My favorite tips for using decorative stitches

The decorative machine 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 using these type of 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 machine stitches is one my favorite ways to embellish my sewing projects 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.
Tips for using decorative machine stitches

Prevent puckering and stitch distortion of decorative machine stitches

When you realize that it sometimes takes dozens of small stitches for your sewing machine to complete one decorative stitch design, this means there are lots of opportunities for the stitches to pucker and distort. To prevent this …

  • Use a stabilizer underneath your fabric to provide support. If you’re sewing on a single piece of fabric, use tear-away or iron-on stabilizer. If you’re sewing through several thicknesses of fabric, you may not need stabilizer but it’s best to test first – unsewing (unpicking) decorative stitches is not easy. And if you’re sewing on a quilted area, the batting or fleece usually provides enough support.
  • Sew slowly.
  • Slightly loosen the top tension.
  • Use fine thread in the bobbin which will prevent birds nests from occurring in the bobbin area.

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 machine stitches

Use the proper machine foot

The standard sewing machine 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 machine stitches

It’s all in the math

Decorative machine stitches are a great way to embellish quilt blocks and can be used an an alternative to straight stitch when stitching “in the ditch”. When using decorative machine stitches for this purpose, you may want to make sure that the stitch patterns are spaced evenly around the border. You can do this using a little math.
For the design in the sample below I used 12 decorative stitch designs on each side of the block. 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 machine 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 machine 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

Note – 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. So if you are sewing a decorative stitch and need to finish off at a certain point, simply hit the reverse button. This is a very handy feature!