Finishing seams: Just The Basics

Monday, September 10, 2012

Finishing your seams is an integral part of sewing any garment. It can be a little tedious but it's important to do to ensure your piece looks professional and will last through a lifetime of washing and wearing.

There are many ways to finish your seams and which technique to use will depend on the type of fabric you're using, the wear-and-tear that garment could endure, as well as the overall finished look of your piece. 

The easiest way to finish a seam is called Pinking. It's simply cutting the seam allowance with a special pair of scissors -- called Pinking Shears -- that create a zig-zag edge and prevent fraying. 

It's ideal for projects that won't require a lot of washing like home dec projects or handbags. But, in terms of clothing, it's really a thing of the past. Today's technology has made it so easy to stitch a professional finished seam that will last longer and through many washes. So, many seamstresses have left their Pinking Shears behind for more sturdy options. 

Every sewing machine, even the most basic, has an option for a Zig-Zag stitch. It will look just like it sounds -- like a zig-zag -- on your stitch guide. For example, option 4 is the basic zig-zag option for finishing seams on a Brother sewing machine.

For most patterns, you should apply the zig-zag just after the instructions tell you to trim the seams. Zig-zag finished seams are ideal for baby clothes that take minimal abuse as well as small curves that might be difficult to manage with a serger (see below) or more difficult finishing techniques. 

When zig-zagging, you have two options for the finished look. You can either zig-zag both sides of the seam allowance together or you can press the seam allowance open and zig-zig  each side separately. The choice is yours as there's no real benefit to one or the other. 

Some parts of an article of clothing will naturally need to be more durable than others. The crotch of a pair of shorts, for example, will wear faster than a shoulder seam of a shirt. Those kinds of seams should be finished with more stability to ensure their durability. The best way to do this is with french seams and/or welt seams. 
  • A french seam is sewn with wrong sides together. Then, the main part of the garment is folded over that stitch, thus enclosing the first raw edge. The lovely ladies at Coletterie (the blog behind our beloved Colette patterns) have a great step-by-step tutorial with photos for french seams
  • Welt seams (also called a mock Flat-fell seam) have a similar look to french seams, but require a different method. They are sewn with right sides together, like usual. One side of the seam allowance is trimmed and the untrimmed side is pressed under slightly. The larger side of the seam allowance is then folded and ironed over the shorter side encasing it completely. A straight stitch is then sewn to lock the larger side down. Here's a quick tutorial for welt seams.
In terms of fabrics, french seams are great for light and sheer fabrics where a traditional seam would show through the finished product. Welt seams are great for super thick fabrics where a traditional finished seam would be too bulky for the finished product. Consider these when sewing winter coats and/or denim.

Our favorite and the most daunting of seams can be created with serging. Sergers are separate machines from your traditional sewing machine that actually cut the seam allowance before it overlocks the raw edge. We've had many a catastrophe amongst serging noobs resulting in dresses-turned skirts and/or the additional purchase of Frey Check. It's truly terrible, but it does happen. We actually prefer serging our pieces before any sewing is done. This ensures none of your finished garment is snipped accidentally in the process and it allows for clean seams in tricky places like where zippers go and tight curves.

Serging is a learned technique and just like sewing. It has many variables that can add to finishing your projects. For example you can use your serger to for rolled hems, gathering, and piping. We offer a special class just for serging basics. Consider the one this Thursday (September 13, 2012) to learn all about serged seams and the many benefits of owning your own serger. 
We really hope this review of the basic seam finishing techniques helps you get the prettiest projects out of your sewing. For a more detailed and comprehensive look at finishing seams, consider studying this article from the University of Kentucky's School of Agriculture. If you prefer a hands-on approach, call us to talk about joining a sewing class. We have many options depending on your current sewing level.

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