Sewing Techniques Cover Image

Sewing Techniques

An introduction to construction skills within the design process


Jennifer Prendergast

Fairchild Books Library

Table of contents


Book chapter

DOI: 10.5040/
Pages: 8–33

Figure 1.1. Sarabande by Alexander McQueen, S/S 2007

Sarabande by Alexander McQueen, S/S 2007

Nude silk dress adorned with silk and fresh flowers.

Planning the project

From conception to catwalk, the fashion industry thrives on the energy and buzz of each collection; therefore, adhering to deadlines is important. For all fashion designers, planning and preparation are essential. Prior planning allows the designer to concentrate on the creative process without any distractions. Within the fashion supply chain there are different approaches to planning but in most companies a computerized critical path is used. However, you may wish to use a more simple form, whereby the critical dates are written in a diary and checked regularly to ensure that you are working to schedule.

Make a list of essential items that you will need for the sewing project. This could include the following, depending on your own personal requirements:

  • Needles: machine and hand stitching

  • Spare spool and bobbin case

  • Threads

  • Notions/trims

  • Tape measure

  • Pins

  • Dress form/mannequin

  • Technical/working drawings

  • Camera/notepad: for recording and reflection of the processes

  • Any visual inspiration, such as sketches or photographs.

Figure 1.2. Industrial sewing needle

Industrial sewing needle

Close-up of an industrial sewing needle on a lockstitch machine. Lockstitch machines are the most popular industrial machine in any studio or factory. However, there are specialist machines, such as the one shown here, which are used to produce leather goods. This machine requires a leather needle, which is tougher than a normal needle and uses thicker, more durable thread for stitching leather.

Figure 1.3. Modelling on the stand

Modelling on the stand

The designer models calico on the stand as part of the design process. This type of fabric manipulation is a form of silhouette development and can be part of the design research process. This hands-on approach allows the designer to use the sewing machine in conjunction with any two-dimensional research to further develop design concepts.


'Before beginning, plan carefully.'

(106-43 BC) Roman orator, writer, and politician.

 Marcus Tullius Cicero

Project preparation

Many fashion designers have a signature to their collections, which is synonymous with their label. Once you become more proficient with your sewing techniques, you will start to develop a more individual, creative approach to your work that will reflect your design aspirations. This chapter will introduce you to the basics of sewing techniques, and will guide you through the initial stages of understanding the sewing process.

Confidence is the key to progression: it allows the designer to creatively explore complex sewing processes. Within this chapter, sewing terminology, machine operation and basic practical exercises will be introduced, offering a guide to sewing techniques.

Essential equipment

Garment and sample engineering requires various different types of sewing equipment depending on the designer's needs and the scope of the project. This section provides information to help you identify the equipment easily and progress through the book. It also includes information on the type of equipment to use to record the processes, which is essential to designers who like to reflect on each stage of their work. However, use your discretion: if you find a piece of equipment that does the same job better, use it.

Figure 1.4. Basic sewing equipment

Basic sewing equipment

Basic equipment should include fabric scissors, paper scissors, chalk, tape measure, seam unpicker and a magnetic seam guide. Pins are an option but beware: if they are caught in an industrial sewing machine, they can cause damage.

Lockstitch machine

There are many industrial sewing machines available, many of which may look slightly different, but do not be daunted, most of them thread up in very similar ways. It does take some practice to be able to thread a machine correctly but it will take you a matter of minutes once you have mastered it. Threading instructions may be found either on the machine or within the manufacturer's handbook. Lockstitch machines do vary slightly according to the different manufacturers but they all perform the same function.

Thread tension gauge

It is essential that the sewing machine is threaded correctly to ensure that it functions properly. A significant area that is often overlooked is the thread tension gauge. This gauge allows the top (the thread that is positioned on top of the machine) and the bobbin to work in harmony by allowing equal amounts of thread to travel smoothly when sewing. The thread tension gauge consists of two discs between which the thread is inserted, as well as a dial that enables you to adjust the tension as needed. When done correctly, sewing can proceed without any problems such as loose thread or puckering of the fabric.

After completing the 'threading up' process, test the machine by using a spare piece of fabric. Start sewing, check the stitches and adjust again if required.

Serger/overlock machine

Overlockers are designed to neaten the raw edges of the fabric, including seams. The machine has a blade that cuts off a minimal amount of fabric, which is then overlocked using several threads. Sergers perform the same process; but are a little more versatile in that they can also be used to coverstitch seams (mainly stretch or jersey fabrics) and to chain stitch (used in the construction of jeans).

There are two-, three- and four-thread overlockers, each denoting the number of threads used on the machine. These are used for different types of fabric:

Two-thread overlocker

Used on silks or delicate fabrics that require minimal handling.

Three-thread overlocker

Used to overlock the edges of woven and heavier fabrics that have a tendency to fray.

Four-thread overlocker

Used to form a seam. Rather than using a lockstitch machine for sewing knitted or jersey fabric, this stitch allows the thread to stretch with the fabric.

The instructions for threading these industrial machines can be found on the machine or in the manufacturer's handbook. Tweezers are used and you will need a lot of patience to complete the process. Do not feel daunted when undertaking the task: it takes a little practice but persevere.

Differential feeds

Sergers/overlockers can appear to be quite complex pieces of machinery but one of the main components is the 'differential feed'. This means that the feed systems can be adjusted to work at the same speed or one can move a little slower or faster than the other. These feed systems can prevent puckering, such as when overlocking a raw edge, to ensure that it remains flat. They can also provide more decorative effects, depending on the setting. Sergers are great for creating decorative edge finishes such as a lettuce hem (which resembles the edge of a lettuce leaf) and can be adjusted manually.

Decorative edge finishes in the fashion industry are done by machinery specifically designed for the purpose. This is because it is time consuming and not financially viable to change the settings for the different finishes. Overlockers are often set to perform one function only: overlocking raw edges. They are adjusted using a computerized setting on the machine, often by a specialist machine technician.

Figure 1.5. Bobbin/spool and case

Bobbin/spool and case

The two separate pieces are the bobbin, around which the thread is wound, and the case, into which the bobbin is inserted.

A = bobbin/spool

B = bobbin case/spool case

Bobbin/spool and case

Bobbin/spool – for industrial machines, this is often made from metal. It is cylindrical in shape and the bottom thread is wound around it.

Bobbin/spool case – the spool is inserted into this metal case that controls the tension of the thread.

When the bobbin is inserted into the case, the thread is slid through a little opening that leaves a small excess of thread. This is then inserted into the sewing machine; however, this must be executed correctly as it may cause some damage to your needle if not. On most industrial lockstitch machines it is inserted horizontally; check before inserting. It should be easy to insert but you might have to use a little pressure; you may hear a clicking sound that indicates you have inserted it correctly.

This thread is used to loop around the top thread when you bring the needle down. When you bring the needle up, it will bring the bottom thread with it and both threads will be visible on the plate of the machine.

Mechanism – bobbin/spool and case

Before a bobbin can be inserted into a spool case, there are several procedures to follow.

Ensure the machine is switched off. Take an empty bobbin and fill it with thread, which will ensure that the thread is smooth and able to run through the needle without any problems. There will be a mechanism to do this on the machine that is operated by the treadle. Ensuring that the presser foot is in the raised position and the machine is threaded correctly, press the treadle. On most machines as soon as the spool is full the winding motion will stop automatically; however, always check this because you do not want the spool to overfill as this will cause the thread to tangle and problems with the stitch will occur.

Once this is complete, take the bobbin and unravel no more than 5cm (2in) of thread, then place the bobbin into the case. Take the excess thread and pull this through the thread slot on the bobbin case. Now place the bobbin into the machine.

With the presser foot lowered, thread the sewing machine, ensuring that the needle is threaded.

Lower the needle into the throat plate, as far as it will go. The top thread will automatically pick up the bobbin thread from the bobbin hook to form a loop. As the needle is raised, both threads will appear on the throat plate. They can then be pulled through, so that you have two even lengths.

Always test the machine prior to sewing.

Figure 1.6. Correct threading

Correct threading

When the machine is threaded, the needle comes in contact with the thread from the spool and loops this through to the machine bed.

Figure 1.7. Dior haute couture, S/S 2012

Dior haute couture, S/S 2012

Pleated silk chiffon skirt with a delicate and refined hemline featuring a baby overlocked hem finish.


Lockstitch machines are one of the most common machines used in the production of fashion clothing. The stitching mechanism is controlled by foot using the treadle/pedal, which makes the machine start and stop when and where required. Lockstitch machines are useful for different weights of fabric as they have interchangeable feet, including some that apply pressure to the feed dogs to give stability when using heavy fabric.

The lockstitch seam is a straight stitch, which provides a smooth professional- looking finish to a garment. It is particularly used to sew woven fabrics together and is found in some of the following places: armholes, side seams, hems, cuffs, and collars.

The lockstitch can also be used for decorative purposes such as top stitching, and free machine embroidery.


'Create your own style… let it be unique for yourself and yet identifiable for others.'

 Anna Wintour

Figure 1.8. Marios Schwab, F/W 2012

Marios Schwab, F/W 2012

Sewn using a lockstitch machine, this embroidered bodice has soft raglan shaped sleeves and neck pleats.

Figure 1.9. Dries Van Noten, S/S 2006

Dries Van Noten, S/S 2006

Cream jacket with pillar-box red collar, worn with deconstructed dress. Both would have been sewn using a lockstitch machine.

Machine accessories/lockstitch needle

Lockstitch needles are used for sewing woven fabrics. They produce a straight stitch, the length of which can be adjusted according to requirements. The needle has a standard point, which refers to the sharpness of the needlepoint, and comes in different sizes.

Figure 1.10. Lockstitch needle

Lockstitch needle

Example of a lockstitch needle.

Lockstitch foot

All machine feet should have guards on them to prevent any accidents during the sewing process. Also known as standard feet, they are universally used on all lockstitch machines. They are attached and secured to the machine by a screw; when changing one, ensure that it is very tight because if it becomes loose, it can damage your work and cause an accident.

Figure 1.11. Lockstitch foot

Lockstitch foot

A lockstitch foot is also known as a walking foot. It is used to sew basic seams and comes in different weights for different types of fabric.

Concealed zip foot

A concealed/lapped zip foot is specifically designed for the insertion of concealed zips. It is normally held in place on an industrial sewing machine by a screw, which should be secured before sewing. When inserting a concealed zip, it is important to use this foot for the correct finish; you can of course use a lockstitch foot but the zip may be uneven when complete.

Concealed zips are topstitched once they have been inserted. This finish can be seen on skirts and trousers alike.

Figure 1.12. Concealed zip foot

Concealed zip foot

A concealed zip foot is wide and short as shown in the illustration and has a hole in the centre where the needle inserts itself during operation. This provides a space between the zip edge and the teeth. Jeans have concealed zips.

Invisible zip foot

An invisible zip differs from a concealed zip in that it is often slimmer and you are unable to see the teeth as they are concealed by fabric. The zip pull and centre seam are the only visible elements. The invisible zip foot differs from the concealed zip foot by its width; it is noticeably slimmer and has a half moon-shaped insert. This insert allows the stitch line to be sewn as closely to the edge of the zip as possible.

When constructing the invisible zip, you will need a left and a right foot; this will mean changing them to complete each operation. If you try to use one foot for sewing both sides, one side will be uneven and when the garment is worn, you will see the actual zip rather than a seamless line. Invisible zips can be found in dresses, skirts, trousers and other garments.

Figure 1.13. Invisible zip foot

Invisible zip foot

The invisible zip foot can get close to the teeth of the zip. When the zip is inserted into the garment, it appears to be invisible in the seam, giving the garment a clean and uncluttered finish.

Sewing threads

Figure 1.14. Sewing threads

Sewing threads

Expensive silk threads are good for sewing silk as they share the same composition. They are very soft and tend not to knot, which is advantageous when sewing delicate fabrics. Metallic threads are sometimes used for decorative purposes; however, due to their thickness a needle with a large eye should be used.

Depending on the type of fabric you use and how the garment will perform when worn, there are several different types of threads available. The most popular are cotton and polyester.

Cotton threads are matt, with very little sheen. When a garment is worn and washed over time a cotton thread will become weak. However, it is widely used in ethical clothing, if it complies with ethical growing guidelines.

Polyester threads are synthetic; they are very economical and used in mass produced clothing. They can be either matt or sheen and the colour does not fade easily. In addition, they are very strong.

Activity 1: Basic seams

Plain seam

At first, sewing a straight or curved line can be tricky. If it helps, draw the line first, and then practise.

A seam of 1cm (0.39in) is a standard seam width in the fashion industry. This is the most common seam type that can be found on clothing, such as the inside of skirts, trousers and blouses.

  1. Place right sides together, ensuring edges are placed evenly on top of each other. Sew a 1cm (0.39in) seam. Make sure that you secure the stitch by pressing the bar tack bar at the beginning and end of the row of stitching to prevent the thread unravelling.

  2. Press open the plain seam to complete. If you are confident, try overlocking the edges but be very careful to avoid damaging the seam.

Figure 1.15. Plain seam

Plain seam

This plain seam has a seam allowance of 1cm (0.39in); when you first start, practise with a 2cm (0.78in) seam, then reduce it as you gain confidence.

French seam

French seams are used on very delicate fabrics where overlocking is not suitable, such as silk chiffons that have a tendency to fray.

  1. Construct a plain seam.

  2. Trim down the seam to 0.5cm (0.19in).

  3. Fold the fabric at the seam, so that the raw edge is enclosed inside.

  4. Topstitch (sew) both pieces of fabric together 0.6cm (0.23in) from the edge of the folded seam.

    When this is complete, there should be no raw edges visible on the inside of the seam.

Figure 1.16. French seam

French seam

This diagram of a French seam shows that the raw edges are enclosed to give the inside of the garment a professional finish.

Flat fell seam

Flat fell seams are found on the inside legs of jeans. This seam is used because it is very durable and conceals the raw edges.

  1. Construct a plain 1.5cm (0.59in) seam and trim the bottom layer by 0.5cm (0.19in)

  2. Fold the upper seam allowance over the trimmed seam, ensuring that it is folded over the raw edge.

  3. Press all layers flat and topstitch (sew) both pieces of fabric together 0.3cm (0.12in) from the edge of the folded seam.

    When this is complete, there should be no raw edges visible on the inside of the seam.

Figure 1.17 and 1.18. Flat fell seam

Flat fell seam
Flat fell seam

The flat fell seam is similar to a French seam except it is stitched flat to the base of the fabric and is used on heavyweight fabrics such as denim.


The image shows three areas that may be troublesome when sewing, but with a little patience and practice, these can be tackled with confidence.

A: Uneven overlocking

To prevent this, overlock in stages by stopping and starting the machine throughout the process. This will prevent the seam being pulled into the machine too quickly, which can cause damage.

B: Uneven seam

There are several ways to achieve an even seam. Adjust the machine settings so that it is slower, allowing you more control of the machine. Alternatively, draw the line with chalk and use it as a guide when sewing.

C: Overlocked overlocking

This is often noticeable when the operator has been unable to control the machine and the overlocking is not sewn along the edge of the fabric correctly. It often leaves a very unsightly finish. Overcome this by regularly practising your overlocking techniques.

Figure 1.19. Troubleshooting


This plain seam shows several areas where problems may occur: overlocking, seam construction and uneven seam width. Each of these problems is easy to correct.

Figure 1.20. Uneven French seam

Uneven French seam

This French seam is uneven, which usually occurs when the seam allowance is uneven or the seam is pressed unevenly.