In sewing, there's a difference between stitches you use for construction and ones you use for finishing. When you’re first learning to sew, your immediate focus is getting all those pieces to fit together correctly. From the moment you cut the fabric, you’re concerned with maintaining the shape of the pattern pieces. You tediously concentrate on perfecting seam allowances, matching cut pieces end to end, lining up seams, and measuring hems exactly. When a project is finally completed, you’re so happy; your sense of accomplishment is overwhelming... but, what about the inside edges beyond where you sewed? One of the signs of a truly well-made project is that it looks nearly as good on the inside as it does on the outside. If you want your projects to look "handmade" but not "homemade," it's well worth it to give your seams a professional finish.
No matter how much you love to sew, there are still many times you need to buy something from the store. But when you know how things are made, you become one tough customer. You shop from the inside out, because that’s the true test of how well an item is made. You can tell immediately if something is going to last one washing or one hundred washings. When a manufactured item falls apart, you'll find yourself, shouting, "I could’ve made that better myself!" Because you can!
There are a number of reasons most, if not all, fabric raw edges should be finished inside a sewn item. If a fabric frays aggressively, it must be finished or you risk the seam allowance raveling away and creating a hole in the seam. Or, how about a sheer fabric? You certainly want to finish the seams since you can’t hide them. Then there are the items you plan to wear and, therefore, launder on a regular basis. Their seams and finishes have to hold up through all that washing. Sometimes, it's simply about how it looks. In garment sewing, if a jacket is unlined, you wouldn’t want unsightly raw edges hanging in breeze, would you? Thankfully, there's a solution for each of these scenarios using your trusty sewing machine.
Your sewing machine and specialty feet
No matter what make or model sewing machine you own, chances are you have at least two stitches you can use for finishing raw edges. After reading through this tutorial, we encourage you to sit in front of your sewing machine with the instruction manual in hand to review the exact stitches (and appropriate feet) and their recommended uses. You may be surprised to find a few more stitches you can use for finishes that you’ve been skipping over. Or, visit your sewing machine retailer for assistance. In the Sew4Home studio, we use Janome sewing machines exclusively, therefore, we’re featuring the stitches and feet associated with this brand throughout this tutorial. If you’re interested in seeing their current line of sewing machines, visit their website.
Standard foot – On most sewing machines, the standard foot (the one that comes on the machine when you take it out of the box) is used for most of the available stitches, especially the straight and zig zag stitches.
Overcast foot - Used with an overlock stitch, this foot has a black guide on the front so you can feed the fabric evenly along the raw edge. The three wires in the middle help to form the overcast stitch. However, those same wires require that the stitch be 5.0mm wide or wider.
Overedge foot – It makes sense that you would use the Overedge foot with an overedge stitch. This foot is designed to keep the fabric flat along the edge as the stitch wraps the raw edge. That’s why there’s a little brush on it; it acts like faux fabric for the needle to go through as an additional stitch is formed off the raw edge of the fabric. There’s also a guide at the right side of the foot to help you maintain a straight seam finish.
Side cutter – For quite a few years, you've been able to find a specialty attachment/foot called a side cutter. Side cutters are generally brand specific, but can sometimes be found in generic versions. Basically, the foot functions like a faux serger. It allows you to sew with an overcast or zig zag stitch and trims the edge of the fabric at the same time for a clean finish in one step. Our exclusive sewing machine sponsor, Janome, currently has the Jem Gold Plus with this feature built-in (pictured above)!
Stitches for Finishing
As you review the options below, it’s important to note sometimes the finishing technique is completed on only one layer of fabric at a time, while others are completed with two layers. In addition, some finishes are best completed prior to actual construction, yet others require the seam to already be sewn. Remember, there’s a difference between a reference to the seam stitches and finishing stitches.
Ultimately, your best guide for which technique to use is the actual fabric type. Some fabrics can be finished using multiple techniques, while others require a more specific approach. You can research a little bit about your selected fabric before getting started. Or, if you’re following a pattern, there’s usually finishing information included for the recommended fabric type.
The sewing machine settings for each stitch (stitch width and length options) are truly dependent on the type of sewing machine you own. Electronic sewing machines may not have as many options as computerized ones. However, on computerized machines, some finishing stitches have a set width and only the length can be adjusted. Again, your sewing machine's instruction book is a great guide, as is a visit to your local retailer.
Most importantly, before trying any of these techniques on your final project, always test, test, test on scraps first!
NOTE: Always confirm you're using the appropriate needle type and size and thread type for your selected fabric.
You may be surprised to learn the common straight stitch can help you finish a raw edge. You can use it in a couple of ways (of course depending on the fabric type): a clean finish or a turned and stitched finish.
Stitched and pinked
Once the seam is sewn, fold the two main layers to one side to expose one side of the seam allowance.
Sew approximately ⅛" to ¼" from the raw edge with an average length stitch. Repeat to stitch on the opposite side of the seam allowance.
This finish is suitable for fabrics that do not fray much, such as a firmly woven fabric.
In addition to the stitch, you can also pink raw edge, making sure not to clip into your seam line. However, pinked edges in general are not meant for long term durability or to completely prevent fray-prone fabrics from fraying.
Turned and stitched
Also known as a clean finish, this technique is ideal for light to medium weight woven fabrics. If you happen to have a straight-stitch-only machine, this is your go-to finish for most projects.
It starts just like the straight stitch finish above. Once the seam is sewn, fold the two main layers to one side to expose one side of the seam allowance. Sew approximately ⅛" to ¼" from the raw edge with an average length stitch. Repeat to stitch on the opposite side of the seam allowance.
Using the stitch lines as a guide, fold under the fabric to the wrong side and press in place.
Stitch again close to the folded edge through the seam allowance only. Repeat on the other side.
NOTE: We found moving our needle position to the left for this step very helpful!
Press open. Here’s the final finished seam.
The most common stitch is the zig zag. It can be used for a variety of sewing tasks, one of them being overcasting the raw edge of fabric. Depending on the type of machine you own, varying the width and length of your zig zag can provide you with more flexibility in your finishing.
Similar to above, sew on one side of the seam allowance at a time with a zig zag stitch. Be sure to sew in from the edge slightly. Then, trim away the excess beyond the zigzag, making sure not to clip into any of the stitching.
You can also use two rows of zigzag for extra "fray-stopping" power.
Or, you can zig zag the two layers of the seam allowance together, then press to one side. The success of this technique depends on the bulk of the fabric; it doesn't work as well with heavier fabrics.
Either zig zag approach is ideal for woven fabrics that fray as well as for knits. Don’t forget to adjust the width and length to test which size of zig zag is best for your project.
Multiple zig zag
Also known as a tricot stitch, this specialty zig zag stitch is ideal for overcasting the edge of knits. The best way to utilize this stitch is to sew the multiple zigzag approximately ⅛" to ¼" in from the raw edge, then trim away the excess (making sure not to clip into the stitching, of course).
NOTE: Check out our tutorial on Sewing With Knits for more hints on finishing and other techniques unique to knits.
An overcast stitch on a sewing machine sews and finishes the raw edge at the same time. One thing to keep in mind with this stitch is that the seam allowance is only about ¼", or the width of the actual stitch. You need to account for this ¼" measurement when using the stitch for sewing and finishing in once pass. You can also use this stitch as the second part of a two step process: first sew your seam with a standard straight stitch, then overcast along just raw edge. The photo below sews a ¼" seam and overcast, which has been done with one pass.
If you’ve selected a fabric that aggressively frays, such as linen, you’ll want to use a double overedge stitch along the raw edge. This unique stitch creates two rows of zig zag stitches simultaneously to help control that crazy fraying. It can be stitched on a double layer of seam allowance or single layer (as we did below)
You may have heard a reference or two to overlock stitches. This term is usually equated with a serger (also called an overlocker), but many home sewing machines also have an overlock stitch. Finishing the raw edge is the main purpose of this stitch. It has an extra line of stitching along the raw edge for added strength. This stitch is designed to wrap the edges of the fabric with adjacent triangle shaped stitches to help prevent fraying on medium to heavyweight fabrics, especially those known to fray easily, like linen or tweed. Similar to the overcasting stitch, it can be used to construct and finish the edge at the same time.
NOTE: This is an example of a stitch where the width cannot be adjusted.
Some home sewing machines have stitches that are for sewing and finishing specific fabric types. The knit stitch on our studio Janome machine is a perfect example. This stitch is designed to be sewn about ⅛" to ¼" in from the raw edge, then trimmed away (similar to the multiple zig zag above).
If your sewing machine has a stitch that looks like a squiggly line, it’s most likely a serpentine stitch, which can be used for finishing similar to how you use your zig zag stitch.
A few tips
Thoughtfully consider how you sew the pieces of a project together. Many times it’s best to finish the raw edge of fabric prior to construction. Plus, it’s simply easier to do.
Finishing stitches always provide added strength to a seam and the fabric edge.
Never underestimate the visual appeal of finishing stitches.
It’s recommended you even finish fabrics that don’t appear to require a finish! It helps to reduce bulk on certain fabrics, like fleece.
For a true couture finish, you can use a hand overcast stitch. For this, we recommend our quick overview of hand stitching.
An alternative to seam finishes, is to cut the pattern pieces along the selvedge of the fabric. This is a sure way to prevent the fabric from fraying, but there's only so much selvedge on each yardage cut, so this technique is best for small segments.
Continue to expand your finishing techniques
If you’re interested in learning about other seam and hem finishes, check out the following helpful tutorials:
Other seam finishes
Sample Creation and Instructional Outline: Jodi Kelly