Stitch Length & How to Use It

Now that you know what all (or at least most) of the knobs on your sewing machine do and how to get your machine started, it’s time to start looking at machine stitching itself.

To make a stitch, you place the fabric under the needle, slide down the presser foot, and hit the pedal. Easy enough! But to really get advanced with your sewing, you’ll have to learn different techniques in stitching to achieve different effects.

First, let’s talk about stitch length.

Part of this is probably intuitive: shorter stitches are more durable and tighter, while longer stitches are looser. So when do you need each?

  • As a beginner, there are pros and cons to each. A long stitch may be favorable because it uses less thread than a short stitch. Short stitches are generally more durable, but for your earlier projects you may be willing to sacrifice durability for resourcefulness. On the flip side, setting your machine to a longer stitch means that the feeder dogs will move more quickly. If you don’t yet feel comfortable using your machine at high speeds, you may want to stick with shorter stitch lengths until you have better control over your fabric as you feed it into the machine.
  • If you’re using a stretchy fabric, you’ll want to use a longer stitch. Shorter stitch lengths can pull and pucker your fabric. If you find that your stitches are puckering on a certain fabric, try adjusting the stitch length to allow for longer stitches.
    Knowing how to use different lengths of stitches is important as a beginner learning how to sew
    Notice in the above picture that the stitch on the left is significantly more puckered than the fabric on the right. The stitch on the left was done using the shortest stitch on my machine, while the stitch on the right was done using the longest stitch.
    Knowing how to use different stitch lengths is important for a beginner learning how to sew
    The fabric in this picture is a non-stretchy fabric. Notice that there is no significant difference in puckering between the short stitch length and the long stitch length.
  • For decorative stitches such as topstitching, which is visible on the finished project, a long stitch length is usually more favorable. Long stitches are generally more attractive than short stitches.
    Knowing how to use stitch length is important for a beginner learning how to sew
    In the above picture, the seam has been sewn and the seam allowance pressed to one side and then topstitched. More on this process later, but notice that the stitch is a long stitch length. For durability use short stitch lengths; for decor use long stitch lengths.
  • Another function of long stitch lengths is gathering. If a pattern calls for you to gather a seam, you stitch with a long stitch length and then pull the ends of the thread to cause the fabric to bunch.
    Knowing when and how to change your stitch length is important for a beginner learning to sew
    Pictured is the same non stretchy, long stitch length seam from the second picture. Because the long stitch length makes the seam looser, I can pull on the ends of the thread and gather the fabric.
  • So how do you change your stitch length? It depends on your machine. There are generally two types of stitch length dials: stitches per inch and millimeters.
    Knowing how and when to use different stitch lengths is important for a beginner learning to sew
    Pictured is the stitch selector and stitch length knob (top) on my machine. Mine uses a millimeter scale, as evidenced by the numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4. These numbers simply indicate how many millimeters long each stitch will be with 1 being the shortest and 4 being the longest. If your stitch length knob has numbers ranging from 4 to 60, yours is a stitches per inch machine. This is the reverse from a millimeter machine because a higher number, 60 stitches per inch, indicates a shorter stitch because there are more stitches in a single inch than, say, 4 stitches per inch. For basic everyday sewing, a stitch length of 10-12 stitches per inch is typical. On a millimeter machine, this is about a 2.5 millimeter stitch.
  • To adjust your stitch length, simply rotate the knob to select the length you need!

I hope you found this helpful! Soon I will cover basic stitches and techniques with a sewing machine.

Happy sewing!

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