By Shari Fuller
Stitch length is something most of us don’t give much thought to. Generally, the only time we fiddle with that setting on our sewing machines is when we are adding gathers to something – then we tend to whip the dial to the longest stitch length and then right back again when we are finished. The thing is, there is a whole range of stitch length settings to choose from, and understanding the the whys and wherefores on how they work can make a huge difference in the appearance and functionality of your project. Stitch length is measured two different ways — in millimeters (mm) and in stitches per inch (spi). If the scale on your sewing machine shows smaller numbers between 0 and 5, the stitch length is measured in mm. If it shows larger numbers between 3 and 70, then the stitch length is measured in spi. Adjusting the stitch length setting on your sewing machine changes the movement of the feed dogs. Now, when I say feed dogs, I am not giving you a subliminal reminder to go feed your dogs. I am referring to the little teeth underneath the presser foot that move the fabric along. When the feed dogs move with shorter strokes, the stitches are shorter. When they move with longer strokes, the stitches are longer. Still, I suppose this would be a good time to suggest that you don’t get so wrapped up in your sewing projects that you forget to feed your dogs… or the rest of your family for that matter. I have learned from personal experience that this doesn’t go over well.
When it comes right down to it, the length of a stitch determines its durability. Short stitches between 0 and 3 mm (60 to 13 spi) are very strong and are meant to be permanent – meaning they are a bugger to rip out if you make a mistake – whereas longer stitches are usually temporary or decorative. The standard stitch length on most sewing machines is between 2.5 and 3mm (8 to 10 spi) and is ideal for medium weight fabrics. However, it is a good idea to turn the stitch length down if you are working with lightweight fabrics and up if you are working with heavy weight fabrics. Why? Because lighter weight fabrics usually have a looser weave and need the extra durability to keep the seams from pulling out. Heavier weight fabrics, on the other hand, are more difficult for the feed dogs to move, and longer stitches help the fabric move more evenly so that it doesn’t get jammed in the machine.
Adjusting the stitch length has other useful applications as well:
Anchoring Stitches – Most of us anchor a seam by back stitching at the beginning and the end. This method is just fine most of the time, but back stitching adds extra bulk that can distort a seamline, something that can be quite noticeable on smaller scale or highly-detailed designs. Instead of backstitching, try turning your stitch length down to the lowest setting for about a quarter inch on each end of your seam line to anchor the stitches.
Applying Trim – Using a longer stitch length will help the trim to lie flat and reduce puckering on the fabric.
Basting – Working a complicated section? Not sure about the fit? Use a longer stitch length to baste it in place. The longer stitches hold it in place better than pins… and won’t get in the way. Plus, they are very easy to rip out and are less likely to cause damage to the fabric.
Buttonholes – Standard automatic buttonholes are usually made with a very short stitch length which gives a nice satin finish. Although this is pretty when things go smoothly, it loses its luster quickly when the fabric jams or the buttonhole gets crooked. Buttonholes are also a bear to rip out without causing significant damage to the fabric. Try lengthening the stitch length before you sew your buttonhole. Longer stitches are less likely to cause fabric jams and, heaven forbid you make a mistake, they are a lot easier to rip out and do over. Honestly, the tight satin stitching on these buttonholes is quite unnecessary to the integrity of the buttonhole. If you look at most manufactured shirts, you will note that their buttonholes are made with a longer stitch length.
Gathering – As a general rule of thumb, most of us use the longest stitch length to make gathering stitches. However for neat and even gathers, it is a good idea to give this a little more thought. The longest stitch length is certainly ideal for heavier fabrics – the threads pull easily and create a full and heavy gather. However, when working with lighter weight fabrics, using a shorter stitch length produces a finer and less bulky gather that lays flat along the seam line. In fact, on smaller-scale projects where added bulk is an issue, you can often reduce the amount of fabric significantly and still get a nice gathered appearance by using a shorter stitch length.
Tight Corners and Curves – Clipping the corners and curves may make a seam allowance lie flat, but it also weakens the seam lines. Shorter stitch lengths not only add extra strength, but they also make a smoother curve and prevent the short clipped edges of the seam allowance from poking through, resulting in a nicely finished appearance.
Topstitching – Longer stitches stand out more and move more easily through the machine… making it easier to sew nice straight seams.