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How and Why to Set Your Sewing Machine's Stitch Length

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Adjusting stitch length isn't necessary for every project, but as you experiment with different types of fabrics and and start using stitches for embellishment as well as construction, a few quick tips will come in handy. When working with today's machines, which can zip along at up to 1000 stitches per minute, you can see how a little length goes a long way.

A bit of math

The majority of sewing machines indicate stitch length in millimeters. A 2.4 stitch length means each stitch will be 2.4 mm long. 


Sometimes, you may run into a pattern or tutorial that is very specific about stitch length, indicating a critical setting in either millimeters or stitches per inch. You have to do a little bit of math, but going back and forth between millimeters and stitches per inch is quite easy.

Start with the knowledge that there are 25.4 millimeters in one inch. To go from metric to inches, the formula is: 25.4 divided by the metric length of the stitch equals the number of stitches per inch.

In our 2.4 example, that would equate to: 25.4 divided by 2.4 equals 10.58 stitches per inch. You'd likely round up to 11 stitches per inch.  

To go the opposite direction, if a pattern requests 10 stitches per inch, divide 25.4 by 10 to get the millimeter setting of 2.5. 

The long and the short of it

The theory behind stitch length is pretty straight forward. The shorter the stitches, the more will be packed into each inch of stitching, creating a tighter seam. The longer the stitches, the fewer within each inch, therefore, the looser the seam. Short equals tight; long equals loose. Another way to think about it is: short equals stronger and permanent, long equals weaker and temporary. This is simply a rule of thumb. Sometimes a longer stitch length can be just as permanent as its shorter counterpart. In the photo below, the bottom stitch line is 2.4 and the upper stitch line is 1.0.

When you adjust the stitch length, it's not the needle that is changing, it's the feed dogs (those little grippers in the center of the needle plate below the presser foot). The machine alters how much fabric the feed dogs will move before making the next stitch. 

Shorten the stitch and that reduces the amount of fabric fed under the presser foot before the needle comes down. Lengthen the stitch and the feed dogs increase the amount of fabric moved under the presser foot before the needle plunges in again. 

A tighter stitch works well on fine or delicate fabrics. It also helps keep curves smooth and corners sharp. Check out our tutorials on Sewing Curves and Creating Corners for more details. 

Since long stitches are holding the fabric together with less tension, they are used for machine basting and gathering. Most knit sewing benefits from a longer stitch length due to the need for more stretch. Check out our tutorials on Machine Basting, Gathering by Machineand Sewing with Knits for more details. A longer stitch is also better on thicker fabrics or when sewing through multiple layers.

We are also big fans of lengthening stitches when doing topstitching for a more visible decorative effect, such as we did on our Split Skirt Gardening Apron below. 

Your sewing machine's manual is likely to have a handy stitch chart of suggested settings and uses for the available stitches on your model.

Most machines have what are called "default stitch settings." These are length and width settings the manufacturer feels are optimum for most situations. For example, on the Janome Skyline S5, the stitch length defaults to 2.4. In most situations, on most fabrics, this is the recommended setting. 

That said, you can adjust the length to best fit your situation, fabric or technique. The most common stitch length range is from 0.0 to 5.0, with 5.0 being the setting for machine basting or gathering and 0.0 the option for free-motion quilting with the feed dogs lowered. In the photo below, you can see our three lines of test stitching, from bottom to top: 5.0, 2.4, 1.0, 

Setting stitch length on a computerized model

First, you'll need to figure out where the stitch length adjustment indicator is on your machine. On the Janome Skyline S5 there is a generous touchscreen, so it's easy to see the digital stitch length. The plus and minus arrows quickly adjust the length. The amount of fine-tuning between settings will depend on your machine. The most common increment is .5 mm.

If your machine has a smaller LED screen, there may simply be an indicator light to one side of the screen, such as on the Janome Magnolia shown below. When this light is next to the stitch length symbol (often a dashed line) you can use the plus and minus buttons to increase or decrease the stitch length.

Setting stitch length on a mechanical model

If you have a mechanical model, your stitch length will most likely be controlled by turning a knob, as seen on the Janome Magnolia 7318 below.

The smaller number (Number 1 below) is the shortest stitch length, and larger number (Number 4 below) is the longest. Turn the knob to set the stitch. As always, test the setting by stitching on a fabric scrap. 

Additional adjustments

Though the features described above will vary slightly by sewing machine brand and model, these basic rules apply to selecting and setting your stitch length. Some very high-end machines, like those offering embroidery or featuring more advanced computer and memory options, will have more in-depth methods for adjusting stitch length. For these, your best bet is to hunker down with the manual.

It's always a good idea to test your stitch settings on scraps of the actual fabric you will be using for your project to determine the settings. Remember, the seam ripper takes no prisoners! The more stitches per inch, the more stitches to remove. Not that you would ever need to rip out a seam, but say you had a friend who made a mistake...


Comments (24)

drlgeiger said:
drlgeiger's picture

Wow.  Well my 1951 Singer 301 does 1500 stitches per minute. It would be great if you could include the older vintage machines in your discussion as there are many vintage sewing machine enthusiasts out here. So the newer machines going 1000 spm are actually somewhat slower than the old gals. :-) Nice discussion. I was getting lost in other articles from different websites which recommend a 2.5 setting. Thanks!

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@drigeiger - Glad you found some helpful info! There are so many great old and new machines out there... it's hard to keep up with them all. Vintage machines aren't are our area of expertise, but we always love hearing about folks who have a gem like your Singer in their collection. 

N Rush said:
N Rush's picture

My Janome 4900 MC stitch length varies from long to tiny all in the same seam.  Any idea what might cause this? It was serviced several mths ago and the problem was not addressed. 

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@N Rush - I'm sorry, but that's something we can't troubleshoot long distance. It could be the machine or it could be the fabric layers in which you're stitching the seam. If it's only been a few months since your service, I'd suggest returning to your dealer with examples of the stitching issue so the service tech can try to replicate it to pinpoint the problem. One other test to try: I don't recall if that model has a start/stop control, but if it does, try stitching using that rather than the foot control; that would remove one variable of how the foot control is being operated.

Mon said:
Mon's picture

I have usha janome allure with me. I have set the length of the stitches as 4 but it still get only small closely packed stitches. What should i do to correct it?

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@Mon - We cannot really troubleshoot specific machine issues long distance as we don't know the details of every model. It sounds as if you have followed all the steps in your manual for re-setting the stitch length. Are you 100% sure it is threaded correctly both in the top and in the bobbin? And, are all your tension settings correct? If so, and things are still not working right, you may need to take it to your local dealer for review and repair. 

Anonymous said:
Anonymous's picture

My protex ty3300 double tooth industrial sawing machine. I need 2 stitches per inch . After turning the knob to the highest I got only 4 stitches per inch. I was told to loose somewhere at the back but I didn't understand. Could u help me out. -am Collins with Watsapp no 08135280253 pls if anyone could help me I will b most greatful 

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

So sorry - but we cannot offer any help with an industrial model. 

zari said:
zari's picture

My janome 392 stitch length is not changing even i change it manually. It is stitching on a fix stitch which is very small. Please help how can i fix it. 

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@Zari - Janome is one of our great sponsors, but we don't have information about all their products. This is a model we don't have specific experience with. You may want to reach out directly to http://janome.com/ or to your local Janome dealer for help or a repair evaluation.

Strain said:
Strain's picture

What is the proper stitch length when hemming stretchy jeans? I have a Janome 6600.

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@Strain - there isn't a specific stitch length rule for particular projects. It depends on the thickness of the fabric, the stitch chosen, the type of hem,etc. In general, you will likely want to lengthen your stitch. And if it's quite stretchy, experiment with a stretch style stitch, like the triple stitch. If you've cut away some fabric to make a hem, our suggestion is always to practice on these scraps to get the stitch that works best for your situation. 

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@ LordBiscuit - you'll need to be a bit more specific. 

Annie Dee said:
Annie Dee's picture

"...Not that you would ever need to rip out a seam..."  

Good one.  HA!  LOL  

tapin francette said:
tapin francette's picture

j'adore vos rubriques qui aide a se servir d'une machine Janome.

j'ai la 10000 et la 12000  merci.

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@ tapin francette - We are so glad you found the project helpful We love our Janome machines!

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@nurse56 - Thank you! It's always good to refresh the basics

Cindy said:
Cindy 's picture

Great article!  I have never really thought about switching up my stitch lengths (other than sewing vs. basting). This will come in handy with my current project of Adirondack Chair Cushions! Thank You!

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@Cindy - it's always great to refresh the basics, isn't it?!