Computerized machines will normally tell you what foot to use too!
Used for hems, topstitching, understitching, seams, edge stitching, darning, free motion quilting, gathering, and basting, this stitch is still the most important stitch on a sewing machine.
By changing your needle or the sewing machine foot, you can accomplish a multitude of tasks using this one stitch. For example, the addition of a twin needle to your machine enables you to stitch two lines of straight stitch for professional-looking hems and edging. Making it look like you used an expensive coverstitch machine.
A truly ubiquitous stitch. There’s more to straight stitch than stitching in a straight line.
The second most useful stitch on a sewing machine is the zigzag. This stitch is functional and decorative. Ideal for stitching seams in knits and stretchy fabrics, the zigzag can also be used for decorative edging on applique.
Seam edges in woven fabrics are prevented from fraying by a single line of zigzag along the outer most edge.
A basis for many decorative stitches, the zigzag is the foundation of the machine buttonhole stitch. It can also be used to join two pieces of fabric together side by side, also known as a butt seam.
The zigzag stitch can be set to different widths and length depending on the project. A closely sewn zigzag can produce an embroidery stitch known as satin stitch.
One of the basic things you need on your sewing machine isn’t a stitch. It’s a direction. All modern machines have a reverse button or lever. This allows you to sew backwards over your stitching line to lock the stitches. Known as a backstitch or back-tack, this ‘stitch’ stops your work unraveling.
Reverse will work manually with straight stitch or zigzag. Some stitches, like the automatic buttonhole and built-in decorative stitches need reverse to work their stitch patterns.
It really is one of the absolute essentials on a sewing machine, so make sure yours has the capability to stitch forwards and backwards.
Now let’s look at some more basic stitches. These are all variations of the straight stitch or the zigzag stitch, or a mixture of both.
Automatic 4-Step Buttonhole
Gone are the days when you used to have to measure your button, and manually work out how big to stitch your buttonhole.
Thankfully, these days, the machine does the work for you. Put your button in the buttonhole foot, and select the buttonhole setting on the dial. Push your foot down on the pedal and sit back. Watch the machine automatically sew one side, across the end, switch direction, sew the other side, and finish off the last end. Buttonholes have never been so easy.
Some machines have a number of built-in buttonholes forming a whole range of utility and decorative finishes. While it’s great to have a choice, you only need one. Make sure your machine has at least one automatic 4-step buttonhole stitch.
Blind Hem Stitch
A blind hem stitch can be used for sewing an invisible hem on a sewing machine. The hem is set up so the sewing machine catches the smallest amount of fabric on the right side. Making the hem appear hand stitched.
The image for the blind hem stitch on your sewing machine will look similar to the numbers 14 and 15 in this picture.
You’ll need a special foot for this stitch, called the blind hem foot. It looks like this.
The first step is to fold over your fabric edge by ½ inch. Then fold over by an inch. Stitch it down with a basting stitch to hold down the ½ inch you turned under. Hems smaller than an inch don’t really work that well with a blind hem.
Fold the hem under your fabric to the right side. Follow your line of basting stitches. A small section should peep out beyond the stitched part. Use a matching color thread with this stitch and your hemming will be hard to see. Don’t forget to remove your basting stitches.
Then select your blind hem stitch, and attach your blind hem foot. Line up your foot so the edge guide is level with the fold line and stitch.
If you don’t have a blind hem foot, you can do this stitch with a standard machine foot. You’ll have to go slowly and make sure to stay on a straight course. It’s trickier but doable. For best results, use this stitch on garments that need a deep hem like skirts or the legs of pants.
It takes a little practice to get the hang of it, but once you’ve mastered it, you’ll be doing all your hemming by machine.
Rolled Hem Stitch
This stitch is ideal for lighter garments made from delicate fabrics. Things like chiffon blouses or items made from silk. It also works well on sheer curtain panels made from voile fabric.
A rolled hem is where the edge of the fabric is rolled over. The difference between this hem and the blind hem above, the rolled hem is finer. Only the slightest amount of fabric is used to create this hem. Giving a light edge to a delicate garment.
As this stitch is for delicate fabrics, you’ll need to use a needle that matches a lightweight fabric. A universal needle is fine but make sure it’s no bigger than an 80/12.
The rolled hem stitch is made using a straight stitch and a special rolled hem foot. Like this one.
Fold over ¼ inch of fabric along the edge and press to the wrong side. Not all the way, you only need a couple of inches. Attach your rolled hem foot to your sewing machine. The fabric should go under the foot with the wrong side up. Now roll your fabric over a little so it hides the raw edge. To hold it in place, put the presser foot down.
Lower the needle into the innermost fold of the fabric, lift the foot, and here’s the tricky bit. Hold the fabric taut and push the fold up and over the guide in the foot. Once the hem is in the foot, you can start to sew. Go slowly and make sure the fabric stays inside the foot.
I’m going to be honest, this stitch takes practice. It’s a tiny hem so can be extremely fiddly. Start on scraps before your main project.
Overlock / Overcast Stitch
Many sewists think you need a serger if you want to sew knits. This is a bit of a myth. People were sewing with knits long before sergers became popular.
If you don’t have a serger, also known as an overlocker, you can still sew knits. The overlock, or overcast stitch, on your sewing machine will wrap a thread around the fabric edge in the same way a serger will. Although it won’t trim for you, you’ll still get a nice, neat, professional-looking edge.
This stitch needs a special overlock foot which looks like this.
You will also need to make sure you have an overlock stitch on your machine. The diagram for the stitch looks like 11 and 12 on the picture below.
Another way to do the overlock stitch is by stitching along your seam allowance with a straight stitch. Then, go back over the seam, stitching as close to the straight stitch as you can. Only this time with a zigzag stitch.
The following stitches are nice to have but not essential.
The stretch stitch can be a bit confusing as it can be portrayed by different symbols on many machines. Some use a lightning bolt. Stitch number 4 in the picture below.
Other machines use the image of a triple zigzag, which is a normal zigzag but made up of a dotted line with 3 bars to each stitch.
Whatever the diagram is on your sewing machine, the stretch stitch is for fabric that needs a lot of stretch. Activewear, swimwear, and underwear are the usual garments for this stitch. It’s stronger than a standard zigzag and allows more stretch.
The stitch is more of a nice-to-have than an essential. You can use a regular zigzag for most stretch and knit fabrics.
These are the stitches usually included on higher priced machines. Although entry-level machines do have built-in stitches, they don’t tend to have a huge selection of embroidery or decorative embellishments for projects.
The truth is, these stitches are the ones that rarely get used. They seem like a great idea and are fun to play with, but never see the light of day.
I think I’ve used 2, maybe 3 over the years. None are necessary or needed for sewing projects, but they can add a personal touch. Have a play with some of yours on some scrap fabric. It might inspire you to use them on a project.
With the basic sewing machine stitches listed in this article you will be prepared to tackle any project with ease. Not only that, using the stitches will give your sewing a professional finish.
Some of the stitches shown in the article may look different on your machine. Always check your manual before trying a new stitch to make sure you have the right settings and foot.