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Mastering the Zigzag Stitch On A Sewing Machine

The zigzag stitch is an interesting kind of stitch that goes back and forth in a cool pattern, but it’s so much more than decoration. Yes, sometimes people do use zigzag stitching for whimsical touches in their sewing, but did you know that a zigzag stitch has plenty of practical uses in sewing? You can use zigzag stitching for sewing knits, attaching elastic, or finishing the insides of seams, along with many other uses. This stitch is more than just a bit of fancy stitching included on your sewing machine. Read on to find out all you need to know about the zigzag stitch.

What Is A Zigzag Stitch on a Sewing Machine?

Zigzag stitching is a fairly obvious name for the stitching on a sewing machine that goes back and forth in a zigzag pattern. In straight stitching, the needle goes up and down, one stitch following the other in a straight line. But with zigzag stitching, things start to get a bit crazy. The needle swings from left to right and, as the feed dogs move the fabric, this motion creates the interesting and useful zigzag stitch.

types of zigzag stitches sewing tutorial

Types of Zigzag Stitches on a Sewing Machine

While in the past, there was only a single kind of zigzag stitch, on today’s modern sewing machines, there are often multiple types of zigzag stitches.

Standard Zigzag Stitch

Standard zigzag stitching creates one stitch, and then, the needle swings to the side for the next stitch as the feed dogs move the fabric. Next, the needle swings back to its original position as the feed dogs continue scooting the fabric under the presser foot. This left-to-right movement, along with the movement of the fabric, creates the classic zigzag stitching pattern.

Standard zigzag stitching is commonly used to stitch seams in knit fabrics, sew narrow elastics onto knit fabrics, attach appliques and trims to a base fabric, and finish the raw edges of woven fabrics. 

It is worth noting that with the availability of sergers, which can produce a professional-looking overlock stitch, the use of regular zigzag stitches has become less common in certain sewing applications. However, the standard zigzag stitch remains a valuable stitch for those who do not have a serger.

✅ Related tutorial: What Is A Serger & What Can I Do With It?

The width and length of the stitch can be adjusted on most sewing machines to suit the needs of the project.

length and width of zigzag stitch

To regulate the width and length of the stitch, you can consult the manual of your sewing machine. Generally, the width of the stitch can be adjusted by turning a dial or pressing a button on the machine. The length of the stitch can also be adjusted using a similar method. 

When you are adjusting your machine for a zigzag stitch, remember this–adjusting the stitch length makes the zigzag longer and adjusting the stitch width makes the zigzags wider. In other words, the stitch length adjustment changes the rate at which the feed dogs move the fabric under the presser foot. The stitch width adjustment changes how wide the needle swings back and forth.

By changing the length and width of the stitch, you can create a variety of effects that can be used for different sewing applications.

Sewing zigzag stitches on thick fabric can be easier than on thinner fabrics. This is because the thickness of the fabric helps to stabilize the stitches and prevent puckering. 

Here I have a piece of denim fabric that was cut after hemming my husband’s jeans.

sewing zigzag on thick fabric

I used a denim needle and a special extra strong thread designed for jeans. You can see that it’s possible to create a variety of different effects by adjusting the width and length of the zigzag stitch. On this denim fabric, a wide zigzag looks as good as a narrow zigzag.

✅ Related tutorial: 19 Types of Sewing Machine Needles and What They’re Used For

And I can properly finish the raw edges because the fabric doesn’t roll inside. This is because the thickness of the fabric helps to keep the edge stable, allowing the stitch to be pronounced and neat. For this stitch, I need to position the right needle drop point just outside the fabric edge. 

Next, I am going to sew zigzag stitches on a piece of thin cotton fabric. It is important to note that when working with thin fabrics, it is necessary to use the appropriate needle and thread. So I changed the needle from denim needle to Schmetz universal needle size 75/11.

✅ Related tutorial: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Schmetz Needles

Wide zigzag stitches do not look good on thin fabric. This is because the fabric is not thick enough to support the width of the stitch, resulting in a ridge in the middle of the stitch. However, narrower zigzag stitches can be used to create a functional seam on lightweight fabric.

When finishing the raw edges of thin fabric with a zigzag stitch, it can be difficult to achieve a neat and stable edge. The fabric is prone to rolling inside the stitch, the edge is soft and unstable. It is almost impossible to sew a zigzag stitch right at the edge of the fabric without it rolling inside the stitch.

raw edges of thin fabric with a zigzag stitch

One solution to this problem is to sew the zigzag stitch about half an inch from the edge of the fabric. This will create a stable seam that can be cut to create a neat edge. While this method may result in some fabric waste, it is a practical solution for finishing raw edges on thin fabrics without a serger.

cut to create a neat edge

It is important to test the stitch on a scrap piece of fabric before starting the actual project to ensure that the settings are correct.

If you use a zigzag stitch to sew seams on knit fabric, choose a narrow stitch width. 

Two-step Zigzag Stitch

In the manual for my sewing machine Brother Luminaire, this is called a 2 steps elastic zigzag.

2 step elastic

It’s similar to standard zigzag stitching, but it is not necessarily found on every sewing machine. In two-step zigzag stitching, the needle swings to one side and makes two stitches before it swings back to the other side. 

The two-step zigzag stitch is similar to the standard zigzag stitch in that it can be used for a variety of sewing needs, such as reinforcing seams, sewing elastic, finishing raw edges on stretch fabric, and creating decorative stitching.

2 step zigzag stitch

The two-step zigzag stitch can be a stronger and more stable stitch than the standard zigzag stitch, as it creates two stitches on each side of the zigzag pattern.

To use the two-step zigzag stitch, set the stitch’s width and length according to the project and fabric requirements. This stitch is compatible with various fabrics, ranging from lightweight to heavy, but you need to select the right needle and thread.

This stitch has a variation where the needle pierces the fabric three times in the same spot for each zigzag step, but it retains the name “2 steps elastic zigzag.”

2step elastic
2 step zigzag stitch on denim

Three-Step Zigzag Stitch

In three-step zigzag stitching, the needle swings to the side and makes three stitches before it returns to its original position.

3step zigzag

Three-step zigzag stitching is also good for some applications. It works well for inserting elastic. You can use it for overcasting raw edges on stretch fabric. 

However, this stitch also has some other wonderful uses. When mending tears in fabric, the three-step zigzag provides strength and durability. Three-step zigzag stitching is also excellent for creating decorative stitching, especially when you use a thread that contrasts with the fabric and use multiple rows of three-step zigzag stitch. If you want to add ribbon or trim to the edges of your fabric or edge join two pieces of fabric, three-step zigzag is an excellent way of doing so. Bar tacks provide extra strength to high stress areas of a garment, and three-step zigzag works well for these.

For three-step zigzag, adjust the stitch width and length according to what you need it to do. For mending, you may want a wider stitch width and shorter stitch length. For attaching trim, edge joining fabric, or adding ribbon, you can adjust the width according to what looks best with your fabrics. For bar tacks, you should set the stitch length to zero (or almost 0) or disengage the feed dogs. 

Overcasting Zigzag

An overcasting zigzag stitch is used to wrap the thread around the edge of fabric to finish the raw edge. But it can be also used to sew knit fabrics together. It is an excellent alternative for finishing seams professionally without a serger.

overcasting zigzag

You can adjust the stitch length and width to suit different thicknesses of fabric and fabric layers.

While the overcasting zigzag stitch is compatible with a wide range of fabrics, it may not be suitable for all fabric types. It is ideal for thicker fabrics like denim, but it may not work well with thin fabrics. Therefore, it is essential to test the stitch on scrap before using it on the actual project.

Stem Stitch (Zigzag For Knits)

stem stitch

Stem stitch is a specialized zigzag stitch that is just for sewing knits. It looks a bit different than the standard zigzag. The stem stitch comes out of the machine looking like a lightning bolt. This stitch helps you create strong seams for your knit fabrics that will allow the fabric to stretch and move with the body without straining or popping. 

This stitch is often a better option for sewing with knits than traditional zigzag because it is a bit straighter and it can reduce the puckering on the seam that might occur with a regular zigzag stitch. Because this seam is straighter, you can press the seams of your knit item completely flat, making for a tidier garment. 

Satin stitch

Satin stitch is a zigzag stitch that is closely spaced with no gaps between stitches. It creates a smooth and solid area of stitching covering the fabric surface completely under the thread. The stitch length for the satin stitch is set to a very short length, almost 0,  and the stitch width is set to the desired width. The stitch width can be adjusted to create a narrow or wide satin stitch, depending on the project’s requirements.

Satin stitches can be used for a variety of purposes, including filling in areas of embroidery designs, creating appliqué designs, and adding decorative elements to garments or other sewing projects. Often, this stitch is used on tablecloths, napkins, and other linens to overcast the edges. 

Hemstitching Zigzag

hemstitching zigzag

Hemstitching zigzag stitch is a type of multi-step zigzag used to create a decorative effect on the fabric’s edge. It’s ideal for use on hems, cuffs, collars, and other areas where a decorative edge is desired.

To use a hemstitching zigzag, you will need a wing needle. I have a detailed tutorial on how to use a wing needle so check it out. 

To create the hemstitching zigzag stitch, the needle pierces the fabric in the same spot few times for each stitch, creating a series of small holes along the edge of the fabric.

hemstitching zigzag on orange fabric

Sideways Zigzag (Left, Right, Up, Down)

sideways zigzag

Modern sewing machines have sideways zigzag stitches that allow you to sew in horizontal directions (left, right) and vertical directions (up and down). This feature is useful for sewing patches and appliques on tubular pieces of fabric (like sleeves, pant legs, etc.). 

I have never used these sideways zigzag stitches until now but they are really fun. Maybe I should use them once in a while. They may seem very unusual, but they are not particularly difficult to use. With a little practice, you can quickly master this technique and create unique and decorative stitching patterns on your sewing projects. 

On my machine, I can’t adjust the stitch width and length for these zigzag stitches. 

Once the machine is set up for left or right sideways stitching, it will automatically sew in a horizontal direction and move the fabric sideways. 

Which Sewing Machine Foot For Zigzag Stitch?

If you haven’t stitched much with zigzag stitch, you may wonder about the specifics. However, it is a pretty straightforward stitch. You can use your all-purpose sewing machine foot for zigzag stitching. This is the most common sewing machine foot, and it is likely to come as a standard attachment with your sewing machine. Many all-purpose sewing machine feet have a clear section on them so that you can clearly see how your zig zag stitching is coming along.

You can also use a specialized zigzag foot that is designed specifically for zigzag.

Actually, any foot that has a wide opening is good as it allows the needle to move back and forth without hitting the foot. This prevents the needle from breaking.

sewing foot for zigzag stitch

You should not use a foot that has a small round opening or a zipper foot when sewing a zigzag stitch.

do not use a foot with small round opening or zipper foot

You can also use a walking foot with zigzag stitching. This foot has an extra set of feed dogs on it, making it supremely useful for stitching multiple layers of fabric together or for stitching slippery fabrics like knits. Many people use the walking foot for quilting, so if you want to quilt with a zigzag stitch for decoration, the walking foot is a great option.

✅ Related tutorial: Walking Foot Attachment For A Sewing Machine: What It Is And Why To Use It

Projects that Use Zigzag Stitching

Like all kinds of stitches, you should stitch a sample piece with the fabric that you are using before you put your project under the needle. This will allow you to adjust the width and tension of the zigzag stitch and get all of the adjustments just right before you start with your project.

If you want to play with the stitching options on your sewing machine and need a couple that feature zigzag stitching, I have some options for you.

Adding Elastic to a Garment

First, this tutorial for DIY panties is a perfect one to try out your zigzag stitching with. 

Okay, you might feel silly sewing up your own underwear, but hear me out. Have you checked out the cost of buying high quality undergarments in organic, comfortable fabrics? When you start pricing things out, learning to make these items starts to make more sense. 

Also, if you have problems finding a good fit or find that certain fabrics or ways of stitching seams annoy you, learning to sew your own panties is incredible. Nobody should spend the whole day adjusting their underwear, and learning to sew these items yourself means that you will put them on in the morning and forget about them all day long.

In that tutorial, I used zigzag stitching to attach the elastic to the panties. Even if you don’t plan on making your own undergarments, you can skip ahead to the part of the tutorial where I add the elastic. This skill is quite useful in sewing, and if you want to make slips, skirts, or sundresses, you might find this technique valuable.

Specialty Buttonholes

Second, this project explains how to make a buttonhole using nothing more than the zigzag stitch on your sewing machine. Of course, many machines do have a buttonhole attachment and setting, but if you have an older machine without those options, this is a valuable skill to learn. Additionally, if you sew with specialty buttons that are oddly shaped or very large, you might actually use this technique in your sewing.

buttonhole will be well-formed, functional, and sturdy

Troubleshooting a Zigzag Stitch on a Sewing Machine

Do I need to backstitch when zigzag?

When using zigzag stitches on a sewing machine, it is generally not necessary to backstitch at the beginning or end of the seam. This is because any type of zigzag is a secure stitch that locks the thread in place, preventing it from unraveling.

However, if you are using a very narrow zigzag stitch or working with a particularly delicate fabric, you may want to consider backstitching at the beginning and end of the seam to ensure that the thread remains secure. You can also knot the ends when you finish to ensure that nothing unravels. 

What do you adjust if a zigzag stitch is puckering in the middle?

When stitching with a zigzag, a common problem is puckering in the middle of the stitch, creating an unsightly ridge in the seam. The most likely culprit in this issue is that the stitch width is too big for the fabric you are using. Use a sample piece of fabric and lower the width setting until your seams look just right. Additionally, remember that zigzag stitching doesn’t work well with very lightweight fabrics, so if you’re using lightweight fabrics, you may need to use a stabilizer.

lower the width setting until your seams look just right

How do I fix deformed zigzags?

Deformed zigzags are coming from the wrong tension settings. 

Sometimes, when sewing with zigzag stitching, the back of the seam can look awful, with the zigzags resembling Ys instead of Zs. This isn’t right, because when you use a zigzag stitch, the front and back should both look pretty much the same. This problem means that your needle tension is too loose. So you need to make the upper tension higher. 

deformed zigzags

If you have rows of stitching that are deformed on the front side, your upper tension might be too high. You may want to try rethreading the sewing machine and then, if that doesn’t fix the problem, tinker with the tension.

Why does my thread keep breaking or bunching when I sew with zigzag stitching?

There are many reasons why your thread may be breaking or bunching when you sew with zigzag. Here are some common causes: incorrect thread tension, a wrong needle, a dull or damaged needle, your needle being inserted incorrectly, fabric or thread quality, the machine threaded incorrectly, etc. I have detailed tutorials on these problems so check them out.

✅ Related tutorial: Sewing machine thread bunching: Top 10 reasons (+ How to fix it)

✅ Related tutorial: 20+ Reasons Your Sewing Machine Thread Keeps Breaking (+ Solutions)

Looking to expand your knowledge of sewing machine stitches beyond the zigzag stitch? Check out our comprehensive guide to the different types of sewing machine stitches – A Guide to Different Types of Sewing Machine Stitches.

Did you find this tutorial helpful? If so, save this pin (see below) on your sewing board so you can come to the article later when you need this information on a zigzag stitch on a sewing machine, and follow me on Pinterest for more tips, tutorials, and inspiration!

types of zigzag stitches sewing tutorial

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Saturday 24th of February 2024

I stopped buying thread at Walmart....it keeps breaking too.

Olga Balasa

Monday 26th of February 2024

I agree, almost all low priced thread is useless. Even if you try the thread and the piece you try seems good, the quality might not be consistent for the whole spool. It is not cost effective to save money on thread, in my opinion - you risk spending time, effort and nerves. Let alone that the thread sheds and you have issues with the sewing machine.

Grandma Sue

Saturday 8th of July 2023

Another reason for thread breaking...OLD THREAD. I bought a variety of thread, about 25 or 30 spools for my embroidery machine. At least 15 years ago, and now some of it is beginning to break. The price per single cone of rayon thread at the time was around $10.00; mine worked out to about $2.50 per spool. The downside is that you'll have 4 or 5 hot pink but slightly different shades, several greens same thing, several beiges etc. etc. but I feel I got my money's worth.

Olga Balasa

Saturday 8th of July 2023

Agree! This is the main reason I am suspicious of thread bought at thrift stores or yard sales, you never know what you get.

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