Seams and Seam Finishes
Stitching seams is one of the basic components of sewing.
With a little practice, you'll be able to sew perfect straight or curved seams and a variety of professional finishes.
Before you begin sewing, always test for the best stitch length, needle size, and type of thread for your fabric. Test the stitch length for appearance and strength as well as for ease in ripping. A too-long stitch length uses less thread, but creates a puckered seam.
Keep a supply of different needles on hand and use only the best quality—this is not a place to skimp. Change the needle before you begin each new garment and any time the needle hits a pin (listen for the sound of a blunt or bent needle piercing the cloth).
If you notice skipped stitches, or if the thread keeps breaking or fraying, try a different-size needle.
If that doesn’t help, try another brand of needle.
Sewing Perfect Seams
For smooth seams, always cut, stitch, and press seams in the same direction. For skirts, this usually means working along the length of the garment, from hem to waistline.
To sew long side seams, place pins vertically on the stitching line, positioned so that you can pull them out as you sew. This saves time and—because you're not sewing over pins—it also saves wear and tear on the machine.
Pin the top and bottom of the seam first. Next match the notches, then match or ease the fabric in between. A fabric with “tooth” grabs or sticks to itself and thus requires fewer pins than a slippery fabric that moves and slides. You may need to hand-baste some hard-to-handle fabrics, such as velvet, before stitching.
Most seams are sewn with right sides together, using a 5/8-in. seam allowance. Some machines have this 5/8-in. width marked on the throat plate. A magnetic seam guide, which acts as a “fence” along which you can guide the fabric, is also a very helpful tool.
Always press a seam after stitching and before crossing it with another seam or detail.
Remember, stitching and pressing go hand in hand.
Ripping out Seams
Ripping out seams is an essential part of sewing. Use the narrow point of the seam ripper to break a few stitches on one side of the seam. This frees the thread on the other side so that it can be pulled. Working from one end of the seam to the other, rip just a few stitches, grasp the thread with your fingers, and give it a good pull, disposing of the loose threads as you go.
Another way to rip stitches is to use the point of the ripper to break threads on one side of the fabric every 1 in. to 1 in. along the seam and then pull the long freed-up thread on the other side. (The disadvantage is that on the first side you're left with broken threads all along the seam that need to be removed.)
Never work the curved portion of the seam ripper between the two layers of the seam unless the fabric is heavy and very firmly woven.
Otherwise, you’re liable to rip the fabric as well as the threads.
Finishes for Side Seams
Aim for simple, light, unobtrusive seam finishes. Test fabric scraps to see which seam finish is most compatible with your fabric. The seam finish should keep the seam edges from fraying and shouldn't show from the right side. If your fabric doesn’t ravel, the best seam finish is none at all.
Trimming with pinking shears is a classic, honest way to finish a seam (see photo). The ultimate in simplicity, it adds no bulk and won't show from the right side. After you sew the seam, trim away the smallest amount of fabric possible.
Test the pinking shears on fabric scraps first. On some fabrics, you can trim both layers of the seam allowance at one time. With other fabrics, to get a clean edge, you must open the seam allowance and trim single layers. Test both methods and compare the results.
Some pinking shears have a notched tip that will cut all the way to the end of the cut. Other brands work best if you don’t fully open the shears and if you don’t cut all the way to the points. Test to see how deep a cut you need to make to work smoothly.
There’s also a rotary cutter with a wavy blade that works well as a pinking tool.
A pinked-and-stitched edge is especially flat and ravel-resistant: Sew a line of stitching ¼ in. from the edge before the seam is sewn.
Pink the edges after seaming, without cutting the line of stitching.
Seams For Bias-Cut SkirtsCut, making 11-in. seams to allow the fabric to relax. Mark the seamline with basting. Press the pieces. Pin along the marked seamline and try on the garment. Adjust where necessary. You may need to make smaller seam allowances to compensate for the pieces’ having stretched slightly in length and contracted in width. Sew with a slightly shorter stitch length than usual, stretching the fabric as you sew. Because bias does not ravel, you won't need to finish the seams.
Zigzag edges are quick and simple finishes. Both are made after the seam is sewn and pressed.
Both finishes have two disadvantages, however. First, the extra stitching and thread can add bulk to thin fabrics, which will keep them from lying flat. Second, these finishes, which aren’t found in ready-to-wear, shout “homemade.” I generally don’t use them, but you might want to experiment with them yourself.
For a zigzag finish, use a stitch of medium width and length. Stitch near the edge, but not along it, and trim close to the stitching. If your machine has this option, try a machine-overcast stitch. Stitch close to the edge so the points of the stitches fall almost at the edge of the fabric.
The serger, or overlock machine, has transformed home sewing.
Although it doesn’t replace a conventional machine, a serger is very useful for quickly cutting and finishing seam edges in one fast and easy operation (above right).
Fuse interfacings to pockets and zipper areas before serging. If your fabric frays easily, serge all around the skirt, but on more stable fabrics, serge only the seams that will be pressed open. Serge the hem after you mark the length and trim to desired width.
When using a serger, it’s not necessary to cut wider seams than you normally would. The cutting edge of the serger trims just the ravelly edges before overcasting.
Use fine, soft thread, machine-embroidery thread, or texturized nylon to minimize the amount of thread impression “striking through” on the right side of the fabric. A 3-thread edge, using long staple polyester or coned “serger” thread, is the most versatile of the serged finishes. Or, if your machine has a 2-thread finish, try that for a flatter edge.
Serge a wide edge on fabrics that are heavy or bulky, and a narrow edge on flat fabrics that are lightweight to midweight.
Finishes for Hems and Waistband Seams
For a flat and professional-looking finish, you can bind hems and waistband seams with a Hong Kong finish or with a rayon seam binding.
Hong Kong Finish The Hong Kong finish is a simple and elegant touch for medium to heavy fabrics. This flat, narrow binding makes a fine finish for hems or an inside waistband seam ona skirt (see photo on p. 52), but it’s too bulky for most side seams.
A Hong Kong finish has two lines of stitching and adds three layers of fabric to the edge. The seam edge is bound in bias strips of a lightweight fabric, such as China silk, rayon lining, silk, or polyester crepe de chine.
For the binding, cut ¼-in. wide bias strips, piecing the lengths as necessary. Press the bias strips to remove excess stretchability and to prevent them from rippling.
Before you stitch the waistband to the skirt, sew the binding to the seam edge, with right sides together, /s in. from the edges. (Bind the hem in the same way after marking and trimming it.)
Trim the seam edge to an even 1/8 in. using sharp long-blade shears, or a rotary cutter (1).
Wrap the binding around the seam edge and press. On the right side of the fabric, stitch in the “ditch” of the seam of the waistband and the binding—that is, where the two fabrics are sewn together (2). For accuracy, use an edgestitching foot with the needle in the center position.
On the wrong side of the fabric, trim the excess binding 1/8 in. from the stitching line (3). Bias doesn’t fray, so the binding won't ravel.
Rayon Seam Binding A flat woven-tape seam binding creates a dressmaker’s touch for bulky and flat fabrics that ravel. Use rayon rather than polyester—it’s softer, flatter, and more fluid. With just a bit of practice, you'll find this technique fast and simple.
Rayon seam binding adds less bulk than the Hong Kong finish. It has only one line of stitching and adds only two layers of fabric to the edge. This seam binding can also be used to finish the inside waistband edge and the hem edge.
Press the binding in half lengthwise, making one half slightly wider than the other. Hold the end in place with a straight pin as you work.
Position the narrow half of the binding on top of the right side of the fabric and stitch along this half (4). This way, you'll be sure that your stitches will catch the wider half of the binding on the other side of the fabric.
As you stitch along the edge of the binding, pull it slightly toward the fabric with your finger so that it wraps around and encases the raw edge. Press to eliminate puckers.