Adjusting Your Stitches

How to Adjust Stitches on a Sewing Machine |

How to Use a Sewing Machine |

Depending on the type of stitch you are using and the fabric you’re working with, you will need to make some basic adjustments using the different settings available on your machine. My machine’s settings are changed using numbered dials, but some newer models allow you to change the stitch settings digitally. Either way, this is what those different settings are and what they mean—plus when you’ll want to tinker with them (or not).

Stitch Length and Width

Stitch length refers to the size of the stitch itself—the higher the setting on your machine, the longer the stitch. Larger (longer) stitches are easier to remove and are often used as decorative topstitching, basting (temporary stitches used to hold slippery fabrics or layers in place) or for sewing heavier fabrics.

The stitch width setting applies only to stitches such as zigzags that require the needle to move from side to side. It determines the size of the gap between the “peaks” of the zigzag, for example. A higher setting will result in a wider zigzag, whereas a lower setting creates a narrower one.

Thread Tension

Understanding thread tension is important in creating smooth, secure stitches and ensuring that there are no puckers in your fabric. The more obvious tension setting on your machine (a dial on the top of the machine, in my case) controls the upper thread tension. The higher the number, the greater the tension.

The lower thread tension is controlled by a small screw on the bobbin case. This one is a bit tricky, because some machine service professionals will tell you never to touch the lower thread tension, but my manual lists specific instructions on adjusting it: increase the tension by turning the screw in a clockwise direction, and decrease by turning counterclockwise. Ultimately, this one’s your call, and always check your manual to see what your machine’s manufacturer recommends.


That’s it! Once you’ve mastered these simple settings, you’re on your way to smooth, professional-looking seams each and every time. 

Next Up: Learn How to Choose the Right Sewing Machine Needle for Your Project

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