Backstitching at the beginning and end of seams helps to ‘lock in’ the stitching so the stitches won’t unravel when we first start sewing. Our early sewing lessons have taught many of us that backstitching every seam is not always necessary or appropriate, depending on the project at hand. Backstitching is frequently asked by beginners, including when to backstitch. I answer some common questions below. Based on the type of fabric you are using, we at SewingWithEase.com also list some alternatives to backstitching.
What is backstitching?
In backstitching, you begin or end the seam with a few stitches forward, then sew them backward, then return to sewing forward to finish the seam. This is very easy to do with a sewing machine with a reverse function.
When you stitch forward, backward, and forward again, you create three lines of stitching in the same area, preventing the stitches from unraveling. The stitching should unravel from the stress placed on the seam if you didn’t backstitch, while if you did backstitch, the stitches should be locked and won’t unravel even if the pieces are pulled apart.
Using backstitching creates an unsightly ‘clump’ of stitching at the start and end of seams due to the three lines of stitching. When you stitch a regular seam where the stitches are hidden within the seam allowance, this is fine, but not if you stitch somewhere that is visible from the right side of the garment (like topstitching).
Backstitching can also add a lot of bulk because it creates three lines of stitching. A lump may be felt even on the right side of the garment if there are multiple overlapping seams in the same area.
Finally, backstitching can bunch up fabric and jam the throat plate of the sewing machine when it is being sewed. Crepe de chine, chiffon, georgette, charmeuse, and crepe de chine are lightweight fabrics that tend to lose their shape.
How do you backstitch without the reverse function?
The problem is if the reverse function on your sewing machine isn’t available, how will you backstitch it? You can backstitch without reversing your fabric by turning it 180 degrees, sewing a few stitches, then turning it back to the original position and sewing the rest.
The needle can also be repositioned so that it is back at the beginning of your seam by sewing a few stitches at the beginning of your seam, then lifting the needle and repositioning the fabric. Follow up with the rest of your seam by stitching over your existing stitches. Keeping the stitches locked in by stitching them over twice prevents them from unraveling.
If you are stitching something that will be visible on the right side of the garment, it may not be desirable to use multiple lines of stitching at the beginning and end of the seam.
How do you backstitch a zigzag stitch?
In order to prevent zigzag stitches from unraveling, you should backstitch them. You can do this by stitching a few stitches backward on your sewing machine and then sewing forwards again. Using a walking or regular presser foot, you can backstitch a zigzag stitch. In the video below, you can see that you can backstitch a zigzag stitch using a walking foot, despite some online sources saying you can’t.
However, backstitching zigzag stitch results in an unsightly ‘clump’ of stitches, so it may not be suitable for using this method if you are zigzag stitching on the right side of the fabric (like hemming stretch fabrics).
Do you have to backstitch lightning stitches, three-step zigzag stitches, or triple stretch stitches?
Lightning stitching, three-step zigzag stitching, and triple stretch stitching do not require backstitching because they will not unravel when stressed. Unlike straight stitches, lightning and three-step zigzag stitches do not unravel since they move from side to side, which makes unraveling them more challenging. Since the sewing machine stitches over the same stitch three times, the triple stretch stitch does not unravel. This repeated stitching ‘locks in’ the stitches so that they don’t unravel.
Do you have to backstitch when stay-stitching?
If you stay stitch, you can backstitch, but it may not be necessary since the stay stitches will catch in the seam allowance and will not unravel. Another seam frequently catches these stitches, preventing them from unraveling as well.
Do you have to backstitch when overcasting?
In contrast to sewing a seam, zigzag or other overcasting stitches are not required to be backstitched. Due to their lack of stress, overcasting stitches are less likely to unravel. Whenever two pieces of fabric are pulled apart, there is stress on the stitching at the beginning and end of a seam, so backstitching is necessary to keep the stitches from unraveling.
Are there any alternatives to backstitching?
A double knot can be tied manually, stitches can be sewn in place, or short stitches can be sewn at the beginning and end of seams. These are the three most common alternatives to backstitching. Backstitching can cause clumps or lumps in the backstitched area, and they can cause the fabric to bunch and gather.
Make a double knot by manually tying the loose threads
Make sure you tie a double knot at the beginning and end of a seam to secure the loose threads. Once the bobbin thread is pulled through to the other side of the fabric, I tie a double knot with both tails of the thread on the same side. Instead of dangling from the edge of both layers of fabric, the knot lies flat on one side of the fabric.
Using this method is ideal for slippery fabrics such as crepes or charmeuse that tend to bunch up when regular backstitching is used. It is also useful for sewing off the points of darts because you can knot the loose thread ends after sewing off the edge of the fabric. Backstitching creates a ‘lump’ of thread at a dart’s apex, preventing it from pressing out nicely. Tying a knot is preferable to a backstitch. If the knot is hidden on the fabric’s wrong side, this method of securing stitches might be okay, but if the knot is visible on the right side of the fabric, it’s not ideal.
Use your sewing machine to sew a few stitches in place
In order to ‘lock in’ your stitches, you can use a stitch length of zero on your sewing machine or drop the feed dogs on your machine. A stitch that is sewn multiple times creates a knot that prevents the stitch from unraveling.
You’ll get a nice clean stitching line without the unsightly clump of stitches you’d get with backstitches since the knot is not visible or visible on the right side of the fabric. Alternatively, your sewing machine may not be able to sew several stitches in place if you use this method on lightweight fabrics.
Start and end the seam with a few short stitches
You can instead sew a few very short stitches at the beginning and end of your seam if your machine does not stitch in place. The simplest way to do this is to reduce your stitch length to the shortest amount available on your machine (on mine, it’s 0.5), then sew a few stitches at that length before increasing it to the length you’ll be using throughout the seam. At the end of the seam, do the same thing.
While this method is simple and fast, it causes stitching to appear visually different from the rest of the stitching line, which is not desirable if the stitching is visible on the right side of the garment (for example, when topstitching).
How to backstitch on a serger?
I was taught to tuck the thread tails into the ‘channel’ of stitching created by the serger at the beginning and end of seams sewn with a serger for years. Having to secure the ends of serged seams was time-consuming and tedious, so I was relieved to learn that there is a faster way to do it.
- Secure the seam by stitching a few stitches into the fabric, then raising the presser foot and pulling the thread tail to remove the stitches. Make sure the thread tail falls between the needles and blade by pulling it to the front. The presser foot should be lowered, and the serger should be used. It is essential to enclose the tail of the thread in the stitching.
- After stitching a few stitches past the fabric’s end, lift the presser foot and pull the threads to remove the stitches. Place the fabric under the presser foot by flipping it over. To exit the seam, serge off the fabric at an angle and then sew back over the serged area.