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Last week we did a lot of theory and discussion about materials, but I know you want to start *using* your machine, so let’s get sewing! Today we’ll start with the most basic, but most important, stitch: the straight stitch.
We’re first going to start without fabric or thread just to get you used to how the machine feels. Dana from Made mentioned in an interview of hers that she first learned to sew on paper bags without thread. So cut open your bags (which are hopefully a bit lessed wrinkled than mine). You might want to cut them into manageable pieces, like 25 x 25 cm or so. Leave some pieces plain and to make your own sewing exercises use a sharpie draw some straight lines with a ruler, some wavy lines and other random shapes. I drew concentric circles, squares and hearts.
Turn on your machine, insert a universal 90/14 needle for wovens, and select the straight stitch. (More info on machine settings can be found in Lesson 1. If you’re still not sure how to select any of the settings mentioned in this or other lessons, consult your sewing machine instruction manual.) If you have fiddled around with stitch length or tension, set both at the settings for general use (in my case, stitch length 2.4 and tension 3 or 4).
Lift the presser foot, make sure the needle is up (if not, turn the handwheel toward you to move it just a little), stick the edge of a plain piece of paper bag underneath, and lower the foot (top in photo above). Some people like to press the foot pedal directly to start sewing while others prefer to turn the handwheel (always toward you) for the first couple of stitches to get going. Do whatever feels best to you. You’ll see the needle go down, then up, then down, then up, and so on as the paper bag moves away from you.
Guide the bag gently with both hands as it passes under the presser foot. At first just go in straight lines to get a feel for how much pressure is needed on the pedal to go the speed you feel most comfortable with. Then start moving the bag slightly side to side to make curves.
When you want to remove the bag, say at the opposite end of the bag, lift your foot from the pedal to stop. If the needle is down, raise it by turning the handwheel and then lift the presser foot. If you want to make a corner, keep the needle down (or turn the handwheel until it is lowered), lift the presser foot, and rotate the bag. Then lower the presser foot and continue sewing.
Spend as much time as you need to to feel comfortable controlling the speed and direction on blank bags and ready to move on. I created four sewing practice printables that you can download here. Print them out without resizing (print on the back of used printer paper to be more eco-friendly!).
Start with the most simple one. Position your presser foot at the beginning of the maze and try to go through the whole maze without touching the sides. The width of the spaces is perfect for your presser foot to fit through.
When you’re at one short side or the other of the sheet of paper, you might have to gently roll the other end underneath the machine arm. This is also good practice because you’ll often need to do the same thing when sewing fabric.
Go through all the mazes, more than once if you want, until you’ve mastered them.
Let’s start working on precision. Take out the paper bag with the straight lines on it. Position the end of one of the lines directly under the needle. You might want to leave the presser foot up and slowly move the needle down with the handwheel, looking under the presser foot so that you can position the bag exactly in the right place. And sew your perfectly straight lines! Concentrate on the point where the drawn line is pulled under the presser foot until you can get it perfectly centered.
When you feel comfortable with straight lines, move on to the wavy lines and then the other shapes. Continue as long as you have to until you start feeling confident manuevering the bags under the needle.
Let’s add some thread into the mix now. Thread your machine as per your instruction manual. I’d suggest using a different bright color for the needle and for the bobbin. Make sure that the two threads pass underneath the presser foot and towards the back out of the way. Notice the feed dogs. We’ll talk about those in just a moment.
Let’s go back to our paper bags. Do the same exercises as before, but this time with thread. It might seem weird to be sewing into paper with thread, but really you can sew into a myriad of materials with your sewing machine. (And speaking of sewing paper bags, I sometimes sew last minute Befana stockings this way.) When you are ready to remove the bag from the machine, do as mentioned above without thread, then pull the bag towards the back left of the machine, pulling out more thread, and cut the two threads close to the bag. When you start again, make sure that the thread tails passing under the presser foot are long enough that they don’t get pulled out of the needle eye when you start sewing.
The ends of your stitching can start to come out if you don’t tack them down somehow. Generally this is done by backstitching, but we haven’t gotten to that yet in our course. However, there is another way to do this, which I learned the hard way with my first sewing machine which didn’t backstitch. Turn your stitch length to zero. This way the fabric (or bag) doesn’t move at all and the needle continues to move up and down in the same place, fastening it down. It doesn’t look as nice, but it works.
Now is the moment you’ve been waiting for! Get a piece of medium-weight woven cotton fabric, iron it and fold it in half. You can also just leave it as a single layer, but you might need to adjust your tension, so for starting out I suggest sewing on two layers. Practice sewing a bit, remembering to start each line of stitching with a few stiches at zero stitch length, go back to the length you were using before while sewing, and go back to zero for a few stitches at the end before removing the fabric. If you already know how to backstitch, just do that.
When you start using different sorts of fabrics, whether they’re thicker or thinner, or of a different fiber or material, you’ll probably have to adjust the tension. There are actually two tensions, one for each thread. The tension dial on the front or top of your machine adjusts the top thread. The bobbin thread can be adjusted from inside the machine in some, but not all, machines, so we won’t deal with that.
Let’s do a little tension test, as you should before every sewing project. Set the tension to the lowest number and stitch a straight line. Then set the tension to the next higher number and stitch another line parallel to the first. Continue this way until you’ve gone through all available numbers. To sew straight lines you use the stitch guide lines on the needle plate, but we still haven’t talked about that. Another little trick is to line the right edge of the presser foot up to your first stitched line, as you can see in the photo above.
Now let’s compare the lines of various tensions. It’s not easy to tell with the paper bag because the needle punches relatively large holes into it. The fabric that I used is also pretty easy to sew on, so there’s not a huge difference there, either. If your tension is too low (for example at zero), the top thread gets pulled too far down. On the bottom of the fabric you’ll see the bobbin thread pulled straight with little loops of the top thread holding it in place. At the other extreme, if the tension is too high (for example at nine), you’ll see the opposite, the top thread pulled straight on the top of the fabric with loops of the bobbin thread holding it in place. If your tension is perfect, the two threads will intersect inside the fabric where you can’t see it. For my fabric, the perfect tension is 4. When you start a new project, always sew a line of stitching on a scrap of the same fabric and same number of layers that you’ll be using at a normal tension. If it is not perfect, adjust the tension and test on a scrap until it it perfect.
Remember the feed dogs, those jagged metal things under the presser foot? As the needle moves up and down, those move back and forth in order to move the fabric under the needle. The amount that the feed dogs move depends on the stitch length setting. When we set it to zero a few step ago, we saw that the fabric didn’t move at all. That’s because the feed dogs didn’t move. The higher you set the stitch length, the faster they move. As a result, more fabric that moves under the needle. We see this a longer stitches.
Do another test like the tension test, but changing stitch length for each line. See what a difference? Generally you can use 2.5 or 3 and be fine, however you might need to change it if using thinner or thicker fabric. You use the longest stitch length possible when machine basting (creating temporary stitches just to keep the fabric in place) or preparing fabric for ruffling.
I think that’s enough for now! Practice your straight stitch on various fabrics, weights and layers and see what happens! On Thursday we’ll have our first practice tutorial using just the straight stitch.
Did you enjoy this lesson on how to straight stitch? Take a look at the other lessons in this beginner’s sewing course!