5 Basic Stitches You Need to Know, Plus Other Textile Tips

Ellen Howes

Ellen Howes is a costume designer in Oakland, California. While she has a Master’s in Theater Arts with an emphasis in design, her sewing skills are entirely self taught.

77 Articles

By Ellen Howes

Ellen Howes is a costume designer in Oakland, California. While she has a Master’s in Theater Arts with an emphasis in design, her sewing skills are entirely self taught.

77 Articles

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If your project requires attaching two textiles together or affixing an object like a button, you’ll need to know some basic sewing skills. You’ll need a needle, thread, and scissors. Needle threaders and thimbles are also helpful. Start with one of these five basic stitches:

Cross-stitch

cross
Commonly used for decorative purposes, the cross-stitch is X-shaped and arrayed like tiles.

Whipstitch

whip
The thread spirals around the edge of one or both pieces of fabric. Commonly used to affix patches.

Running stitch

running The thread runs straight along the fabric, going up and down with visible spacing between stitches on each side of the fabric.

Ladder stitch

ladder
Like the name implies, this stitch goes to the right, up, to the left, up, and repeats. Also called a blind or hidden stitch, this is useful for creating an invisible seam.

Backstitch

back
Similar to the running stitch, except that the thread doubles back so that there is no visible spacing between stitches.

Photograph by Hep Svadja

Photograph by Hep Svadja

Fabric

As a costume designer, I work extensively with fabric — and most of what I know about fabric is from making a lot of mistakes. Here are some tips to help you learn from mine.

Choosing

It’s important to first consider what you need the fabric to do. Do you need it to stretch around something or drape over something? Do you need it to be flowing or stiff? Is the fabric you’re choosing washable? Does it fray easily (i.e. does it need to be hemmed)?

Measuring

Fabric is measured in yards. Use the tiles on the floor of the fabric store (usually 12″×12″) to estimate how much fabric you have/need. 3 tiles = 1 yard

Cutting

Rather than using scissors all the way across to cut a straight line on a large portion of fabric, it’s much faster and more accurate to use the “snip and rip” technique. Simply snip parallel or perpendicular along the grain of the fabric, grab both ends tight, and rip! You’ll get a straight tear. Be sure to leave extra fabric to account for seams.

Ripping only works for woven fabrics, and works best with those of medium thickness. Do not attempt this with pressed or formed fabrics such as felt, leather/faux leather, plastics, etc.

Knitting is the craft of using needles to make yarn into a patterned textile. In addition to needles and yarn, a knitter can also use a tool called a stitch marker to keep track of how many stitches they have per row. Check the packaging of the yarn you buy — it’ll tell you what size your needle should be to work with it. Every new project starts with a “chain stitch,” and from there, different patterns are executed to render different shapes such as hats and scarves. Ready to try your hand? Knit a cozy pair of boots at makezine.com/go/knitted-boots.

Knitting is the craft of using needles to make yarn into a patterned textile. In addition to needles and yarn, a knitter can also use a tool called a stitch marker to keep track of how many stitches they have per row. Check the packaging of the yarn you buy — it’ll tell you what size your needle should be to work with it. Every new project starts with a “chain stitch,” and from there, different patterns are executed to render different shapes such as hats and scarves.
Ready to try your hand? Knit a cozy pair of boots.

Hemming

Structural pieces like hats don’t necessarily need to be hemmed, so you can save it for clothing or other soft goods that will eventually need to be washed. Other ways to avoid hemming are to use nonwoven fabrics or you can use tools such as hem tape or Fray Block. For projects that do need a hem, do it twice to hide loose ends and add durability: tuck loose threads in by folding fabric back, sewing, and then folding back again. Beware of stretchy fabrics. They’re very difficult to work with, as they must lay flat without being stretched while sewn. Otherwise they will look really funky really fast!

Reverse Engineering

It takes practice to understand the way fabric works, but one of the best ways to grasp sewing construction is to take something apart and see all the pieces that went into it. Patterns are a great way to learn too. Even trained designers still use patterns to make garments.

Other Uses

Fabric isn’t just for clothing and upholstery. I use felt for everything: glue small circles to the bottom of furniture legs to prevent them from scratching hardwood floors, apply to the sharp edge of furniture that you always bump your shin on, or use as cushioning when storing breakables.

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