My favorite tips for using decorative stitches

Posted by Linda Matthews on February 11, 2013

The decorative stitches on your sewing machine are a quick and easy way to add embellishment and decorative design to all your sewing projects. However many sewers tend to overlook these stitches either because they don’t know how to use them properly, or because they haven’t yet explored their many creative uses.

Using decorative stitches is one my favorite ways to work with fabric and thread and if you’ve never used the decorative stitches on your sewing machine or have trouble using them, then here are my favorite tips which will help to get you started using them.

My favorite tips for using decorative stitches

Prevent puckering and stitch distortion

It sometimes takes dozens of small stitches for your sewing machine to complete a decorative stitch design which means there are lots of opportunities for the stitches to pucker and distort. To prevent this …

  • Sew slowly.
  • Slightly loosen the top tension.
  • Use fine thread in the bobbin which will prevent birds nests in the bobbin area.
  • Use a tear-away or iron-on stabilizer underneath your fabric to provide support.

Make a sampler

It’s often difficult to tell from the little picture on your sewing machine, exactly what your decorative stitch designs look like until you sew them out. Having a sampler of your decorative stitches makes it really quick and easy to pick the design that’s best suited for your projects.

Tips for using decorative stitches

Use the proper machine foot

The standard sewing foot is really not the best foot for sewing decorative stitches. Instead, use a foot such as a satin stitch foot which has a hollowed out area underneath and which sews over bulky decorative stitches with ease.

Tips for using decorative stitches

It’s all in the math

When designing the “Dancing Hearts” Quilt Pattern, I used a decorative stitch design as a border around each of the 6″ quilt blocks, and to make sure that the designs fit precisely along a 6″ border, I had to do a little math. You can use this same math logic to resize your stitches so that they will fit within any prescribed area. I used 12 decorative stitch designs on each side of the block, and then to make this design even more magical, I matched up the design with a mirror image of the same design. Once I knew the math, it was easy to make this work.

Tips for using decorative stitches

The photo below shows the decorative stitch design I used. The length and width of the stitch is shown in millimeters and most modern electronic sewing machines will have a similar set of numbers. For this particular stitch, the width is 7mm and the stitch length is 2.5mm.

Tips for using decorative stitches

It’s important to know that the it takes a certain amount of stitch lengths to complete one design, and since the information screen doesn’t tell you the total number of stitch lengths it takes to make a complete design, you will need to calculate it. To do this, all you need to do is to sew one complete design slowly and count the number of stitch lengths it takes (i.e. the number of forward stitches it takes). For this particular stitch it takes 5 stitch lengths to complete the design.

So …
the length of this design is 2.5mm
multiplied by 5 stitch lengths per design
which makes the total design length 12.5mm (1/2″)

When converted to inches (for those living in the US and other countries that don’t use metric measurements), this equals 1/2″ (near enough). The actual conversion is 25.4mm = 1″, or 12.7mm = 1/2″.

So doing the math, I can calculate that 12 designs will fit exactly along each side of a 6″ block.

You can also calculate it this way …

Say I want 12 designs to fit along a 6″ overall length …
Divide overall length by number of designs = design length (6″ by 12 = .5 or 1/2″)
Calculate the number of stitch lengths it takes to make one design – stitch the design and count (5)
Divide design length (12.5mm”) by the number of stitch lengths (5)
Equals the stitch length (2.5mm)
You can do this with any decorative stitch and if the decorative stitch you select has a different length, simply adjust it to 2.5.

And finally – my favorite and most useful tip

The reverse button

(Waiver – This works on my Janome electronic sewing machine and it will work on other Janome electronic sewing machines. It may work on other machine brands, but I’m not sure.)

When sewing straight or zig-zag stitch (and a few other stitches), the reverse button will actually sew that stitch backwards which makes it handy for locking a stitch.

However … when sewing a decorative stitch, it doesn’t reverse – it interrupts the stitch and locks it off. So when sewing a decorative stitch and you press the reverse button, the decorative stitch will automatically stop and lockstitch in place. This makes it perfect for finishing and locking off a decorative stitch wherever and whenever you want. Very handy!

Got more tips? Share below.

Exploring Decorative Machine Stitches

Categories: Fabric and Thread

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  1. Thanks so much for this delightful pattern and the plan for using decorative stitches to make it special. You have such wonderful ideas and I get a lot of inspiration from your work!

    • Thanks Betty – I hope you enjoy :)

  2. Thanks from me too Linda. I have a Janome 6500 & your brillant explanation has made it easy for me to workout my stitches. And thanks also for the great free tutorials and hints you’re always so willing to share.
    Cheers Teresa

  3. I recently bought a Pfaff Creative 2 and have had difficulty with it – mainly due to it all being new to me and I also live in an isolated area which makes it difficult for me to attend lessons. I have been reading up on some of your tips and ideas and looking forward to applying them to this new machine I have.
    Glad I found your page. Laurelle

    • Thanks Laurelle – I hope you enjoy your new machine :)

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