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Stop Backstitching When You Sew! Eliminate That "Homemade" Look

By Marian Lewis When you sew, why do you backstitch when you begin and end a seam? Most of you backstitch because someone on your sewing learning path said you should do that to keep your seams from coming apart. Well, now, I want you to forget that reverse button and listen to some common sense stuff! When you backstitch, you go forward, back and forward again, right? That puts 3 layers of stitching at the beginning and end of every seam. Even if you back up straight, which is almost impossible to do, 3 layers of stitching creates a lot of bulk in these areas. This is really bad on thin, sheer fabrics and ugly, too. That part of the seam doesn't open out flat or press well, either. It helps to make lumpy corners, too. Who needs lumpy corners? Gives the garment that "homemade" look! Yuk! OK, I can hear you say that you don't backstitch. You either hand tie your threads or sink or drop a knot with your machine by stitching in place for several stitches. That's fine, but then you trim the seam allowance down and cut off that knot, right? So why waste the time to tie or sink knots? So, you are asking, "What is the trick to keep seams from coming apart if you don't backstitch?" Try this! It just makes sense! For about 1" - 1-1/2", begin and end all your seams with "short stitches." Instead of pressing the reverse button to backstitch, set your stitch length down to make 18-20 short stitches per inch. On some machines, that is number 1. You will have to check it on yours. See below how to do that. Short stitches secure your seams and eliminate all bulk even after you trim the seam allowance. This makes much neater, flatter corners. Everyone wants flat corners, right? After you stitch the seam, press it open before you trim anything off the seam allowance. It is easier to press a wider seam allowance open than a tiny one. You won't burn as many fingers that way. Besides, pressing seams open first will give you a much sharper, cleaner, more professional looking finish. All seams should be "sandwiched pressed" (both layers together) to set the stitches and then pressed open with the tip or point of the iron right along the stitching line, then pressed flat open.
Notice, I said "pressed" - that's a lifting, lowering motion - not "ironed" - that's a sliding, stretching motion. Now, if the seam allowances are going to lay one on top of the other in the finished garment, you would then press them to one side. But, when your trim, make sure you trim one of the seam allowances a little less than the other one to create a staggered or layered effect. This is often called, "grading the seam allowance." The wider seam allowance should always be the one that lays next to the outside of the garment. This greatly reduces bulk in seams. You can sometimes achieve this effect by angling your scissors when you trim both seam allowances together. I generally prefer to use my "duckbill" scissors for this job. Here is a tip if you don't know where to find 18-20 stitches on your machine. To easily find out how many stitches per inch is represented by each number on your sewing machine's stitch length indicator, try this technique: Thread your sewing machine with a dark colored thread. Pin 2 small pieces of light colored cotton broadcloth fabric together one on top of the other. You want the dark thread on the light fabric so you can see your stitches really well. You want 2 layers of fabric because your seams are usually made with 2 layers of fabric. Draw two 6" long lines exactly 1" apart on the top layer. Use a dark pen or pencil for this. It should be a thin line, not a wide, fat line. Set the stitch length on your sewing machine for the highest number. Example: No. 4 or 6 or whatever it is. Beginning about 1/2" above the top line, stitch across the 2 lines and beyond the bottom line about 1/2". Now, count the stitches between the 2 lines that are 1" apart. Example: 8 stitches. Write the Stitch Length Machine Number (Example: 4) and the number of stitches per inch beside it (Example: 8). I write mine on the fabric test sample like this: #4=8. Move over on the fabric and select the next number on your machine and repeat the process until you are down to the lowest number. If you can't see the stitches well enough to count them accurately, use a magnifying glass. Keep this test sample in your sewing notebook for reference. When you learn where your stitch length must be set to have 18-20 stitches per inch, make a note or mark it until you remember to reduce your stitch length each time you begin and end a seam. It will take a while to break your old habit of backstitching, but you will see better results with short stitches. Try it! It just makes sense!
©2009 Marian Lewis - All Rights Reserved 1st Step To Sewing Success Marian Lewis is a sewing instructor and the creator of an amazing new fitting method for hard-to-fit sewing folks. In her ebook, "Common Sense Fitting Method For Hard-To-Fit Sewing Folks Who Want ..., find out step-by-step WHAT you really need and HOW to apply that to a commercial sewing pattern. It just makes sense! Finally, you can sew great fitting pants and end your fitting frustration. Marian is also the author of other eBooks related to sewing including, "Sew A Tee Pee And Accessories For Your Tribe Of Kids" and "Classy Designer Straight Skirt" where she teaches basic and advanced sewing techniques.

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Comment by Diane Zayas on June 9, 2011 at 2:12pm

Very interesting.  I will give it a try.  I appreciate you taking the time to post this information for us all.

This website is wonderful for people who love to sew and want to learn new methods.


Thank you.

Comment by Tanya on June 26, 2009 at 8:31am
This is an awesome tip...I always hating backstitching and have been doing it since day one!! Thanks for the professional advice!!!
Comment by Erika M. Yuille on June 24, 2009 at 11:18am
In doing this (industrial technique), do not forget to hold the thread tails (needle and bobbin) as you begin to sew, so that the fabric is not pull into the needle plate. When pressing (up/down), do not forget your pressing aids to prevent pressing lines and shine, i.e, Hams (sleeve and body); brown paper strips; wooden dowls (straight seams); solution of water and white vinegar to set pleats; ivory soap on wool crepe; pressing clothe, which can just be a piece of the fashion fabric; needle board or turkish towel in its absence. And finally, DO NOT MOVE FABRIC UNTIL DRY FROM STEAM.
Comment by Stormee Bryant on June 23, 2009 at 11:27pm
This is very good information. One thing that I do when I have to take out those little tiny seams is use a razor blade and start taking the seam out from the middle or you can go past the small stitching then work towards the small stitching to get the stitching out. That works for me. I have a surgical steal blade that I use to rip seams out you can get them at a medical supply store. I really enjoyed reading this article and I will start to use your suggestions. But I am with Alethia, I also do alterations and I think there are some places where you need to backstitch.
Comment by Laine Latour on June 22, 2009 at 4:49pm
Makes a lot of sense to me .just never crossed my mind
Comment by suzanne on June 21, 2009 at 7:52pm
it's a good idea, but when you have to take the seam apart for one reason or another, the small teeny stitches are a pain...especially when the garmet is black...I've made holes in the fabric taking out those stitches..............
Comment by babeagogo on June 21, 2009 at 3:44pm
I will definitely try this out. I can think of a couple places where this would be a helpful technique.
Comment by Sunshine America Clay on June 21, 2009 at 3:11pm
This is a great idea. I will try it right away!
Comment by Lauren on June 21, 2009 at 1:49pm
Ok I understand what your saying, but now you have up to 1" to 1 1/2" of very small stitches to rip out if you have made a mistake. That goes beyond the 5/8 seam allowance. Doing that on sheer fabric can destroy the fabric. If you start by going backward and then froward you only have two rows of stitches, and only 2 to 3 stitches, and it does not go beyond the seam allowance. Sorry to disagree but I work with special occasion fabrics all the time and your way could ruin some projects. That's my thoughts from my experiance, buy you can do what ever you want. Sorry if I stepped on anyones toes.
Comment by Ramona Louise Newton on June 21, 2009 at 10:53am
Very informative and nifty.

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