For this instalment of my top tips series I wanted to cover some of the basic terms and things you need to know to start sewing bits of fabric together successfully!
The machine featured in these pictures is the Brother Innovis F420. These machines are provided to us on loan from Brother via our local sewing machine shop, Frank Nutt, and are the ones that we use in all our sewing workshops.
Follow along on my Youtube video for in-action tips and explanations!
What does the right and wrong side of the fabric mean?
In the context of sewing the 'right side' of the fabric really means the 'correct side' or the side that will face outwards when you have finished your project. If its a printed fabric it will be the side that looks the nicest with the colours bright and vibrant and the design clear.
The 'wrong side' means the back of the fabric or the side that will be hidden when the project is finished.
When you sew two bits of fabric together it's common to hear the phrase, 'right sides together' or 'right sides facing'. This means that the 'right sides' of the fabric will be touching as you sew the seam. Then once its sewn and you turn the fabric over, you don't see the seam and it looks nice and flat.
What is the right stitch to use on my machine?
For the majority of situations you will need a straight stitch. The length of this stitch can be changed depending on the situation, but for most seams the standard setting is 2.5mm length.
What is tension and what tension should I use?
The tension refers to the balance between the top and bottom thread on the machine. There needs to be an equal balance so that the stitches formed look the same on both sides of the fabric.
The tension can be affected by the type of fabric that you have, how thick it is and what your thread is like.
Some machines will auto calculate the tension for you, while other machines will have a tension disc or wheel with numbers on it. This will typically sit about 3 or 4. It's unlikely that you'll have to change it that often.
What do I do if the tension looks wrong?
When you stitch on the machine the stitches should look the same on both sides of the fabric.
If you can see the bobbin thread on the top of the fabric it means the tension of the top thread is too high. In the example below left, the pink bobbin thread has been pulled through to the top of the fabric. This is because the top thread is tighter than the bobbin. Usually this is due to the bobbin being either wound loosely or not caught in it's thread guides and therefore not put under enough tension, so the thread comes off the bobbin too quickly.
Once you have checked the machine is threaded correctly and you are still getting the same issue, you will have to change the tension disc to a lower number until the stitching looks even again.
If you can see the top thread on the bottom of the fabric it means the top thread tension is too loose. In the example below right the top blue thread is visible on the underneath of the fabric. Again, check your bobbin and try re-threading the top thread of the machine. If that doesn’t work you may have to increase the number on the tension disc.
What is a seam allowance?
When you sew two (or more!) bits of fabric together, the distance between the stitching and the edge of the fabric is called the seam allowance. If you are following a pattern or tutorial it will tell you what this distance should be. For patchwork projects is can be as small as ¼” and for dressmaking projects it can be ½” or 5/8”. Seam allowance can also be given in mm or cm, for example 1cm, 10mm, 1.5cm or 15mm.
You can use a measuring device like this aluminium seam gauge to mark out the seam allowance before you sew.
You can use the markers on the plate of the machine and line the edge of the fabric up to them as you sew. This makes sure the seam allowance stays even.
You can also use this magnetic seam gauge and position it wherever you need to. It acts as more of a visual aid when lining the fabric up – just make sure the raw edge of the fabric lines up with the edge of the guide.
What does back stitch mean?
When you sew two (or more) bits of fabric together at the very start and very end of the line of stitching you need to do a back stitch to secure the seam.
Start sewing at the very top edge of the fabric, sew 3 or 4 stitches then reverse back over them. Then continue to sew the seam and line of stitching right to the bottom of the fabric. When you get there, reverse back 3 or 4 stitches, the come forward again to the very end of the fabric.
This makes the line of stitching really strong and you can just cut the threads – no need to tie off.
This machine has a reverse button, which you have to hold down to make it stitch backwards. More basic machines may have a lever that you have to hold down at the side or front of the machine.
What does finishing the seam mean?
Once you have sewn the seam it’s important to then reinforce the 'raw edges' of the fabric to stop them from fraying. The 'raw edge' is the cut edge of the fabric. If left to fray, it can mean the garment or item you make can eventually just fall apart, so 'finishing them off' will add durability and strength to your projects.
Some fabric will fray more than others, so depending on how much it naturally frays will affect how you choose to finish them.
If doing this on the sewing machine you can either finish the two layers together or use the iron to press them open and finish them separately. Usually your project instructions will tell you what to do.
This can be done in a number of ways
Pinking shears – you can use these special scissors to cut a zig zag edge on the fabric. This works best on fine fabrics. Thicker fabrics may still fray.
Zig zag stitch – this is the most simple way to do finish seams on the machine. Select a zig zag stitch and sew this close to the edge of the fabric (pictured above).
Some machines might have a special overlock or overcastting stitch which is a fancier version of the zig zag. You’d use this in the same way as the regular zig zag – close to the raw edge of the fabric.
Overlocker or coverstitch machine – this a separate type of machine that uses 3 or 4 thread to bind around the edge of the fabric.